Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Responding to Scott Alt Regarding Sola Scriptura
01/17/2013 - Tur8infanScott Alt recently posted "Questions for a Reformed Apologist." Dr. White and I (TurretinFan) responded on the Dividing Line, but the following provide some additional notes.
Mr. Alt begins by providing a quotation from Benedict XVI that he thinks sounds supportive of Sola Scriptura, taken by itself out of context.
If I were going to pick an illustrative quotation from Benedict XVI to the effect that one can take Benedict XVI out of context to suggest he holds to Sola Scriptura, I would have picked Benedict XVI's statement that the word of Scripture is not “an inert deposit within the Church” but the “supreme rule of faith and power of life” (see context and clarification here).
Mr. Alt compares his quotation with one from Hippolytus. I'm not sure why Mr. Alt thinks that "sole source of the knowledge of God" (which he says Hioppolytus teaches) is not strong enough for Sola Scriptura. He seems to think that Benedict XVI would agree with such a claim, yet Benedict XVI surely accepts that there is knowledge of of God through extra-Scriptural tradition.
Indeed, "sole source of the knowledge of God" is a stronger claim than what Sola Scriptura teaches. After all, we acknowledge that knowledge of God can be obtained by the light of nature, including conscience. Rather, Scripture is the only source of infallible and perspicuous knowledge of God that we have.
Hippolytus is not denying what we teach for some even higher view of Scripture. Rather, Hippolytus in context is fighting the heresies of Noetus. In context:
8. Many other passages, or rather all of them, attest the truth. A man, therefore, even though he will it not, is compelled to acknowledge God the Father Almighty, and Christ Jesus the Son of God, who, being God, became man, to whom also the Father made all things subject, Himself excepted, and the Holy Spirit; and that these, therefore, are three. But if he desires to learn how it is shown still that there is one God, let him know that His power is one. As far as regards the power, therefore, God is one. But as far as regards the economy there is a threefold manifestation, as shall be proved afterwards when we give account of the true doctrine. In these things, however, which are thus set forth by us, we are at one. For there is one God in whom we must believe, but unoriginated, impassible, immortal, doing all things as He wills, in the way He wills, and when He wills. What, then, will this Noetus, who knows nothing of the truth, dare to say to these things? And now, as Noetus has been confuted, let us turn to the exhibition of the truth itself, that we may establish the truth, against which all these mighty heresies have arisen without being able to state anything to the purpose.
9. There is, brethren, one God, the knowledge of whom we gain from the Holy Scriptures, and from no other source. For just as a man, if he wishes to be skilled in the wisdom of this world, will find himself unable to get at it in any other way than by mastering the dogmas of philosophers, so all of us who wish to practice piety will be unable to learn its practice from any other quarter than the oracles of God. Whatever things, then, the Holy Scriptures declare, at these let us took; and whatsoever things they teach, these let us learn; and as the Father wills our belief to be, let us believe; and as He wills the Son to be glorified, let us glorify Him; and as He wills the Holy Spirit to be bestowed, let us receive Him. Not according to our own will, nor according to our own mind, nor yet as using violently those things which are given by God, but even as He has chosen to teach them by the Holy Scriptures, so let us discern them.
Compare this to Hippolytus criticism of Noetus' position earlier in the same work:
2. Now they seek to exhibit the foundation for their dogma by citing the word in the law, I am the God of your fathers: you shall have no other gods beside me; and again in another passage, I am the first, He says, and the last; and beside me there is none other. Thus they say they prove that God is one. And then they answer in this manner: If therefore I acknowledge Christ to be God, He is the Father Himself, if He is indeed God; and Christ suffered, being Himself God; and consequently the Father suffered, for He was the Father Himself. But the case stands not thus; for the Scriptures do not set forth the matter in this manner.
3. In this way, then, they choose to set forth these things, and they make use only of one class of passages; just in the same one-sided manner that Theodotus employed when he sought to prove that Christ was a mere man. But neither has the one party nor the other understood the matter rightly, as the Scriptures themselves confute their senselessness, and attest the truth. See, brethren, what a rash and audacious dogma they have introduced, when they say without shame, the Father is Himself Christ, Himself the Son, Himself was born, Himself suffered, Himself raised Himself. But it is not so. The Scriptures speak what is right; but Noetus is of a different mind from them. Yet, though Noetus does not understand the truth, the Scriptures are not at once to be repudiated.
