Sola Scriptura Pro Sola Ecclesia: The Catholic Power of a Tethered Plurality

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This post marks the first in a series in which I will be retrieving and defending what is sometimes called the ‘formal principle’ of the Protestant Reformation: sola Scriptura. Perhaps none of the other Reformational solas is as maligned, even by many contemporary Protestants, as sola Scriptura. In my view, a large part of the problem is that sola Scriptura is often misunderstood by its detractors along the lines of solo or nuda Scriptura which effectively means “only Scripture” or “no creed but the Bible” devoid of any interpretive authority. Thus, the critique goes, sola Scriptura has wreaked havoc on the one church of Christ by splintering it into innumerable factions. After all, what should we expect if we put Scripture into the hands of every Christian and let them interpret it however they will with no guidance or oversight? In this way, sola Scriptura becomes the Protestant equivalent of the condemnatory phrase used in the book of Judges (21:25): “everyone did what was right in his own eyes”.

Contrary to all this, my conviction and contention is that not only are such critiques misguided but wholly opposed to that which makes for the unity of the church. My belief, stated succinctly, is that sola Scriptura, when properly understood and practiced, is healing balm for the sola Ecclesia, precisely because it is the means by which the one Christ through his one Spirit unites his body to himself as the head. This, of course, will seem counterintuitive, if not outrageous, to many people, not least of whom Roman Catholics. So my intention in this series of posts will be to explain what sola Scriptura really means, how it functions, and why it is necessary for the building up of the sola Ecclesia.

In this inaugural post, I would like to address the principal rebuttal that I usually hear when I advocate for sola Scriptura. This might seem like an odd topic with which to begin (rather than starting, for instance, by presenting a positive case), but I realize that, unfortunately, any reason I could give in support of sola Scriptura, no matter how biblically faithful or logically compelling, will always appear to crumble under the pressure of what many consider to be its ultimate defeater: the fractured reality of Protestantism. In his excellent book entitled Biblical 9781587433931Authority After Babel, Kevin Vanhoozer writes the following:

[A]ccording to a common way of telling the story of the Reformation, sola scriptura marks the spot where Protestantism falls apart. Protestants subscribe to the formula but use it to underwrite different, often contrasting, projects. We have already encountered the objection [of Devin Rose in The Protestant’s Dilemma]: “No honest religious historian can deny that the result of sola scriptura has been doctrinal chaos.”[1]

Thus collapses the already leaning tower of Protestantism, or so it is said. For many, the abject failure of the Reformation is clearly manifest in the fact that there are well over 30,000 Protestant denominations. So obvious does the error of sola Scriptura seem that to any argument given in favor of it one need (presumably) only reply: “Well, look where that got you: 30,000 Protestant denominations and counting!” How should ardent proponents of sola Scriptura like myself respond? The formal principle of Protestantism seems to be lying in a heap of rubble.

There are two answers that can be given. The first is offered by Vanhoozer who exposes the logical fallacy underlying this critique. He writes:

While it is true that a certain degree of doctrinal chaos came after the Reformation, it is fallacious to argue that sola scriptura was the primary reason. Neither individualism nor pluralism was inherent in sola scriptura. One cannot infer that one event caused another simply because the alleged cause came before the alleged effect.[2]

Vanhoozer further explains in a footnote that

The technical term of this logical mistake is the post hoc fallacy: post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this). The mistake is to confuse chronology with causality. The categories are not interchangeable.[3]

This should not be downplayed as a mere technicality. Vanhoozer rightly discerns that one cannot merely point to a chronological sequence of events and the say that one particular event in that sequence was the cause of all the rest. This is a serious confusion of categories, and on this basis alone the argument should be discarded. Vanhoozer acknowledges, however, that further work is needed to fully “absolve sola scriptura as ‘the sin of the Reformation'”.[4] I concur, and so I come to the second response to this critique (and the title of this post), what I am calling the catholic (or unitive) power of a tethered plurality.

To understand what this means, it is important to first specify the kind of “unity” that is being used as the standard by which to judge the success or failure of sola Scriptura. Italian theologian Fulvio Ferrario observes that there are number of different ways in which ecclesial unity can be construed and affirmed: unity as return (the Roman model that recognizes full unity only under papal authority), unity as federation (a voluntary association of different churches), unity as koinonia (inter-ecclesial communion without an official structure), unity as reconciled diversity (we all agree to disagree), unity as invisible union (i.e. the invisible church vs. the visible church), and so on.[5] The upshot of this is that one cannot accuse another church or tradition of disunity or sectarianism without defining what one means by these terms, otherwise the conversation will end up like Tevye and Lazar Wolf in Fiddler on the Roof: Lazar Wolf wants to ask Tevye for permission to marry his eldest daughter while Tevye thinks that Lazar Wolf, being a butcher, merely wants to buy Tevye’s cow. Although in the musical the ensuing discussion is hilarious due to the misunderstandings that occur between the two characters, it is not so much when two parties are arguing over church unity.

