Friday, May 16, 2008

Scripture and Tradition, a Response to Michael Horton.

The other day I finally had a chance to finish up a book that has been sitting on my bookshelf for a while now. "Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism" published by Zondervan, 2004. The thesis of this counterpoints work is the question, is Eastern Orthodoxy compatible with Evangelical Protestantism? Several scholars give their views from "yes", "maybe" and "no". Mike Horton well known Protestant scholar and apologist1 gives a resounding "no" to this question.

What concerns me tonight though is not his stance against the Eastern Orthodox question raised by the book - but several side issues he takes on in the book. First, his utter bias against the Roman Catholic position is made manifest in a plethora of places throughout the work. The funny thing is that Catholicism is not even the issue in debate, yet Horton finds time in place after place to throw short jabs at Catholicism2. Intertwined in Horton's argument is his section entitled, "Scripture and Tradition", it is this section that I will analyze.

Horton claims that despite the New Testament's emphasis on "apostolic ministry rather than apostolic succession of men", Irenaeus was a clear exponant not of the view that came to be common "since the fifth century" (that Scripture is to be interpreted by apostolic tradition) but that Scripture is self sufficient and the true source of authority for Irenaeus. Horton goes on to cite Irenaeus as saying that "proofs from the scriptures" are enough to refute the heretics of his day since Scripture is "the ground and pillar of our faith", "When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn around and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority and assert that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition." This is taken to mean by Horton that Irenaeus somehow believed in a neo-sola-Scriptura of sorts, or at the very least, that Irenaeus did not believe in the "theory" that tradition was an authorative source of faith and practice as was Scripture.

Let me start by saying that this claim is so bombastic that it hardly needs any real serious response. The first year student of patristics will cite the following texts from the great bishop of Lyons, St. Irenaeus in his magisterial Adversus haerses (where Horton lifted his citations).

"As I said before, the Church, having recieved this preaching and this faith, although she is disseminated throughout the world, yet guarded it, as if she occupied but one house. She likewise believes these things just as if she had but one soul...she proclaims them and teaches them and hands them down, as if she possessed but one mouth. For, while the languages of the world are diverse, nevertheless, the authority of the tradition is one and the same3."

"But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the successions of all the Churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient Church known to all, founded and organized at Rome...that Church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us...and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the Apostolic tradition4."

St. Irenaeus then clearly held the regula fidei of the orthodox Ecclesia Catholica concerning these subjects. The Christian faith is recieved from oral tradition and it is authoritative.

Horton in classic Protestant fashion cites a Catholic father out of context for his pretext, "...since the Scriptures are the 'ground and pillar of our faith'"5. This would seem to be the case then for the uneducated reader of Three Views, however let St. Irenaeus be heard in context and he is arguing the exact opposite of the Protestant Horton,

"We have heard the plan of our salvation from none other than those through whom the gospel came down to us. Indeed, they first preached the gospel, and afterwards, by the will of God, they handed it down to us in the Scriptures, to be the foundation and the pillar of our faith6."

St. Irenaeus cannot be mistaken. The knowledge of Christ was first introduced in the regula fidei and afterwards was written down in the Scriptures. Tradition and Scripture go hand in hand. The modern dichotomy that Horton espouses is a false one.

Horton would (mis)lead the readers to believe that St. Irenaeus ("in contrast to later Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox writers of the post fifth century") battles heresy from the Scriptures alone. But St. Irenaeus would disagree,

"It is possible, then, for everyone in every Church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the Apostles which has been made known throughout the whole who neither knew nor taught anything like these heretics rave about7."

"For all these heretics are of a much later date than are the bishops to whom the Apostles handed over the Churches;...these aforementioned heretics, because they are blind to the truth, walk in various and devious paths; and on this account the vestiges of their doctrine are scattered about without agreement or connection. The path of those however, who belong to the Church, goes around the whole world; for it has the firm tradition of the Apostles, enabling us to see that the faith of all is one and the same8."

If this is not enough St. Irenaeus continues, when there is a dispute, first the collective wisdom of the regula fidei is to be sought. Not only this, but if there never had been any Scriptures written (so much for Sola Scriptura) what would then be our recourse? St. Irenaeus answers,

"When therefore we have such proofs, it is not necessary to seek among others the truth which is easily obtained from the Church. For the Apostles, like a rich man in a bank, deposited with her most copiously everything which pertains to the truth;...while cherishing with the utmost diligence the things pertaining to the Church, and to lay hold of the tradition on truth. What then? If there should be a dispute over some kind of question? What if the Apostles had not in fact left writings to us? Would it not be necessary to follow the order of tradition, which was handed down to those to whom they entrusted the Churches?9."

I can go on and on citing the great father of Lyons proving the exact opposite that Horton claims in Three Views. One can only wonder about the motives of such a blatant misrepresentation. Horton goes on in typical Protestant rhetoric,

"Councils contradict councils even in the patristic period at certain points, and it is highly suspect that the great Fathers themselves regarded their conclusions as binding for any other reason than that they were based on the direct or inferential Scripture. Having an infallible tradition to interpret an infallible text only leaves us with deeper difficulties10."

