Wednesday 25 January 2017

Sola Fide in support of Sola Scriptura? I think not...

My friend who styles himself Presbyterian Prince has gone to the trouble to start a blog, in order to have more space than Twitter allows to refute what he sees as my errors. It may be found here.

The trouble is, of course, the more space we have, the more we write and the bigger the debate gets.

That is compounded as I am very busy at work, at present, and travelling a lot, so have little time to blog. So I shall not answer every point in detail (at least, not today).

Rather I shall focus on just a couple of issues.  The first is one of the biggest errors, as I see it, to which he has fallen victim.  He writes:

you have 3 items:  Scripture, Tradition, and Church.  But these 3 cannot be equal authorities.  What if the Church contradicts something taught in Scripture?  I can show you it does.  The Bible undeniably teaches Sola Fide. "whoever believes has eternal life" John 6:47.  Yet Rome teaches that justification is by faith + works.  Both cannot be true.  Someone is wrong.  Is it Scripture or the Church?
Needless to say, I do not accept that Scripture, Tradition and the Church are ever in conflict. To me, that is as absurd as saying that Truth and Love cannot be equal authorities: what if Truth contradict Love? 

He goes on, to offer as proof of such a conflict the claim that 'The Bible undeniably teaches Sola Fide.' That is clearly (to say the very least) a highly debatable proposition. Of course he can quote John 6:47 at me; and indeed other verses that can be interpreted in support of Sola Fide.

But on the other hand, Our Lord teaches that Baptism is necessary to enter the kingdom; that unless we eat His body and drink His blood, we cannot enter the kingdom.  He teaches that on the last day, we will be judged by what we have done. How do these 'works' fit with the idea of Sola Fide? 

St James is even more explicit:  You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. This is the only time we find the words 'Faith alone' together in the Bible. Indeed, Luther was moved to call St James' 'an Epistle of straw' because it ran counter to his doctrine of Sola Fide. When the man who invented Sola Scriptura is moved to denounce Scripture for disagreeing with his doctrines, which allegedly put Scripture as the supreme authority, I think we can see that we are in troubled waters...

I do not need, here, to prove that Sola Fide is wrong (though I believe it to be so); merely to prove that the Bible does not clearly teach it. We have to look at these verses (and the rest of the New Testament) and decide what they mean; it is far from self-evident. That very fact undermines Sola Scriptura: we need an interpretive authority, or each man will decide for himself what Scripture means - and that is what we see with the fragmentation of the reformed denominations.

The other really interesting point in PP's argument is this:

The reason why only 27 books made the NT Canon was because the Church recognized that these were the Books that were breathed out by the Holy Spirit. 
Here, it seems to me, he undercuts his whole argument: for he recognises the authority of the Church over Scripture: that it is indeed that Church that has decided what the Canon of Scripture is. The authority of Scripture Alone is not enough for us to know what we are to believe, because it cannot even tell us what books are Scriptural. 

No, we believe in Scripture on the authority of the Church, and we believe in the Church on the authority of Tradition, and Scripture ratifies both Church and Tradition; for each of these rests ultimately on the authority of Christ, who commended them all to us; who founded the apostolic Church to pass on, from generation to generation, whatever He taught, by inspired word and inspired teaching; who established the Sacraments as the works by which his saving work was made ever-present to succeeding generations, and who continues to pour out His Holy Spirit on the Church, as he promised to do, so that the gates of Hell may never prevail against her.

Saturday 14 January 2017

Continuing the discussion on Sola Scriptura

Further to this post, my protestant friend has raised a number of points for discussion.

My first assertion, that Sola Scriptura isn't scriptural, he answers thus:

I'm convinced that SS is taught in 2 Timothy 3:12 - 4:5. I commend to you a careful reading of this text. Scripture equips the man of God "for every good work." therefore, no other ultimate source is needed for religious truth. How does Scripture equip you to venerate departed saints?
He continues: Still on point 1, you asked: "But on whose authority is that interpretation? It is not scriptural."  He answers that thus:
Because Christ is the ultimate authority (thankfully we can agree on that), His Word is the infallible rule for our faith. So where is His Word? It is now written down in the Supreme Apostolic Tradition, Scripture. Can you give me an example of any other God-breathed revelation that's not in Scripture?
These all seem fair questions to me, so I shall address them as best I can, with the caveat, as ever, that I am merely a lay person, with no particular theological training, nor the grace of clerical state.

