Saturday, April 05, 2008

2 Thessalonians 2:15 - Additional Clarification

This is the third post in a series on 2 Thessalonians 2:15 (main post) (comment answered - additional examples).

Reginald has provided some additional comments in a new post (link).

Preliminary Clarifications

Before going through Reginald's comments in detail, I think it would be worthwhile to address a couple matters briefly and generally.

1. I think Reginald may think that I have identified 2 Thessalonians 2:15 as a sort of proof text against Roman Catholicism. That was not my intent, or at least not as such. There are ways in which 2 Thessalonians 2:15 comes into conflict with Roman Catholic dogma, but the point is not to quote 2 Thessalonians 2:15 to criticize tradition, for example. For that I'd turn to other Scriptures. Instead, I've brought of 2 Thessalonians 2:15 to rebut the use I've seen it put to again and again in Catholic apologetics, to suggest that it is a sort of proof text for Catholic positions on tradition.

2. I think Reginald may have taken the position that the "Reasons" and "Impacts" I presented are themselves an attempt to refute the "Catholic position." Not so. In fact, I'm glad that Reginald can so freely agree with at least some of them. They are the facts that we draw from the text that are then used in the antidotes to the various specific abuses of the text.

With such antidotal use in mind, the focus of the discussion is a little different than the focus would be if I were trying to positively some doctrine from the text. It is important to realize that there is a difference between trying to positively establish a doctrine from a text, and trying to demonstrate that a doctrine cannot be established from a particular text.

To put it another way, just because (as I demonstrate) the verse does not say what fans of "tradition" need or want it to say, does not mean that it is a clear enunciation of the opposing reformation doctrine. Perhaps this is hard to see, so I'll use an example.

Suppose that someone took the account of Judas' suicide to be a teaching that one can redeem themselves from serious sins via suicide. There are several doctrines that oppose such a teaching, such as that only Christ's sacrifice can redeem us from sin and that suicide is itself a sin. Nevertheless, an exposition of the "proof texts" for such a teaching would not necessarily find either of those doctrines in the text. A verse that says Judas hanged himself may not actually say that suicide is wrong, nor may they necessarily explain the unique role of Christ's atoning sacrifice. We'd be surprised if they did.

Hopefully such an example demonstrates why we'd be surprised if the supposed proof texts for the "traditionist" point of view positively demonstrated Sola Scriptura. It would be lovely if they did - and sometimes one may find that happening. Nevertheless, we wouldn't expect such a thing as a matter of course.

Rebuttal as to Reginald's Comments on the Specific Examples

1. The First Specific Example

The first specific example was a situation in which someone is trying to say that we need to permit some "tradition," because this verse says so. I think Reginald may have misunderstood this situation. Frankly, as I went through my concrete examples, I found this kind of abuse with lower frequency than the other two. That is not to say it does not happen.

Searching quickly, one might pick on Sungenis' argument in a Catholic Answers article (link) in which he argues, defending the doctrine of the Bodily Assumption of Mary, "... in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 Paul told these same Thessalonians to preserve the oral instruction, along with the written." Let me be clear: I think Sungenis is really trying to go after the broader issue of Sola Scriptura, even though the argument is part of a defense of the bodily assumption of Mary. Nevertheless, the point is that on this particular debate, Sungenis has brought in 2 Thessalonians 2:15.

We can ask ourselves the three questions I posed, and discover that 2 Thessalonians 2:15 doesn't help Sungenis establish the doctrine of the Bodily Assumption.

Now, Reginald seems to think that the first question ("Is the tradition that they want us to permit the gospel preached by Paul to the Thessalonians, or something else?")is vague, because (apparently) the term "gospel" is vague. I'll leave that softball aside for a while. The point of the question was intentionally not to be more specific than the text. Tying back to the "Reasons" and "Impacts" section of the original post, though, I think we had basically agreed that the answer is "the gospel."

