Friday, August 24, 2007

Jesus' Biblicism

Modern conservative Reformed denominations have a huge problem. It used to be that "Reformed" was short for "Reformed According to the Word." Reformed Christians were the loudest to profess to be "Bible-believing Christians."

Now, however, in many circles, "Reformed" appears to be the proudly worn badge of hyper-traditionalists. For them the supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined. . . and in whose sentence we are to rest is no longer the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. No. Now all theological controversies are resolved by an appeal to the authority of the decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, and doctrines of men.

If you didn't get the irony of my last two sentences, please read the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapt. 1, par. 10.

Are we followers of Jesus or not? Did Jesus ever once seek to correct the Pharisees or Sadducees by appealing to their traditions or great teachers? No. Just the opposite. He berated them for their loyalty to tradition. He warned them that their traditions "made void the word of God" (Matt. 15:6). He cited the Hebrew Scriptures. Over and over again.

If the reformation of Jesus was anything, it was fresh return to the Hebrew Scriptures as the authority for his church and kingdom.

In Matthew 19:1-12 the Pharisees lay a trap for Jesus. They ask him a question about divorce designed to make him take sides about what tradition school of thought in their little sect was right. Did Jesus know about their internal squabbles about the grounds for a man divorcing a wife? Sure he did. They expected Jesus to say that one side or the other was correct, but he doesn't. When Jesus answered them he did not ask them if they had read this or that Jewish authority on the subject. He asked them, "Have you not read. . ." And then he directed them to the Scriptures, God's Word. He goes all the way back to Genesis, to what God said and God did in the beginning.

Jesus would be derisively labeled as a "biblicist" by many Reformed partisans.

More often than not theological controversies that Christians fight over, that have divided Christian brothers, are best resolved with a fresh look at God's Word. One comes to God's word not looking for a proof text to back one's tradition or confession, but one examines the Bible for fresh insight, new categories, and an authoritative Word that cuts to the heart of the issue. After all, that used to be what it meant to be "Reformed."

Two great essays by John Frame on this subject:

A Defense of Something Close to Biblicism

Traditionalism

18 comments:

Principium unitatis said...

Jeff,

I have two questions about Frame's definition of sola scriptura. Here's his definition:

Sola Scriptura is the doctrine that Scripture, and only Scripture, has the final word on everything, all our doctrine, and all our life. Thus it has the final word even on our interpretation of Scripture, even in our theological method.

First, where is that doctrine specified or even implied in Scripture?

Second, how is that doctrine not intrinsically an endorsement of individualism and the rule of private judgment? [Each man is under no higher ecclesial authority than his own determination of Scripture's interpretation of Scripture.] I think you were rejecting that sort of individualism in your "Priesthood of all believers" series earlier this year. So I'm trying to understand how you fit together your rejection of individualism with your acceptance of sola scriptura.

Thanks.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Jeff Meyers said...

Bryan: you ask:

1) Where is that doctrine (sola scripture) specified or even implied in Scripture?

Frame's two essays are all about defending the authority of Scripture from Scripture itself. I'm not sure I can add anything.

I guess all I will say is that Jesus always appeals to the Hebrew Scriptures to answer a controversy. And the Apostles are all about exegeting and appling the Hebrew Scriptures when defending themselves or explaining something that the churches must believe and confess. I don't ever see them appealing to any portion of Jewish tradition or the authority of any Jewish teachers. They could have done so just to bolster their arguments. They don't. It's all Hebrew Scripture.

If anything, Jesus warns against the dangers of tradition. So does Paul. They model for us faithful exposition of the Bible. They cannot possibly be cited as models for appealing to the authority of tradition.

(2). How is that doctrine not intrinsically an endorsement of individualism and the rule of private judgment?

It's not. Doesn't need to be. I don't have a problem with the church as a secondary authority - the authority of a mother, so to speak.

I don't believe that the Reformers were all about the "right of private judgment." That's not what they intended to do.

If anyone is to blame for the Reformation, it's not Huss or Wycliff or Luther or Calvin, it's the massive failure of the late medieval papacy, cardinals, and priests of the church at that time. The late medieval church was a total mess. They refused to be reformed and instructed. In their arrogance and avarice they ran out the very people that might have restored some sort of honor and respect to their churches.