So, here goes...

1: 'I'm convinced that SS is taught in 2 Timothy 3:12 - 4:5. I commend to you a careful reading of this text.'

 12 Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evil men and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceivers and deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths. As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil your ministry.
It does not seem at all apparent to me that this teaches Sola Scriptura. If this is the strongest scriptural text for the SS hypothesis, it is lamentably weak. Indeed, 3:14 seems to speak directly to the oral tradition; and so do many other verses in scripture. St Paul admonishes us to hold to whatever he has taught by word of mouth or in writing, for example.

 Scripture equips the man of God "for every good work." therefore, no other ultimate source is needed for religious truth. 

The 'therefore' in this sentence actually hides a logical error. For example, a plumber might have a tool box that equipped him for every job he might encounter; but instructions on how to use the tools is also necessary. Scripture is indeed necessary and equips us (no Christian could deny that) but this verse does not teach that it is all that is necessary.  If this verse were teaching Sola Scriptura, I would expect to see that Sola represented (Luther had the same problem with Sola Fide: such was his respect for Scripture, of course, that he added in a Sola that he thought the Holy Spirit had somehow overlooked, in his translation...)

How does Scripture equip you to venerate departed saints?

There are two parts to this. The first is that I do not concede that Christians are bound by Scripture alone; that is, the Sacred Tradition of the Church, and the formal teaching of the Church, are also authoritative.

However, in this case, we have a clear Scriptural mandate. 'All generations shall call me blessed.' To refuse to venerate the Blessed Virgin Mary is to make a liar of her, in her proclamation that is clearly presented as inspired.

So where is His Word? It is now written down in the Supreme Apostolic Tradition, Scripture. Can you give me an example of any other God-breathed revelation that's not in Scripture?

This line of argument risks being slightly circular: I only accept what is in Scripture: can you give me an example of something I accept that is not in Scripture?.... But in practice, of course, we can. Firstly, we need to recognise that all truth is implicit in Scripture, but not all explicit. That is where interpretation is key. And that is why, Catholics believe, the Holy Spirit, as promised by Christ, protects the Church from errors of interpretation.

So, for example, I could cite the doctrine of the Trinity. It is implicit in Scripture, not least in the command to baptise all nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. But nowhere in Scripture is there explicit teaching that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are three persons in one Godhead. That is an interpretation: guaranteed, I would argue, by the promise of Christ and the working of the Holy Spirit - but an interpretation, nonetheless.

More fundamentally, as I have mentioned before, nowhere in Scripture is a list of the books that make up the Holy Scriptures. Indeed, the list has been subject to dispute. Yet, if we are to take Scripture alone as our infallible authority, surely Scripture needs to define what constitutes Scripture.  However, we all accept that the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are authoritative, and that the Gospel of Thomas, for example is not. And we do that on the infallible teaching of the Church - which Scripture teaches us is the pillar and foundation of the truth, and which our Lord promised the gates of Hell will never prevail against.

So, to answer the first part of the question, His Word is found both in Sacred Scripture and in the Authentic Apostolic Tradition, and in the formal and magisterial Teaching of the Church. And these three can never be set against each other: they are all consistent and self-consistent, and are all guaranteed by the Holy Spirit, whom Our Lord promised would be with us until the end of all ages.


Finally, I would note, that logic suggests I could be wrong about all of this. However, the fact that I, and millions of others for the past two millenia, could arrive at these beliefs in good faith, through prayerful reading of Scripture, whilst others, also in  good faith, through prayerful reading of Scripture, arrive at different conclusions... that fact alone shows that Scripture, without authoritative interpretation, does not, in fact, provide a single rule of faith and belief.

Wednesday 11 January 2017

My Problems with Sola Scriptura

So, chatting about Our Lady (see here) led us onto Sola Scriptura.

I have several problems with Sola Scriptura:

1 Sola Scriptura isn't in Scripture. That seems fairly fundamental. I asked my interlocutor about this, and he replied: Scripture is God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16). B/c Scripture is the only God-breathed revelation possessed by the church, it forms the only infallible rule of faith for the church. But clearly what the quotation actually says is Scripture is God-breathed.  The rest, B/c Scripture is the only God-breathed revelation possessed by the church, it forms the only infallible rule of faith for the church' is an interpretation. But on whose authority is that interpretation? It is not scriptural.