Likewise, Reginald seems to think that the second question ("Is the tradition they want us to permit something that they can demonstrate Paul taught to the Thessalonians at all?") is irrelevant. In the example of Sungenis' use to support the Bodily Assumption of Mary, the question is plainly not irrelevant. If Sungenis cannot demonstrate that Paul taught the Thessalonians the Bodily Assumption of Mary, then we don't have any particular reason to think that Paul telling the Thessalonians to hold fast to the things that they were taught has any significance to the particular doctrine of the Bodily Assumption of Mary.

Finally, Reginald seems to think that the third question ("Is the tradition they want us to permit something that they can demonstrate that any of the apostles or prophets of the apostolic age taught to the Thessalonians?") is also irrelevant. However, for much the same reasons, it is relevant when the verse is brought to bear for support of a particular doctrine, such as the Bodily Assumption of Mary.

Reginald's comment, "There is no documentary evidence showing the full content of St. Paul's preaching in Thessalonica, so he cannot demonstrate that distinctively Catholic traditions were not taught there," seems misplaced. I would not suggest that we could demonstrate (at least not simply from this verse) the negative proposition that distinctively Catholic traditions were not taught in Thessalonica. Instead, my point is a rebuttal point, as noted above.

My point is that one cannot point to 2 Thessalonians 2:15 to support the doctrine of the Bodily Assumption of Mary, because no one could demonstrate that Paul was referring to a body of doctrine that included such a doctrine. Even if Paul had simply said, "Hold fast everything you've ever been taught," that wouldn't establish the Bodily Assumption of Mary unless we could discover somehow that the Bodily Assumption of Mary had been taught to the Thessalonians.

That's not the same as demonstration from 2 Thessalonians 2:15 that the Bodily Assumption of Mary was NOT taught to the Thessalonians. That's not what the argument aims to demonstrate and it is critical that Reginald grasp this point. I'm not suggesting that 2 Thessalonians 2:15 disproves the Bodily Assumption of Mary.

2. The Second Specific Example

The second specific example seems to be the most frequent abuse that I've seen in a quick informal survey. The second specific example posits the following situation: "someone is trying to use this verse to suggest that we must consider as infallibly authoritative something in addition to Scripture."

We can ask ourselves the three questions I posed, and discover that 2 Thessalonians 2:15 doesn't help "traditionists" establish their thesis that we must consider as infallibly authoritative something in addition to Scripture.

Reginald thinks that the first question ("Does the verse contrast Scripture and oral traditions or "our epistle" and other "things preached"?") is irrelevant, but Reginald is mistaken. Reginald's comment: "nothing in the passage proscribes Sacred Tradition as being the content of the traditions that were preached - traditions whose referents we do not know." Something in the passage may well proscribe "Sacred Tradition" (indeed, we do know the referents in general terms, even if the precise specifics are not stated), but that is not the point here. The point here is somewhat the opposite: that is it say the point is that nothing in the passage prescribes "Sacred Tradition" as being the content of the traditions that were preached.

Or to put it more generally, nothing in the verse provides a dichotomy between Scripture as a category and non-Scripture as another category. That's one reason the concrete examples of this specific abuse fail.

Reginald also thinks the second question ("Does the verse say that the Thessalonians had been preached extrascriptural doctrines?") is irrelevant. But again, Reginald seems to have misplaced the argument. His comment confirms this fact. Reginald states, "the verse also doesn't say that they had been taught things solely found in Scripture," but - of course - that wasn't the claim. Perhaps it is the case that they had been taught things solely found in Scripture, and perhaps we could even establish that. But that's not why we asked the second question, just as we did not ask the first question to prove that "Sacred Tradition" is not the content of the traditions that were preached. Instead, the question is raised to demonstrate the the verse does not support the Catholic thesis.

