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All That the Prophets Have Spoken: A Rejoinder to Feser Pt. 1

This is part 1 of a two-part reply. The second part is here.

Dr. Feser has written two posts in reply to my earlier one, and I am grateful for him for the opportunity to further clarify my points. In the following, I will hazard potential confusion by reversing the order of the original Jesuit points, beginning with the third one first. The reason for this jugglery should hopefully become clear.

How do we know how to infer from scripture?

In my first reply, I brought up the words of Luther and Turretin to make the point that sola scriptura, according to its most sophisticated representatives, never meant that all knowledge relevant to theology comes solely from scripture. Turretin says of philosophy that “the mind may be furnished and prepared by these inferior systems for the reception and management of a higher science.”  In other words, he considers philosophy as a potential source of theological knowledge. Thus, when Dr Feser says:

For instance, it is not merely scripture, but scripture together with considerations about the nature of substance, persons, etc. that leads to the doctrine of the Trinity.  Now, the sola scriptura-affirming Trinitarian might say that you simply cannot make sense of the entirety of what scripture tells us about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit unless you bring to bear such philosophical considerations.  Hence anyone who wants to do justice to scripture had better be a Trinitarian.  I think that is correct.  But a sola scriptura-affirming anti-Trinitarian might respond that since these philosophical considerations are not themselves to be found in scripture, the Trinitarian doctrine that presupposes them cannot be binding on Christians or definitive of orthodoxy.  Which of these “scripture alone” affirmers is right?  Scripture alone cannot tell us.

this is not to the point, because when magisterial Protestants like Turretin affirmed the concept of sola scriptura, they never meant by it to exclude philosophical knowledge such as substance metaphysics, etc. as a source for theology.

Dr. Feser anticipates this avenue of reply when he makes a second charge:

But if it is consistent with sola scriptura to say that the general reliability of scripture, and general principles for interpreting scripture — matters which in turn affect everything scripture teaches — can legitimately come from outside scripture, then sola scriptura once again seems vacuous.

Here I would contend Dr. Feser is incorrect; historically the point of the slogan is to delimit infallible communications to the text of scripture, and exclude the communications of councils and Popes from that category. To have recourse again to our example of a Protestant scholastic, Turretin writes in his Institutes:

Now although we do not deny that the church is a ministerial and secondary judge, able to decide controversies of faith according to the word of God … yet we deny that as to the external demonstration of the object any infallible and supreme judge is to be sought besides the Scriptures. Much less is the pope to be admitted to perform this office. For we think that the Scriptures alone (or God speaking by them) are sufficient for that. (2.20.7)

And:

Rather the question concerns the obscurity or perspicuity of the object or of the Scriptures (i.e., whether they are so obscure that the believer cannot apprehend them for salvation without the authority and judgment of the church—which we deny). (2.17.2)

The Protestant doctrine of scripture is thus not vacuous, though it is not the same as some caricatures of it have suggested. In sum, it is that the scriptures are the sole infallible rule of faith. Every word in that definition is important: it is the sole infallible rule, not the only source of relevant information.

How do we know how to interpret scripture?

When we turn to the second Jesuit point, Dr. Feser is correct that I was imprecise when I said texts have intrinsic meaning. The point I was attempting to make was that the meaning of texts exist because of the activity of their authors, prior to any subsequent interpretative activity.

Turning to another of Dr. Feser’s points, based on the indeterminacy of meaning, I will continue to demur. To illustrate the problems that this aspect of language produces, he turns to an example from Aristotle:

I will explain why this is a problem in principle in a moment, but first let’s notice how great a problem it can be in practice even in the case of an author whose writings are numerous, well-known, and have been the object of scholarly study for centuries.  Consider, to take just one example, that the correct interpretation of Aristotle’s views on the nature of the intellect and the possibility of personal immortality is notoriously controversial and has been for centuries.

