IV - The Rule of Faith (Part I):

Having sorted that wrinkle out, we can move on to look at what warnings Scripture makes about private interpretation properly quantified. One of the most explicit warnings against private interpretation is the last parts of 2 Peter chapter 1 and the first parts of chapter 2:

2 Peter 1:19-21; 2:1-3:
And we have the more firm prophetical word: whereunto you do well to attend, as to a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: Understanding this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is made by private interpretation. For prophecy came not by the will of man at any time: but the holy men of God spoke, inspired by the Holy Ghost. BUT THERE WERE ALSO FALSE PROPHETS AMONG THE PEOPLE, EVEN AS THERE SHALL BE AMONG YOU lying teachers, who shall bring in sects of perdition, and deny the Lord who bought them: bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their wanton conduct, and because of them the truth shall be maligned. And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you. Whose judgment now of a long time lingereth not, and their perdition slumbereth not. [1]
The Apostle continues describing these "sects of perdition" and "lying teachers" in the following manner:
The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly from temptation, but to reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be tormented. And especially them who walk after the flesh in the lust of uncleanness, and despise government, audacious, self willed, they fear not to bring in sects, blaspheming. Whereas angels who are greater in strength and power, bring not against themselves a railing judgment. But these men, as irrational beasts, naturally tending to the snare and to destruction, blaspheming those things which they know not, shall perish in their corruption. [2]
Without seeking to delve into polemics here, it is not too much of a stretch to postulate that these prophecies anticipated the Protestant "reformers" to an extent. After all, the "reformers" themselves were audacious and self-willed men. Coupled with their denying (to varying degrees) the binding spiritual governmental authority of a visible Church upon them and their bringing in different sects, can it not be feasibly argued that the "reformers" fulfilled to the letter the prophecies of the Apostle Peter??? At bottom the divisions between Catholicism/Orthodoxy and Protestantism boil down to those who accept an authority above the individual which they claim is Divinely guided and those who in varying degrees do not. (Although Catholics and the Eastern churches disagree on the extent of that authority and how it is precisely constituted.)

The Church Fathers for the most part recognized a primacy of place for Scripture in areas of dispute, which differs radically from the Protestant notion of Sola Scriptura. Some Reformed Protestants like to claim that their version of Sola Scriptura merely recognizes that Scripture is the only inspired authority and is thus the final authority. In asserting this, they will sometimes claim that the Church Fathers' position [arguably a form of "Prima Scriptura"] is synonymous with their beliefs. However, there are quite a few problems with this claim. Nowhere does Scripture claim to be the only inspired authority, the final authority, or even to be an authority at all. No book regardless of its inspiration (and remember: the Bible cannot vouch for its own inspiration) can actually serve as an authority because there is no way the book (regardless of its inerrancy) can indicate that it is being misinterpreted. †

Not one Church Father who extolled the inspiration or sufficiency of Scripture ever stated that the Tradition of the Church was less authoritative than Scripture. Nor did they state that the Tradition of the Church was less inspired then Scripture. The Fathers of the Church did not claim that the judgment of the Church Magisterium was to take a back seat to their own interpretations of Scripture. The very idea of "we will follow the Church authority when they follow Scripture" was alien to their mode of thinking. The very notion that the Church could err in officially interpreting the Scriptures is one that was alien to the pre "reformation" mindset. The Anglican scholar Canon A. J. Mason admitted that "no one before Luther has been able to emancipate himself in conscience from the visible Church". He also admitted that before Luther's time such a line between "the invisible Church of the Predestinate" and the corporate society of the Church "did not exist":