The same goes for the third question ("Does the verse explain anything about the "things preached" beyond that they were the "truth" and "the gospel"?"). Reginald comments, "Question 3 doesn't exclude Sacred Tradition, which is certainly true and transmits the gospel, so the fact that the verse doesn't spell things out is irrelevant." The point, though, is not that "Sacred Tradition" is excluded. The point is to highlight what we know about the content of the "traditions" mentioned by Paul. The content is the "truth" and more specifically "the gospel." Neither of those categories requires the inclusion of something beyond Scripture. Since that it so, the verse does not support the Catholic thesis.

3. The Third Specific Example

The third specific example is a case in which the verse is provided as an argument that the magesterium of the church has been entrusted with oral teachings that are passed down orally for long periods of time, but which must be accepted when finally revealed to the public.

Reginald thinks that the first question ("Is there any reason to think that Paul taught things in secret, especially from this verse?") presupposes a mistaken view of Catholic theology. Reginald points out, "Sacred Tradition ... isn't "hidden" from anyone." I understand his concern.

The problem is that if one makes an investigation of the doctrine of, say, Papal Infallibility, one doesn't find any positive evidence that anyone believed in the doctrine more than say 150 (or even 50) years before it was enunciated by Vatican I. Some Catholic commentators adopt a theory that essentially the magesterium reveals knowledge about doctrine (such as the doctrine of papal infallibility) progressively - and thus the doctrine of papal infallibility could be said to be - in effect - "hidden" for hundreds and and hundreds of years.

Furthermore, one does find those in the early church (such as Clement of Alexandria) adopting a view of alleged secret traditions (see this letter of Clement's for example). Undoubtedly this was due to the influence of Gnosticism, but then that's why Reformed Christians sometimes level charges of tendency towards Gnosticism on Roman Catholicism. After all, if all that the apostles taught is in the public knowledge, then it shouldn't take a magisterium to provide its contents, just as no magesterium is necessary to provide us with Homer's Odyssey or Aristotle's Physics.

But there is no need to be contentious about the question of secrets. Let us suppose that for the particular Roman Catholic in question, we are talking about a supposedly well-known tradition, or about a tradition that has allegedly been held by all Christians everywhere always. Then, perhaps, it would possible to suppose that the first question might be moot.

Proceeding to Question 2 ("Is the verse directed to the leaders of the Thessalonian church or to the brethren?"), Reginald claims that this question misleads. Reginald argues that "the fact that the bishop or presbyter(s) of the Thessalonian church taught them oral traditions doesn't change the fact that oral traditions were taught." While I agree with Reginald's flow of thought (who taught the traditions wouldn't matter to the fact that the traditions were taught), the point was a bit different. The point was that these were not traditions that had been passed down among the religious elite and were finally being revealed to the people, but were traditions that had been given directly to the brethren. Thus, these traditions are not analogous to modern Catholic traditions that are missing from any written record for much of history.

Finally, the most significant question (whether or not questions 1 and 2 were relevant) is the third question ("Does the verse specify that the "things taught" were not things that were committed to writing?"). Reginald - again misplacing the issue - argued irrelevance of the question, "since the verse also does not say that they were written down." (emphasis in original). The problem, of course, is that the verse does not support the Catholic thesis, not that the verse necessarily refutes the Catholic thesis.

Objection Anticipated

The anticipated objection is that while the verse does not support the Catholic position, it doesn't refute it either. In fact, while I call this an anticipated objection, one almost sees it expressed in Reginald's concluding remark
I think that he and I might be able to agree on one thing: 2Th 2:15 is not by itself a foundation for the entire Catholic understanding of what Sacred Tradition is. It doesn't have to be. But it most certainly does not contradict the fact that God's revelation has been preserved in Sacred Tradition.
The supposed "fact," is the thing to be proved. Thus, this sort of objection is an argument that we would typically call "begging the question." That is to say, it hasn't been established that there is a class of knowledge called "Sacred Tradition" that is a part of God's revelation separate from Scripture.

2 Thessalonians 2:15 is sometimes quoted as though it did establish such categories, but we have discovered that it does not. We can understand and appreciate how one would apply the modern Catholic categories onto the verse, but when we read the verse itself in context, we have no reason to suppose that it is suggesting the Catholic (or "Orthodox," for that matter) categories.