4. Let us, as I said, see how he is confuted, and then let us set forth the truth. Now he quotes the words, Egypt has laboured, and the merchandise of Ethiopia and the Sabeans, and so forth on to the words, For You are the God of Israel, the Saviour. And these words he cites without understanding what precedes them. For whenever they wish to attempt anything underhand, they mutilate the Scriptures. But let him quote the passage as a whole, and he will discover the reason kept in view in writing it. For we have the beginning of the section a little above; and we ought, of course, to commence there in showing to whom and about whom the passage speaks.
So, Hippolytus' comment about the exclusivity of Scripture for the knowledge of God, is (in context) one about it being the sole source for theological debate and dogma. Noetus' notions either are rightly derived from Scripture, or they are not right doctrines.
But Rome cannot stand up to this test. Rome's doctrines and dogmas cannot be shown from Scripture. On the contrary, when they are put to the kind of Scriptural test that Hippolytus applies to Noetus, Rome's doctrines collapse.
That's one reason that Rome attempts to appeal to extra-scriptural tradition, particularly with respect to doctrines like the bodily assumption and the immaculate conception. That's why Rome elevates tradition to the level of Scripture, as can be clearly seen in Benedict XVI's writings (but, of course, not in the writings of Hippolytus).
Mr. Alt turns to a quotation from Basil the Great.
His first complaint is that the quoted work is not found in the 38 volume set of writings of the fathers known as the "Schaff" set (after the lead editor, Philip Schaff) or the "Eerdmans" set (after the American publisher, W. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.) (or the "Hendrickson" after the current publisher). The set is a great set and does actually mention the work in question, identifying it as one of Basil's ascetic writings.
There seems to be a fairly common misconception, however, that this set is somehow complete, or representative of the important works. That is not the case. There are a number of other major English translations of patristic writings, including
Ancient Christian Writers Series (currently at 63 volumes, I believe)
Fathers of the Church Series (Volume 126 is set to be released in April, I believe)
There are also a number of other series out there, including a very significant series that will attempt to translate all of Augustine's works - The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century.
There is some overlap amongst the various collections - and some very popular works have been translated a large number of times (Augustine's "Confessions" and "City of God" are examples of this).
That's just limiting our discussion to English. The original Latin and Greek is also available for many works, in hundreds of volumes printed by Migne and others.
Mr. Alt complains that because the work is not in the Schaff set and did not turn up in his Amazon search, it is hard to get access to it.
I would note that it was translated (among some of Basil's other ascetic works) as part of the Fathers of the Church series (see the link above), and was placed on-line for free at Archive.org. So, it is not that hard to access.
The ascetic works were also published by Clarke in 1925 or so, but that translation is a little harder to get.
Mr. Alt provides some analysis of the quotation from Basil, but his analysis is confusing. The quotation itself commands the hearers to only accept teachings that are proved from the Scriptures. Mr. Alt argues that Roman doctrines are not contrary to Scripture - but that the simply are not taught by Scripture.
But that doesn't pass Basil's test. The Roman dogmas are foreign to scripture. Recall that Basil said: “The hearers taught in the Scriptures ought to test what is said by teachers and accept that which agrees with the Scriptures but reject that which is foreign.”
Keep in mind that Basil explains how his "Morals" (the book that includes the quotation Mr. Alt identified) was constructed:
Considering that, for the present, enough has been said above regarding a sound faith, I shall now try, in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep my promise with regard to the Morals. Accordingly, whatever I have so far discovered in the way of prohibitions or commended acts in scattered passages throughout the New Testament, I have attempted to the best of my ability to gather together into rules summarized for the convenience of those who desire this service. With each rule, also, I have coupled a listing by number of Scriptural passages comprised in the rule, as taken from the Gospels, from the Apostle, or the Acts. In this way, one who reads the rule and sees, for example, the number 'one' or 'two' cited with it, may consult the Scripture itself and, looking up the passages quoted under the aforesaid number, find the testimony from which the rule was derived.