He then anticipates one possible Protestant avenue of reply, when this kind of example is applied to the scriptures:

Yet might not sufficient good will, along with sufficient knowledge of a linguistic and historical sort, at least in principle solve the problem?  No, they would not.  … The problem is that material symbols and systems of symbols — and texts are collections of such symbols — are, no matter how complex the system in question, inherently indeterminate in their meaning.

In the next paragraph he writes:

Notice that the claim is not that “anything goes.”  It is not that a text might plausibly be given just any old interpretation.  There may be any number of proposed interpretations which are ruled out.

At this point I would like to bring up a parallel example, to show where I think this argument goes wrong. Dr. Feser is certainly correct that Aristotle’s views on those matters are continuing controversies. But, on the other hand, no competent historian to my knowledge disputes that, for example, Aristotle’s texts teach the distinction between act and potency. Whatever implications the indeterminacy of language has for interpretation, no one thinks such a disputation or denial would be a reasonable interpretation of the text. For all practical purposes, we can have moral certainty that the philosopher taught that doctrine, and we can do so without being able to ask the living philosopher whether he meant what he obviously seems to mean.

Similarly, I could point to Dr. Feser’s own blog post as another example of this same point. As a matter of fact, his reply to me was perfectly clear, so clear that I had no need to speak with him further about what he meant. I was able to do this because I knew the context of the discussion and the language in which it was being spoken.

What these examples show is that the indeterminacy of language does not entail that any given communication will contain ambiguities to the severe degree that Dr. Feser points us to in Aristotle. Before having investigated a particular communication (whether verbal or written), we can’t say one way or another whether such ambiguities will appear. It is possible that, in fact, everything in a text may be as clear as that Aristotle taught there is such a thing as act and potency, or that Aristotle believed the human race existed, or other such obvious things.

This has direct application to the present discussion. Because Protestants will contend that everything we need to know from scripture to be saved is like my act/potency example, and not like the immortality of the soul example. That is, based on inspecting the actual texts of scripture, they argue that it is quite clear what God wants us to do to be saved.

Though I have tried to remain on the respondent in these posts, respecting the parameters of the original argument, I did for a moment go on the offensive in my previous reply, suggesting that adding interpreters could not solve the problem of ambiguity raised by the Jesuit argument. Dr. Feser replied in the following ways:

He would also evidently insist that we have evidence of a historical sort concerning the conventions and intentions in question, and he is right about that.  Just as someone who knows English and has read a number of other things I’ve written is going to be able to understand much of what I have to say in any particular blog post, so too is anyone familiar with the relevant languages and historical background going to be able to understand much of what he reads in scripture, and in any other historical document for that matter.  No one denies that.  Certainly, critics of sola scriptura are not denying that you can to a considerable extent understand scripture just by virtue of knowing the languages in which it is written, something of the historical and cultural contexts of the events it describes, etc.

And later:

But second, the difference between sola scriptura and the Catholic position is not fundamentally about how many texts there are.  Rather, the Catholic position is that it can’t all be just texts in the first place.  Rather, we have to be able to get outside of texts, to persons who have the authority to tell us what the texts mean.

Though there is some metaphysical distinction between texts and persons, I don’t think they will ultimately help the critic of sola scriptura out of the dilemma I posed. This is because, while we can ask living persons to tell us what texts mean, the only way they can help is by communicating further words to us. Whether they are mediated by sound waves or ink splots or pixels, in the end we will still have to interpret those further words. That we can ask them still further questions will never eliminate this aspect of communicating. We are always interpreting words (or texts, if you will), and they always have the potential to generate further ambiguity, as Dr. Feser notes in his reply. Thus if we feel that we need to have a system which can absolutely and permanently eliminate ambiguity, along with the need for private judgment in the midst of such ambiguity, we will unfortunately be disappointed.

