Who Is the Final Authority for Protestants? Themselves?

Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation.” – St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

This is a reblog from Principium Unitatis.

MONDAY, JULY 14, 2008
Michael Brown on “Sola Scriptura or Scriptura Solo”
I recently read Michael Brown’s “Sola Scriptura or Scriptura Solo”. What I say below is a reply to his post. (On a related note, my post on Keith Mathison’s The Shape of Sola Scriptura can be found here.)

Michael claims that the sola scriptura position is not “me-and-my-own-interpretation-is-authoritative”. He claims that sola scriptura advocates read and interpret the Bible “with the church”. Sola scriptura advocates, he claims, are not biblicists. Their position, according to Michael, is not solo scriptura.

But when you ask sola scriptura advocates what exactly they are referring to by ‘church’, they will eventually answer with something semantically equivalent to “whoever reads and interprets the Bible just like I do, or at least pretty close to just like I do”. And if you ask them, “Which creeds, confessions and historical theology are authoritative?”, their ultimate answer is semantically equivalent to “those creeds and confessions and historical theology that agree with me-and-my-own-interpretation-of-Scripture.” Some will answer this latter question by claiming that they follow those creeds and confessions and historical theology that were put forward by “the church”. But, again, when you ask them what exactly they are referring to by ‘church’, you find eventually that their ultimate answer is semantically equivalent to “whoever reads and interprets the Bible just like I do, or at least pretty close to just like I do.” Sometimes sola scriptura advocates appeal to Protestant confessions like the Westminster Confession or the Belgic Confession. But if you ask them why they believe those confessions to be authoritative, and not, say, the Council of Trent, you will eventually find an answer semantically equivalent to “because those confessions [or those who wrote them] interpret the Bible just like I do, or at least pretty close to just like I do.” This is what I have previously called “painting a magisterial target around one’s interpretive arrow”, like shooting an arrow into a wall, and then painting a target around one’s arrow to make it look as if one shot a bullseye.

Advocates of sola scriptura distinguish their position from that of biblicists by claiming that biblicists practice solo scripture. And I imagine that most self-described advocates of sola scriptura are not biblicists in the I-only-use-Scripture sense. But this distinction [between sola scriptura and biblicism/solo scripture] is not relevant to the fundamental authority problem of solo scriptura. That is because for both sola scriptura and solo scriptura/biblicism, the individual remains the final interpretive [of both Scripture and Tradition] authority.

This is more difficult for advocates of sola scriptura to see about themselves, because by claiming that the Church is the final authority [where ‘Church’ is defined as “whoever reads and interprets the Bible just like I do, or at least pretty close to just like I do”] they create a semantic and social layer between themselves and their treatment of themselves as their own ultimate interpretive authority.

According to Michael, biblicism, but not sola scriptura, encourages people not to “subject themselves to any theological or ecclesiastical authority that might be contrary to their own interpretation.” But if you ask sola scriptura proponents to whom they themselves subject their interpretations, you will soon discover that the answer is “those who interpret Scripture mostly or entirely like I do.” So in this respect, there is no principled difference between sola scriptura and biblicism.

You can read the rest of this post –> Principium Unitatis

5 Responses

  1. Many protestant perspectives on things are quite useful. Us Catholics (members of Jesus’Church) are free to accept private perspectives, as long as they do not contradict Jesus’ Church and her final authority.. I have gained may spiritual insights from my protestant friends, but at the end of the day, protestants (although they are sincere Godly people) really are adrift on a turbulent sea. They make it up as they go along (excuse me… “as the Holy Spirit places it on their hearts”). It all started with Martin Luther, who admits that he made a horrible mistake. Protestants do not have the ONE true Church with succession back to Christ Himself to guide them…. And that’s just a fact. Sorry to offend anyone, but I need Jesus’ Church. I can’t do it on my own. Although the Holy spirit has made me a new creation, “born again” in Christ (Jn 3:3), I’m still not that smart. Peace in Christ.

  2. It’s actually worse than this. A person’s interpretation of the Bible will change over time, so a protestant cannot even say his understanding of the Bible has final authority. A protestant today will typically go through a few denominations in his life, so he can’t even trust his denomination. And even if the protestant stays in his denomination, the doctrines of his denomination change with time (e.g. open communion, the rapture, contraception, … were unknown in most protestant denominations a decade ago). So ultimately, there is no authority or assurance that anyone has the truth.