Furthermore, I intended at first to make a harmony with quotations from the Old Testament for each passage of the New Testament which accompanies the rules; but, since the need was pressing and my brethren in Christ were urgently demanding that I fulfill my promise of long standing, I recalled the words of Him who said: 'Give an occasion to a wise man and wisdom shall be added to him' [Proverbs 9:9] Consequently, if anyone so desires, he will find a satisfactory starting point in the testimonies that are cited for taking up the Old Testament and discovering for himself the harmony in all the Holy Scriptures, especially since, for the faithful and for those fully convinced of the truth of our Lord's words, one utterance alone is enough. I have, therefore, considered it sufficient also to cite a few only and not all the proofs to be found in the New Testament.
Mr. Alt makes some complaints about the syntax of the sentence, which may be legitimate, but which are resolved by examining the context.
The quotation is taken from Rule 72 of the Morals, which states:
Concerning the hearers: that those hearers who are instructed in the Scriptures should examine what is said by the teachers, receiving what is in conformity with the Scriptures and rejecting what is opposed to them; and that those who persist in teaching such doctrines should be strictly avoided.
Matthew [18.7-9] : 'Woe to that man by whom the scandal cometh. And if thy eye scandalize thee, pluck it out' and similarly with regard to the hand and foot. John [10.1]: 'Amen, amen I say to you:, He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold but climbeth up another way, the same is a thief and a robber;' and a little further on [10.5]: 'But a stranger they follow not, but fly from him because they know not the voice of strangers.' Gal. [1.8]: 'But though we or an angel from heaven preach a gospel to you besides that which you have received, let him be anathema.' 1 Thess. [5.20-22] : 'Despise not prophecies. Prove all things ; hold fast that which is good. From all appearance of evil refrain yourselves.'
That they who possess little knowledge of the Scriptures should recognize the distinctive mark of the saints by the fruits of the Spirit, receiving those who bear this mark and avoiding those who do not.
Matthew [7,15,16] : 'Beware of false prophets who come to you in the clothing of sheep but inwardly they are ravening wolves. By their fruits you shall know them.' Phil. [3.17] : 'Be ye followers of me, brethren, and observe them who walk so as you have our model.'
That they who teach rightly the Word of Truth should be received even as the Lord, unto the glory of Him who has sent them, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Matthew [10.40]: 'He that receiveth you, receiveth me.' John [13.20]: 'He that receiveth whomsoever I send, receiveth me.' Luke [10.16]: 'He that heareth you, heareth me.' Gal. [4.13,14] : 'And the temptation in my flesh, you despised not nor rejected, but received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus.'
That they who heed not those who are sent by the Lord bring dishonor not only upon these latter, but upon Him also who sent them, and they draw down upon themselves a harsher judgment than that pronounced upon the people of Sodom and Gomorrha.
Matthew [10.14,15] : 'And whosoever shall not receive you nor hear your words, going forth out of that house or city, shake off the dust from your feet. Amen I say to you, it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment than for that city.' Luke [10.16]: 'He that despiseth you, despiseth me.' 1 Thess. [4.8] : 'Therefore, he that despiseth these things, despiseth not man, but God who also hath given his holy Spirit in us.'
That the teaching of the Lord's commandments should be received as having the power to procure eternal life and the kingdom of heaven; and also that we should put it into practice with a good will, even though it seem arduous.
John [5.24] : 'Amen, amen I say unto you, that he who heareth my word and believeth him that sent me, hath life everlasting and cometh not into judgment but is passed from death to life.' Acts [14.20-22] : 'And when they had preached the gospel to that city and had taught many, they returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium, and to Antioch, confirming the souls of the disciples and exhorting them to continue in the faith; and that through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of heaven.'
That reprimand and censure should be accepted as healing remedies for vice and as conducive to health; whence it is evident that they who feign indulgence in a spirit of flattery and do not upbraid the sinners cause them to suffer supreme loss and plot the destruction of that life which is their true life.