This brings me to the first and most fundamental problem that I have with Roman Catholic criticisms of Protestantism’s disunity: it presupposes a definition of ecclesial unity that no other Christian tradition outside of Rome, including the Eastern Orthodox, accepts as valid. Roman Catholicism is wholly unique in this regard, for it recognizes full ecclesial unity not only on condition of complete confessional and sacramental unity but, more importantly, on condition of an institutional or hierarchical unity that obtains only under the authority of the papal successor to St. Peter and the bishops in communion with him. From the Roman standpoint, every church that does not submit to the Roman papacy and episcopate is, in the final analysis, schismatic. Yet this is precisely the issue that is disputed by Protestant and Orthodox Christians! In other words, it is illegitimate for Roman Catholics to accuse Protestants of disunity and schism on the grounds that the latter repudiates the definition of unity held by the former, for this is to merely assume as axiomatic (i.e. the Roman view of unity) that which first must be proved! What we have here is a classic example of the logical fallacy called question-begging, presupposing the truth of the very thing which is in question.

This brings me to the second problem I have with Roman criticisms of Protestant unity: because of the way in which it defines unity, Roman Catholicism itself is ironically the most sectarian of all Christian traditions. As Vanhoozer points out:

The Reformers’ main objection to Roman Catholicism [in reference to sola Scriptura] was not its catholicity but its centeredness on Rome. The Reformers believed that they were more in line than Rome when it came to tradition, for they (the Reformers) believed what the early church believed about tradition, namely, that it was the church’s consensus teaching on Scripture’s fundamental story line. Indeed, the one thing on which patristic and medieval theologians were agreed was the notion that doctrine must be grounded in Scripture. Hence, those who affirm sola scriptura are more in line with the catholic tradition than those who deny it. Rome is downright sectarian in its insistence that there were some truths or customs handed on orally to the apostles alongside Scripture.[6]

Donald Bloesch writes something similar when he notes that Protestant “objections to Roman Catholicism arise, at least partly, out of the conviction that catholicity is unnecessarily confined to one particular tradition in the church; therefore the Church of Rome is not catholic enough“.[7] This is a striking and yet profoundly true statement. By imposing the necessity of submitting to its own magisterial authority and its “infallible” interpretation of Scripture, Rome barricades itself behind its own walls and cannot recognize any other church other than itself as fully and completely belonging to the one church of Jesus Christ. I fully agree with Roman Catholic theologian Luke Timothy Johnson who asserts that

The third classic mark of the church [in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed] is that it is catholic. Before examining this term, it may be helpful to make the (I hope obvious) point that the creed does not say that the church is “Roman Catholic.” That term is, indeed, oxymoronic. It combines the element of universality with a highly particular adjective. The Roman Catholic tradition (the reader will remember it is my own) may believe the Roman tradition is all-encompassing, but that is simply mistaken.[8]

Compare what Johnson identifies as the all-encompassing nature of the Roman Catholic tradition with the way in which John Calvin articulated the marks of the one church of Christ in the Genevan Confession (Art. 18):

[W]e believe that the proper mark by which we rightly discern the Church of Jesus Christ is that his holy gospel be purely and faithfully preached, proclaimed, heard, and kept, that his sacrament be properly administered.

Now which of these two views of unity – Roman vs. Protestant – has more inherent catholic (i.e. unitive) potential? The view that says there need only be the pure preaching of the gospel and the right administration of the sacrament, or the view that imposes the additional requirement of submitting to the absolute authority of a particular papal and episcopal hierarchy? I think the answer is bread_wineclear: the first (Protestant) view has more inherent unitive (and thus catholic) power for the simple reason that its definition of unity is far less restrictive and thus far more encompassing than the (Roman) second view.

So this is where I would like to draw all of the threads of this post together and offer my own (Protestant-shaped) definition of ecclesial unity: it is a “tethered plurality”. I mean simply this: the unity of the sola Ecclesia is grounded in Christ himself who unites his body to himself by his Spirit through the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacrament that is inextricably bound to sola Scriptura as the Word of God. What this means practically is that while Protestant churches may externally seem splintered, fractured, schismatic, etc., there nevertheless exists a strong and unbreakable unity. This unity may not always be confessed or recognized, and it may be overshadowed by passionate disagreements, but it exists nonetheless. Neither is it a unity that is invisible, for it clearly manifests itself in the common bonds of gospel preaching, baptism, and communion in the Lord’s Supper.

