The complaint is always the same:
you never have enough time to say what you want to say in
an oral debate, and you never have enough space to write
what you want to write in a written one. I'm sure both Douglas
Jones and Patrick Madrid wish they had more space to dedicate to
the topic of sola scriptura than the four columns of small
print that appeared in the recent issue of Credenda Agenda (Volume
8, Number 5, pp. 30-31). But publications generally keep a close
eye on the usage of column inches, and the sparring match ended
much too soon. A few points needed further comment, and I provide
a very brief response below.
reader is encouraged to peruse the article on the Credenda
Agenda web site: http://www.moscow.com/ Resources/Credenda/. I will only reproduce those sections that
especially call for comment and expanded response. "PM"
stands for Patrick Madrid (of course), and "DJ" for
Douglas Jones. I quote from the article:
PM: I'm simply trying to force
you to defend the WCF claim, but you seem unwilling to do so.
You haven't explained how Scripture can be its own
"infallible interpreter," where Scripture claims
this, and when Scripture ever actually functioned as such.
These elements must be proven if you're to vindicate the WCF
version of sola Scriptura. I contend that you can't prove
them since your position is epistemologically untenable. The
"who decides?" dilemma pivots on the a priori
question: "which 'church' is the Church?" Under the
WCF rubric, you can't even determine that with certitude;
just as you can't be completely certain the Anabaptist or any
view (Rome's, for example) is incorrect. That certainty
requires infallibility, otherwise, you're simply guessing.
As I have noted in other articles
on this page (such as my response to Patrick's article on our sola scriptura
debate), this is the classic Roman argument, and it is certainly
one that Patrick uses over and over again. Indeed, I have been
told that the book he is writing against the sufficiency of
Scripture is titled, Sola Scriptura: Blueprint for Anarchy.
Yet, it continues to amaze me that Madrid and other apologists
like him don't see that they have not escaped the dilemma they
claim hangs over the Protestant head. I remember clearly talking
with Madrid one afternoon on the phone. We were discussing some
of the various viewpoints expressed by Roman Catholics, and I
remember saying, "It is so obvious that there are all sorts
of different understandings of what Rome teaches-about as many as
there are Roman Catholics! You better not ever use that old
argument about how many different Protestant denominations there
are! It's obviously a double-standard!" Well, seemingly
Patrick doesn't see it that way.
The argument used by Patrick here
fails for one simple reason: he can't claim infallibility in interpreting
the interpretation! All he's done, epistemologically
speaking, is move things back one step. The Protestant openly
admits his fallibility in approaching the infallible Scriptures.
The Protestant does not claim personal infallibility for himself,
or even for the body of believers that is the Church, whether
local or universal. Infallibility is a function of the divine.
God may well grant certainty to a person through the work
of the Spirit of God in their heart, but that does not make that
person an infallible authority. That kind of assurance and
certainty is the result of regeneration and spiritual maturity.
Rome claims to get past all of
that by claiming infallibility for the Church. You don't have to
wonder what the Bible says anymore: Rome will tell you (as I call
it, sola Ecclesia). But what does this accomplish? Now you
have to interpret the teachings of Rome, rather than just the
Bible. And it is painfully obvious to anyone who even observes
the attacks of Traditionalists upon Karl Keating, or the
modernists scoffing at the backward ways of the conservatives,
that Rome's teachings are liable to just as many different
understandings as the Bible's. Patrick has wrongly asserted in
the past that if sola scriptura is true, then there should
be no doctrinal differences amongst Protestants (talk about a
straw-man view of sola scriptura!). If that's the case,
then doesn't it follow that if the Roman view is true, all Roman
Catholics should be in agreement with each other?
You see, once Rome puts an
interpretation of the Bible into writing (and there are precious
few of these infallible interpretations around, I might add),
that writing now becomes subject to interpretation. Shall we
begin to look for an infallible interpreter of the infallible
interpretation of the infallible Scriptures? The series would
never end, of course, for one simply can't get beyond one fact:
we as human beings are fallible. And you, as an individual human
being, will always be fallible in your knowledge of any
infallible source, whether that be the Scriptures, or some other
source you hold in esteem. Does Patrick claim infallible
knowledge of all Roman teachings? Is it possible that he might
just be wrong on a point or two? Well, doesn't he then
fall into the very same dilemma he says Protestants are under?
One might expect the response,
"But, the Church is alive, and can explain herself."