Matthew [18.15]: 'But if thy brother shall offend against thee, go, and rebuke him between thee and him alone. If he shall hear thee, thou shalt gain thy brother. 3 1 Cor. [5.4,5]: 'You being gathered together and my spirit with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. 5 2 Cor. [7.8-10] : 'Seeing that the same epistle (although but for a time) did make you sorrowful, now I am glad, not because you were made sorrowful, but because you were made sorrowful unto penance. For you were made sorrowful according to God, that you might suffer by us in nothing. For the sorrow that is according to God worketh penance, steadfast unto salvation.' Tit. [1.13]: 'Wherefore rebuke them sharply that they may be sound in the faith.'
Mr. Alt thinks: "All of these things aside, however, all that Basil appears to be saying here is that a legitimate teacher ought not to contradict the Scriptures." But actually Basil is directing "hearers" to judge teachers according to the Scripture. Mr. Alt thinks Rome passes that test, but if Basil is right we ought to make an examination of Rome's doctrines by Scripture.
Basil himself is not afraid of his test, but Rome is. Thus, Rome insists that Scripture must be interpreted so as not to contradict what Rome teaches.
Mr. Alt then turns to a quotation from Athanasius, that Mr. Alt thinks is not supportive of Sola Scripture. In this case, Mr. Alt thinks that the context of the quotation from Athanasius undermines the claim of Sola Scriptura. The quotation with the context Mr. Alt provides is this:
For although the sacred and inspired Scriptures are sufficient to declare the truth–while there are other works of our blessed teachers compiled for this purpose, if he meet with which a man will gain some knowledge of the interpretation of the Scriptures, and be able to learn what he wishes to know–still, as we have not at present in our hands the compositions of our teachers, we must communicate in writing to you what we learned from them–the faith, namely, of Christ the Saviour; lest any should hold cheap the doctrine taught among us, or think faith in Christ unreasonable.
Mr. Alt thinks that this passage suggests that the Bible was not available to individual Christians until the printing press (a common myth). Suffice to say that the churches have been reading the Scriptures aloud during the weekly service since at least the time of Justin Martyr. Thus, the people at least had access to the Scriptures that way. Moreover, while books could get expensive, people did make and buy books.
The time when the Scriptures became unavailable to people was actually in the late middle ages, where the vernacular Scriptures were not read in churches at Rome's dictate.
Mr. Alt also thinks Athanasius' comment suggests the people need to be guided and taught in the proper understanding and exegesis of Scripture. But Mr. Alt's view seems to negate, rather than qualify Athanasius phrase "the sacred and inspired Scriptures are sufficient" -- he would not make it "although [they suffice]" but rather "because they don't suffice"!
Mr. Alt really should consider Athanasius' letter to Marcellinus and its testimony regarding Scripture's sufficiency and interpretation.
Mr. Alt then alleges that Sola Scriptura is not found in Scripture. We don't agree. The Scriptures teach the formal and material sufficiency of Scripture - it teaches us to judge teachers by the Scriptures, as Basil likewise taught.
Mr. Alt quotes some frankly bizarre comments by Dr. David Anders from the Called to Communion website. The quotation makes allegations like "The Reformers had no defense for sola scriptura; they merely asserted it." This kind of comment at best displays a profound ignorance of the writings of the Reformers. Not only did Calvin provide masterful defenses of Sola Scriptura, William Whitaker provided a defense of Sola Scriptura that remains a classic.
I can understand that Mr. Alt may rely on these false claims from "Dr. Anders" but the problem is that the claims are false.
Finally, we get to Mr. Alt's primary concern. He states:
And that brings me to what I really wanted to talk about, which is TurretinFan’s claim, in his debate with Catholic apologist William Albrecht, that “sola scriptura is what we do to the Bible once we have the Bible.” Dr. James White, in a 1997 debate with Gerry Matatics, claimed likewise that “sola scriptura is a doctrine that speaks to the normative condition of the church, not to times of enscripturation.” At bottom, these are appeals to tradition. They are appeals to some “normative condition” that exists outside of scripture and subsequent to Christ, the apostles, and the early Church Fathers. If that is the case, one naturally wonders why all the attempts to find the doctrine in Scripture or the Church Fathers. But apart from that, the very appeal to a “normative condition,” binding upon Christians, is contrary to the very idea of sola scriptura. If that is what sola scriptura is, sola scriptura fails its own test. I completely understand, though, that Reformed apologists like Dr. White and TurretinFan are–as Dr. Anders points out–attempting to finally fulfil the obligation to somehow, some way, show how sola scriptura is true. I just don’t think they do a very convincing job of it.
