Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Yeago, Scripture and the Early Church.


     David Yeago1 in his article "The Presence of Mary in the Mystery of the Church,"2 writes in footnote #9 (in the context of retrieving some semblance of an acceptable Marian theology, in relation to Christology):
...the goal of faith and theology is not to see how little of Scripture we can take seriously and still be saved; the goal is the maximum of integrity in taking seriously and holding together in our understanding the whole canon of testimony with which the church has been provided by the Spirit. After all, the New Testament canon itself is superfluous to what is "necessary to salvation," since the foundational apostolic preaching went on without it. 

  Consider also the fact as most scholars would agree that our earliest Gospel (Mark) was written some thirty years after the crucifixion (and this is based on the most conservative scholarship, critical scholarship would date Mark post 70-AD). Scholars contend that Paul's letters were written earlier than this (1 & 2 Thess being the earliest) but even these were directed and kept in possession of, particular regional churches (i.e., Corinth). 

 In other words the early Christian Church went largely without a complete canon of the New Testament (as we know it today comprised of the twenty-seven books) for most of its history. It was not until centuries after the first Apostles that the canon was decreed (Athanasius's letter). What they did possess was the Old Testament (that is what the writers of the New Testament have in mind when they speak of "Scripture") as well as the apostolic oral traditions (2 Thess 2:15, et al). 

 My question to Protestants is, taking all of this in mind, how is one to defend still the proposition of Sola Scriptura if,

     (a) The earliest Christian Church did not have in its possession the "New Testament"even to proclaim "sole authority" from?
     (b) The earliest patristic interpretive tradition (i.e., the Patristic Fathers) time and again teach that Scripture can only be correctly understood under the guidance of the Catholic Regulae Fidei and that Scripture alone is not the "sole authority" for the Christian but rather the "authority" is Scripture only when interpreted via their patristic interpretive tradition (i.e., "apostolic tradition")?


[1]. Professor of Systematic Theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary, South Carolina and member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America denomination. 

[2]. In the excellent book by Protestant and Orthodox scholars, Mary Mother of God (Grand
Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 58-79.



Kepha said...

A Protestant could say that sola Scriptura is an alternative development in Western Christianity. That is, in opposition to the development of papal authority and supremacy, the Protestant Reformers see within the Western heritage (e.g., Thomas Aquinas and Henry of Ghent) the option of adhering to biblical authority and supremacy. Further, those are some very educated, even scholarly, Reformed (Peter Escalante, Steven Wedgeworth, and Tim Enloe) who would argue that the Aristotelian political philosophy of Aquinas and others, especially the later Conciliarist, actually provide the basis for breaking with the Papacy should it err.

In short, some Protestants would argue that sola Scriptura has clear roots in the Western theological tradition, and breaking with an erring Papacy has roots in Medieval political philosophy.

R. E. Aguirre. said...


I suppose a Protestant could try and say that, the only problem would be that it is not a true development, since a development presupposes prior historical precedence (at least in some degree). Neither Aquinas nor any other Patristic Father held to any form of sola Scriptura.

Vincent of Lerins summed up the question well when he stated that those who argued for some type of "Scripture alone" theory were the heretical or heterodox groups in order to smuggle in innovative teaching that went against the orthodox patristic interpretive tradition, (which held to Scripture and tradition as the norms for Christian practice).

So then, it is clear that the path of historical revisionism, (i.e., that the Fathers held to sola Scriptura) cannot be supported. Furthermore, the idea that it was a true doctrinal development fails since it cannot find conceptual roots to begin with.

Again, the issue of the post was that for a considerable amount of time (a number of centuries) the early Church was without a 27 book New Testament "canon." The Church at this time found it much more important to cling to the oral Regulae Fidei tradition, for doctrine and practice. How then can this fact be explained away by those seeking to defend "sola Scriptura"?

Kevin Davis said...

I'm increasingly becoming aware that the issue requires ontology prior to epistemology. What is the Bible and what is the Church were prior matters, for the Reformers, than how do we know the Bible. They understood that the Bible was a witness to God's covenant as it was realized in the nation of Israel and the person of Christ. The Church's traditions and magisterial pronouncements, however, when compared to Scripture were manifestly not this witness of God's revelation. The Reformation happened because Scripture and the Church didn't square: the Bible said one thing, the Church said another thing. The Church could live for a time without a formal canon, but she was always dependent on this primary witness as it was passed on to her (in both an assemblage of gospels and epistles, plus the OT, and in an oral-liturgical tradition).

