In my daily musings, I often come up with brilliant ideas or thoughts or proofs for this or that with which I am generally quite pleased. However, upon further scrutiny, I often find that my "aha!" is loaded with problems, assertions that bear no weight, and fall apart after logical analysis. However, over the past few months, I've been having on-again, off-again discussions with two non-denominational Christians at work concerning this or that. They believe in Sola Scriptura sans Sacred Tradition, I believe in Sola Scriptura cum Tradition. They are non-denominational (actually, their rather large congregation is called Xenos and has a single recognized leader in the person of Dennis McCallum), I am Roman Catholic. The primary issue we have in regards to the truth we see in each others' religious tradition is over the interpretation of scripture. At the core of this difference in interpretation is the question of authority. I will now attempt to address this question.
My method will actually follow Mr. McCallum. I have recently read (most of) his book: "Satan and his Kingdom", and must say that apart from being a terrible writer, Mr. McCallum makes a lot of logical fallacies in his writing. I no longer possess a copy of this book, and so will be paraphrasing a bit. I will dutifully quote wherever I paraphrase, and will come back to this when I get my hands on another copy to edit in page numbers and properly cite his quotations. The reason I say I will be following Mr. McCallum's method is because his approach is in the old philosophical tradition of a strict appeal to reason and logic. He uses scant few outside resources, instead establishing his premise and building a logical argument upon it. I will be doing the same.
First, we must establish the core differences in this approach. The Catholic Church has, for 2,000 years (give or take ~30) held strong to the fact that when Christ said to Peter, "I name you Peter, and upon this rock I shall build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it," that Christ was indeed establishing his one, holy, and apostolic Church upon Peter. To borrow a term used in the hermeneutics of Mr. McCallum's disciples, when this is harmonized with other passages such as "Whatsoever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatsoever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" we get a pretty decent understanding of the Church's beliefs concerning authority and where it comes from. Hint: we call it Apostolic Succession. As part of this authority, we look to the Church Fathers for their insight into what scripture means. Oft times, even non-denominational Christians will quote the Church Fathers. It is unfortunate because it denies their own position on Sola Scriptura, but facts are facts and there's nothing we can do about it.
Protestants base their theology upon the inventions of Martin Luther. When he read the Bible as a professor, his overly-zealous scrupulosity led him to take the fact that God's grace is freely given to mean that no intercession or authority outside of said grace was necessary. I will suffice it to say that this violates the story of Phillip the Ethiopian when he says "How will I know [what I am reading] unless someone explains it to me?" However, this one simple assertion amongst ninety-four others that make up the famous Theses has caused no end of trouble for the non-denominational attempting to convert Catholics and the Catholic attempting to convert non-denominational Christians or Protestants of any sort. Built upon this assertion is the addition of "Once Saved, Always Saved," an assertion that also led to the rejection of the real presence in the Eucharist (a topic for another day). However, it is the interpretation of sacred scripture outside of any other authority (personal interpretation) and the "sinning saved sinner" that leads to many of the misunderstandings between Catholics and non-liturgical Christians. A Protestant will assert that a saved person will have the guidance of the Holy Spirit to properly understand scripture, whereas Catholics will assert that any person will have the guidance, but why rely on intuition when Christ's Paraclete has already given us the true interpretation? Both sides have merit, and it is my intention to show that the latter has greater merit and therefore falls under the reasonable qualification that it must be preferable to the former.
We will begin by paraphrasing Mr. McCallum in his less-than-stellar work "Satan and His Kingdom." In it, when he is discussing scripture as authoritative in and of itself, he states that "having introduced an outside authority, one will always inevitably put that authority before the scripture" (sic). This assertion, one that I can't even categorize in my lengthy list of Latin arguments (such as Post hoc ad propter hoc, Argumentum ad hominem, etc. Fun to say, not advisable to use in debate), has two major problems. One, it asserts that all authority, not just any specifically biblical authority, is authoritative unto itself (ignoring concepts such as the Social Contract and democratic institutions in general). Secondly, it is self-defeating in that Mr. McCallum is a specific extra-biblical authority [i]commenting authoritatively on scripture.[/i] What he has just asserted is that his own authority is suspect by the very fact that it is authoritative. The problem, however, in the grander scheme of things, is that many Protestants and non-denominational Christians will read this and think that this assertion is sound. And, indeed, embedded in the rest of that section from which the quote was taken, it sounds reasonable. But having picked apart this assertion against extra-biblical authority, it is clear that even without biblical verses to disprove it, the assertion is without merit whatsoever.
One of the major issues with Sola Scriptura is that anybody who is evangelizing a Catholic or Orthodox Christian will inevitably ask "how is that biblical?" in response to such things as confession, the real presence, Marian devotion, etc. etc. It is primarily because Catholic and Orthodox teaching does not rest solely on scripture (though everything has a scriptural basis) that this question usually stumps the average lay person when dealing with these assertions. However, it is usually a good idea at some point to simply turn the debate around and ask a very simple but impossible to answer question:
"How is Sola Scriptura biblical?"
The response I get most often is in reference to 2 Timothy 3:16. I will link to the CARM website now, since that is where Xenos admittedly gets a lot of their apologetics, but I will be quoting the conclusion to show the major flaw in utilizing this passage. CARM explanation of 2 Timothy 3:16
Their conclusion states "God has given you the inspired Bible so that you will be able to accurately know that which is good, true, and holy. So that you might know the mind and will of God. So that you might teach, Correct, Rebuke, and Train in Righteousness...and this so that your work might be good in the sight of God."