Sola Scriptura fails because the Scriptures themselves do not contain a definite list of the Scriptural books. We know what those books are on the authority of the Church and Tradition. How else do we know that the Gospel of Thomas or the Shepherd of Hermas are not scriptural?

Sola Scriptura is against Scripture. For Scripture teaches that the Church is the pillar and foundation of the truth; in Scripture we read of Christ conferring the office of teaching on Peter, in first place, and the apostles. We read that he who hears the apostles, hears Christ. We read of the authority of the first Council of the Church. We read that we should obey whatever the Apostles teach by word or in writing. We read of the Apostolic succession, with the replacement of Judas. And of course the early converts did not have the New Testament: it had not all been written - so did they have no 'infallible rule of faith?' And on and on...

Sola Scriptura is a modern invention: the idea was formulated by Luther to justify his rejection of the authority to which he had sworn obedience.

5 Sola Scriptura has never been held by the vast majority of Christians: the Orthodox and the Catholics.

Sola Scriptura does not work. Those who adhere to it cannot agree what Scripture teaches. Since Luther's rebellion, protestantism had fragmented and fragmented further.

6 Sola Scriptura is the subject of regular debate between Protestant and Catholic apologists: how could this be, if it were as self-evidently true as Luther (who could not even agree with Zwingli) proclaimed? The fact that it can be debated at length, with both sides quoting Scripture at length, and neither side convincing the other, demonstrates that Sola Scriptura cannot be the sole infallible rule of faith.

None of which, of course, in any way diminishes the truth of Scripture as the Word of God. But it is the book of the Church, and it is the Church that is the guarantor of its inerrancy, and the guardian of its correct interpretation.

Saturday 7 January 2017

But in that case...

On the face of it, the best defence for the Holy Father's apparent desire to admit the divorced and 'remarried' to Holy Communion, is his view that many (or even most) marriages are in fact null, as the couple do not fully understand and believe in what they are undertaking.  If that is the case, if the first marriage was never in fact a marriage, then a second union may be entered into, and there is no question of adultery and thus no breaking of Our Lord's teaching.

But let's follow that train of thought a bit further. If we allow the hypothesis (and in fact, for many reasons, I do not) that most marriages are null, due to ignorance, lack of proper intent and so forth, then we should also address the fact that most people receiving Holy Communion do so in a similar state: they are equally poorly formed, and therefore quite probably not discerning the Body of the Lord - and we know what St Paul has to say about that. Further, do we conclude that most baptisms are probably invalid too, for similar reasons? In which case, people should certainly not be presenting for Holy Communion: I don't think even Kasper is advocating Communion for the unbaptised (or at least, not yet...)

But I think the problem lies in setting the bar of understanding too high. Just as a child can understand enough worthily to receive Holy Communion, without a full sacramental theology; so a couple - any couple who are capable of such understanding - can understand what the marriage vows mean.

The Church's immemorial practice, for reasons that are clearly wise, prudent and just, has always been to assert the validity of the marriage bond, unless there is clear and substantial reason in a specific case to prove that it was not valid. If the Holy Father intends to reverse that, we really are in trouble.

Friday 6 January 2017

A Biblical Defence of Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary

The other day on Twitter,  the Holy Father tweeted: Let us entrust the new year to Mary, Mother of God, so that peace and mercy may grow throughout the world.

In response to that, some (I assume) well-meaning but (certainly) ill-informed protestant tweeted:

The Roman Catholic practice of Mary worship is a violation of the 1st Commandment. RCs must repent of this idolatry for the glory of Christ.

I responded: Is it wrong to ask others to pray for us? Our repeated request to Mary is: 'pray for us sinners...'

He did not directly answer my question, but replied:

Hello Ben, we seek to engage in humility and kindness in a way that pleases the Lord. Can you show an Apostolic example of petitioning Mary?

I replied No, but you are making assumptions that I don't share. We are not called to follow the Apostles so much as Christ Himself. He, obeying the commandments, honoured His Mother. So do we.

Receiving no reply to this, I later tweeted him again: You are quite mistaken to think that we worship the Blessed Virgin. We offer the Sacrifice of the Mass to the triune God.

And there the matter rests.

But it does seem to me to illustrate a real problem, a great misunderstanding about Catholicism, held by many sincere protestants. I have blogged very briefly about the fundamental problem before, but in this post I want to take a more protestant-friendly approach, by making a Biblical case for praying to the Blessed Virgin.