The testimony is ample and it is consistent. Whatever variations may be discerned, in accordance with the idiosyncracies of particular authors, the main outlines of the conception are the same. Alike in Rome and at Alexandria, in Africa and in the East, men believed in a great spiritual community, founded by Christ, through His Spirit working in His Apostles, to which the promises of the Old Testament were attached. This community was necessarily unique. In it, and in it alone, the gifts and graces of the Spirit of Christ were to be looked for. In spite of human imperfections, it was guided and permeated in every part by the Spirit. Nor was this community an intangible thing. It was a reality of experience, embodied in a pastoral discipline. The society was well known and unmistakable. Its doctrine was everywhere the same; its worship with rich diversity of forms, centered round one Eucharistic memorial. It had an organized hierarchy for worship and the pastorate of souls. This hierarchy maintained union between the local branches, and did so in the name and the authority of Christ. However far back the history is traced, no date can be assigned, however roughly, for the appearance of Catholicism in the Church. The Church was Catholic from the outset. [3]
The nineteenth century liberal Protestant scholar Dr. Adolph Harnack confirmed this testimony. This is significant because Dr. Harnack's ideology was with the greatest likelihood nearly the opposite of Canon Mason's. Dr. Harnack noted that "the Reformation not only destroyed the medieval constitution of the Church, but has also no connection with that of the second and first centuries A.D". It is almost difficult to take the presumptions of many of the current prominent apologetical polemicists even remotely serious considering how far from common Protestant conceptions of it that the early Church was. Yet, they like many other Protestants often make assertions much like the following one concerning the Scriptures (and in asking Catholics or Orthodox for 'proof' from Scripture for either doctrines or practices that are not explicitly in Scripture):
If you produce from the divine scriptures something that we all share, we shall have to listen. But those words which are not found in the scriptures are under no circumstance accepted by us, especially since the Lord warns us, saying, In vain they worship me, teaching human commandments and precepts'(Mt 5:19). [4]
Now before any Protestant reads the above passage and adds a hearty "Amen" to it, they should know that the quote is from a late fourth-early fifth century personality named Maximinus who was an extremist Arian heretic. The Arians denied the Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Not only did Maximinus deny the Divinity of Our Lord (and the Trinity) but he used the Scriptures to do it (Matt 4:5-6; Luke 4:9-11). He cited 2 Timothy 3:16 as a "proof-text" to support an early form of "Sola Scriptura" in Trinitarian disputes. To the knowledge of this author, the heretic Maximinus is the only known early witness to use this verse to support a form of Scripture sans Tradition. His effectiveness in debate brought St. Augustine of Hippo out of retirement to confront him. Augustine indeed defended the Trinity and put down Maximinus' arguments. However, in doing so Augustine was not resorting to Sola Scriptura - for to do so would not have settled the issue at all.

V - The Rule of Faith (Part II):

When refuting the arguments of Maximinus in debate, Augustine did appeal to Scripture in formulating his arguments. However, in referring to Scripture authoritatively, Augustine had recourse to a recognized proper interpretative sense of certain passages of Scripture. Augustine in other words had recourse to what Apostolic Christians refer to as "Tradition" for properly explaining the Scriptural data. In the situation with Maximinus, it was as it pertained to the doctrine of the consubstantial (equal in being) nature of the Father and the Son in the Godhead that recourse to Apostolic Tradition was needed. The Bishop of Hippo - in referring to the doctrine of the homoousian and its manifestations - deferred to the authority of the Catholic Church (Council of Nicaea) to render a final decision on matters of doctrine. This was necessary because the doctrine of the Homoousian (Gk. consubstantial) was formulated at the first General Council of Nicaea (in 325 AD) in response to the Arian heresy. It was also at Nicaea that the first elements of the formal doctrine of the Trinity were formulated. Constantinople I (in 381 AD) refined the doctrine further, defining it in the sense that almost all Christians today accept. Both of these councils were held within about 100 years of Augustine's debate with Maximinus and about 400 years after the death and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Maximinus was claiming that the understanding of Scripture as proclaimed by the Church concerning the consubstantial nature of the Father and the Son was in error. Maximinus of course "knew" this much the way our Protestant brethren "know" that certain Catholic or Orthodox distinctives are not in Scripture: because they do not see them there. Likewise with Maximinus. The homoousian was not present in Scripture because he did not see it in the Scriptures and thus the claim was made that Augustine and others were "teaching human commands and precepts". Augustine's line of defense in part consisted of telling Maximinus that he did not hold to the correct faith. In short, that his interpretations of Scripture were wrong. The basis for Augustine's claims were three-fold:

In Augustine's understanding of properly ascertaining orthodoxy, Scripture provided the data, Tradition the sense of interpretation and the authority of the Church the definitive word on the subject when needed. This approach by the Bishop of Hippo was not by any means an irregular one. In fact, the Fathers to a man (and without known exception) appealed to all three sources in defense of their doctrines from Church schismatics and heretics. Which authority of course depended for the most part on the particular adversary they were confronting. Often Scripture was the foil of choice as well as it should be. However, at no time was the idea of any book (even the Bible) as the final authority over and apart from an active enforcing authority ever considered as a viable option. The reason is that such an approach logically leads to ecclesial chaos. As the last 483 years gives us ample testimony of, this view of the early Church has proven to be prophetic.

Protestants today (because they often have little to no knowledge of Church history) ironically approach the Scriptures as the early heretics did by separating Scripture from Tradition and the authority of the Church. In the process they cite many of the same passages to defend Sola Scriptura that the Arians who denied the Trinity did in the fourth and fifth centuries claiming that only Scripture was to be the "final authority" (Ecc. 1:10). The final authority in putting down Arianism (and every other heresy in history) was the Magisterium of the Church with both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition as inspired witnesses but not as the actual authorities themselves (Acts 15).