*cough* First of all, the Catholic Church compiled the Bible under the authority granted to them by Christ via Peter to know what is and is not inspired. Not wanting to sound polemical, I won't dwell on that little historical fact and instead point to a severely crippled assertion contained within their conclusion.
Timothy is an epistle. It is an explanation of the Gospel. It was written when the only "Bible" that was around was the Torah, what would eventually become the Christian Old Testament. When Timothy was written, the word "scripture" would have applied to this body of work alone. Not even the Gospels would have been considered inspired, as they would have been only reflections and recollections of what had transpired during Christ's time on earth. It's similar to writing a memoir, explaining that memoir to someone in the context of the Bible, referring to the Bible as it is today as inspired, and three hundred years from now discovering your memoir being added to the Biblical canon. An impossible scenario, I know, but it's the same thing that happened with the Gospels. When Timothy was written, the word "scripture" applied ONLY to what would become the Old Testament. Nothing else. To utilize this passage to claim that the entire Biblical canon is inspired, something that even Protestants didn't adhere to when they revised the Bible by removing many of the Old Testament books, is fallacious beyond reason. It not only ignores the fact that God inspired the Bible and then the Church compiled it, it ignores historical and cultural context of the time in which the very verse they're misinterpreting was written. Ignoring this context is the first step to misinterpreting scripture. For this reason, the assertion that Catholics were told "not to read the bible" has some basis in truth. The reality is that Catholics were told not to read it on their own for the very reason that the average person does not readily know the historical and cultural context of the various books of the bible. In short, the Church did not want the laity doing what the Protestants had been doing since the 1500's.
And so we come to the Church Fathers. Who were they? What did they write? Some of the most famous and well-celebrated Fathers include St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, St. Origen, St. Athanasius, and others. They were theologians, monks, scholars, converts, priests, Bishops, abbots, and simple laity that read the scripture, reflected upon it, wrote their sermons and their musings, and through the grace of God, communicated to the people what the scripture said. For a society in which the majority of people were illiterate, and did not speak many of the languages in which scripture was written, it would be important for these men to transmit the writings of the Apostles into languages everyone would know, as well as be able to adequately explain them. The difference between the Church Fathers and later post-reformation theologians is that when they were silenced (as in the case of St. Origen) for writing something heretical, they submitted to Church Authority instead of branching off and forming their own church. The importance of the Church Fathers is less in their willingness to submit and more in their proximity to the times, customs, and languages of Christ.
These men were not simply smart. They were bloody brilliant. They were schooled in Plato and Aristotle. They would have read Tacitus and Seutonius. They more than likely also studied Ptolemaic astronomy, Egyptian medicine, and read Cicero to learn the art of rhetoric. In short, these men were Renaissance men a thousand years before the Renaissance. They had an amazing grasp on logic and reason and knew how to debate. They knew how to present their arguments, expand upon them, and assert foolproof conclusions. For those that didn't have the formal schooling illustrated above, they were absolute geniuses. Most importantly, they lived in cultures that reflected the cultures present at the time of Christ. Their knowledge of the scriptural language was more than academic, it was a working knowledge. They, better than any historian or theologian today, could elucidate the masses as to the meaning of a Greek turn of phrase or an Aramaic anachronism. The same can not be said for anyone today, whether they be a Catholic monk, an Orthodox Metropolitan, a Protestant pastor, or an atheistic expert in anthropology and classical archeology. There is a reason the Church Fathers constitute an exclusive club whose roster has not grown. These men asserted not only that the institution of the Church was important, but that it was divinely commanded. So great was their devotion to the Church as founded by Christ that they submitted themselves to it wholly without knowing that the Church would one day raise them upon a pedestal of authoritative respect. In short, without the Church Fathers, the gates of hell would have prevailed against the Church and Christ would not have been Christ.
The final assertion I will make is rather more polemic than the rest of this post. It is also rhetorical, as I have read every explanation and answer there is and none of them satisfy the question. I will reference Mr. McCallum again, a final time, when he says that "Hell is under siege, and the gates of Hell will not win." The scripture referenced here was written two thousand years before Mr. McCallum was even born, yet he sees his non-denominational approach as the [i]right[/i] approach and the only approach containing the fullness of truth. Yet Xenos did not start until Mr. McCallum created it. In all the discussions I've had with the members of Xenos, they expect crisp and clear interpretations of biblical passages. My final assertion is this: if the fullness of truth has been lacking for two thousand years, did Christ lie, forgetting to say that the gates of Hell will not prevail while the Apostles are still alive, then prevail, then fall back under siege two thousand years later? Or did he fully and completely tell the truth in stating that "Upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it"? There is nothing clearer than that there was one Church instituted by Christ, and that Church was granted the authority to properly interpret and pass on scripture and tradition, and that this Church is the one Church that has been in existence for two thousand years constantly besieging the gates of Hell. Unfortunately there was a schism, but I would rather the authority of my interpretation to come from a Church that was invested with the very authority to interpret scripture than to rely on a self-proclaimed authority that has rejected a divinely appointed mandate.