That hasn't changed much, has it? Has the existence of a living
Pope who can explain his teachings made all Catholics pro-life,
for example? I mean, the current Pope couldn't be much more clear
on an issue, could he? Do all Catholics reject the ordination of
women to the priesthood, too? And even on issues where there is a
true desire to be fully obedient to the Papacy, are there not
differences amongst Roman Catholics as to what, exactly, the
Church teaches on any one issue? Do we not see different groups
citing this encyclical against that one, this pronouncement
against that bull? Rome hasn't made the issue simpler with her
claims: she's only complicated things.
Patrick's epistemology is only
tenable under the rubric of sola Ecclesia: the church
alone is the final authority in all things. Rome defines the
canon, Rome defines the meaning of Scripture. Rome defines
tradition, Rome defines the meaning of tradition. Her
pronouncements are infallible and unquestionable, and as a matter
of faith, they are all self-consistent, too. From that ground you
can prove, or disprove, anything, and repulse any and all
attacks. Error by a Pope? Can't be, by definition. Error by the
Church. Not possible, must be another explanation. Inconsistency
between the IVth Lateran Council and Vatican II? Dismiss it as
mere ignorance on the part of Protestants. Such an epistemology
is just as consistent as the Mormon testimony: and just as
tightly circular, too.
PM: Please furnish even one
example of Scripture interpreting itself. I reject your
interpretation of the verses you cited and your premise that
"Scripture alone is . . . infallible." On the
contrary, Christ's Church is infallible (cf. Matt. 10:40,
16:18, 18:18,28:20; Luke 10:16; John 14:25-26,16:13; 1 Thess.
2:13; Tim. 3:15). Your argument entails the conclusion that
the dogmas promulgated by Nicea I, Ephesus, and Chalcedon
were merely fallible, as was the Church's determination of
the NT canon. (If this is true, we're all in big trouble!)
Your syllogism is flawed, and it's no non sequitur to
claim that Scripture requires an infallible Church (cf. 1
Pet. 1:20-21; 3:15-16). And this debate is your perfect
opportunity to prove otherwise: Please demonstrate how
Scripture can "infallibly interpret itself" so as
to solve this particular standoff.
Let's look at the passages Patrick
claims teach that the Church is infallible:
(Mat 10:40) "He who
receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him
who sent Me.
Christ is present in His people,
most true. But does that make them infallible? No more than it
makes them divine.
(Mat 16:18) "I also say
to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My
church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.
Does the eternal plan of God for
the Church mean the Church is infallible? This would require
Patrick to say that if the Church ever errs, then it has been
overpowered by Satan. Does he believe this of himself? When he
fails, is he lost? Such requires a tremendous amount of
ecclesiastical baggage to be read back into the text. The Church
that is united upon the rock of the Messiahship of Jesus (not
Peter, I note), will not be overcome, that is quite true. But to
extend that to mean that there is a single teaching magisterium,
headed up by a Pope, that is infallible in all its doctrinal
teachings, is to demonstrate oh so clearly how Roman eisegesis
functions when trying to present a biblical basis for its claims.
(Mat 18:18) "Truly I say
to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in
heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been
loosed in heaven.
Again we search in vain for
infallibility. The Church's proclamation of the forgiveness of
sins represents perfectly the reality that exists in heaven.
Again most true, but how that makes Roman prelates infallible is
a bit beyond the passage.
(Mat 28:20) teaching them to
observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you
always, even to the end of the age."
Again, this no more makes us
infallible than it makes us divine. Christ is with the
Church-even when the Church stumbles, becomes enamored with
worldly things, and loses sight of what is most important. Aren't
we glad for that?
(Luke 10:16) "The one who
listens to you listens to Me, and the one who rejects you
rejects Me; and he who rejects Me rejects the One who sent
Same comments as above on Matthew
(John 14:25-26) "These
things I have spoken to you while abiding with you. "But
the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My
name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your
remembrance all that I said to you.
Quite true again-but what does
this have to do with the bishop of Rome in the 10th
century, or any other time? Nothing at all.
(John 16:13) "But when
He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all
the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but
whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you
what is to come.
The Spirit does guide into all
truth. The Spirit is infallible. I am led by the Spirit. But I am
not infallible. Does Patrick claim to be led by the Spirit? Is
(1 Th 2:13) For this reason we
also constantly thank God that when you received the word of
God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as
the word of men, but for what it really is, the
word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.
A wonderful passage extolling the
authority and power of the Word of God. What it has to do with
Rome is hard to say, however, and how it makes the Church
infallible, again, is hard to say.
