Thoroughly equipped

When a Protestant is asked for a Bible passage that proves that the Bible alone is the only authoritative guide in Christian faith and practice (and there needs to be one or else the idea is falsified at the outset) the one that is typically appealed to is this one:

2 Timothy 3:16-17 (ESV) 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NASB95)      16 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.

Now it seems to me that  debate about proper interpretation of this passage is an asymmetric one in one sense.  In the 1500s the Protestants made the startling claim (well, it startled many in the church) that the Bible was the sole and sufficient guide for the church; that Bible interpretations of bishops, popes and councils were not authoritative.  They sought to overthrow the accepted view of church authority with their own.  On this basis they divided the church, despite Christ praying that His followers would be one.

So it seems to me that the burden of proof on the Protestants, when it comes to these verses, is not whether they might possibly be interpretated as supporting their position, but that they lead inescapably to that conclusion.  After all, sola scriptura is a mere meaningless abstraction without the complementary doctrine of the perspicuity or clearness of scripture, i.e. that the Bible is clear in its meaning in at least the important parts.  (Who gets to decide which parts are inportant or which doctrines are basic or foundational is another question.)  On the other hand, if these verses might or might not be interpreted that way then the preexisting Catholic position is not falsified and the Reformers had only an uncertain basis upon which to judge their own teachings right and Rome’s as wrong.  (Applied more generally, if your interpretations of the infallible Book are not themselves infallible, then that still leaves you with uncertainty.)

So do the verses lead inescapably to the view that the Bible is the only authority in the church?  I don’t see that.  For one thing, we don’t see the word “only” which makes a huge difference.  They say that scripture was given so that the man of God might be competent or adequate (Gr. artios, well-equipped).  But this is not the same logical construction as saying that by scripture alone the man of God is adequate.  Consider this analogy:  A mechanic needs a variety of tools to do his work: various wrenches, sockets, meters, hammers, torches, etc. etc.  Say a mechanic had most of the necessary tools but lacked a socket set.  He would not be adequately equipped.  Suppose you then gave him a socket set so that he would be adeqately equipped.  You would not then turn around and conclude that with a socket set alone a mechanic would be equipped.  In the same way, scripture is one of the necessary components for a well-equipped man of God.  Otherwise the verses are pressed too far and “prove,” for example, that the illumination of the Holy Spirit is not necessary.  Seminary and original language training are not necessary.  Classes in hermeneutics are not necessary.  But most sola scriptura-believing Protestants would not say that.  A handful do, and they are usually the ones handling snakes in ramshackle Appalachian churches.  We can’t have it both ways.  Either these verses rule out the need for all these things, or if not then they also fail to rule out the need for sacred Tradition handed down from the apostles to aid in properly understanding scripture .

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6 thoughts on “Thoroughly equipped

  1. How does your characterization of what “sola scriptura” meant for the Reformers square with their understanding of their own ecclesiastical authority, or their own church councils, synods, etc.? You’re doing a heck of a job with the strawman you set up here, but any burden of proof you claim as the Protestants’ is preceded by a burden of proof on your part to show that you’re even characterizing the Protestant position in accurately.

  2. Funny. I posed this dilemma to three evangelical pastors and none had any real answer. They didn’t dismiss it as a straw man.

    I’m not sure what you mean by the Reformers’ “understanding of their own ecclesiastical authority, or their own church councils, synods, etc.” since they differed among themselves. That’s part of the problem; it wasn’t long before their conflicting doctrines on a wide range of issues including church polity resulted in scandalous displays of mudslinging and dissentions. My “straw man” was taken from the Westminster Confession; perhaps you have a better one.

    Unfortunately, the Protestant historian Philip Schaff agrees with me. Call it what you will.

    Instead of one organization, we have in Protestantism a number of distinct national churches and confessions or denominations. Rome, the local centre of unity, was replaced by Wittenberg, Zurich, Geneva, Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh. The one great pope had to surrender to many little popes of smaller pretensions, yet each claiming and exercising sovereign power in his domain. The hierarchical rule gave way to the caesaropapal or Erastian principle, that the owner of the territory is also the owner of its religion (cujus regio, ejus religio), a principle first maintained by the Byzantine Emperors, and held also by the Czar of Russia, but in subjection to the supreme authority of the oecumenical Councils. Every king, prince, and magistrate, who adopted the Reformation, assumed the ecclesiastical supremacy or summepiscopate, and established a national church to the exclusion of Dissenters or Nonconformists who were either expelled, or simply tolerated under various restrictions and disabilities.

