Monday, May 17, 2010

Bryan Cross on Quoting Scripture

In a seemingly interminable thread on a Protestant site, Bryan Cross has some valuable things to say concerning the utility of Scripture. I’m not quoting the whole thing here (it’s reported that the comment from which this excerpt is drawn is several pages long itself).


Our snippet opens with a quotation from St. Jerome:

We ought to remain in that Church which was founded by the Apostles and continues to this day. If ever you hear of any that are called Christians taking their name not from the Lord Jesus Christ, but from some other, for instance, Marcionites, Valentinians, Men of the mountain or the plain, you may be sure that you have there not the Church of Christ, but the synagogue of Antichrist. For the fact that they took their rise after the foundation of the Church is proof that they are those whose coming the Apostle foretold. And let them not flatter themselves if they think they have Scripture authority for their assertions, since the devil himself quoted Scripture, and the essence of the Scriptures is not the letter, but the meaning. [St. Jerome, Dialogue Against the Luciferians§28; emphasis added]

Bryan remarks:

Because the essence of Scripture is not the letter but the meaning, it is not enough to have Scripture as support for one’s doctrine, since “all heretics quote Scripture.” These sects were not founded by Christ, but by some men who came later, “after the foundation of the Church.” They appeal to Scripture to justify their separation from the Church. But without the guidance of the divinely appointed shepherds in the Church, these sects fall into heresies of all different sorts, each not realizing, however, that they are in a heresy, but all (though disagreeing with all the others) thinking that it is they alone who have the correct doctrine. [Emphasis added]

He then quotes St. Vincent of Lerins:

Do heretics also appeal to Scripture? They do indeed, and with a vengeance; for you may see them scamper through every single book of Holy Scripture—through the books of Moses, the books of Kings, the Psalms, the Epistles, the Gospels, the Prophets. Whether among their own people, or among strangers, in private or in public, in speaking or in writing, at convivial meetings, or in the streets, hardly ever do they bring forward anything of their own which they do not endeavour to shelter under words of Scripture. Read the works of Paul of Samosata, of Priscillian, of Eunomius, of Jovinian, and the rest of those pests, and you will see an infinite heap of instances, hardly a single page, which does not bristle with plausible quotations from the New Testament or the Old. [Commonitory §64]

Bryan concludes, knocking it out of the park:

The point is that Scripture alone is not sufficient to prevent heresy. The guidance of the Church is necessary. And defining the ‘Church’ as those who agree with one’s own interpretation only hides the problem from oneself, by designating as teachers those who agree with one’s own interpretation. This exacerbates the problem, by giving to oneself the appearance of being within the Church and under her authority, while in actuality being under the ‘authority’ of heretics. The proper course of action is to submit to those shepherds who received the authorization from the incarnate Christ through the succession from the Apostles.

Bingo. It’s totally inadequate to pretend that merely appealing to the Bible in a vacuum is sufficient to settle anything. As St. Jerome said, it’s the meaning of the Bible that counts. How then can we know that meaning? Only by reading Scripture within the living Tradition of the Church. And that is why I am no longer Protestant: it’s irrational to suppose that all the differences among them are of no consequence. Surely they disagree on subjects which are genuinely irrelevant (so to speak), but they also disagree on subjects about which it is too incredible even to suggest that the Holy Spirit, purported by them to guide each individual immediately (i.e., without mediation) in understanding the Bible, would leave them in uncertainty. It is not to be believed that the Sacraments (for one example) are a matter of indifference, and yet Protestants differ amongst themselves not just as to their mode, but also as to their significance. Consequently the Holy Spirit is not guiding them into all truth in the way that they suppose; consequently Protestantism, having staked everything upon sola Scriptura, falls apart.


There are Protestants in that thread who are insisting that the Bible is perspicuous in such a way that everything one is required to believe in order to be saved is presented with sufficient clarity in the Bible such that anyone may understand. And yet Protestants themselves can’t agree as to what those required beliefs are, and some of them even concede that they can’t provide a list of such things. This means, of course, that they claim some things must be believed in order to be saved, but that they are unable to tell you what those things are. They are perfectly happy to quote St. Paul when he says “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved,” but they ignore (or explain away) St. Peter when he says, in answer to practically the exact same question as the jailer asked Paul, “Do penance: and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of your sins. And you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.”


We need the Church. If we ignore Tradition as Protestants do, we will misread the Bible as they do.