Now, it is true that in theory, a living author has the potential to provide more clarity by means of rapidly answered questions than a bare text. However, the potential difference in clarity is only a matter of degree. This being true, the question we ought to be asking is: how much clarity does God think we ought to have? In fact, he could have been much clearer: he could directly communicate with all of us, if he wanted to. But he has evidently chosen not to. This, however, creates opportunities for ambiguity. Yet God has decided these opportunities are worth it, given his overall providential goals. And if God does not seem to be concerned about absolutely eliminating ambiguity, the only way we can tell how much ambiguity he is willing to tolerate is by determining what he has actually revealed in history. Has he given us only infallible scriptures, or has he also given us an infallible Magisterium? This can’t be answered a priori, based on an assumption that God wants to absolutely eliminate potential ambiguity, since that assumption is manifestly false. It can only be answered a posteriori, by finding out what God has done in history.

Does the diversity of Protestantism entail the incoherence of sola scriptura?

Dr. Feser also presents a long-standing Catholic argument against Protestants when he writes:

Now, does scripture raise exegetical issues which appeal to scripture by itself cannot settle?  The existence of myriad Protestant denominations and sects which agree on sola scriptura but nevertheless somehow disagree deeply on many matters of biblical interpretation is, I submit, pretty good evidence that it does.

In this, he takes ongoing disagreement as proof that the scriptures cannot settle the issues disagreed about. However, the types of Christian (and Protestant) diversity mentioned are not equal, and present considerably less of a challenge to the practical utility of sola scriptura than the argument suggests.

Firstly, there are some groups who don’t admit the authority of scripture at all, for example liberal Protestants, Unitarian Universalists, and some ancient gnostics. Secondly, there are others who agree with the material authority of scripture (e.g., Muslims, Mormons), but deny it formally, because they say it has been corrupted in the transmission; functionally, then, they don’t claim to be holding to the proper interpretation of the texts we do have. Thirdly, some hold to the infallibility of the scriptures but do not interpret them according to grammatico-historical principles (i.e., they use allegorical methods of interpretation; some ancient gnostics). Fourthly, some hold to the infallibility of the scriptures and interpret them according to the grammatico-historical method (e.g., Jehovah’s Witnesses, Arians). Fifthly, there are many disagreements from a Protestant point of view that do not threaten the salvation of those involved: so many Calvinists would say of their disputes with Lutherans (arguably reducible to one point), Arminians, Pentecostals, Dispensationalists, etc. Mainstream Calvinists would tend to say that while these groups are wrong on some issues, their faith is still recognizably in Jesus alone for their salvation. Further, they would often probably state that many of the disputed issues are less clear than basic biblical teachings like justification by faith alone.

So the disagreements are of different types, some more severe than others. At the same time, this classic objection to sola scriptura mistakes what scripture can do for intellectually virtuous interpreters, interpreters who desire above all to know the truth and to use all the means at their disposal to do so, with what it can do for the (considerably less than intellectually virtuous) members of the human race that have actually tried to interpret it. Actual people in history have been affected by many vicious habits, e.g.:

  • Affection for traditional or community (whether secular or ecclesiastical) doctrines that leads people not to think clearly or carefully or at all.
  • Willful distortion of scripture for personal gain
  • Ignorance of the full scope of scriptural teaching, whether due to immaturity or laziness

and others. Between the admitted ambiguity of the scriptures on issues not necessary to salvation, and the flawed nature of humanity, the diversity of the Protestant world is not a successful charge against the actual doctrine of the magisterial Protestants on the clarity of scripture (as opposed to caricatures of it).

Further, it is worth noting that the existence of the Papacy has not prevented the mere existence of doctrinal diversity within Catholicism (e.g., Dominicans vs. Franciscans, Liberals vs. Conservatives vs. Traditionalists vs. Sedevacantists, etc.). A conservative Catholic might reply that if everyone truly strove to submit to the teachings of the Pope and the Holy Tradition of the Church they would agree, but not everyone does so; this strategy can be used just as easily by the Protestant.

