This is part two of a response to a paper critiquing The Reformed Protestant Doctrine of Inscripturation and The Fullness of Time. Part one can be found here: Guest Blog: Response To a Catholic Critique Of The Reformed Protestant Doctrine of Inscripturation (Part One). Iohannes offered to take a look at Frank’s paper, and provide a critique. His response will be posted here in parts. To really appreciate this interaction, it is essential that one actually first reads the paper posted by Frank Ramirez.
It is appropriate to turn now to the Scriptural evidence cited for the Roman Church’s position. In the interest of brevity some of the verses which were brought forward will have to be left unnoticed, but an attempt will be made to address the weightiest of the proof texts given. As part of the providence of God, the matters now under discussion have been explored extensively by many gifted theologians of the past, and since the true Protestant doctrine is sola scriptura—as opposed to what is sometimes called ‘solo scriptura’—reference will be made to the accounts given by learned commentators: it nonetheless being the reader’s task to judge whether these accounts truly accord with the bible’s teaching, which must remain the final authority.
These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: but if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. I Tim. 3:14f
Here is an excerpt from one commentator:
"By holding out to pastors the greatness of the office, he undoubtedly intended to remind them with what fidelity, and industry, and reverence they ought to discharge it. […] Hence we may easily conclude in what sense Paul uses these words. The reason why the Church is called the “pillar of truth” is, that she defends and spreads it by her agency. God does not himself come down from heaven to us, nor does he daily send angels to make known his truth; but he employs pastors, whom he has appointed for that purpose. To express it in a more homely manner, is not the Church the mother of all believers? Does she not regenerate them by the word of God, educate and nourish them through their whole life, strengthen, and bring them at length to absolute perfection? For the same reason, also, she is called “the pillar of truth;” because the office of administering doctrine, which God hath placed in her hands, is the only instrument of preserving the truth, that it may not perish from the remembrance of men."
Who wrote this? The answer is none other than John Calvin, whose words are quoted here in order to show that one need not speak meanly of the church when denying Rome’s claims about infallibility.
Calvin’s explanation of the passage is that Paul reminds Timothy of the high purpose of the church—namely, to hold up and defend God’s truth in the world—so that he and other pastors might be stirred to a great diligence and care in performing their service. If this is the real meaning of the passage, it seems to be something of a stretch to infer that the Church is “the ‘pillar and foundation’ of the Word of God,” as is said in the paper. For the truth that the Church maintains in the world is the truth now contained in Scripture, and it is on this truth that the Church itself rests. As John Owen observed, the church “cannot be so the pillar and ground of truth that the truth should be, as it were, built and rest upon it as its foundation; for this is directly contrary to the same apostle, who teacheth us that the church itself is ‘built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner-stone,’ Eph. ii. 20. The church cannot be the ground of truth, and truth the ground of the church, in the same sense or kind.” [Pneumatologia, Bk. VI, P. 1, Ch. 3]
It should be noted that the allusion to a pillar may involve the church not only holding up the truth, but also holding it out. Matthew Henry’s commentary states:
"The church itself is the pillar and ground of truth. Not that the authority of the scriptures depends upon that of the church, as the papists pretend, for truth is the pillar and ground of the church; but the church holds forth the scripture and the doctrine of Christ, as the pillar to which a proclamation is affixed holds forth the proclamation. Even to the principalities and powers in heavenly places is made known by the church the manifold wisdom of God, Eph. 3:10."
The commentator may have spoken somewhat imprecisely in attributing to Rome the notion that the authority of Scripture depends upon that of the church, but notice the statement that “truth is the pillar and ground of the church.” Is this a subtle Protestant attempt to weaken the authority of the church? Certainly not, for it is Chrysostom who said of the church that, “it is this that maintains the faith and the preaching of the Word. For the truth is the pillar and the ground of the Church.” [Homily XI on First Timothy] And therefore, if the foundation of truth upon which a particular church rests begins to crumble, then the pillar which that church is may become unsteady, and may even fall. Recognizing this, Calvin insisted that: “Paul does not wish that any society, in which the truth of God does not hold a lofty and conspicuous place, shall be acknowledged to be a Church.” The text consequently demonstrates that one of the marks of a true church is the maintenance of sound doctrine. For this application of the text, see Article 29 of the Belgic Confession, which lists the distinctive characteristics of the true church.
Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle. II Thess. 2:15
Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances [or, traditions], as I delivered them to you. I Cor. 11:2
These verses are best treated together, since both are relevant to the discussion specifically because of the use of the word paradoseis, or traditions. It is important that this word be understood rightly, and for that reason it is helpful to consider an excerpt from J.N.D. Kelly’s work on Early Christian Doctrines.