    Hence there are as many national or state churches as there are independent Protestant governments; but all acknowledge the supremacy of the Scriptures as a rule of faith and practice, and most of them also the evangelical confessions as a correct summary of Scripture doctrines. Every little principality in monarchical Germany and every canton in republican Switzerland has its own church establishment, and claims sovereign power to regulate its creed worship, and discipline. And this power culminates not in the clergy, but in the secular ruler who appoints the ministers of religion and the professors of theology. The property of the church which had accumulated by the pious foundations of the Middle Ages, was secularized during the Reformation period and placed under the control of the state, which in turn assumed the temporal support of the church.

    This is the state of things in Europe to this day, except in the independent or free churches of more recent growth, which manage their own affairs on the voluntary principle. –History of the Christian Church, Vol. VII (Chapter One; § 10)

    On the other hand Evan, where is your proof that I’ve misrepresented anything? You offer accusations but no evidence of anything.

  3. 1. On the mudslinging and dissension: this was certainly present, as it has been throughout the history of the Church. I’m not saying it’s a good thing. Not in various conciliarist disputes within Catholicism, and not in many of the disputes of the Reformation churches either.

    2. On the other hand, mere difference of church polity is not an argument either against a fundamental ecclesial coherence (the vast majority of Protestants can still receive communion openly in the vast majority of different denominations, after all!), or an argument for utter confusion even when ultimate coherence is absent. It’s simply a state of complexity that one has to account for. A pluriformity of church structures is only anathema when a particular church polity becomes a central tenet to the faith, and this is the exact biblical point upon which Christians in different communions disagree. You’re begging the question if you simply point out the disagreement and assume that that answers anything.

    3. The sort of Erastian structure that Schaff discusses seems, if anything, to go against your characterization of sola scripturea, doesn’t it? In these cases (which, we should recognize, have changed in a good bit since Schaff wrote in the 19th century), you have a civil magistrate aligning with a confessional ecclesial structure… so, creeds are an interpretive lens that informs the reading of scripture. And depending on which confessions the magistrates align themselves with, you’re probably going to find either presbyterial or episcopal structures of church authority, and always a claim of apostolic succession either in the teachings or the office of the church authorities. The argument of your original post seemed to be that Protestants see the Bible as the only authority for the Church, while the argument in your response seems to be that the Church authorities recognized by Protestants are complex, differ, and are often examples of strong dissent from one another. Which is it?

    4. On the evangelicals: I don’t doubt you got that response from them. Evangelicals in the U.S. have historically argued this sort of understanding of sola scriptura. This doesn’t mean they’re representative of Protestantism in general, however, nor does it mean that they’re even representing their own ecclesial life accurately. I’d also add that Evangelicalism has changed drastically in the past couple of years, in fact taking many cues from Catholicism. I don’t think you’ll find such expressions of sola scriptura so plentiful as you might have a number of years ago.

    5. As I said in pt. 3, I think you provide proof yourself that you’ve misrepresented the situation. If you want me to go into it further, well, I’d say that the Nicene, Athanasian, and Apostle’s creeds, the Augsburg, Wesminster, and Belgic confessions, the 39 Articles, etc. are all confessional/creedal basis for the interpretation of scripture and the structuring of political life. Any Protestant besides the heretical fringe groups (which Catholicism deals with as well) will affirm the Apostle’s and Nicene creed. And the vast majority of Protestant denominations have a creedal tradition, some of which I’ve just listed. This in itself is very different from sola scripture as you’ve described it. Add to that the church polities that are recognized as authority for doctrine and faith; whether congregational or synodical, presbyterian or episcopal, etc.

    I just don’t see how your description is accurate of Protestantism, outside of 20th century American bible churches. And even then, there’s certainly a structure of church polity that informs the reception of the faith; what’s lacking is an adequate acknowledgment of such structures in theological reflection.

  4. “…are all confessional/creedal basis for the interpretation of scripture and the structuring of political life.”

    *this was a wire crossed in my brain… read either “church polity” or “ecclesial life”.