The popes and cardinals at the time of the Reformation were just as much, if not more, individualists than the Reformers. They refused to reform the church according to the Word AND according to the witness of the early, sub apostolic church.

True, the RC church is not the same church as it was in the late medieval era. She's learned a lot from the Reformation. She's cleaned up her act quite a bit. I grant that.

But all kinds of people leave Protestant churches in order to exercise their "right of private interpretation" and join with Rome. They make these decisions as individuals. They believe they have the right and power to change churches at will.

And all sorts of Catholics leave RC churches in order to join with Protestant churches. They do this because they believe they have the power and duty to decide for themselves what church they will support.

In both cases, neither Rome nor any particular Protestant church can do anything to stop these kinds of individualistic abuses. The existence of a Magisterium and the claim to authoritative tradition does not stop individuals from leaving Roman churches.

And Rome doesn't discourage individuals from using their "right of private discernment" when they are thinking about leaving their Protestant church and joining with them. How convenient.

Individualism is a fact of modern life and must be addressed by everyone.

But the fractures and rampant individualism of the post-Reformation church cannot be laid at the feet of Luther and Calvin. Historically speaking, it's Rome's fault.

Oso Famoso said...

Lots of good info on your blog.

One quick point...

We need to understand which traditions Jesus and Paul warned us against.

Because it is true that Paul also urged us to "hold fast" to traditions. Such as 1 Cor. 11:2, Phil. 4:9, 2 Thess. 2:15 and 2 Thess 3:6. We can't paint a broad stroke against "tradition" in that light.

Jeff Meyers said...

Yes, what Paul tells them to hold fast to is "the deliverance's" that he passed on to them. These are the teachings and way of life that he as an authoritative apostle "handed over" to them.

As such, they are not "human deliverances" (Col. 2:8), but handed over to them with the full authority of an apostle.

And for the record, I believe that general, ecclesiastical "tradition" or the "deliverances" passed on by the church has a limited authority. But they are still human not in the same category as the "deliverances" of the Apostles.

Oso Famoso said...

"As such, they are not "human deliverances" (Col. 2:8), but handed over to them with the full authority of an apostle."

With that, I agree. As would the testimony of the Church fathers from as early as the 2nd Century.

Principium unitatis said...

Jeff,

Thanks for the reply. Frame's essay, "A Defense of Something Close to Biblicism" does not defend sola scriptura per se; it starts with sola scriptura as a given. In that essay Frame does list Isaiah 29:13, and its references in the New Testament (Matt 15:8-9; Mark 6-7), but there the passage is used against the practice of teaching man-made traditions as if they are doctrine, and against allowing such traditions to subvert the commandments of God. And the same is true of Colossians 2:22, which Frame also mentions in that essay. So it seems to me that these verses do not teach that Scripture alone is the final authority or that Scripture alone has the final word in our interpretation of Scripture, because these verses are fully compatible with the existence of an unwritten apostolic tradition, one that can be found in the writings of the fathers.

In Frame's other essay, "Traditionalism", he says that sola scriptura is violated " either by adding to or subtracting from God’s Word (Deut. 4:2)". (He also mentions Deut 12:32; Josh 1:7; Prov 30:6; and Rev 22:18-19) But none of these verses teaches sola scriptura. Frame's claim that these verses support sola scriptura assumes that "God's Word" is contained solely in Scripture. But those verses do not justify that assumption. In fact, if Frame's definition of sola scriptura is not derivable from Scripture, then not only would it be in violation of itself, but it would be a man-made tradition of the sort condemned in the passages Frame cites. Frame then mentions Isaiah 29:13-14 and Matthew 15:8-9, but I already showed above that those are fully compatible with Frame's definition of sola scriptura being false. Finally, he quotes 2 Timothy 3:16-17. But 2 Timothy 3:16-17 does not say that Scripture alone is the highest authority or that Scripture alone interprets Scripture. It does not even say that Scripture alone is sufficient. It says that Scripture is inspired and profitable ..., so that the man of God may be adequate [artios] and equipped. The word 'artios' there, as you know, modifies the word 'anthropos', not the word Scripture. So I don't see any way to derive Frame's definition of sola scriptura from 2 Tim 3:16-17, or from any of the other verses he cites in those two essays.