The Annunciation:

The Angel Gabriel, sent by the Father, greeted her: Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with thee!

The Visitation:

Elizabeth, inspired by the Holy Ghost to recognise her, greeted her: Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb!

These two direct quotations from the Bible form the first half of that most typical of all Marian prayers, the Hail, Mary.

Mary herself, in response to Elizabeth, prophesied that all generations will call me blessed, for He that is mighty has done great things for me.

The Finding in the Temple and the Hidden Life:

At the close of this account, we read that He was subject to them. For the next eighteen years, Our Lord lived subject to His mother and His foster father. The implications of that are many. One is that whatever they asked, He would do in obedience, humility and love. Another is that He honoured his Mother in accordance with the Commandments which the Father gave Moses on Sinai. From these, and because He is truth itself, we can conclude that she was worthy of His obedience and worthy of His honour. The depth of humility in the Incarnation never ceases to amaze; but I cannot imagine that it would include stooping to obey and honour somebody unworthy of either.

The Miracle at Cana:

Here we see clearly the power of His mother's intercession: although His hour is not yet come, Our Lord responds to her request, and sets out on the road to Calvary.

Then comes the line that should put the protestant unease to rest. Mary's command: Do whatever He tells you! Those of us who have sought her intercession, and meditated in her rosary, know that her will is united to His: and her answer is always the same: Do whatever He tells you! That is one reason why there is no spiritual danger in devotion to the Blessed Virgin (along with the fundamental reason, which is that we do not offer her the adoration due to God alone).

The Foot of the Cross:

When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he said to his mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then he said to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her into his own home. There is the apostolic example which my interlocutor desired. The beloved disciple took the Blessed Virgin into his home; and so do we.

In summary, when we pray to Our Blessed Mother, we draw on the words of Scripture; we fulfill the prophesy that Scripture records; we follow Christ in loving and honouring His blessed Mother; we recognise the power of the Blessed Virgin's intercession, as demonstrated in Scripture; we find again and again that she points straight back to her Son; and we respond to Christ's command to the beloved disciple to take her into our homes.

What we do not do is adore her. She is worthy of the highest honour of any created being: indeed, we recognise in her the woman crowned with stars in the Apocalypse; but Catholicism always distinguishes between the honour it offers to Our Lady (and any of the saints) and the adoration of the Triune God, to whom alone the supreme sacrifice of the Mass is offered.

Tuesday 3 January 2017


In discussing the problems associated with some interpretations of Amoris Laetitia, I have mentioned the word scandal.  This is an unfashionable notion, and one that I think the proponents of a particular brand of mercy fail to understand.

In J B Priestley's play I Have Been Here Before (produced in 1937, the same year as he was writing the rather better known Time and the Conways), it was taken as axiomatic that a schoolmaster having a liaison with another man's wife would be a source of such great scandal that he would have to leave his job.

Seventy years on, that seems very archaic. And all that has changed is that such a scandal has been perpetrated so frequently that it has become common-place, and finally has been accepted as part of normal - indeed respectable - life.

Scandal, in fact, serves a role in society that is analagous to that of shame in the individual. It makes certain actions and behaviours almost unthinkable - actions and behaviours that are deemed particularly harmful both to the individuals involved and to society more broadly.

Our Lord, of course, had something to say about scandal, and it involved millstones...

That is why the doctrine of 'tolerance' is so misguided. When we tolerate aberrant behaviour, we teach others, and ultimately ourselves, that it doesn't matter. And once a critical mass of people in society indulge in it, it becomes normalised and deemed respectable: the examples are all around us. Perhaps the most obvious is contraception, where the scandal of Catholics contracepting is so widespread that nobody is scandalised any more. Yet we should be.

The Church, of course, still believes that divorce is a fiction: that valid marriages endure until the death of one of the spouses, and that any pretended union by a spouse with anyone else is adultery. 

One of the concerns I have about some of the proposed interpretations and implementations of Amoris Laetitia is, then, that it scandalises; and ultimately will normalise what should scandalise. As more and more Catholics witness people in objectively adulterous situations welcomed back to sacramental communion, they will conclude - as will the world - that the Church no longer believes what it officially teaches: and that is a very unmerciful situation to visit on the Church and on the world.