"At the threshold, however, the reader should be placed on his guard against an ambiguity inherent in the word. In present day idiom ‘tradition’ denotes the body of unwritten doctrine handed down in the Church, or the handing down of such doctrine, and so tends to be contrasted with Scripture. In the language of the fathers, as indeed of the New Testament, the term of course conveyed this idea of transmission, and eventually the modern usage became regular. But its primary significance (cf. paradidonai; tradere), viz. authoritative delivery, was originally to the fore and always remained prominent. Hence by tradition the fathers usually mean doctrine which the Lord or His apostles committed to the church, irrespective of whether it was handed down orally or in documents, and in the earlier centuries at any rate they prefer to employ other words or phrases to designate the Church’s unwritten traditional teaching." [pp. 30f of the Prince Press edition]
This understanding of the word’s meaning is reflected in the way Archibald Alexander responded to the claim that these verses support the Roman Church’s doctrine of tradition:
Now all that is necessary to refute the argument derived from these and such like passages, where the word traditions is used, is to observe, that Paul employs this word in a very extensive sense, to signify whatever doctrines or institutions he had delivered to the churches, whether by his preaching or writing. [...] [I]n the quotation from the second chapter, it is clear, that by traditions, the apostle did not mean merely oral communications, for he explains himself, by saying, “whether by word or epistle.” It is not denied, that Paul delivered many things orally to the churches, as has been already acknowledged. All the instructions given to the churches first planted, were oral, for as yet no gospels nor epistles were written; but the true point in dispute is, whether any article of faith, or any important institution, thus originally communicated, was omitted, when the books of the New Testament were written by divine inspiration. Whether, while a part of the revelation of God, for the use of his church, was committed to writing, another important part was left to be handed down by tradition. That the word tradition, as used by Paul, makes nothing in favour of the doctrine of the Romish church, is evident, because by this word he commonly means such things as were distinctly recorded in the Scriptures. Thus, in his first epistle to the Corinthians, he says, “For I delivered unto you first of all,” where the word for transmitting by tradition, is used; but what were those things which he had by tradition communicated to them? He informs us in the next words, “How that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day, according to the Scriptures.” 1 Cor. xv. 3, 4. [cf. I Cor. 11:23ff] [The Canon of the Old and New Testaments Ascertained, Part 2, Sect. 17]
Further evidence would therefore be needed to prove the Roman doctrine of tradition. The bare fact that the Apostles taught the first Christians by both spoken and written words does not in any sense require the conclusion that later Christians were to receive God’s final and authoritative revelation of Himself through the twin streams of written books and unwritten traditions, or that, as is said in Dei Verbum (9), “both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.” Protestants do, of course, believe the tradition of the apostles is authoritative, but they also believe that this tradition is now perfectly recorded in the completed Scriptures, to which nothing is to be added as part of the rule of faith and life.
When these verses were cited in the paper, it was said that “the Reformed theologians would respond that these apostolic traditions were what the divine economy required at that time.” But to be clear, the special importance of the spoken word in the earliest days of the Church was due not so much to a deep theological reason as it was to a practical reality—until the New Testament was completed, God’s revelation could not but be spread orally. God made provision for this situation by commissioning the apostles and other special officers, who would be responsible for the initial diffusion of the gospel. Paul’s words in First Corinthians are illustrative here (either directly or indirectly): “...when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Jonathan Edwards held that the text has in view what he called a “twofold perfect,” and in explaining one aspect of this he said: “The church in its beginning, or in its first stage, before it was strongly established in the world, and settled in its New Testament state, and before the canon of Scripture was completed, was in an imperfect state — a state, as it were, of childhood, in comparison with what it was to be in its elder and later ages, when it should have reached its state of manhood, or of comparative earthly perfection.” [Charity and Its Fruits, Sermon 16] In other words, while it was entirely proper for the Church, in its state of relative childhood, to receive the word of God from the mouths of the apostles, this was not to continue into the age of the Church’s relative maturity, once the Church had been well established, and the whole of God’s revealed will for His Church had been committed to writing.