I agree that Jesus and the Apostles appeal to Scripture often. But they also appeal to tradition, as Oso pointed out. (Where's the "seat of Moses" in the OT?, and where are Enoch's words in the OT, quoted in Jude?) And they also refer to magisterial authority, namely their own. Paul mentions his authority as an apostle. He exhorts Titus to carry out his duties with all authority (Titus 2:15). We are told to obey our leaders and submit to them (Heb 13:17). And that is clearly visible in the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. 107). I have collected his writings on magisterial authority here.

Regarding whether sola scriptura is intrinsically individualistic, I agree with you that the Reformers did not intend to fragment the Church. And I agree with you that the Catholic Church bears a good deal of the blame for what it did do (and for what it didn't do that it should have done) that provoked the Protestant response. The Catholic Church has, in recent years, admitted that much. But, it seems to me that those points do not address the question of whether sola scriptura is intrinsically individualistic.

It is true that private judgment must be used by someone determining which institution is the one Christ founded. The relevant difference is that once a person comes [by private judgment] to the point of recognizing and identifying sacramental magisterial authority, and submitting to it, then that person is no longer living under private judgment. By contrast, living under the principle of sola scriptura seems to me to imply that the individual is perpetually (this side of heaven) his own ultimate interpretive authority regarding Scripture's interpretation of Scripture.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Oso Famoso said...

Bryan,

You hinted at it with the link to St. Ignatius but the testimony of the fathers on the matter is quite overwhelming in my opinion. Then one must ask themselves how the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, if intended, operated from the dawn of the Church through about AD 390 when the canon was established at Hippo.

The most common objection is that the "apostolic age" ended. OK, then when did it end? The bible never said that it ended so already one must step outside of "Sola Scriptura" and into some form of "tradition" to explain that the apostolic age ended.

Jeff, as an aside, we completely have the same taste in literature and crazy football plays. My brother got me hooked on Cormac McCarthy...one word: genious.

Oso Famoso said...

And...I spelled "Genius" wrong...next time I won't consume a giant platter of fajitas and three margaritas before posting....

Mark said...

It seems to me there is some equivocation here.

1. Does the Bible clearly spell out a theory of canonicity complete with the identity of the Canon?

2. Does the Bible tell us something about "the Word of God"--that we are to believe in it and rest in it rather than anyone else including any leader in the Church?

I think the answer to (2) is clearly "yes." So then the question is, "What is the Word of God or where is it found?"

Now, this opens up the door, I guess, for someone to deny that the Bible is referring to what we now know to be the 66 books of the canon. And we can argue about the apocrypha as well.

But it remains a fact that, to claim that the Bible is the Word of God, and then claim that there are institutions or person who have the authority to tell us to disregard it in favor of their own "interpretation" is to simply disregard what the Bible says about the Word of God.

If this leads to private judgment, so be it. I don't think it does, but I'm not going to let the possibility scare me into denying God's authority to speak in a book.

Now, as I said, I don't think we can completely derive (1) from the Bible. But that's really a moot point, unless someone is prepared to deny that the Bible is the Word of God.

And finally, much of the Bible comes to us as written tradition. So to play off Scripture against "Tradition" makes no sense at all. What it comes down to is that the Bible is less authoritative and or less clear than later traditions. And that is obviously nonsense, unless the Bible (and the tradition it is) is not God's word at all.

The fact is that I have, as a Protestant, five centuries of tradition to appeal to, but it is disallowed in favor of the alleged deliverences of an earlier tradition. The Roman Catholics think that "their" centuries of tradition rule out the challenge of the last five centuries. The Eastern Orthodox think the same of Western Christendom. And the Coptics think the same of the rest.

In each case it is taken for granted that an earlier tradition can clearly teach us something and give us grounds for denying what came later.

So be it. The Bible predates them all and I have at least as much right to follow the Bible against later tradition as Tridentine's have to reject the Westminster Assembly. Everyone uses their private consience, whether to submit to the Pope or Scripture. Everyone claims it is perfectly possible to understand a body of material and make a decision on the basis of it. So there is nothing inherently impossible about appealing to Scripture as the true and first Tradition, as well as the Word of God, by which all subsequent traditions are to be judged.