  5. 1. The difference: within Catholicism, unity is preserved despite disagreements. Within Protestantism, it results in splits. Protestantism has made divisions into a virtue despite Gal. 5 listing it as a work of the flesh.

    2.I was simply pointing out that you implied there was one Protestant view on this issue when there are several.

    3. “The argument of your original post seemed to be that Protestants see the Bible as the only authority for the Church, while the argument in your response seems to be that the Church authorities recognized by Protestants are complex, differ, and are often examples of strong dissent from one another. Which is it?” It is both. You would say that’s a contradiction, and it is. That’s my point. Sola scriptura (and the Westminster definition of it is hardly unrepresentative) is invoked in theory but not used in practice. In reality it is subject to the judgment of Protestant theologians, who on smaller scales fulfill the same roles as the Catholic Popes and Magisterium. Luther’s rejection of these in favor of individual judgment in his famous defense at Worms was followed by a tacit embracing of a similar model.

    4. The only Protestant alternatives to evangelicalism (ignoring obscure sects) are the original established national church model, but most of these are sunk in unbelief now, or Reformed theology which has long struck me as an exercise in forcing square pegs into round holes and is maintained by a level of enforced conformity that even a pope would object to.

    5. You’d say which creeds and confessions are the basis of proper Bible interpretation. And other Protestants would offer a different list. Who says who is right? In any case, appeal to any of these as an “interpretive lens” is a de facto rejection of sola scriptura and echoes the phrase used by Catholic apologist Mark Shea who makes the same point. You claim I misrepresent sola scriptura although I appeal to the Westminster definition of it. I think that you (and perhaps your confessional or denominational background) use the phrase in such a way that it is not “the Bible alone” at all. There is a contradiction between the slogan and actual practice, and that was my original point.

  6. Evan,

    Well you certainly injected quite a few new talking points into Kevin’s analysis. I think it would be difficult to adquately respond to all of them, but I would like to address your point #2 above.

    You said:

    “On the other hand, mere difference of church polity is not an argument either against a fundamental ecclesial coherence (the vast majority of Protestants can still receive communion openly in the vast majority of different denominations, after all!), or an argument for utter confusion even when ultimate coherence is absent.”

    While this may be true in a certain sense, I think you are missing the forest for the trees. In other words, you can truthfully say that the MERE EXISTENCE of different church polities need not, of and by itself, be an argument “against a fundamental ecclesial coherence” – I can agree with that statement. But that *presumes* that these different polities are compatible, complementary, and NOT mutually exclusive. But is this really the case? Obviously you must think so, since you seem to be arguing in favor of a plurality of polities. But you haven’t really made your case, other than asserting that open communion is somehow illustrative of a “fundamental” (whatever that is – you haven’t defined what this means, nor have you explained why I should be compelled to accept your definition of what is “fundamental” and what is not) ecclesial coherence (again – it merely begs the question as to “coherent” by whose standards and by what authority we should accept what YOU mean by “coherent”).

    Likewise, I would agree that the MERE EXISTENCE of plurity of church polity is not *necessarily* an argument, of and by itself, in favor of “utter confusion” either “even when ultimate [however that might be defined] coherence is absent.” But I would argue that it is not an unreasonable argument to say that there does exist BOTH “confusion” (read: a lack of ecclesial coherence on MANY levels) and plurality of church polities…therefore it isn’t that difficult to connect the dots and assert that on a practical level there exists a “cause and effect” quotient between the two.

    You:

    “A pluriformity of church structures is only anathema when a particular church polity becomes a central tenet to the faith, and this is the exact biblical point upon which Christians in different communions disagree.”

    I will submit that you are, once again, missing the forest for the trees. Sure we disagree on this “biblical” (and, I will submit, Traditional) point, but that doesn’t preclude the deeper reality that when Church structures differ in more than mere polity (which they most certainly do) they are, in fact, mutually exclusive on many levels. Therefore this plurality of structure, doctrine, and communion is exactly what is wrong with modern Christianity and one of the big reasons why so many non-Christians continue to view Christianity as dis-unified and somewhat relativistic.

    You:

    “You’re begging the question if you simply point out the disagreement and assume that that answers anything.”

    The way I see it, you begged at least as many questions as Kevin – and probably even more. But I am sure you will disagree.

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