These aguments are nothing more than misinformed smoke and mirror tactics to mislead the uninformed reader. Horton gives the standard objection of council clashes but cites no examples11. Also, the fathers far from being confused or unsure of their authority were confident of the unanymity of doctrine based around the regula fidei as being binding on every Christian. I can quote father after father on this point but simply re-read St. Irenaeus above on this issue. Horton then makes the ridiculous statement that an infallible interpreter only clouds the issue further? But on what grounds does he make this claim? Surely not on the unanymity that is the theological anarchy of Protestantism. On the contrary, having an infallible interpreter makes perfect sense to clear the difficult path that laid ahead for the infant Christian Church12. Furthermore, the reality that small dissensions in the patristic attestation13 does not speak against its overall monolithic trajection.

If this domino of specious argumentation was not enough, Horton supplies us with the standard Protestant objections that Jesus apparently was contra man made traditions and texts such as Matt 15:2 and Col 2:8 are cited. Again it is almost beyond credulity that in light of all the scientific monographs and critical commentaries on these passages (and texts speaking of the same subject) Horton would espouse this argument. Without going into the secondary literature and the Greek grammar and context of these texts (which would take this post far beyond the limits intended) it is enough to say that Christ nor St. Paul abandoned tradition. What Jesus rejects is hypocritical use of God's law and tradition not tradition itself and further St. Paul in many places speaks highly of tradition, in fact tradition is on par with Scripture (2 Thess 2:15, et al).

In the final analysis what we have here is a recent up-to-date Protestant argument for seeing Scripture as the only and final source of faith and practice. I have shown that St. Irenaeus is abused beyond comprehension in order to bolster views on him that cannot be supported by his writings. Protestant apologists then argue the regula fidei is contradictory and confused. But again the fathers deny this very point and their accord in doctrine testifies to its overall unanymity. Protestans then in vain search the Scriptures to refute tradition but Scripture itself teaches us that hand in hand walks the oral and written kergyma.

The jury has been in for a long time now concerning the historical veracity of Catholicism. Apperantly some either do not know or simply deny the plain evidence of the patristic attestation.


1. Professor of theology and apologetics at Westminister Escondido. He was one of the contributors representing Protestantism in the Catholic / Protestant audio debate (see review below).
2. So fixed is Horton on trampling the Catholic position (on a work that has nothing to do with Catholicism) that he is questioned about this fixation by the Orthodox scholars.
3. Adv haer. 1, 10, 2.
4. Ibid. 3, 3, 2.
5. Three Views. 127.
6. Adv haer. 3, 1, 1. emphasis mine.
7. Ibid. 3, 3, 1.
8. Ibid. 5, 20, 1.
9. Ibid. 3, 4, 1.
10. Three Views. 127, 128.
11. The apparent contradictions of the councils have been soundly refuted since the 16th century when these objections first arose. Any introductory work of Catholic theology exemplifies this. It is a real mystery why Horton continues with these ploys in light of the secondary literature on these subjects.
12. See the excellent discussion on the doctrine of theological infallible pronouncements by John Henry Newman in his An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.
13. Such as the case with Origen, who's views earned him official condemnation of his teachings.


Tim A. Troutman said...

Thats not very surprising really. I just dont get it, why not just be honest about the whole thing, it would make your case so much more plausible!

Ask a Mormon or a Muslim - did Irenaeus believe in sola scriptura, and they'll say no. They believe the Church had already gone astray from Jesus' true teachings by that time so they have no interest in cherry picking documents for their doctrinal proofs.

Why make your position so utterly transparent by such lame proof-texting? I mean Catholics don't ignore the fathers when they get Catholic dogmas wrong (and they did occasionally).

I'm surprised he didn't use Clement of Alexandria more than Irenaeus. As I've showed here though, even that is too much of a stretch.

Even the heretical Tertullian does not advocate showing heresy wrong by Scripture - in fact he warns against it! He says heretics are not to be debated from the Scriptures! They don't have apostolic succession - they are IPSO FACTO false!!! And he is by far the closest to Protestantism out of all the "fathers". (Course he was only close after he split from the Church and joined the true proto-Protestant Montanus).

Protestants are embarrassing themselves by trying to show post 16th century doctrinal errors in the works of the founders of the Catholic faith.

R. E. Aguirre. said...

Exactly Tim. Our Protestant brothers have a funny way of reading into the fathers (and Scripture) ideas that are not present.

The classic example of this is William Webster's writings such as "The Catholic Church at the Bar of History" which is for the most part, a lesson on how to yank the fathers out of context, cherry pick quotations and suppress the context to claim a pretext. Stephen Ray in his excellent discussion "Upon This Rock" gives several examples of the mutilation of the fathers by Webster and company.

The point you make about the disingenuous use by Protestants on the fathers in contrast to the honesty of the heretics such as the Mormons - who at least can say, "You guys including your fathers got it all wrong, we have the true rediscovered knowledge" is a penetrating insight.

In all honesty it hurts when I see Protestants play these type of word games. I have met many Protestants over the years that I love in the Lord very much to this day. Lord Jesus Christ we pray for you to help us sinners on earth.