"
It is true that private judgment must be used by someone determining which institution is the one Christ founded. The relevant difference is that once a person comes [by private judgment] to the point of recognizing and identifying sacramental magisterial authority, and submitting to it, then that person is no longer living under private judgment. By contrast, living under the principle of sola scriptura seems to me to imply that the individual is perpetually (this side of heaven) his own ultimate interpretive authority regarding Scripture's interpretation of Scripture."

Well, so what? Once you've allowed that the private judgment has the ability to lead you to the source of all truth, what in principle can be wrong with permitting it to have a perpetual role. Does not the Pope have a private judgement? Isn't the fact that the private judgment of one man was being imposed on the entire Church a large part of the reasons the Eastern Church resisted and eventually rejected the Church of Rome?

Bryan, I'm surprised you don't realize how many huge possibilities you ask people to ignore in order to come from your arguments to your conclusions.

"And I agree with you that the Catholic Church bears a good deal of the blame for what it did do (and for what it didn't do that it should have done) that provoked the Protestant response."

That is an insane portrayal of the medieval Church with which Luther and the Reformers had every bit as much right to identify themselves as the Pope and Eck. One factious party in Rome (at the time center on not much more than a mafia crime family) used Luther to promote their claims and allowed Christendom to fragment so that they could have their way with the fraction that was left. I am not for a moment going to concede that "the Catholic Church" did anything. There was a war in the Catholic Church that cause a division. The only way I could believe that the Reformers "left" would be if I agreed that Rome is the sole measure of continuity in the Church. Since I'm not a Roman Catholic, I don't believe that. And I'm not going to be impressed with arguments which ask me to first concede the entire Roman Catholic scheme and then decide if I should be Roman Catholic rather than Protestant.

Jeff Meyers said...

Mark: Thanks for taking the time to post. I was without power yesterday. Your comments are helpful and include some of what I was going to say. I don't have much to add to your response.

Oso Famoso said...

"But it remains a fact that, to claim that the Bible is the Word of God, and then claim that there are institutions or person who have the authority to tell us to disregard it in favor of their own "interpretation" is to simply disregard what the Bible says about the Word of God."

- No it doesn't. If the scriptures tell us that Christ established a church (Matt. 16) and that the Church is the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Tim 3:15) does the bible portray the church at odds with the word of God? No.

On the contrary we need the Church so as not to fall into wayward interpretations of the Word of God 2 Peter 3:16.

It's simply a fact of history that since the reformation Protestantism has splintered off into thousands of "denominations" each offering different interpretations and ideas about the Word of God.

"There are now as many theologies as there are heads." - Martin Luther...he recongnized the problem at Worms and said, "My doctrine cannot be judged by anyone, even by the angels. He who does not receive my doctrine cannot be saved." That was in direct response to other theologians taking up the scriptures and inventing new doctrines that were contrary to his! Sola Scriptura?

"If this leads to private judgment, so be it. I don't think it does, but I'm not going to let the possibility scare me into denying God's authority to speak in a book."

How can you honestly deny that it doesn't lead to private judgement?

Now, as I said, I don't think we can completely derive (1) from the Bible. But that's really a moot point, unless someone is prepared to deny that the Bible is the Word of God.

It's not really a moot point at all. It simply proves the fact that you accept the authority of the Catholic church when it established the New Testament canon. One could argue that the Holy Spirit worked within the fallible men to chose the correct books...which is very true.

What it comes down to is that the Bible is less authoritative and or less clear than later traditions. And that is obviously nonsense, unless the Bible (and the tradition it is) is not God's word at all.

That is a straw man. This isn't a claim made by the Catholic Church. But lets say that you are right. I used to be a member of the PCA. I intently watched the FV controversy unfold recently. Guess what? The general assembly made no attempt to appeal to scripture in it's response to the Federal Vision. It appealed to....The Westminster Confession of Faith. Tradition. Which definately speaks to Jeff's original post.

The fact is that I have, as a Protestant, five centuries of tradition to appeal to

Why appeal to tradition at all?