  3. Have anyone of you considered the fact that the christian church was a result of the first real schism? The first christians was part of judaism in the beginning. Then they began to preach a new truth they had seen and experienced: the fact that Jesus had risen. They were heavily threatened by the religious authorities to be silent, but their answer was: ” judge for yourselves if it is right in God`s eyes to obey you more than God”( acts 4:19 ) So, because these people were true to their consciences, and the principle of their direct subjugation to God apart from any worldly authority, be it the high priest ( or the pope ) they actually brought about the first deep schism and the formation of christianity. Without this, there would not have been any christianity, the catholics wouldn´t have a church to impose on others and the Pope would be without work.
    I am not against unity, only unity that is forced upon people in a totalitarian way. Such unity is always argued for in the best manner, be it communist, fascist or even religious. Since these men of old pioneered christianity, the catholic church have imposed a new totalitarian structure, which has been evident through the centuries during the many hundred years of the inquisition. This was not a coincidental or accidental structure , but the result of repressive thinking and failed theology all from the time of Augustine. Unity is a good thing , but it is not the highest good. The personal freedom of thought and conscience is far more important. If the consequence is that there will be many different congregations, then let it be. This is, I suppose, mostly a problem for people who seeks a totalitarian orientation. Some do, and they don´t like the thought of letting others have their freedom of thought and freedom of religion.

  4. Dear Arne,

    That is a very orignal argument for the factions of Protestantism. However, in the case of Christianity we have supernatural evidence in a multitude of miracles culminating in the holy death on the cross and the miraculous resurrection of Jesus on the third day and His appearance to the faithful for 40 days thereafter with His bodily ascension into Heaven.

    Neither Martin Luther, John Calvin nor any of the other thousands of Protestant denomination founders have any supernatural proof for their schism. Nor do they even claim any such thing.

    Protestants void the desire of Jesus “that they all may be one” and make of disunity some kind of virtue. But,

    1 Corinthians 11:16-19 If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God. But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.

    2 Corinthians 12:20 For I am afraid that perhaps when I come I may find you to be not what I wish and may be found by you to be not what you wish; that perhaps there will be strife, jealousy, angry tempers, rivalries, slanders, gossip, arrogance, disturbances;

    Galations 5:19 Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, dissensions, ]factions, 21 envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

    Titus 3:10 10 Reject a factious man after a first and second warning,

    Romans 16:17 I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.

    Personal freedom of thought and conscience is not more important than TRUTH. The unity of the Christian faith is not enforced in a totalitarian way. That is hilarious! Proof of this is the thousands of different Protestant denominations. The unity that is sought is the unity and safeguarding of the TRUTH OF THE GOSPEL. Protestants have much Truth but they only have some of it. The Catholic Church teaches the fulness of the Truth of Christ.

    All Protestant denominations and their constricted amount of truth can only be traced back 40 to 500 years. The Catholic Church and all of her teachings can be traced back to its foundation by Jesus Christ Himself, 2000 years ago.

  5. You cannot put conscience and truth up against each other. What you must have is the truth in a good conscience, of course. The inquisition was an oppressive, totalitarian institution which sought mind control trough threatening , and even the most terrible torture of innocent people by the thousands and even perhaps millions. You seem so very convinced that roman church is the real church Jesus founded. I am not. Not that the protestants are much better, but at least they don´t require the same kind of subjugation “of intellect and belief “( that´s totalitarian and cultic if anything) as the papal system do. The mere thought of having a mere human ornanyone as ” vicar of Christ ” who is able to speak ” infallible ” is preposterous. It is surely a quick fix solution of gaining some sort of oneness, which the author of this blog seems to hold as of capital importance. But it its not the unity Christ was speaking about. This vicar of Christ is his opposite, he doesn´t resemble the one he is supposed to represent even in the remotest way.

    The point is not what even miraculous experience the apostles or anyone witnessed , but the principle of their free conscience. Had they subjugated themselves to the religious leaders, the truth of the resurrection would not have been known to us.That´s the important point. If we have a strong conviction from the word of God, then not one person in the world, even the Pope has any right to subdue that.He can argue, but he cannot require ” subjugation of intellect and belief ” however much he like that everyone agrees with him. This is clearly totalitarian, and against human rights.

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