How do we know what scripture is?

We now turn to the first of the Jesuit arguments, that scripture can’t tell us what counts as scripture. I addressed the Jesuit’s arguments in the current order to show clearly the problem with Dr. Feser’s objection in the following:

How would that show us that scripture alone suffices to tell us what counts as scripture, or that scripture alone suffices to tell us even that the writings associated with Moses, the apostles, etc. count as scripture?  For the Turretin-Fulford style of argument makes use of historical evidence, criteria for evaluating such evidence, general logical principles, etc. which are not found in scripture itself.

This argument implies a definition of sola scriptura that someone like Turretin would reject, and then argues the slogan is incoherent on that basis. However, if as I have argued above, magisterial Protestants recognized that philosophy, evidence, etc., can bring us to truth, and then use that truth to determine what scripture is, this is no violation of what they meant by sola scriptura. Their point was, to make clear, not that all truth relevant to religion can only be found in the scriptures. It was that the scriptures alone are infallible, not that the scriptures alone are true.

With this point established, I want to slightly divert from Dr. Feser’s objections, but with the aim of answering them in view. The question I want to ask, and will seek to answer, is this:

How did the Jews prior to Christ know the contents of the OT canon? How did they know the identity of the scriptures?

The first thing we must recognize is that, even from the Roman Catholic point of view, they did not have the Papacy. Further, they had no promise of any kind of visible institution with a promise of divine guidance ensuring its infallibility in faith and practice.

The second point we must note is that, nevertheless, they did know what the scriptures were. Jesus confirms this in the Gospels. For example, in Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus states:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

And in John 10:34-36, he says:

Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are “gods”’? If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be set aside— what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world?

In both texts, Jesus provides no argument or explanation as to the content of the Law and the Prophets, which sum up the entire OT canon (Jesus quotes a Psalm in the second text as part of the “Law”). He assumes his audience knows what books those categories  contain. Further, in both cases he affirms the “unbreakability” of scripture, that nothing scripture says can be contradicted or gainsaid. That is, for Jesus and his contemporaries, the scriptures are infallible. Finally, in the first text, the opening statement implies an objection to his own ministry. More specifically, the implied objection must be that Jesus disregards the authority of the scriptures. Now this objection would make no sense if the Pharisees, Sadducees, and others could only accept the scriptures on the authority of the visible church, which in turn is based on the authority of Jesus. It is quite obvious that Jesus’ opponents did not accept his authority; but they already knew what the scriptures were, and he does not dispute this point anywhere in his ministry. Rather, he argues with them on the basis of their commonly accepted text.

What this point of history about Second Temple Judaism implies is that it is possible to know what books are holy scripture even without a visible institution given the promise of divine guidance and infallibility. This alone suffices to show that the first Jesuit charge of incoherence must actually be mistaken.

At this point I could stop and rest my case; however, for the sake of clarity, and to give an indication of how the New Testament canon could be recognized even without an infallible Pope, it is worth spending some time to provide a further historical argument. More specifically: we can reconstruct how the Jews could have identified which books were scripture without an infallible institution.

This post will be continued in part 2, to follow. 

16 replies on “All That the Prophets Have Spoken: A Rejoinder to Feser Pt. 1”

Maybe I am misunderstanding, but does something need to be restated here?

“Fourthly, some hold to the infallibility of the scriptures and interpret it according to the grammatico-historical method (e.g., Jehovah’s Witnesses, Arians).”