That's a simple historical -- even common sense -- observation, but I think it illumines the issue quite nicely.

R. E. Aguirre. said...


In principle Catholics would have no objection to the rudimentary skeleton of your idea. We would agree that the early Church had no need whatever of a NT canon - since they possessed already the divine depositum of the faith, in oral apostolic tradition. However we would state of course that this tradition covers doctrine's that are not explicitly taught in the New Testament but are rightly necessary inductions.

Here is the quote in toto of Vincent which I alluded to earlier:

"With great zeal and closest attention, therefore, I frequently inquired of many men, eminent for their holiness and doctrine, how I might, in a concise and, so to speak, general and ordinary way, distinguish the truth of the Catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical depravity. I received almost always the same answer from all of them—that if I or anyone else wanted to expose the frauds and escape the snares of the heretics who rise up, and to remain intact and in sound faith, it would be necessary, with the help of the Lord, to fortify that faith in a twofold manner: first, of course, by the authority of divine law (Scripture) and then by the tradition of the Catholic Church. Here, perhaps, someone may ask: ‘If the canon of the scriptures be perfect and in itself more than suffices for everything, why is it necessary that the authority of ecclesiastical interpretation be joined to it?’ Because, quite plainly, sacred Scripture, by reason of its own depth, is not accepted by everyone as having one and the same meaning. . . .Thus, because of so many distortions of such various errors, it is highly necessary that the line of prophetic and apostolic interpretation be directed in accord with the norm of the ecclesiastical and Catholic meaning" (Notebooks).Vincent makes clear that doctrinal claims must be measured in light of Scripture and the (Catholic) tradition. Vincent goes further in posing the rhetorical question (a question that was surely being raised at the time by the heretics as other of the Fathers make clear), -

"if Scripture is sufficient (clear and understandable) why is it then that we need this Catholic interpretive tradition that you speak of"?

Vincent's answer is reflective of all the Fathers when he answers, "Because obviously all the heretics are misusing Scripture in their attempts to smuggle in innovative teaching, hence we need a sure guide, a God given apostolic interpretive hermeneutical key, i.e., the patristic interpretive tradition."

Sola Scriptura would not have worked for the early Christians since it would have robbed them of the historical continuity with the apostolic oral interpretive hermeneutical lineage and thus reduced the orthodox' claims as merely one among the many contending to be "the one and only correct teaching."

I believe that my original question still stands. How is sola Scriptura to be honestly defended in light of these two propositions:

1. The earliest Christians did not have a NT canon
(because they manifestly did not feel a need to
codify one - since they had enough with the
Church's oral interpretive tradition)

2. The earliest orthodox hermeneutic (the patristic
interpretive tradition) would reject any form
of "sola Scriptura" in principle, since it is their
oral tradition coupled with the Scripture(s) -
(keep in mind that the Church considered
"Scripture" at this time the Old Testament,
what Protestant's call "apocryphal books" as
well as post-apostolic writings) that was their
dual revelatory sources (from same single
divine font) for faith and practice.

Kevin Davis said...

I don't see how #1 is a problem. And #2 is pretty much saying the same thing.

They did have apostolic writings to which they consulted and argued from as a common referent, but a formal canon, along with a formal principle of sola scriptura, was not necessary (as it was later seen to be).

Protestants have been able to laud the early orthodox church's Trinitarianism because it was defended from scripture (not some oral tradition). But, the collapsing of Justification into an intricate system of mortal sins, penances, and satisfactions -- uhhhh, not so much. Ditto for Mary's bodily assumption, etc.

R. E. Aguirre. said...

Well, the problem with not having a "closed NT canon" for the early Church in terms of the theory of "sola Scriptura" is that this in itself was reflective of the general epistemic understanding of the source and authority for Christian Doctrine and practice. As I have pointed out in (point 2), the early Church Fathers understood well that the source for Christian faith and practice was both Scripture and tradition. Moreover, they generally rejected any variant of "sola Scriptura" (as they rejected variants of Sola Fidei).

This brings us back to the crux of whether we agree with the historic and orthodox patristic interpretation (which rejected Sola Scriptura) or do we agree with the Protestant Reformers.

The early Church's defense of Trinitarianism was largely based on preceding doxological and liturgical usage (such as Baptismal Creeds) which in turn were grounded on tradition (as Basil of Caesarea displays). If you read the primary writings it is actually the Arians and other heterodox groups which argue "from the Scriptures alone," against the orthodox' formulations, (which they accused of being indebted to Greek philosophy and outside the permitted bounds of the biblical texts).