This problem seems to be a most notable one among those who style themselves Fundamentalists or Evangelicals. This author has long felt that if Apostolic Christians had (to quote Peter Kreeft) "half of the passion for our larger creed that they [Fundamentalists and Evangelicals] have for their small one, that we could win the world". The dynamic manner in which Evangelicals seek to put Christ first in their lives indeed puts most other Christians to shame. Of course, it takes much more than mere passion to persuade others but certainly the latter is also important (after all, actions do speak louder than words). Nevertheless, the abundant passion of Evangelicals cannot be as effective as they want it to be without some form of ecclesial authority independent of the individual. It is impossible for unity to exist to the substantial degree that Our Lord prayed for if what we believe is simply what we want to believe. Without creeds, catechisms, and other means of facilitating unity in a belief system, that is what it comes down to at the bottom line for the Evangelical. They end up picking and choosing what they want to believe based on what they want to see in the Bible.

Now to be fair there are confessional bodies in Protestantism that takes a more serious consideration of ecclesial authority then most Evangelicals or Fundamentalists do. However, even in the case of the classic Protestant confessional mould, the principle of true authority is ignored. Briefly illustrating this point, consider a couple parts of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) from 1646 for a moment. This is a standard confession professed by modern Reformed Protestants who take the necessity of church authority more seriously then Evangelicals and Fundamentalists do. The first passage cited here deals with part of the definition of the "Church":†

Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 25:
IV. This catholic Church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less, visible. And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them. [5]
This theology of ecclesiology begs the question since the question of who determines when the doctrine of the Gospel is or is not "more or less pure" remains unanswered. Yes the WCF specifies a number of points on sacraments and other things pertaining to worship and belief. Nevertheless, the authority of the writers of the WCF to claim what is and is not "the Gospel" is what is in dispute here. How truth is determined in the WCF frame of reference is rather nebulous. To point this out, here is the first of a few passages from Chapter 1, titled Of the Holy Scriptures:
Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 1:
I. Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence, do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation; therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his Church; and afterwards for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which maketh the holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God's revealing his will unto his people being now ceased. [6]
There is of course an obvious problem right from the outset. The authors of the WCF make two assumptions for which they cannot prove. The first is that God revealed Himself and His will to the Church solely in writing. The second is that God "revealing his will unto his people" by other means "being now ceased". These claims they assume in advance without seeking to prove them first. On top of that, the manner that is used is question begging. The authors of the WCF (or anyone who subscribes to the WCF as their credo) are judging for themselves not only what is and is not Revelation but also the means that were used by God to transmit His Word. An adherent of the WCF confession is in essence basing what is and is not Truth on their own theological prejudices, which they have not proven are trustworthy to begin with. The misunderstanding that exists about the reliability of traditions not passed on in writing is predominantly what causes this circular argument. Before moving on with examining more of the WCF statement, it would be helpful to dispel this common myth that in ancient cultures it was not possible to pass on teachings in non-written means and to do so accurately. In today's society, this is undoubtedly a problem. However, before the invention of printing, it was a whole different ballgame - and we will look at this element in the next section of this essay.


[1] 2 Peter 1:19-20; 2:1-3

[2] 2 Peter 2:9-12

[3] Canon A.J. Mason: "Early Conceptions of the Church" In Essays on the Early History of the Church and the Ministry by H.B. Swete (c. 1921) cited in The Church and Infallibility by B.C. Butler (c. 1954)

[4] Maximinus: Debate with Maximinus, §1 (c. 428 AD), from the book ĎArianism and Other Heresiesí (AOH), 188*

[5] Westminster Confession of Faith: Chapter XXV, Paragraph IV (c. 1646)

[6] Westminster Confession of Faith: Chapter I, Paragraph I (c. 1646)

Additional Notes:

The biblical citations were originally taken from an online Douay-Rheims Bible no longer available on the Internet. However, the Douay Rheims Bible located at the following site is similar in many ways to the one originally used: http://www.scriptours.com/bible/

The citation from the Church Fathers marked with a * symbol was obtained at Joe Gallegos' Corunum Apologetics web-site which specializes in Patristic studies: http://www.cin.org/users/jgallegos/contents.htm

The citation from Canon A.J. Mason was taken from B.C. Butler's book  "The Church and Infallibility: A Reply to the Abridged Salmon" - Sheed and Ward, New York, 1954

The citations from the Westminster Confession of Faith were obtained at the following link: http://www.reformed.org/documents/Westminster_conf_of_faith.html#chap1

©2001, "Christian Unity and the Role of Authority", written by I. Shawn McElhinney. This text may be downloaded or printed out for private reading, but it may not be uploaded to another Internet site or published, electronically or otherwise, without express written permission from the author.

To all visitors Grace of Christ to you!

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