I. Introduction - Bryan and Tim Respond
Bryan and Tim end up with similar-sounding responses, so I'll provide both and then answer them:
In our article we explain carefully how there can be subordinate authority, both of the civil government, and even within heretical sects. See also comment #149.(source - from Brian - bracketed and parenthetical comments in original)\
The conclusion of our argument is not that there is no [conceptual] distinction between solo and sola, but that there is no principled distinction between them with respect to the holder of ultimate interpretive authority. And that is why in essence they are the same, even though they are defined differently. Sola is merely the indirect form of solo. I can either directly act as my own ultimate interpretive authority (that’s solo), or I can pick people who agree with my interpretation, and then ’submit’ to them (that’s sola). The underlying principle or essence is the same in both cases (i.e. the individual is his own ultimate interpretive authority), but in the latter case this essence is hidden by a layer of customized secondary ‘authority.’
I went to those posts earlier but I confess I did not read them. I’ll let Bryan respond directly if he wants to; I’m more interested in the direct refutation of the article.(source - from Tim)
We need to more carefully define what we mean by “principle of distinction” since the obvious meaning seems to be in question now (for the sake of winning a debate I guess). We mean a principle of distinction in regard to the principle of the thing in question. For example, is there any principle of distinction whatsoever in any way between solo scriptura and sola scriptura? Sure, 1. the former is spelled “solo” and the latter is spelled “sola.” We can always distinguish them by inspecting the last letter of the word. That is a principle of distinction as regards spelling. Another principle distinction: The former is improper Latin and the latter is proper Latin. That is a principle of distinction as regards grammar. If we examine the concepts themselves, there might be principles of distinction in one regard, but not in regard to the principle of the things in question. The principle here is authority. So while there is a principled distinction in regard to spelling, there is no principled distinction in regard to authority.
Suppose a government started an education lottery. “We will raise $1 million and all of it will go to education” they said. Having raised the money, the tax payers realized that the $5 million education spending stayed the same. They question it, and the authorities reply that they indeed used the $1 mil from the lottery to pay for education, but that freed up $1 mil of the education money to be used elsewhere. We can say without qualification that what the government did is no different in principle than if they had directly misappropriated the fund. They rebut: “No there is a principle of distinction in what we did, we respected the law and we did everything according to the book. The $1 mil was designated to education exactly as promised.” So there is a principle of distinction in the action of the government, but not in regard to the principle of the things in question, namely whether or not the government misappropriated the funds. One way does it directly; the other does it indirectly. But they both do the same thing in principle.
There are some accidental differences and those differences could be considered principles of distinction but only in regard to a certain aspect of the question. For example, in regard to the question, per se, of whether or not the money was designated according to the law, is there a distinction between the government designating 1 mil and then moving other funds and them not designating 1 mil? Yes there is. But there still is no principle of distinction in regard to the very thing in question: whether the funds were misappropriated.
We can probably think of many examples. But to tie it into your argument, the question is whether or not one’s private interpretation of Scripture is authoritative for a believer. In regard to this, there is no principle of distinction between sola and solo scriptura. Your argument shows that there is a principle of distinction in regard to an accidental aspect, namely whether one acknowledges church authority in any way whatsoever, but not in regard to the very thing in question: whether one’s private interpretation of Scripture holds more authority than the Church.
Both Bryan and Tim attempt to make the issue more specific. Bryan suggests that there is no principled distinction "with respect to the holder of ultimate interpretive authority" whereas Tim says there is none "in regard to authority" (in fairness, the introduction section of the original article says there is none "with respect to the locus of “ultimate interpretive authority:”") In the conclusion, Tim returns to the opening theme and indicates that he thinks "the question is whether or not one’s private interpretation of Scripture is authoritative for a believer," which does not really seem to be the question at all. Even Roman Catholics formally admit that a believer is bound to obey Scripture.
More interestingly, Tim's example of government spending suggests that "in principle," to Tim means "in effect" or "in practice." That's not an obvious meaning to the expression "in principle," in fact, Tim has elsewhere attempted to distinguish between differences in practice and differences in principle.
Nevertheless, I wonder if this is also the sense that Bryan intends. After all, the original article quotes approvingly from Mathison who says of solo scriptura: "What this means in practice is that the individual is to measure his teacher’s interpretation of Scripture against his own interpretation of Scripture."
Indeed earlier in the same comment box, Tim had written in response to the comment "2) Even if in principle they are the same, in practice they can be different.":
I agree that there is a practical difference between Reformed and many other denominations on the subject of Church authority. The point of this article isn’t to try and paint the Reformed as if there is no difference whatsoever between their approach to ecclesial authority and the ‘me & Jesus’ evangelical. But this article does show that without a principle of distinction between solo and sola, their position amounts to the same thing. As you said above, it might still be a viable position, but we agree with Mathison that it is not.(source)
Interestingly, in response to the same comment, Bryan answered:
See section IV of the article. That’s where we respond to the claim that sola scriptura allows one to appeal to “the church.”(source)
Returning to Tim, he not only provided that comment in the comment box, but also provided a whole post, entitled "But is There a Practical Difference" (link to post). In that post Tim asserts: "That practical difference that I saw previously, though real in certain limited respects, was ultimately an illusion." However, the proof that it was an illusion seems to be summed up as: "Logically then, since Bryan and Neal actually demonstrated there to be no principled difference between solo and sola scriptura, an appeal to a practical difference is insufficient."