I think that the myriad Protestant denominations could be an argument for health rather than reflective of a problem. As mentioned, there is a certain degree of ambiguity in scripture. That naturally leads to a degree of varied interpretations. Most denominations define themselves by their distinctive interpretations of verses they consider important enough to emphasize.
So, is uniform Catholic belief more important than accepting the reality that we do not have the ultimate definitive interpretation of much of scripture? I think there may be more danger is insisting on uniformity of belief (the Catholic magisterium) than in the existence of a ‘federated republic’ of Protestants who basically hold probably 95% of their interpretations in common with each other (and, yes, with Catholics too), but have settled on different interpretations of those verses that are truly ambiguous.
I don’t see that necessarily as a sign of disunity, but that is how Catholic apologists present it. And it’s not the 70,000 or whatever number of denominations they often claim. It’s more like 10-15 significant different divisions or branches.
What’s better, enforced belief or an open admission that there exist reasonable varying interpretations? BTW, I am not including what I consider unreasonable sects or cults like Mormons & JW’s here. That’s another category that should not be part of this discussion.

Excellent reply, but I have a few questions.
Concerning your first point, what then is the degree of infallibility of Trinitarianism when infallible Scripture is mixed with fallible philosophy? Along that line, what is the value of the infallibility of Scripture if it must be bolstered by more or less fallible philosophy? Can Scripture infallibly tell us which philosophy or what we can or cannot add to Scripture to interpret it with?
Concerning the second, it does not seem that Trinitarianism is clearly factual in Scripture as Aristotle’s teaching act and potency is, since some additional premises extra scriptura need to be supplemented. Is Trinitarianism then not necessary for salvation?

Concerning the third (what counts as Scripture), is Scripture necessary for salvation? If Scripture must be mixed with more or less fallible sources of evidence, philosophy, etc., then we cannot be infallibly certain of what is Scripture. The canon then may or may not include all of Scripture and may or may not include what is not Scripture. Consequently, what is necessary for salvation may or may not be known and may be obscured by what is not Scriptural. Is there a way around this?
I think this is to the point Feser made about making infallibility vacuous because if Scripture depends upon fallible evidence, etc. then the whole ceases to be infallible and the truths of the faith become questionable and unreliable.

Mike, thanks for your comment.

On the first point, I would say that scripture, including the scriptures that teach what entails the doctrine of the Trinity, presupposes basic metaphysical truths. Those truths were independently discovered and taught in a precise way by Aristotle, but the Bible does actually teach something essentially like what he did. However, we don’t learn it first from scripture; we learn it from experience.

On the second, I don’t think having a perfect knowledge of the doctrine of the Trinity is necessary for salvation; however, I would say that the doctrine of the Trinity is certainly clear, far clearer than Aristotle’s beliefs about immortality.

On the third, I would say that having an absolutely correct view of the contents of the canon is not necessary for salvation. All one needs to know is the Gospel, and that is clear both from the texts that are certainly part of the canon, and from historical records of the apostolic tradition as it was handed down to the earliest post-apostolic church It does not bother me that I don’t have infallible certainty about the contents of the canon. I have moral certainty, a high probability, and that’s enough for me, since it seems to me that is all that God has seen fit to give us.

Yes, those are good points. It’s also relevant to note that many denominational distinctions within Protestantism are not necessarily based on doctrinal differences at all. Protestants do not see the need to have unity in submission to one institution, and so often will start separate churches even while considering themselves as having a bond of love and a common purpose with other churches.

“A conservative Catholic might reply that if everyone truly strove to submit to the teachings of the Pope and the Holy Tradition of the Church they would agree, but not everyone does so; this strategy can be used just as easily by the Protestant.”

I dont know many Catholics that think this way…if any. Disagreement is expected and tolerated..disunity is not. The council of Jerusalem did not effect agreement but it effected unity. Much as i have learned (finally) in marriage, we dont always agree but we can have unity nonetheless. One must submit willingly to the other and which way that goes varies depending on the situation. The Pope and councils function in a similar dynamic. It would be unwise and unjust for a pope to make a habit of decisions con tradicting the advice of his councils, but occasionally he may have to. A council or even a holy nun may have to take an erring pope to task. Where infallibility comes into play is as a supernatural guarantee that Peters successor will not be permitted to teach any doctrinal error with his authority. There is no such guarantee for a husband bc it is not his realm.