The Roman Catholics think that "their" centuries of tradition rule out the challenge of the last five centuries.

The tradition of the church from pentacost till 2007 belongs to both Protestant and Catholic. It isn't like 33-1520 is "ours" and 1520-2007 is "yours."

In each case it is taken for granted that an earlier tradition can clearly teach us something and give us grounds for denying what came later.

All based upon, of course, the promise that the church is the pillar and foundation of truth. Don't you think it might be somewhat important to look at church fathers from the 1st, 2nd and third century to address controversies and heresies? Why would you not look at them and yet read what Calvin or Luther had to say?

Everyone uses their private consience, whether to submit to the Pope or Scripture. Everyone claims it is perfectly possible to understand a body of material and make a decision on the basis of it. So there is nothing inherently impossible about appealing to Scripture as the true and first Tradition,

Yes, that is true. However, even the current Pope and magesterium is under the authority of prior councils and Holy Tradition. As a Catholic I cannot adopt an understanding from scripture that opposed Tradition...and neither can the Pope.

Well, so what? Once you've allowed that the private judgment has the ability to lead you to the source of all truth, what in principle can be wrong with permitting it to have a perpetual role.

Because, the private judgement cannot go outside of the bounds of Holy Tradition...at least for the Catholic.

Isn't the fact that the private judgment of one man was being imposed on the entire Church a large part of the reasons the Eastern Church resisted and eventually rejected the Church of Rome?

That is a good topic. I'd say yes and no. But even those Eastern Othrodox Christians recognize the Pope as the first among equals. And, likewise, they submit to the authority of the first 7 ecumenical councils.

That is an insane portrayal of the medieval Church with which Luther and the Reformers had every bit as much right to identify themselves as the Pope

No they didn't. But, in effect they assumed that authority and disallowed others from private interpretation.

The only way I could believe that the Reformers "left" would be if I agreed that Rome is the sole measure of continuity in the Church. Since I'm not a Roman Catholic, I don't believe that.

I strongly urge you to read any church father from Clement (AD 96) to Augustine all the way to Benedict. They certainly believed that the Catholic Church was the measure of continuity of the Body of Christ.

"Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the Church which has obtained mercy, through the majesty of the Mast High God the Father, and of Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son; the Church which is sanctified and enlightened by the will of God, who farmed all things that are according to the faith and love of Jesus Christ, our God and Saviour; the Church which presides in the place of the region of the Romans, and which is worthy of God, worthy of honour, worthy of the highest happiness, worthy of praise, worthy of credit, worthy of being deemed holy, and which presides over love..." Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Romans, Prologue (A.D. 110).

Jeff Meyers said...

I'm sorry, Bryan and Oso, but I am not interested in debating Rome's presumed authority in my blog comments. You can infer whatever you want from that. But it stops here.

Part of it is simply "been there, done that" for me. I seriously considered Rome more than 20 years ago. I have read the church fathers - extensively in two, no three separate graduate level seminars. You have to read back Roman authority into their statements about the "catholic" church to make arguments work.

Quite frankly, Rome's claim to be holy mother church is pretty lame when you throw the Orthodox church into the mix. Orthodoxy tempted me more than Rome ever did.

If Mark wants to respond to anything in Oso's post, that's fine with me. But that will be the end of it here.

Oso Famoso said...

Sorry, didn't mean to overstep any bounds.

Jeff Meyers said...

Oso,

You didn't overstep. It's just that my original post was not aimed at Roman Catholics. I was targeting fellow Presbyterians who have elevated 17th-century traditional formulations to the level of Holy Scripture. I just don't have any interest in arguments for the authority of Roman church.

Jeff Cagle said...

I enjoyed the Frame essays (as I do almost anything by Frame), so thanks for the links.

Three thoughts come to mind, besides the various RC-Protestant thoughts that shall stay unexpressed.

(1) I was appalled -- very disturbed, in fact -- when I read the 2007 GA report on the FV and found that it appealed entirely to the Confession. This was before I hunted you down, Jeff. It struck a very raw nerve with me for two reasons.