Furthermore, I had previously suggested to Bryan that perhaps he meant that there was no practical difference, and he responded with his now-debunked argument in favor of an explanation of natural necessity. Likewise, he now distinguishes between "no [conceptual] distinction" (his brackets) and no distinction as to the ultimate interpretative authority.
II. Simplifying the Response
Although there is some mixture of ideas in the response, giving Bryan's comments the greatest weight, I don't think they really mean to argue that there is a difference in theory (rather than in practice) between sola and solo scriptura. Instead, I think that they simply mean that "the holder of ultimate interpretive authority" in both is the same, and that consequently there is not even a theoretical ("in principle" or "principled") distinction between the two on this point. Furthermore, apparently, any apparent practical distinction between the two is illusory in view of the lack of difference in theory on this particular point between the different ideas of sola scriptura and solo scriptura.
III. Altering the Way to Refute
One effect that this clarification (assuming it is) of the article has is that it leads us to a short form of direct refutation of the article. Since, apparently, the article stands for the idea that "the holder of ultimate interpretive authority" in both approaches is the same, the only direct refutation of the article would be to argue that the holder of ultimate interpretive authority is different. There are also indirect ways, as we'll discuss below.
IV. Considering Whether Direct Refutation is Desirable
Recall that the article started by stating (in the opening paragraph) that "The direct implication of solo scriptura is that each person is his own ultimate interpretive authority." The argument, as presently explained by Bryan and Tim, is that the indirect implication of sola scriptura is that each person is his own ultimate interpretive authority.
However, this leaves open the possibility that there are other important differences (both in theory and practice) between sola scriptura and solo scriptura. The fact that there may be some commonality between them isn't necessarily troubling. In fact, both views agree that the Scriptures are the only infallible rule of faith and life. That's a commonality, and there is no way to distinguish the two views with respect to that particular issue.
Assuming, for the moment, that the alleged ultimate holder of interpretive authority commonality is a real commonality, it doesn't follow (without more) that we should be concerned that there is no principled distinction with respect to that aspect, since there are important principled distinctions with respect to other aspects.
V. Disposing of a Red Herring or Two
If the real claim is that both sola scriptura and solo scriptura share the common trait that in both cases the ultimate holder of interpretive authority is the individual, then claims about solo scriptura being a natural consequence of sola scriptura is essentially a red herring. It's irrelevant to the question. So also, if we've identified the question, are the issues of there being many denominations of "Protestants." Those issues aren't germane to the question of whether in both the solo and sola formulations the ultimate holder of interpretive authority is the same.
VI. But What About Mathison?
The careful reader has probably noticed that I ended section IV hanging on a "without more." The "more" here that I think Bryan and Tim would try to argue for is what they assert Mathison is arguing against solo scriptura. I suspect that Bryan is likely to take the position that Mathison has essentially conceded that placing ultimate interpretive authority in the hands of the individual is intrinsically bad. Actually, though, Mathison criticizes neglecting the fallible "interpretive ministerial authority" (p. 140) of the church, although some comments that Mathison makes (for example, describing solo scriptura advocates as "claiming that the reason and conscience of the individual believer is the supreme interpreter") could be viewed as coming close to that. We'll discuss this more, below.
VII. Distinguishing Mathison
I've made it clear elsewhere that I don't agree with everything that Mathison says. I do agree with him that there is an error of solo scriptura that involves a neglect of the subordinate authority of the church. I don't agree with his analysis at pp. 246-47, and particularly with his claim "It renders the universal and objective truth of Scripture virtually useless because instead of the Church proclaiming with one voice to the world what the Scripture teaches, every individual interprets Scripture as seems right in his own eyes." (p. 246) I believe that here, as at a few other places in his book, Mathison departs from the Reformed view. Nevertheless, I don't think that necessarily makes a difference to this particular discussion with Bryan.
VIII. Looking at Mathison's Shadow
Even if Mathison thinks that ultimate interpretive authority is in the hands of the individual in solo scriptura in some way, Mathison also thinks that solo scriptura is somehow distinguishable from sola scriptura. In fact, it is much more clear that Mathison distinguishes between the two positions than what Mathison means by his comments regarding the individual and interpretation.