This has bearing on sola scriptura, i think.

Yes, this is good. I will say that I do consider the Catholic intellectual tradition incredibly deep and find much inspiration from reading the rich deposit from the Church Fathers, through the Middle Ages, and even many modern Catholics such as Etienne Gilson, GK Chesterton, JH Newman, Christopher Dawson, CS Lewis (I know he was not a Roman Catholic, but he was moving ever closer), et al.

I think the orthodox church killed the papal-unity argument, how can the orthodox still keeping their as-old-as roman catholic unity without a pope to tell them how to think?

Protestants just love luke 12:51 lol

herewegokids,

Thanks for your comment.

The original objection to sola scriptura was that it leads to disagreement about doctrine; my reply pointed out that such disagreement persists even within the institutional unity of the Roman church. If one wants to argue that such disagreement is tolerable within the Roman church, the Protestant can fairly object that then there should be no intrinsic problem with it outside of the Roman church.

If the original objection is not really to doctrinal disagreement, but to multiple institutions, then the reply would be different, and more direct: Protestants will dispute that this is even a problem per se. In some cases such distinctions may be the result of sin, but the institutional diversity itself is not intrinsically a problem. Some further, non-question-begging argument will be needed to establish otherwise.

I just agreed that institutional diversity is not a problem. Doctrinal disagreement is healthy and necessary to the process of doctrinal development. Where the rub comes in for the Protestant is authority. Every mainline Protestant denom has fallen prey, institutionally, to the dictatorship of relativism. The Orthodox have no locus of authority and very little cohesion. Scripture and history both attest to the validity of and need for a divinely established seat of authority.

Classical Protestants do have authorities, both the infallible scriptures and fallible church leaders, among others.

Most evangelicals have not fallen prey to relativism, and in fact are doing much better than Catholics in the US (http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/the-decline-of-evangelicalism-has-been-greatly-exaggerated):

“Whatever previous information those claims about evangelicalism were based on, it doesn’t appear to match the current reality. A new survey by the Pew Research Center reveals that certain sectors of Christianity—particularly Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches—continue to shrink while the number of evangelicals in America is growing.”

It’s not clear to me, though, how history establishes the validity or need for a divinely established seat of authority. Certainly, I don’t see how scripture does so.

Thank you for your reply. However, it seems your have simply admitted to the vacuousness of sola scriptura. If the best it can lead to is moral certainty on matters of basic orthodoxy and the actual contents of Scripture, what is the point of Scripture’s infallibility? I can achieve moral certainty without it. Consequently, sola scriptura cannot provide the means of what set of orthodoxy I should accept, for I am certain that Lutheran, Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic and a whole range of others have moral certainty as well.

Feser has offered another more lengthy reply to this rejoinder here http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2015/07/empiricism-and-sola-scriptura-redux.html with similar but more interesting and insightful response than me.

Mike,

I’m not sure what you mean when you say you can “achieve moral certainty” without “sola scriptura”? Moral certainty of what? How would you achieve moral certainty of the contents of scripture apart from the means I have suggested, unless you beg the question in favour of an alternative to sola scriptura?

And of course, knowing the content of scripture enables you to answer the various other doctrinal questions you might have, assuming scripture teaches the answer to your question. So being able to know the contents of scripture in a manner consistent with sola scriptura is not vacuous.

It is not at all certain that various contradictory doctrines are known with moral certainty. I certainly would not grant that as a given. I, along with the entire Reformed tradition, would argue that the contents of scripture disprove the distinctives of Lutheranism, Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Feser’s further reply was written before the second half of my rejoinder to him, and I have since added a post-script as well. I hope these help:

https://calvinistinternational.com/2015/07/29/all-that-the-prophets-have-spoken-a-rejoinder-to-feser-pt-2/

https://calvinistinternational.com/2015/07/29/a-post-script-on-sola-scriptura/

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