But what I believe you're saying is that the Reformers accepted the historic formulation because it is found in Scripture. This of course is a wise procedure.

Kevin Davis said...

I would nuance the early orthodox position. "Tradition" was seen as fully fluent with Scripture; thus, they could claim both a "handing on" (oral-liturgical) and a biblical basis for their claims. Therefore, I'm very skeptical about whether they would be happy with, for example, making a dogmatic pronouncement on Mary's bodily assumption. Even if you could argue for an apostolic "handing-on" of the b. a. of Mary (a highly dubious claim), it runs into a second problem of having no scriptural basis.

In other words, early orthodoxy was working with a sort of sola scriptura -- one which valued a Tradition that was not extra-scriptural; rather, Tradition was a guide for interpretation of Scripture. In Roman dogmatics, however, the Church's Tradition can work outside of scripture as long as there is some slight contingency involved, resulting in a sola ecclesia different from both early orthodoxy and Protestant orthodoxy.

R. E. Aguirre. said...


You are correct in stating that the early Church understood the handing on of tradition as containing both the oral apostolic teaching and its codified form, namely Scripture. However I would disagree with your position concerning extra biblical traditions, as far as it pertains to the mind of the Patristic Fathers:

In other words, early orthodoxy was working with a sort of sola scriptura -- one which valued a Tradition that was not extra-scriptural; rather, Tradition was a guide for interpretation of Scripture. The second half of the statement is most certainly correct as we have shown citing but one example among the many (Vincent of Lerins), or that the historic patristic interpretive tradition is the apex protocol for reading the Scriptures. The first half of the statement should be nuanced in light of the clear testimony of the Fathers, let me cite but a few examples:

Basil the bishop of Caesarea speaks plainly when he states -

"Of the dogmas and kerygmas preserved in the Church, some we possess from written teaching and others we receive from the tradition of the Apostles, handed on to us in mystery. In respect to piety both are of the same force. No one will contradict any of these, no one, at any rate, who is even moderately versed in matters ecclesiastical. Indeed, were we to try to reject unwritten customs as having no great authority, we would unwittingly injure the Gospel in its vitals; or rather, we would reduce kerygma to a mere term. For instance...who taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ?...Which of the saints left us in writing the words of the epilclesis at the consecretation of the Bread of the Eucharist and of the Cup of Benediction?" (De Spiritu. sanctum. 27, 66)

Hence it is clear that the early Church held to unwritten tradition with the same force as in Scripture - since both had the same divine origin, namely the Triune God.

Epiphanius of Salamis agrees:

"It is needful also to make use of tradition, for not everything can be gotten from sacred Scripture. The holy apostles handed down some things in the scriptures, other things in tradition" (Adversus haereses panarium. 61, 6).

Or Augustine, bishop of the Diocese in Hippo:

"But in regard to those observances which we carefully attend and which the whole world keeps, and which derive not from Scripture but from Tradition, we are given to understand that they are recommended and ordained to be kept, either by the apostles themselves or by plenary (ecumenical) councils, the authority of which is quite vital in the Church" (Ad. Januar).Hence again, it is not "sola Scriptura" nor even a variant of it. It is both Scripture and Apostolic tradition which are the proper historical context of the earliest Christians which is the norm.

あじ said...

I think part of what Kevin is getting at is, if tradition is unwritten, how can I know whether it has been corrupted? How can I know that what I receive is what has been passed down, not what has been added or taken away or invented?

The problem is one of doubt, and I think it is legitimate. I do not claim, however, that sola Scriptura is a suitable substitute. That seems to invariably lead to placing faith in the person with the best exegesis — a meritocracy of systematic theology. Whatever the apostles were up to, I'm sure they weren't trying to one-up each other in their theological arguments; so why is that such a concern for Protestants?

R. E. Aguirre. said...

In response to the last comment,

First off, the idea that tradition and Scripture are entirely different strains of revelation is false. So it is not a matter of, 'how do I know that this unwritten tradition is true?' but rather, tradition and Scripture are two facets of the same apostolic revelation, (as the Catholic fathers note over and over).

Now, there are different degrees of tradition as many Catholic scholars have noted, (i.e., Newman, Conger, etc), and even debate as to how much attribution should be given to "secondary, " "prophetic" tradition in relation to written Scripture etc.

In a nutshell, I would answer your question by stating that what is true tradition should be found at least in embryonic form in Scripture.

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