Rev. Lane Keister said...

Unfortunately, there are two errors in your position. First of all, you misrepresent the Protestants when you claim that they ignore tradition. They do nothing of the sort. No one knew the early church fathers as well as Calvin did, not even Bellarmine. Indeed, Luther and Calvin both took enormous pains to prove that their position was not only in line with the early church fathers, but was the best trajectory of the early church fathers.

Secondly, you err considerably in implying that Protestants disagree with themselves whereas Catholics do not. Catholics have an enormous range of interpretations among themselves, as great or greater than Protestant range of interpretations. Just compare Joseph Fitzmyer's commentary on Romans (which in many if not most places could have been written by a Protestant) with Bellarmine's carping against Protestant interpretations. So, I ask, which Catholicism? Tridentine? Pre-Vatican II? Post-Vatican II? Erasmian? Dominican? Franciscan? Nominalist? Realist? Anselmian? Thomistic? And who decides among these various versions of Catholicism? Popes have disagreed with themselves on these issues. And what about the anonymous Christianity of Rahner? Pope John Paul II seemed to be in favor of it, whereas Benedict 16 appears opposed to it.

Nick said...

Thank you for this post, Bryan is a very solid apologist.

As for Mr Keister's comments, I've seen similar claims made in the past, but there are the same problems each time it's represented:

Protestants "ignore" tradition in so far as they 'reserve the right' to ignore whatever they don't believe is biblical. The textbook example of this is the Baptist, who had no problem shrugging off the strong evidence in tradition for infant baptism. As soon as a Calvinist or Lutheran objects, the Baptist silences them with "We hold Scripture above tradition."

As for Luther and Calvin striving to make the Church Fathers proto-Protestants, the fact that Protestantism appeals less and less to the fathers as time passes from the Reformation is a strong testimony that thesis was debunked long ago. And RdP has done a fine job recently of "reclaiming" the most important of the "Protestant Fathers," St Augustine.

Your second question is a bit more slippery, but is confusing two issues. Holding an array of theories/views is not the same as holding contradictory doctrines. The Church sets up 'parameters' by saying what is and is not acceptable, and Catholics must work within those parameters - which leaves various degrees of 'freedom' to frame and explain any given teaching. This is not the same as say two Protestant groups who can't agree on whether salvation can be lost or not (and I'd say about half of Protestantism is divided on just this issue).

Reginald de Piperno said...


"Ignore" may have been imprecise with regard to some Protestants, although I think you and I may certainly agree that there are gigantic swaths of Protestants whose knowledge of Church History has a giant ellipsis, from the close of the New Testament until the nailing of the 95 theses on the door at Wittenberg.

With regard to those for whom "ignore" is imprecise, however, I stand by this: they pick and choose amongst the Fathers, ignoring that which they don't like, after the pattern Nick has rightly pointed out: if it doesn't suit his ideas about what the Bible says, Joe Protestant will happily reject it. This is not exactly "ignoring" the Fathers, but it certainly does no credit to them either.

Secondly, you err considerably in implying that Protestants disagree with themselves whereas Catholics do not.

No, I really don't, as Nick already said. On their own terms, faithful Protestants disagree amongst themselves about issues concerning which it is flatly inconceivable to suppose that differences may reasonably exist, as I said in the post, if in fact the Holy Spirit is guiding them to the truth in the way that they claim.. It's not even remotely credible to suggest that the meaning and mode of Baptism (to say nothing of its proper recipients) are matters of indifference, and yet if they aren't matters of indifference, how can the disagreements among Protestants over this be explained? If the Holy Spirit guides you into all truth directly, how can it be that He tells the Baptists one thing about Baptism, and the Presbyterians another thing, and the Lutherans yet another?

On the other hand, Catholics do not claim to have immediate guidance from the Holy Spirit when it comes to discerning the truths of the Faith (as Protestants do - for example in WCF 1). Consequently your tu quoque does not apply, and even if it did it would not relieve the problems inherent in the way that Protestants say that they learn divine truth.

Lastly, none of this is really responsive to the issues that Bryan raised in the post I quoted, the most relevant sentence of which may be: The point is that Scripture alone is not sufficient to prevent heresy. Bryan said much more than this of course, but this sentence sufficiently sums up my point in the post here.


Reginald de Piperno said...

For what it's worth I posted additional remarks on some of these themes in a new post.