A Question for Sola Scriptura Adherents

During my flight this morning, mostly I slept. However, I did come across this question in this book Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture. The dilemma posed is by what means do the Sola Scriptura adherents seperate those traditions they keep, e.g., Nicean Trinity from those they don’t, e.g., transubstantiation (real presence) or Marian doctrine (virgin birth … not virgin conception). Pelikan pointedly asks:

If the First Council of Nicea was a legitimate development and the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 … an illegitimate development, what were the criteria biblical and doctrinal, for discerning the difference? ….

[… later …]

The several passages of the bible that appeared directly to substantiate the dogma of the Trinity, such as above all the baptismal formula at the close of the Gospel according to Matthew and the prologue about the divinity of the Logos at the opening of the Gospel according to John, mutually reinforced each other to form the biblical proof for church doctrine. Conversely, however, any passages that, taken as they stood, appeared to contradict church doctrine were subject to the “canonical rule” and required careful handling. When, several chapters after the solemn prologue, “And the Word was God,” the Gospel of John had Jesus say of himself, “My Father is greater than I,” Augustine had to being his heaviest weapon into action. If the Protestant Reformers and thei descendants were willing to hold still for such manipulation of New Testament passages in the interest of upholding a doctrinal development that had come only in later centuries — and they were — what stood in the way of such manipulation when the passage in question was “This is my body” or “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”

Perhaps nowhere, however, was the challenge of this dilemma more dramatically unavoidable than in the relation between the development of the doctrine of Mary and its purported foundation in Scripture.

So, for those readers who hold Sola Scriptura, how do you answer, and I’m not asking for a detailed defense … unless that’s what you want to do. Just a heuristic explanation for how the distinction is made.

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  1. Viva Sola Scriptura!

    Great post. I found your blog through Weekend Fisher (Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength blog.)

    If you are well-versed in Presbyteriana, these won’t be new to you, but they are quite good:

    “The Understanding and Use of Holy Scripture” published by the PCUS (southern church) in 1982. http://www.pcusa.org/oga/publications/scripture-use.pdf
    (The UPCUSA (northern church) published a document on Scripture in the same year, but theirs is not nearly as good, preferring to say “let’s dialogue endlessly” and avoiding taking any actual positions.)

    “The Trinity: God’s Love Overflowing”
    published by the PCUSA in 2006.
    I will restrict myself to a tiny introductory portion of this paper’s response to your question:

    The doctrine of the Trinity is a summary of the gospel of Jesus Christ–it cannot be understood apart from
    this gospel, and the gospel cannot be fully understood apart from the doctrine of the Trinity.

    Personally, here’s how I see this issue.

    Neither the Council of Nicea nor the Apostles’ Creed nor anything else is on the same level of authority as Scripture. Scripture is God’s self-revelation to us. Creeds, conciliar statements etc. are our attempt to wrestle with and figure out what God is saying in Scripture. Some of that wrestling is quite good and closely tied to Scripture and we keep it (the Nicene Creed.) Some of it is rather far off from Scripture, relying instead on centuries of teaching authority (the 4th Lateran), and sometimes responding vociferously to religious controversies and veering too far off in the other direction (Trent.)

    The Trinity is a philosophical construct. But it’s not an arbitrary philosophical construct. It is directly based on the Incarnation, and made necessary by the Incarnation. To understand how Jesus can be God and also human, and to read gospel stories in which Jesus prays to God and is filled with the Spirit, you really do need to think of a Trinity–otherwise you end up saying that Jesus wasn’t really God, or that Jesus was praying to himself, or something.

    And, also coming from the Scriptures, especially about the Incarnation, and the Spirit of God in the Old Testament, I do believe that God in God’s own self includes Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in some kind of holy unity-in-community. I don’t think it is JUST a philosophical construct.

  2. Mark,

    I’m kind of dense these days, but I’m not sure I understand how the example in the middle paragraph exemplifies the dilemma. I get the force of the question, but it seems it’s not only the Protestant Reformers who stood by and watched Augustine do backflips to integrate “My Father is greater than I” into good Trinitarian theology–Roman Catholicism did as well. So it’s not clear how that example is a mark against sola scriptura.

    That said, the question is well formulated: “If the First Council of Nicea was a legitimate development and the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 … an illegitimate development, what were the criteria biblical and doctrinal, for discerning the difference?”

    My brief, tendentious thoughts: the difference between legitimate and illegitimate traditions is the canon of Scripture. How do we tell the difference between the two? The canon of Scripture supports the one, and doesn’t the other. I don’t see how that answer is necessarily problematic, and even if it’s problematic, I don’t see how the problems justify raising the status of tradition itself to authoritative. It seems if you do that, you’ve simply caught yourself in a vicious regress–which tradition is authoritative, and how do you know? The problem of the criterion looms large here…..

  3. Mark says:

    Heather and Matt,

    The problem/question raised by Pelikan in regards to Trinity, is that there the existence of cannonical scripture which directly contradict Nicean Trinitarian canon, e.g., “The father is greater”.

    Matt the reason the Roman Catholics get a pass regarding Nicea and Trinity, is that they don’t reject Latera. The question is how you accept one, and reject the other. For both the Scriptural hermeneutic is similar (deal carefully with those verses in contradiction).

  4. […] Last week, during a plane ride, I began reading a book on the Marian traditions through the ages by Jaroslave Pelikan (Mary Through the Centuries). Mr Pelikan’s question was, briefly: If the First Council of Nicea was a legitimate development and the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 … an illegitimate development, what were the criteria biblical and doctrinal, for discerning the difference? […]

  5. Mark,

    Okay, so I think Pelikan’s use of the Augustine example confuses the issue more than is necessary. That’s just me.

    Regarding the “existence of canonical scripture” which “directly contradicts” the Nicene Trinitarian canon, I think that you assume the answer to the question “Does this passage contradict the Nicene Trinitarian” tradition? Protestants don’t read verses of the Bible abstracted from their context–both their immediate context AND their canonical context. To assume that it obviously contradicts the tradition is to ignore these contexts. If our hermeneutic simply takes each verse on its own, then we’re in real trouble since there are points where Jesus *obviously* contradicts himself in the Gospel of John.

    As for how we accept the one and not the other, I fail to see how simply saying “the one is Biblical and the other is not” is an inadequate criterion. I’ve already amply demonstrated my density, though.

  6. The only thing I’d add is that the ethos of Sola Scriptura comes with the reality of Scriptura: it contradicts itself often, and is never quite reducible to any one over-arching principle. (Which is oddly compatible with a Trinity–multiple, though of the same being.)

  7. Mark says:

    I think the idea is that use of “canonical context” assumes the canon. If you looked I’m pretty sure you’d find a galaxy of Scriptural exegesis to support both Lateran and Nicean teaching. See the link at #4, in which I’m beginning to suspect history is the clue.

  8. Anastasia Theodoridis says:

    But resorting to history (or anything else extra-biblical) is no longer Sola Scriptura.

    not a Sola Scripturist

  9. Mark says:

    Well, I’m (no longer) a Sola Scripturist myself.

    The linked essay above, however, does little to explain in detail what I mean by history (and Spirit). That I think is a task to begin tonight.

  10. Anastasia Theodoridis says:

    Okay, I should have said what you said, I’m (no longer) a Sola Scripturist. I once was, and it was hard to get away from.

    Looking forward to seeing the results of that task you’re beginning!