Andrew Fulford Archive Authors Nota Bene Sacred Doctrine

A Post-Script on Sola Scriptura

Dr. Feser has written a reply to the first part of my rejoinder, and he says this will be his last. I think that the second part of my rejoinder addresses several of his concerns, but like him, I am happy to move on to other subjects. However, I want to make a few brief comments that should clarify how what I have said relates to some of his comments in his surrejoinder.

  1. Moses’ tests for false prophets were two: lack of miracles, and contradiction with previous revelation. Insofar as scripture is simply prophetic written texts, if our question is how to exclude books from scripture, these tests provide two ways. That is, if the proposed additional writing contradicts the Bible, or provides no miraculous attestation to its message, we can safely dismiss it. This is how a Protestant would respond to Islamic, Mormon, and Roman Catholic claims to further infallible revelation. Further, I would argue that the once-for-all-time foundational nature of the apostolic revelation, and the eschatological timeline of scripture which excludes any further covenant-forming events prior to the consummation, gives a good indication that we should expect no further canonical texts. The earliest post-apostolic church seems to have agreed with this judgment: as I noted, that generation regarded the apostles as having a unique role, and thus did not attempt to include, e.g., letters from Ignatius in the canon. While men like him were highly respected teachers in the church, their writings were not considered infallible revelation.
  2. If readers are interested in how a Protestant would resolve the various doctrinal disputes that have occurred through history while holding that scripture alone is infallible, I would suggest reading a standard Reformed systematic theology. These texts reason on the basis of sola scriptura and provide philosophical, exegetical, and thus theological answers to those various disputes. For example, from older generations, Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology, or Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology. From more recent days, the gold standard is probably still Herman Bavinck’s four-volume Reformed Dogmatics, though many other worthy options are available, such as John Frame’s four-volume A Theology of Lordship.
  3. From my point of view, the best of the Reformed tradition has eschewed the attempt to draw up a determinate list of doctrines that must be affirmed by faith for it to be saving. It has allowed the classic distinction between material and formal heresy to come to full flower. As Herman Bavinck said:

In studying the relation between faith and theology, we need to frame the question properly. It should not be: what is the minimum of truths a person must know and hold as true to be saved? Leave that question to Rome, and let Catholic theology decide whether to that end two or four articles are needed. Admittedly, Protestant theology, in the theory of “fundamental articles,” has given the impression of wanting to take that road. But it ended with the acknowledgement that it did not know the magnitude of God’s mercy and therefore could not measure the amount of knowledge that is necessarily inherent in a sincere faith. In addition, between the theory of “implicit faith” and that of the “fundamental articles” there is, for all their seeming similarity, an important difference… . [I]n the theology of the Reformation, it sprang from the fact that a number of different churches emerged side by side with confessions that diverged form each other on many points. For that theology, therefore, the focus was on the question concerning the essence of Christianity. Faith, on the part of Rome, is assent to an assortment of revealed truths, which can be counted, article by article, and which in the course of time increased in number. Faith on the side of the Reformation, however, is special (fides specialis) with a particular central object: the grace of God in Christ. Here an arithmetic addition of articles, the knowledge of which and the assent to which is necessary for salvation, was no longer an option. Faith is a personal relation to Christ; it is organic and has put aside quantitative addition. Rome, therefore, had to determine a minimum without which there could not be salvation. On the side of the Reformation, faith is trust in the grace of God and hence no longer calculable. (Reformed Dogmatics, 1:614)

Or, perhaps more memorably, as Richard Hooker wrote:

Howbeit, considering how many virtuous and just men, how many saints, how many martyrs, how many of the ancient fathers of the Church have had their sundry perilous opinions — and among sundry of their opinions this, that they hoped to make God some part of amends for their sins by the voluntary punishments which they laid upon themselves: because by a consequent it may follow hereupon that they were injurious unto Christ, shall we therefore make such deadly epitaphs and set them upon their graves: “They denied the foundation of faith directly, they are damned, there is no salvation for them”? St. Augustine hath said, “Errare possum, haereticus esse nolo.” [I may be mistaken, but I have not the will to be heretical.] And except we put a difference between them that err and them that obstinately persist in error, how is it possible that ever any man should hope to be saved?

Surely, in this case, I have no respect of any person alive or dead. Give me a man, of what estate or condition soever, yea, a cardinal or a pope, whom at the extreme point of his life affliction hath made to know himself, whose heart God hath touched with true sorrow for all his sins, and filled with love toward the Gospel of Christ, whose eyes are opened to see the truth, and his mouth to renounce all heresy and error any way opposite thereunto, this one opinion of merits excepted, which he thinketh God will require at his hands, and because he wanteth, therefore trembleth and is discouraged: “It may be I am forgetful or unskilful, not furnished with things new and old, as a wise and learned scribe should be,” nor able to allege that whereunto, if it were alleged, he doth bear a mind most willing to yield, and so to be recalled as well from this as from other errors — and shall I think, because of this only error, that such a man toucheth not so much as the hem of Christ’s garment? If he do, wherefore should not I have hope that virtue may proceed from Christ to save him? Because his error doth by consequent overthrow his faith shall I therefore cast him off as one who hath utterly cast off Christ, one who holdeth not so much as by a slender thread? No, I will not be afraid to say unto a cardinal or to a pope in this plight, “Be of good comfort, we have to do with a merciful God, ready to make the best of that little which we hold well, and not with a captious sophister who gathereth the worst out of everything wherein we err.”