Indeed, when we look at the verse itself, we discover that the point of the verse is that the Thessalonians are to hold fast to the gospel. Reginald thinks that the term "gospel" is vague, and like many things its precise boundaries may not be clear. No matter. We can perhaps look to other places where Paul or other Scripture writers explain what the gospel is to get a better sense and clear up the matter. But that can wait for another time - for now it should suffice to have been demonstrated that the verse doesn't support the Catholic theses for which it is so often quoted, even if it is only neutral with respect to them.

To go back and remind ourselves of the previous analogy, the statement "Judas went and hanged himself," is not a proof text for a Mormon doctrine of "individual blood atonement" even though it (itself) is not inconsistent with such a doctrine.

A Patristic Example

John Chrysostom wrote a a large amount, and even more that he did not write has been attributed to him over the years. Among the things attributed to him (whether he wrote it or not, I haven't seen any compelling case made) is a statement that is frequently used by advocates of the "traditionist" position. Commenting on 2 Thess. 2:15, "So then, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word, or by Epistle of ours," the person writing under the name Chrysostom states, "Hence it is manifest, that they did not deliver all things by Epistle, but many things also unwritten, and in like manner both the one and the other are worthy of credit. Therefore let us think the tradition of the Church also worthy of credit. It is a tradition, seek no farther. Here he shows that there were many who were shaken."

That's the entire commentary on the verse. There's certainly some ambiguity as to what the writer means by "tradition." Does he mean "Sacred Tradition" or something else?

When we look ahead to the next homily in the collection, we can see attributed to Chrysostom, the following commentary on 2 Thess. 3:6:

"Ver. 6. "Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw yourselves from every brother that walks disorderly and not after the tradition which they received of us."

That is, it is not we that say these things, but Christ, for that is the meaning of "in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ"; equivalent to "through Christ." Showing the fearfulness of the message, he says, through Christ. Christ therefore commanded us in no case to be idle. "That ye withdraw yourselves," he says, "from every brother." Tell me not of the rich, tell me not of the poor, tell me not of the holy. This is disorder. "That walks," he says, that is, lives. "And not after the tradition which they received from me." Tradition, he says, which is through works. And this he always calls properly tradition."

If both of those homilies are by the same person, we would tend to view Chrysostom considers "tradition" to refer to how one lives one's life - to discipline, but not doctrine.

Regardless, however, of what Chrysostom meant (and regardless of whether he actually wrote either or both of the comments), if Chrysostom meant what he is so often quoted for, then Chrysostom is wrong. We have demonstrated that from the text.

The point for which Chrysostom is quoted is normally Specific Abuse 2 from my original article, in which it is argued that something in addition to Scripture is binding on believers today. Since it has already been demonstrated in the original article and again by response to objection above, that the verse does not teach such a thing, it is not necessary for us to resolve the other historical issues, which might bore the reader of this already-long post.


Very briefly, in conclusion, please remember to consider that if someone is citing Scripture as allegedly teaching their doctrine (whether my doctrine or Reginald's doctrine or Chrysostom's doctrine) we need to look to Scripture to see if it is so. We need to examine what the Scriptures say, if we are interested in what their author intended for us to know.

As a practical matter, we must hold fast to the gospel, living a life of repentance and faith manifesting itself by love: love for God, love for the brethren, and even love for our enemies.

Thanks be to God who has provided the gospel in Scripture,


1 comment:

Carrie said...

Good work, TF.

It is easy to have a position and find supporting evidence from Scripture. The real question is always, what is Scripture actually saying. You have nicely shown the difference here.

This has always been the baffling part of RCism. When I read Scripture I don't walk away thinking, I need an infallible authority and must find the possessors of this other stream of revelation (Tradition). The arguments for RCism always seem more philosophical (?) than biblical.

People seem drawn to RCism b/c of their own insecurities, not b/c of what a plain reading of Scripture says. Well, that and other things, but that is my two cents.