In the past I have written favourably of Dr. Edward Feser’s philosophical work, especially as it is relevant to Reformed theologians today, so I read with interest his brief criticism of sola scriptura on his blog yesterday. I don’t plan to give an extensive reply here; I only want to give some reason to Dr. Feser and his readers to perhaps reconsider their objections to a venerable Protestant doctrine. For I think that the objections Paul Feyerabend raises to sola scriptura essentially rely on a caricature of the teaching, and that the real version of it, taken from its strongest representatives, has none of the problems that the objections portray it as having.
The Problems with Feyerabend’s Jesuit Critique of Sola Scriptura
Feyerabend mentions three reasons to consider sola scriptura incoherent:
Scripture Can’t Tell You What Scripture Includes
To be brief, the criticism is that scripture can’t tell us what scripture is, since we have to know that a text is scriptural before we accept it as scriptural witness to scripture. Feser contends that, on the contrary, “for the Catholic… scripture is not the only authoritative source of revealed theological knowledge in the first place.” He concludes that in the case of the Protestant, “the sola scriptura advocate inevitably, and inconsistently, surreptitiously appeals to something beyond scripture in order to tell us what scripture is.”
At this point I want to note that this is not a criticism Protestants have ignored in times past. Francis Turretin, in his 17th century work Institutes of Elenctic Theology, spends a great deal of time explaining how Christians can rationally come to know that the Bible is divinely authoritative. Here are two selections that are particularly relevant:
The Bible proves itself divine, not only authoritatively and in the manner of an artless argument or testimony, when it proclaims itself God-inspired (theopneuston). Although this may be well used against those Christians who profess to believe it, yet it cannot be employed against others who reject it. The Bible also proves itself divine ratiocinatively by an argument artfully made (artificiali) from the marks which God has impressed upon the Scriptures and which furnish indubitable proof of divinity. For as the works of God exhibit visibly to our eyes by certain marks the incomparable excellence of the artificer himself and as the sun makes himself known by his own light, so he wished in the Bible (which is the emanation … from the Father of lights and the Sun of righteousness) to send forth different rays of divinity by which he might make himself known. 2.4.6
Although faith may be founded upon the authority of testimony and not upon scientific demonstration [artlessly?], it does not follow that it cannot be assisted by artificial arguments, especially in erecting the principles of faith. For before faith can believe, it must have the divinity of the witness to whom faith is to be given clearly established and certain true marks apprehended in it, otherwise it cannot believe. For where suitable reasons of believing anyone are lacking, the testimony of such a witness cannot be worthy of credence (axiopiston). 2.4.13
After the second section Turretin provides extensive arguments from historical evidence for the reliability of the apostles and Moses as historical witnesses; this established, when they testify to miraculous confirmation of their message, and then claim to be divinely inspired, they are credible witnesses to this divine confirmation of their claim to inspiration. They thus provide a rational basis for belief in the divine authority of their own writings.
Scripture Can’t Tell You How to Interpret Scripture
As Dr. Feser sums up the argument:
If you say that scriptural passage A is to be interpreted in light of scriptural passage B, then how do you know you’ve gotten B itself right? And why not say instead that B should be interpreted in light of A? Inevitably you’re going to have to go beyond scripture in order to settle such questions.
I will provide a response directly in this case, though the Reformed scholastic tradition would certainly agree with me here. The problem with this overall objection, it seems to me, is that it overlooks the fact that texts are intrinsically meaningful, and that people are capable of perceiving the intending meaning of others when they communicate. Once language barriers are bridged either by learning the language, or else by a reliable translator, there is no special problem with the interpretation of scripture that does not arise for the interpretation of any human communication, including the ex cathedra pronouncements of a putatively infallible Pope. If reason can understand the words of such a Pope, there is no reason in principle it could not understand scriptural passage A or B. There may be particular problems as a result of historical ignorance, but these can be resolved in principle the same way any issue of interpretation for any human text is resolved, along the lines of standard historiographical rules as summed up in the grammatico-historical hermeneutic. Because of these principles, which stress interpreting texts in their natural context, the rule that “scripture interprets scripture” is entirely reasonable: the books of scripture are the products of authors writing closest in time and culture to other books of scripture. In the case of later books, they regard the older ones as their absolutely authoritative context; in the case of books published around the same time (like the NT), writers of scripture regarded other writers as working on a common project. This implies their meaning would be mutually reinforcing, and thus provide great potential to clarify obscurities in one text by means of clarities in another.
Scripture Can’t Give a Procedure for Deriving Consequences From Scripture
Dr. Feser asks: “which background empirical, historical, and philosophical assumptions about the world should we employ?”
In this case the objection relies on a misapprehension of what sola scriptura claims. That is, in truth, it never meant that scripture apart from the rational capacities of human beings was somehow to function as an authority in the church; Protestants recognized that individuals had to subjectively understand and appropriate the message of the Bible. What sola scriptura meant to deny was not that minds had to interpret scripture, but that there was any infallible mind or communication outside of scripture. Famously, Luther said in his Diet of Worms speech:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason–for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves–I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.
Not scripture apart from reason then, but scripture above fallible councils and Popes. Turretin represents the Reformed tradition following in Luther’s train here:
First, [philosophy] serves as a means of convincing the Gentiles and preparing them for the Christian faith. Hence Clement of Alexandria says that “it prepares the way for the most royal doctrine”…, as is plain from the sermons of Paul… and from the writings of the fathers against the Gentiles. … So God wishes us to apply all the truths of the lower sciences to theology and after rescuing them from the Gentiles (as holders of a bad faith) to take and appropriate them to Christ who is the truth, for the building of the mystic temple … . Second, it may be a testimony of consent in things known by nature … . Fourth, the mind may be furnished and prepared by these inferior systems for the reception and management of a higher science. This must however be done so carefully that a too great love of philosophy may not captivate us and that we may not regard it as a mistress, but as a handmaid. 1.13.5
Rational philosophy, the inferior science which can prepare the mind for the higher science of theology based on the revelation of scripture, was certainly something broadly Aristotelian for Turretin, and sola scriptura provides no reason to disagree with this judgment.
Thus when Dr. Feser writes the following, his objection does not ultimately undermine what sola scriptura historically has meant:
In the case of sola scriptura, the myth is the supposition that there is a text whose exact contents and meaning are somehow evident from the text itself and thus knowable apart from any wider conceptual and epistemological context (as opposed to being intelligible only in light of a larger tradition of which the text is itself a part, or an authoritative interpreter, or what have you).
The doctrine took for granted that we had common sense knowledge of reality, and further that we had historical knowledge of things like the Hebrew and Greek languages. The point was not that all knowledge relevant to God came solely from this text, but that this text alone was infallible.
Dr. Feser adds one further argument in favour of the Roman Catholic position nearer to the end of the post, and I will end by replying to it: “The trouble with texts is that you can never ask them what exactly they include, or what they mean, or how they are to be applied. But you can ask such questions of an authoritative interpreter who stands outside the texts.”
There are two objections I would raise at this point. The first is that this seems to overlook the fact that texts are intrinsically meaningful; it is not the case that for every human communication, we need a third-party interpreter to explain it to us before we can understand it. And in fact, moving to my second point, it would seem that such a contention would be practically self-refuting, for if verbal statements or written texts always require further interpretations external to themselves to be intelligible, we would need an infinite series of interpreters to understand any human speech, even that of infallible Popes. In reality, both Protestants and Catholics agree that human beings can understand each other, at least in principle, when they communicate. The Protestant only argues that there is good reason to regard Scripture as infallible, and councils and traditions and Popes as not.