Finally, the passage that is
(1 Tim 3:15) but in case I am
delayed, I write so that you will know how one ought
to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the
church of the living God, the pillar and support of the
The Church is the pillar
and support of the truth-which specifically differentiates the
Church from the truth. The Church holds up, supports,
presents, the truth. The question then is, where does she learn
the truth? Not from herself, that's for certain. She learns the
truth from the voice of God speaking to her. And where does she
find the voice of God? In the Scriptures, the voice of the
husband to the loving wife, the voice of the Shepherd to the
sheep. Nothing about infallibility here, either.
Then Patrick points out that if
the Church is not infallible, then the dogmas of the early
Councils are likewise fallible. Does Patrick think this is a
surprising thing to a Protestant? The authority of creeds and
councils is always secondary and derivative. As we shall see,
Athanasius defended the decisions of Nicæa on a better ground
than the Council itself: that of Scripture. Nicæa was true and
"sufficient" not because the "Church" is
infallible, but because what Nicæa said was in harmony with
Scripture! Anyone familiar with the history of these councils
(especially the later ones) knows full well that they were hardly
models of Christian behavior, and the wonder is that the main
creedal statements were protected from error and kept in line
with Scripture! Obviously, secondary issues decided upon by those
councils were most definitely fallible, and often contained
As to the claim that the Roman
Church (at least in Patrick's figuring) created the NT canon, I
refer the reader to the discussion of this large and complex
subject in my book, The Roman Catholic Controversy, p. 92ff.
Finally, Patrick claims the
Scriptures require an infallible Church. Let's look at the
passages he offers. Now, I believe we have a typographical error,
and Patrick was trying to make reference to 2 Peter, not first:
(2 Pet 1:20-21) But know this
first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of
one's own interpretation,  for no prophecy was
ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy
Spirit spoke from God.
Seemingly, Patrick is focusing
upon the phrase "one's own interpretation," for I can't
see anything else even slightly relevant. But how this
presupposes an infallible Church is difficult to say. For a
discussion of this passage, and the translational difficulties
associated with it, see The Roman Catholic Controversy, pp. 237-239. The next passage cited is
another commonly misused text:
(2 Pet 3:15-16) and regard the
patience of our Lord as salvation; just as also our
beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him,
wrote to you,  as also in all his letters,
speaking in them of these things, in which are some things
hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort,
as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their
It is the untaught and unstable
who distort the Scriptures to their destruction; hence, what,
logically, can the taught and stable Christian do
with the Scriptures?
PM: We agree that the Church
weighs passages, but notice that it has always done
considerably more than that. The aforementioned councils show
that since apostolic times the magisterium saw itself as
teaching infallibly, imposing its interpretation of Scripture
as dogmatic (Acts 15:28, 1 Thess. 2:13). St. Athanasius
explained in De Decretis that First Nicea's
definition of Christ as homoousious with the Father
was not a merely fallible interpretation. This is hardly a
"Roman novelty," as you allege. (The nascent
Catholic model is visible in Acts 15:15-35, 16:4.) And
remember, Orthodoxy also rejects sola Scriptura.
Like the Catholic Church, they have preserved the ancient
Christian teaching that the Church, at least in its
ecumenical councils, teaches infallibly. Historically, sola
Scriptura is the novelty.
I find Patrick's new fascination
with Athanasius most heartening, since I have been presenting Athanasius' viewpoints for quite some time now (though Patrick
has always accused me of doing little more than cutting and
pasting from patristic texts). Indeed, in our debate in 1993, Mr.
Madrid blustered that he would "bury" me under 53 pages
of citations from the early Fathers! Yet, every time I find
Patrick citing from the Fathers, he's providing nothing new at
all. And here he's simply stumbled into a morass of error, since
Athanasius is the last person he wants to attempt to enlist for
the Roman viewpoint.
As Jones points out, Madrid
doesn't actually quote from De Decritis in his response;
instead, he quotes from Ad Afros, a later work. Why? Well,
I won't repeat all the citations I provided in my article on sola
scriptura in the Soli Deo Gloria publication of the same title (1995), nor will I re-enter all
the citations I provide from him in their original language found
in my open letter to Tim Staples. However, I will simply point out a few interesting
things about De Decretis.
in the text will you find an appeal to the Papacy, a Pope, or
any similar concept. Why not?
defends the Council of Nicæa on one basic, fundamental
- He does
assert that his doctrines are in harmony with those who came
before (a clear mark of truth-consistency).
after passage of Scripture is cited as being finally decisive
in the matter.