I call this looking at Mathison's shadow, because Mathison doesn't clearly spell out what distinguishes sola and solo at the level of interpretation. However, in matters of interpretation, Mathison commends a particular hermeneutic principle:
1) "The regula fidei was the necessary context for the correct interpretation of Scripture." (p. 23, describing - seemingly favorably - the practice of Irenaeus)
2) "The traditional apostolic rule of faith is the foundational hermeneutical context of Scripture. To reject the rule of faith on the basis of an appeal to Scripture is to immediately read Scripture outside of its Christian context." (p. 277)
More examples could be provided, but it seems that repeatedly Mathison suggests that part and parcel of sola scriptura is the use of the regula fidei or "rule of faith" as an hermeneutic principle.
IX. What is the "Rule of Faith" for Mathison?
It is challenging to get a precise definition of the "rule of faith" from Mathison. He describes it as follows:
- "that rule of faith is the apostolic faith" (p. 137)
- "Christian orthodoxy – as defined for example in the Nicene Creed" (p. 150)
- "the apostolic gospel" (p. 275)
- "outlined in the ecumenical creeds" (p. 278)
- "expressed in the ecumenical creeds" (p. 280)
- "expressed in written form in the ecumenical creeds of Nicea and Chalcedon" (p. 321)
- "the essential truths of Christianity" (pp. 321-22)
- "has found written expression in the ecumenical creeds of the Church. The Nicene Creed and the definition of Chalcedon are the creedal confessions of all orthodox Christians and serve as the doctrinal boundaries of orthodox Christianity." (p. 337)
X. Mathison's Sola Scriptura Distinguishable from Solo Scriptura
Getting back to the challenge at hand, Mathison's Sola Scriptura is distinguishable from solo scriptura in that the individual must essentially make his interpretations consistent with the ecumenical creeds (apparently Mathison only views the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian definition to be ecumenical) and, in theory, with any future ecumenical creeds that may emerge. Thus, while the individual's interpretive authority is broad for Mathison, it is not unbounded.
XI. Mathison's Position Compared with the Roman Catholic Position and the Eastern Orthodox Position
The Roman Catholic position essentially takes Mathison's interpretive grid further. Rather than limiting the grid to the ecumenical creeds, the Roman Catholic position makes the grid a vast array of canons and decrees from twenty-one allegedly ecumenical councils and additionally the ex cathedra definitions of the popes and any items that are de fide by universal consent of the faithful. Within that grid, the Roman Catholic layman is permitted to interpret Scripture, but he is not permitted to interpret Scripture so as to contradict the grid. The same goes for Mathison, though the grid is much more bare-bones. The Eastern Orthodox position is somewhere in the middle, accepting only seven councils as ecumenical, the EO position has far fewer dogmatic definitions.
XII. The Multi-Pronged Rebuttal
The above points lead us to a multi-pronged rebuttal to Bryan and Tim.
First, Mathison's interpretive authority is not simply the individual, but the individual looking through the grid of the ecumenical creeds. Thus, there is a principle with respect to the ultimate holder of interpretive authority that distinguishes Mathison's view from solo scriptura in which the creeds are not binding.
Second, Mathison's methodology is functionally the same as the methodology of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox positions, with respect to the way in which the individual interprets the Scripture. In Mathison's, the RC's and the EO's positions, the individual is not permitted interpret Scripture in any way contrary to the rule of faith. Thus, if Mathison's position shares a commonality with solo scriptura as to the ultimate holder of interpretive authority, then so do the RC and EO positions, in which case, who cares.
Third, it may be objected that Mathison's methodology is submission to a grid that one has selected based on what one already agrees with, and that one will abandon if one ceases to agree with it. However, of course, the same is true of any grid - whether Mathison's or the RC or EO. One assents to the grid as a requirement for communion, and one who rejects the grid is (at least in theory) excommunicated. In other words, the objection that because the submission to the grid is voluntary, it is not true submission, is an invalid objection.
Fourth, the absence of a binding extrinsic hermeneutic grid is not the chief or main problem of solo scriptura. Accordingly, the fact that neither sola scriptura (in the Reformed sense as distinct from Mathison's sense) nor solo scriptura has such a grid is a commonality that does not cause us concern.
Fifth, the absence of a binding extrinsic hermeneutic grid does not preclude the presence of a binding intrinsic hermeneutic grid. In other words, Scripture interprets Scripture as both the Reformers and the early church fathers taught. Consequently, Scriptures must be understood harmoniously with one another, the more clear helping us to understand the less clear. Thus, the absence of a binding extrinsic hermeneutic grid does not mean the death of hermeneutics.
It has been demonstrated that there is a principled distinction between Mathison's view and Solo Scriptura with respect to the holder of ultimate interpretive authority in that the individual is not subject to a binding extrinsic hermeneutic grid in the solo position, but is subject to such a grid in Mathison's position, as well as in the RC and EO positions. Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that if the sense in which the Reformed position of sola scriptura and the erroneous view of solo scriptura overlap is in not applying a binding external hermeneutic grid, that is an overlap we are comfortable with.