Sunday 1 January 2017

Still confused

I know I'm a simple sort of chap, but I am still confused. Despite all those who say that the four cardinal's request for clarification is a tactic of dissent, and that there is nothing to be confused about, I remain puzzled.

What precisely is it that people (and here I mean those advocates of mercy who believe that the divorced and civilly 're-married' should be admitted to communion without change to their behaviour) think that Amoris Laetitia is teaching?

It seems to me that it must be one of two things. On the one hand, it might be that there should be a new process for declaring a marriage null, when there are practical reasons why the current process will not work. That seems to be implied, for example, here: 'Let us suppose she cannot, for technical reasons, obtain an annulment (these are rare cases), and the first husband has long since remarried.' (I don't want to keep picking on Austen Ivereigh, but he is the one who keeps writing about it...)

On the other hand, it might be that there are situations in which the circumstances are so difficult that the only reasonable (or merciful) thing for the Church to do is to recognise a second union as being good (or at least, not adulterous). That seems to be implied here: a woman abandoned by her abusive husband who remarries to provide for her children might be in the same legal category as the philandering playboy who ditches his wife for a younger model, but no one could claim that both are in the same moral category.  But oddly, that is the same example.

Nowhere does Ivereigh, nor anyone else I have so far read, say precisely which is intended. And that is problematic, for a number of reasons. 

The former suggestion is, I suppose, possible to consider: if a marriage really were a sham from the start, and for complex reasons, that is hard to prove via the normal process, it might be worth looking closely at the case. However, for clear and obvious reasons, the Church has always assumed in favour of the bond, with the onus of proof being on the one who claimed it never existed. So any change here would need to be very carefully thought through and clearly articulated, to avoid grave miscarriages of justice, scandal, and so on.

But an awful lot of the language of the liberal interpreters of AL (and indeed the Holy Father's own reported response to the questions from South America, and his reluctance to answer the Cardinals' dubia) all suggest that the second line of thought is the one that is to be followed: 'many such cases require an individual discernment because they cannot simply be lumped together as ‘adultery.’' What does this mean? Ivereigh makes a distinction between the legal and the moral categories of different people. What he does not address is their married status. If they are validly married, and are engaging in sexual relations with someone other than their spouse (no matter how evil, duplicitous, philandering, etc he or she may be), they are committing adultery. No amount of discernment will alter that fact.   

The Church's role, then, is certainly to extend them mercy: the mercy that consists of engaging with them in love, to lead them to the truth, resulting in the change of their behaviour to conform it to God's plan. The sacraments are there to support them in this journey of transformation: sacramental confession including a firm purpose of amendment, and holy communion as the supreme gift of grace to strengthen and nourish them.

Otherwise, the path of discernment becomes a way to help people stay locked in the grip of sin. We are not the best judges in our own case - particularly if we have been through the trauma of a relationship falling apart; and to be asked to evaluate whether God is really asking us to leave our new, comfortable, loving relationship is a tough ask...  Not least because, as has often been observed before, God gives us the grace we need when we need it - not before. So it may seem an impossible demand that we should remove ourself and our children from the protection of a new partner - and as it seems impossible, we conclude it cannot be what God really wants. But actually, if we start from the other end, knowing that it is what God wants, mysteriously, as we start to follow his will, we gain the very grace we need to make it possible.

That seems to me the real failing of all those promoting what I might call cheap - or even counterfeit - mercy: that they underestimate the transformative power of God's love and grace when people really do submit themselves to the Divine Will, rather than justify themselves in the status quo...

But as I noted earlier, nowhere do the pro-readmittance interpreters of AL make clear precisely what they think the document teaches; which of these options - or is it both?

Further, the Holy Father's refusal to answer the dubia, and the increasing amount of noise without light from the commentators, suggest that clarity is the one thing that they want to avoid. Rather let everything be done privately and discretely. After all, what business is this of mine? Or yours?

Well, as the Cardinals have made clear in their dubia, confusion about Amoris Laetitia risks leading souls into mortal error: we should all be concerned about that. Moreover, the interpretation of some of the bishops in Germany and the Americas, for example, is effectively introducing Church-sanctioned divorce, which is a grave moral evil and will have devastating consequences (as widespread divorce already does throughout western civilisation). And the whole project, as conceived by some of them, is in fact an assault on Catholic truth and Catholic unity. Of course it is our business!