Actually, Mr. Alt is making this more complicated than it needs to be. Here are two simpler ways to consider it.
1) Both sides agree that Scripture is authoritative.
2) Your side insists something else is as authoritative, but you can't establish its authority.
1) When we had Scripture and the apostles, we didn't have just Scripture, we had the apostles and Scripture.
2) But now that the apostles are gone, we just have Scripture, because we don't have the apostles any more.
Neither of those is an appeal to some authority outside of Scripture. There's nothing "authoritative" about the fact that the apostles have left, nevertheless they have gone. There's nothing "authoritative" about the fact that Rome's claims of papal and conciliar authority lack warrant, but the do lack warrant.
Mr. Alt poses three questions. My (TurretinFan's) answers are interspersed below:
1. "First, who was the first person to articulate a defense of sola scriptura by speaking of it as a “normative condition” of the Church? Who first defined sola scriptura in these terms?"
The first person I can think of who fairly clearly articulated that idea is Irenaeus (died around A.D. 202) who stated:
Since, therefore, the tradition from the apostles does thus exist in the Church, and is permanent among us, let us revert to the Scriptural proof furnished by those apostles who did also write the Gospel, in which they recorded the doctrine regarding God, pointing out that our Lord Jesus Christ is the truth, John 14:6 and that no lie is in Him.
Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 5, Section 1.
The exact phrase "normative condition" may be original to Dr. White, but it is the idea, not the phrase that matters.
2. "Second, who was the first person to articulate the doctrine of sola scriptura itself–and I’m not talking about Church Fathers who use the Bible to prove a theological point, or who speak highly of the Scriptures. I’m talking about a Church Father, or anyone, who credibly and demonstrably speaks of the Scriptures in terms of exclusivity as a “sole rule of faith.” One might want to look at my previous article here for a fuller discussion of what I mean by “exclusivity.”"
Again, let's go to Irenaeus, who writes: "We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith. "
But since that lacks some of the "exclusive" sounding language, consider Origin's words in the preface of his Principiis:
All who believe and are assured that grace and truth were obtained through Jesus Christ, and who know Christ to be the truth, agreeably to His own declaration, I am the truth, derive the knowledge which incites men to a good and happy life from no other source than from the very words and teaching of Christ. And by the words of Christ we do not mean those only which He spoke when He became man and tabernacled in the flesh; for before that time, Christ, the Word of God, was in Moses and the prophets. For without the Word of God, how could they have been able to prophesy of Christ? And were it not our purpose to confine the present treatise within the limits of all attainable brevity, it would not be difficult to show, in proof of this statement, out of the Holy Scriptures, how Moses or the prophets both spoke and performed all they did through being filled with the Spirit of Christ. And therefore I think it sufficient to quote this one testimony of Paul from the Epistle to the Hebrews, in which he says: By faith Moses, when he had come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter; choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of the Egyptians. Moreover, that after His ascension into heaven He spoke in His apostles, is shown by Paul in these words: Or do you seek a proof of Christ who speaks in me?
3. "Third, if sola scriptura is not to be found in the Bible, and it is not to be found in the Church Fathers, then how–outside of an appeal to tradition or “normative conditions”–is it to be defended? And how is that not self-contradictory?"
It is found in the Bible and it was believed by many of the church fathers - some more consistently than others - some more explicitly than others - some more powerfully expressed than others.
This chance to discuss our responses on the Dividing Line program is useful, because Mr. Albrecht referred to Dr. White's position during the debate, and I could not recall precisely what Dr. White had said. Nevertheless, there is significant agreement between us, as I think came out on the Dividing Line Program for January 17, 2013.