What is most important, however,
is the witness of Athanasius himself. Merely listen to his words:
We have learned from divine
Scripture, that the Son of God, as was said above, is the
very Word and Wisdom of the Father. For the Apostle says,
'Christ the power of God and the Wisdom of God ;'
If then they deny Scripture,
they are at once aliens to their name, and may fitly be
called of all men atheists , and Christ's enemies, for they
have brought upon themselves these names. But if they agree
with us that the sayings of Scripture are divinely inspired,
let them dare to say openly what they think in secret that
God was once wordless and wisdomless ;
yet they do not confess that
He is the Son of God,-which is ignorance of the truth, and
inexperience in divine Scripture.
And we have proof of this, not
from external sources, but from the Scriptures; for God
Himself says by Isaiah the Prophet;
Yes, it behooved, say I too;
for the tokens of truth are more exact as drawn from
Scripture, than from other sources ; but the ill disposition
and the versatile and crafty irreligion of Eusebius and his
fellows, compelled the Bishops, as I said before, to publish
more distinctly the terms which overthrew their irreligion;
and what the Council did write has already been shown to have
an orthodox sense, while the Arians have been shown to be
corrupt in their phrases, and evil in their dispositions.
That Scripture is
infallible source is beyond question. That he has high regard for
Nicæa is likewise beyond question. That he believes God was
involved in Nicæa is quite true. That he believes what Nicæa
decided is divine truth no one doubts. But Madrid is simply
confusing categories when he tries to have Athanasius make the
Church itself infallible along with Scripture. For Athanasius, the one is infallible, the other is only in so far as
she speaks in harmony with the Scriptures. And it is just because
Athanasius can honestly say that he has proven that Nicæa spoke
in harmony with the Bible (just as any Protestant apologist today
can say the same thing, having provided a full biblical defense
of the deity of Christ), that he can utter the only words in De
Decretis that Madrid might have reference to:
For the faith which the
Council has confessed in writing, that is the faith of the
Catholic Church; to assert this, the blessed Fathers so
expressed themselves while condemning the Arian heresy; and
this is a chief reason why these apply themselves to
calumniate the Council.
But such a statement is hardly
useful in its context. It does not provide Patrick with a denial
of the material and formal sufficiency of Scripture from Athanasius. It does not deny in any way that Scripture is the
sole infallible rule of faith for the Church. Hence,
Madrid did not go to De Decritis, but to another source
for his one citation of Athanasius:
PM: Your dismissal of De
Decretis as "weak" evidence boggles the mind.
Athanasius composed it precisely to refute the Arian claim
that the Church teaches fallibly and erroneously. He did
appeal "just to the council" to quell the dispute
(as Orthodoxy does): "The Confession arrived at Nicea
was, we should say, more sufficient and enough by itself for the subversion of all
religious heresies and for the security and furtherance of
the doctrine of the Church" (Ad Afros).
Let's take that second sentence:
"Athanasius composed it precisely to refute the Arian claim
that the Church teaches fallibly and erroneously." I invite
any reader to read Ad Afros for yourself. It is readily
available in the web at various places (for example, http://ccel.wheaton.edu/fathers/ is one source, the Sage CD Library
contains it as well). Read De Decretis as well. Ask
yourself a question: how can someone read these materials and say
that Athanasius is specifically writing to defend the
infallibility of the Church? He's writing against men who are
in positions in the Church, who have convened council
after council in the Church to condemn his own theology
and the position of Nicæa! If anyone proves that you should
always believe in the infallibility of Scripture over
against any supposed infallibility of the Church,
Athanasius proves this! He held out, almost alone, for decades
against the combined weight of the institutional Church of his
day! It is quite obvious that someone has to be looking for
something that comes from another source to be able to read such
a concern into Athanasius. His words, quoted above, are easily
understood in their context: the definition of Nicæa was sufficient
to refute Arianism. But the simple fact of history is, it took
long years of fighting, replete with in-depth biblical exegesis
and study, for the Nicene definition to gain acceptance and
obedience. It did not win the final battle because it claimed
inherent infallibility: it won that battle because it was in harmony
with that which is inherently infallible: the revealed Word
of God, the Scriptures.
I'm truly glad that Mr. Jones and
Mr. Madrid took the time to discuss these issues. I salute them
both for having the temerity to "buck the trends" so to
speak in tackling the tough topics. I hope Christians will be
challenged to look into these things for themselves, and consider
well whether they will believe in sola scriptura, or sola
Ecclesia. The decision has eternal consequences.