A Blueprint for Order

Chapter 1 of Not By Scripture Alone is by Patrick Madrid, and is entitled “Sola Scriptura: A Blueprint for Anarchy.” Patrick is editor-in-chief of Envoy Magazine, a journal of Catholic apologetics and evangelization. His undergrad was from the University of Phoenix, and his graduate work (a Master’s Degree in Theology) is from the University of Dallas. Patrick is one of those fighting Catholics. Right from the get-go, he lets us know exactly what he thinks of Protestants, especially in how he perceives them to put forward Sola Scriptura:

It’s funny. For five centuries, Protestants have intimidated, cowed, browbeaten, flustered, put to flight, trodden down, bullied, vexed, and knocked the wind out of countless unwary Catholics by using the “Bible only” approach to religious arguments (p. 1).

It is difficult to know how to respond to this. Perhaps Mr. Madrid has had many bad experiences with Protestants, and is therefore projecting his experiences on to the rest of Catholicism. Also, one does not wish to respond in kind to this kind of rhetoric. Perhaps the best thing is simply to note Mr. Madrid’s vexation with Protestants and move on. I would only point out this one thing, though: such rhetoric does not give me hope that Mr. Madrid has taken the time and patience to understand Protestants. One other thing: it was slightly jarring to me to read Mr. Sungenis’s preface, which spoke of rapprochement between Catholics and Protestants, and then to see this article come right out of the block with both arms swinging hard.

Mr. Madrid states that the entire book is about three major problems with Sola Scriptura: it is unhistorical, unbiblical, and impractical (p. 2). The present chapter, he says, is supposed to give us a “macro” look (his words) at the issues.

He starts, then, by describing the doctrine. Right away we run into problems. While quoting Robert Godfrey’s definition is certainly not a problem, summarizing it the way he does by way of objection (“Scripture is not always clear in all places so that any ‘ordinary believer can find it there and understand it'”) is a complete caricature. One wonders why Sungenis did not catch this straw man. It is not the Protestant position that Scripture is always clear in all places. This is a common Catholic misconception of the Protestant position, and it allows them to introduce all sorts of evidence about how difficult Scripture is to interpret. All of which evidence is beside the point. The Protestant position is that only those things necessary for salvation and for faith and life are clear in Scripture. Nor do we mean by this that the clarity that is in Scripture is all on the surface. The believer has to work to get some of those clear things. But we are NOT saying that all Scripture is clear. I own approximately 1500 commentaries on Scripture precisely because I do not believe that Scripture is always clear. Furthermore, even in the clear passages, there is always more to glean. Indeed, 2 Peter 3 tells us that Paul’s letters can be difficult to understand at times.

The second point that bears mention about this section on the definition of Sola Scriptura is his clear affirmation of the material sufficiency of Scripture (p. 3). What we mean by material sufficiency is that every important doctrine of Scripture can be found in Scripture, whether in seed form, or in scattered form, or in full glory. As we will see, Rome did not always believe in material sufficiency. In can certainly be argued that Trent did not believe in material sufficiency. For instance, David King writes, “Nearly every theologian from the Council of Trent to Vatican I (a span of about 300 years) understood the teaching of Trent to be a denial of both the material and formal sufficiency of Scripture” (Holy Scripture, vol 1, p. 183, emphasis original). He quotes Karl Rahner to the same effect (see Theological Investigations, vol VI, pp. 106-107). So, which Catholicism is correct on material sufficiency? Trent as interpreted by the Magisterium up until Vatican I (which argues against material sufficiency), or John Henry Newman (who argues for material sufficiency)? It is a bit simplistic for the authors of Not By Scripture Alone simply to gloss over this rather large dispute within the Catholic church regarding material sufficiency. They seem simply to assume not only the principle of material sufficiency, but they also seem to claim that this has always been the Catholic position (see Madrid’s wording “2000 years-worth of Christian believers from seeing them in Scripture,” p. 3; Madrid is talking about specifically Romanist teachings, such as the Mass, baptismal regeneration, the primacy of Peter, and sacred tradition). This ahistorical understanding of Catholicism allows Madrid to perpetrate an ad populam fallacy. This fallacy appeals to a number of people as arguing a particular position, and thus concluding that the position is correct simply because a large number of people hold to it. Watch closely:

You can already see the problem. Godfrey’s definition of (and, a fortiori, his arguments for) sola scriptura self-destructs, because his claim insists that all those “ordinary believers” who found the Mass, the sacraments, etc., were completely wrong in their interpretation of Scripture. These Catholic teachings, Godfrey and his fellow Protestant apologists contend, are actually not there in Scripture. But then he must also admit that Scripture was not clear on those doctrines, at least not clear enough to prevent 2000 years-worth of Christian believers from seeing them in Scripture (p. 3).

There are actually two problems here. One is the appeal to the majority, which is not logical. Secondly, there is an assumption that Christian believers, even many Christian believers, could not be mistaken about what the Bible says. However, is it impossible for sin to blind the minds of many people, even if they are Christians?

We’ll tackle one more problem that Madrid raises here, and that is the issue of interpretation. Of course, we only have space here to do a general treatment of this. Nevertheless, this is very important. Madrid writes “There is no way, under the sola scriptura rubric, to know with certainty who’s (sic) interpretation of Scripture is correct and whose is ‘unbiblical.’ Sola Scriptura is epistemologically unviable” (p. 3). I believe here that Madrid proves too much. Madrid would obviously say here that the only way to know with certainty whose interpretation is correct is to submit to the Roman Catholic Church, for the Magisterium is capable of telling us which interpretation is correct. However, the Magisterium has not agreed on the interpretation of Scripture, either. A case in point is the material sufficiency problem noted above. As will be argued in future posts, both Protestant and Catholic interpretations of Scripture can be found in the early church fathers. So the Magisterium cannot tell us what is the perfect interpretation of Scripture either. Ultimately, Madrid’s position makes Scripture completely useless, since it all becomes a matter of interpretation. In interpreting the Catholic tradition to be entirely in favor of material sufficiency, as Madrid does, he has selectively used the Magisterium to prove his own opinion. The Magisterium therefore becomes a wax nose, bendable to the author’s own purposes.