Sources of Authority

It has been a point of surprise for me that Catholic thought and theology seem to rely so heavily on Greek philosophy and metaphysics. A recent article in First Things [November 2018, reference below] lamented the lack of awareness and knowledge of Greek thought in Catholic circles. Aquinas incorporated Aristotelian thought into Catholic thought and thinking in his time, with lasting effect; one can see in Thomistic thought similar inclusions/amalgamations of thinking.

So why is this, I ask as a believing Protestant? A brief conversation with a Catholic friend pointed me to the answer: Catholicism relies on Greek philosophy to interpret the Scriptures, since it appears that the Bible is not clear, and we need help in interpreting it. This is to me, a believing Protestant, very surprising and shocking and puts the Reformation into better context. Is this what 'Sola Scriptura' is targeting? It appears so.

Granted, it is not hard to find things in the Bible that are very unclear if not opaque. But appealing to Greek thought and philosophy doesn't really solve the problem; it just pushes it back one level. Instead of asking how my church, my minister or me myself understand a passage or teaching, we ask how the Church with its Greek foundation understands the passage. Let's be clear that appeals to authority occur as well in Protestant circles. We ask what our ministers, church leaders and seminary professors teach and believe, and we defer to them (or failing that, we start our own denomination or cult).

Creeds serve to control and guide our thinking and believing, and they function to do so in all three branches of Christianity. So it is not that our thinking and believing are totally random and unguided; rather, they are on a trajectory informed by the creeds and church teaching and doctrine. The ancient creeds were formulated in the first 500 years of the church, for the most part, during which time Greek thought and philosophy actively informed the culture. Thus, it is no surprise that the Nicene Creed, for example, contains a careful expression of the divinity of Jesus which incorporates Greek philosophical language. For example, a section reads:

"... God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father."

Shall we discard the Nicene Creed because we no longer think in the terms expressed here? No, they do not nullify the creed or its purpose. The creed was formulated to counter the heresy of Arianism, and it does so by carefully delineating categories and distinctions and doing so in the context of Greek thought. The crucial point is that the categories and distinctions clearly serve to identify the boundaries of truth in the matter. The fact that Greek language and categories are used is not the point, since the same points could have been expressed in any language and culture which possessed the ability to reason and wrestle with the Scripture itself. And that is the point: at some point we come to the Scripture itself, and we ask if it actually says or means anything specific.

The Catholic Church surprisingly seems to affirm the relative opaqueness of Scripture in contrast with Protestant views; hence, the appeal to the authority of Greek thought, transmitted through Church bodies, becomes necessary and sensible. Protestant thought, in contrast, by affirming Sola Scriptura is implicitly affirming that Scripture provides sufficient context for itself to provide meaning and interpretation without appeal to outside authority. No, we do not deny that the documents of Scripture are placed in specific cultural and temporal settings; but nonetheless, we affirm that in that framework it is nonetheless possible to form understandings of what Scripture says.

In other words: Scripture actually says something, and we can know some of what it says. This single point is the most basic reason I am Protestant and not Catholic. Certainly, the matters pertaining to salvation are clear enough to all.

I've had two Catholics friends and acquaintances give the example of abortion, i.e., the Bible doesn't say abortion is wrong. True, not in those words. But the Scripture provides examples which imply or presuppose that the unborn 'fetus' is a human person. Psalm 139 and the incident of John the Baptist leaping in Elizabeth's womb when Mary arrives come to mind, but they are not the only ones. The argument simply goes that, if the unborn in Scripture is treated with the attributes of personhood, then they must therefore possess those attributes. Is it literary license of some kind, condescension to primitive social beliefs? No, one would have to argue that by appeal to extra-Scriptural premises.

The very same argument is made for the Trinity itself, namely, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all in various places in Scripture treated with the attributes of Deity. It follows then, most reasonably and naturally, that they must indeed be God, keeping in mind that God is one. The Trinity is forced upon us by inference and deduction from Scripture, and this was understood very early in the Church's history.

The Protestant view of Scripture then is that Scripture is understandable on its own because it is its own context. Not surprisingly then, all discussion and debate about questions of interpretation are ultimately understood to be discussions and debate about context. Once you identify the context of a passage, chapter or book, you most likely have found the meaning or have restricted the set of possible meanings considerably. Similar considerations apply to any document.

The question of Canon becomes relevant then because by determining the bounds of Scripture the Canon determines the context for its interpretation. Michael Kruger is a fine, conservative scholar and has written recently on the topic. Here are two of his books:

  • The Question of Canon -- engages and challenges the primary assumptions of critical canon scholarship.

  • Christianity at the Crossroads -- looks in some depth at the church in the second century, a century which has not been the focus of much scholarship, compared to subsequent centuries.

The Canon has never been arbitrary in its construction; rather, its contents have been perceived from the beginning for most of the books. This topic is for another post though.

A False Paradigm, Against the de-Hellenization of Christianity, by Michael Hanby

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