For all of their faults (and there are many), Protestant churches are nevertheless united in the core evangelical (i.e. gospel) convictions summarized in the five solassola Scriptura, solus Christus, sola gratia, sola fide, soli Deo gloria. The solas are the center to which all Protestant churches remain tethered despite their disagreements which, in reality, can be defined as a legitimate interpretive plurality over non-essential issues of faith and practice: hence Protestant unity is a “tethered plurality”. Like a body that is made up of many members, Protestant unity is not a unity-in-uniformity but a unity-in-diversity, and, like a body, it is the better off because of it. To be sure, such unity will never appear to Roman Catholics as a true unity, but that is only because they assume a definition of unity that Protestants reject! Certainly, any church or tradition can arbitrarily set its own standards of what it considers to constitute unity, but then to impose those standards on other churches or traditions and judge them accordingly as schismatic (without first proving but only presupposing the universal validity of those standards) is an arrogant and spurious approach indeed!

As Paul speaks of the unity of the church in passages such as 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4, it is my conviction that the Protestant model of unity-in-diversity – “tethered plurality” – is not a defect but an integral part of the healthy functioning of the body of Christ. “If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing?” (1 Cor. 12:17). This, in essence, is what Vanhoozer highlights as “mere Protestant Christianity” which is “not the monological institutional unity of Rome but a dialogical or ‘plural’ unity'”. He explains further by using a colorful analogy:

[C.S.] Lewis associated mere Christianity with the hall of a house: we meet others in the hall, but we live in the rooms. My own proposal is that we think of the various denominations, interpretive communities, or confessional traditions (“communions”) as houses, and Protestantism as the street – call it “Evangel Way.” The Roman Catholic Church is the seven-story yellow house at the end of the street, at the intersection of Evangel Way and Tiber Road. At the other end of the street is a vacant lot where a few families live in mobile homes (independent Bible churches). With this image in mind, think of mere Protestant Christianity as a block party – and the neighborhood watch. Mere Protestant Christianity provides space and parameters for plural unity: on my Father’s street there are many mansions…Mere Protestant Christianity uses the resources of the solas and the priesthood of all believers to express the unity-in-diversity that local churches have in Christ.[9]

Does this mean that Protestant churches do not have their share of problems? Of course not. But with Vanhoozer, I would argue that actual breaches of unity among Protestants (attention: not those that are imagined based on an alien definition of unity!) stem not, as is often supposed, from sola Scriptura itself but, in reality, from its opposite, namely the failure to rightly understand sola Scriptura and to rigorously put it into practice. Demonstrating this will be the burden of future posts in this series.

I would like to conclude with a personal anecdote. As someone who has had extensive international experience, I have often had the opportunity to attend services or gatherings of Protestant churches in places where, due to language barriers, I was unable to communicate or understand what is being spoken to me. Words fail, however, to describe the deep mutual bond of unity and familial affection that I shared, almost immediately, with those brothers and sisters in Christ whom I had never before met and whom I will likely never see again. Despite the language barrier and lack of prior relationships, I have been welcomed, blessed, embraced (kissed even!), prayed for, and unspeakably encouraged by these strange-yet-strangely-familiar people. Why? Simply because we shared a common bond in Christ that by no means depended on juridical structures or institutional confines or magisterial authorities. Whatever differences we may have discovered had we the occasion to compare our beliefs on secondary issues or practices, we immediately recognized the bond that we shared together simply because we were united as brothers and sisters in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, on the basis of Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone. This, I am convinced, is what the true unity of the body of Christ looks like. It is the catholic power of a tethered plurality, the diversity of members joined as one body by its head Jesus Christ.

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[1] Vanhoozer, K.J., 2016. Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity. Grand Rapids: Bazos Press, p.110.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., quoting Georges Florovsky, Bible, Church Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View.

[5] Ferrario, F., and Jourdan, W., 2009. Introduzione all’Ecumenismo. Torino: Claudiana, pp.37-48.

[6] Vanhoozer, K.J., 2016. Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity. Grand Rapids: Bazos Press, pp.136-137.

[7] Bloesch, D.G., 1983. The Future of Evangelical Christianity: A Call for Unity Amid Diversity. New York: Doubleday, p.51. Emphasis mine.

[8] Johnson, L.T., 2003. The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters. New York: Doubleday, pp.268-269.

[9] Vanhoozer, K.J., 2016. Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity. Grand Rapids: Bazos Press, pp.30, 32-33.

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