First, as a former dispensationalist turned Presbyterian, it was very important to me that the WCoF rules itself out from being a final authority that binds the conscience. Just as John the Baptist refused to take Jesus' glory for himself (John 1.19-28, 3.22-36), so also the WCoF refuses to take on the authority of Scripture.

For me then, it was jarring to have the WCoF as the source of the case against FV because it left the impression that the writers wished for FV to be portrayed as unConfessional instead of unBiblical.

Who cares?!

I mean, I do care -- but only insomuch as I hold the Confession to be an accurate representation of Biblical teaching.

Second, what is the practical effect of making a habit of appealing to the Confession? In the end, the Bible binds our consciences. I am morally obligated to believe the Scriptures out of fear of God. But the Confession does no such thing. Rather, it provides a judicial rule against which the church can try to measure the validity of doctrine. The consequence of being willfully unBiblical is that one offends God himself. The consequence of being willfully unConfessional is that one is censured by the church.

Now: do we want to encourage the fear of God or the fear of man? My concern with emphasizing the Confession to such a great degree is that we create in the backs of our minds the desire to avoid church discipline, rather than the desire to pursue unity in the knowledge of the Son of God.

Church discipline is, after all, the end goal of the 2007 GA report: the committee recommends that all who find themselves out of accord with the report should inform their presbyteries (p. 2236, recommendations 2, 3, and 4).

My own concerns about FV aside, this practice of appealing almost entirely to the confession is really out of bounds, IMO.

(2) The way that I use the confession and Scripture as lesser and greater authorities is sometimes expressed in terms of a "flag" system. Doctrines that are seemingly unConfessional get yellow-flagged. Doctrines that are seemingly unBiblical get red-flagged.

So for example, N.T.Wright's pronouncements on justification are clearly unConfessional, inasmuch as he dismisses imputation as a valid concept. BUT, as I've read him, he appears to simply re-create the federal headship of Christ without acknowledging or being aware (is that possible for Wright?!) that he is doing so. So I haven't decided yet whether Wright is actually unBiblical in his view of justification. Thus: yellow flag.

The doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, OTOH, appears to clearly be unBiblical (1 Cor. 7.3 - 5 is the most glaring problem), despite its rich heritage in church history. Thus, I red-flag it.

(3) All of that said, it's much harder to be fully Biblical in doctrine than to be Confessional (or to subscribe to papal pronouncements, or church fathers, or my pastor). So the desire to follow a sub-authority is entirely understandable. Just as legalists reduce the righteous requirements of God's law down to a manageable subset, so also adhering too closely to the teachings of man can reduce our responsibility to understand the whole counsel of God down to a manageable system of doctrine. It's just another manifestation of the fleshly nature, and we *all* do it in one form or another. I follow Luther, you follow Calvin, he follows Benedict XVI because we can actually *understand* them. Or think we do. :)

Grace and peace,
Jeff

Jeff Meyers said...

Good, insightful comments, Jeff. Can't say that I disagree with anything you wrote. Thanks for taking the time to write it up!

Jeff Cagle said...

@ Bryan and Oso,

I should say that the bit about perpetual virginity was not intended snarkily. I've been thinking about this post for a few days, and perp. virg. was on my mind even before I read your posts.

I'm 100% certain that you have a case for perpetual virginity being sound Biblical doctrine. :)

Thos said...

"If anything, Jesus warns against the dangers of tradition. So does Paul. They model for us faithful exposition of the Bible. They cannot possibly be cited as models for appealing to the authority of tradition."

Scriptural references to tradition are qualified as being either of Men or from the Apostles. If the WCF is a faithful exposition of the Apostles' teaching, it is a legitimate expression of Apostolic Tradition (this would fit with Mathison's "Shape of Sola Scriptura" where Scripture and Apostolic Tradition are co-extensive). And if it is a faithful expression of Scripture, then it is not proper to reduce it to the pejorative 'tradition of men'. Either PCA members submit themselves to this unifying document/teaching, or we are left to individually interpret scripture (as a third alternative, don't be PCA). If the WCF needs to be amended, our elders can do that. Make a motion to amend it to include F.V. teachings (or room for such) - then the motion will have to be debated at a Scriptural (i.e., NOT a teachings of men) level.

Humbly, and in Christ,
Thos.