Two points remain to be addressed with connection to these verses. The first point is that which Thomas Scott noted in his commentary on the verse from Second Thessalonians: “Doubtless Paul’s traditions were worthy of credence and obedience; but how shall we know anything of them, except as they were written for our benefit?” In order to hold that there is an authoritative body of extra-Scriptural apostolic tradition, it is necessary to show that such traditions as it is held to include actually came from the apostles. As Scott wrote, the good news “which Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy were sent to preach to” the Thessalonians “came not to them in word only, but with the power of the Holy Ghost” (cf. I Thess. 1:5; I Cor. 2:4). It appears that God gave a strong witness to the truth of his apostles’ message that he has not similarly given to truth of the alleged body of unwritten tradition. The other point is a response to the (admittedly clever) suggestion in the paper that the Protestant position amounts to shouting, “To hell with Timothy, we want 1 and 2 Timothy!” As should be clear by now, the Protestant position does not diminish the honor or importance of the special officers through whom God delivered the gospel to the early Church. Neither do Protestants, in recognizing the authority of Scripture as the infallible rule of faith and life, in any way rob the church and its pastors of their high importance in Christianity. Recognizing that it is with the feet that the body stands, and that rather using the hands for standing, the body uses them for holding things, does not in any way belittle the hands and their service.
What has been covered thus far should be sufficient for relating the general answer to the Scripture witness offered in the paper. Nevertheless, in order that the case might be more fully presented, it will be beneficial to look briefly at a few more of the Scripture passages that were referenced.
And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also. II Tim. 2:2
This verse should be compared with Paul’s words in the previous chapter: “Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. That good thing which was committed unto thee keep by the Holy Ghost which dwelleth in us.” It is without doubt that the Spirit aids the good pastors set over the church; as it is said in Matthew Henry’s commentary, “Even those who are ever so well taught cannot keep what they have learned, any more than they could at first learn it, without the assistance of the Holy Spirit. We must not think to keep it by our own strength, but keep it by the Holy Ghost.” At the same time, it clearly goes beyond what is written to infer from these verses anything touching the putative infallibility of the church’s teaching office. Regarding the command to “hold fast the form of sound words,” and to pass this on to future generations, this has historically been done, at least in part, through the drafting of creedal statements, which are simply short compendiums of Christian doctrine. These statements are received by the Church as authoritative, not in themselves, but derivatively and in a secondary way because they concisely but accurately present the teaching of Scripture.
Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. Acts 20:28
At this point it should be unnecessary to comment directly on the use made of this verse in the paper. But rather than silently pass by such a wonderful sentence, it seemed proper to quote it and make two observations on it. The first is that it contains a profound statement about how salvation comes to us in Christ; for God purchased His Church with nothing less than His own blood. The second, which must seem quite mundane in comparison, is that Paul here calls ‘overseers’ or ‘bishops’, i.e. episkopoi, the same men who in verse 17 are called ‘elders’, i.e. presbuteroi. Although it may be true that the institution of the monarchical bishop can be traced to very ancient times, the New Testament yet knows nothing of it, and seems rather to contradict it by equating bishops and elders.
These things have I spoken unto you, being yet present with you. But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. John 14:25f
This passage has long been used by the Church of Rome to prove, as is maintained in the paper, that Christ promised that the Spirit “would help the Church’s memory.” The old Catholic Encyclopedia identifies it as one of several places in this part of John’s Gospel “which clearly imply the promise of infallibility.” In response to this claim, Protestants do not necessarily deny that this promise can indirectly, in some sense, be extended to all believers. As is said in Matthew Poole’s commentary, “It is one great work of the holy Spirit, to bring the revelations of holy Writ to our remembrance, and withall to [make] clear to us the sense of them, and confirm our faith in them, and chiefly to quicken us to practice what is our duty.” Nevertheless, this is not at all the primary meaning of the passage; for Christ was here addressing his immediate disciples, telling them that they would be helped to remember the things which he himself had spoken to them during their time together.
An old article from Time Magazine [Nov. 1, 1968] describes a book by Roman Catholic Bishop Francis Simons titled Infallibility and the Evidence. This book was extremely controversial because Bishop Simons plainly asserted that, “a scrutiny of the traditional arguments seems to prove that the very structure of infallibility has to be abandoned.” Here is a short excerpt from the article: “Simons cites Jesus' declaration in John 14:26... In Simons' view, the obviously personal meaning of the word remembrance ‘makes the words applicable only to the Apostles.’ Nor is there any hint in the Bible, Simons claims, that the Apostles' successors would inherit more than ordinary providential assistance in interpreting what the Apostles themselves witnessed.” Depending on the context in which it is said, it may go a little too far to assert that the verse is applicable strictly to the Apostles alone. Nonetheless, the basic point remains as something deserving consideration.
This verse is also relevant to a fact that was mentioned several times in the discussion: namely, that Luke “had to sift through the traditions in order to write his Gospel.” Luke may indeed have had to sift through many sources when drafting his Gospel, but it is worth noting that in this process, besides having the benefit of divine inspiration, he also had the benefit of having been the contemporary of the men to whom the promise in John 14:26 was directly given. This is far from being the case with the men who today must interpret tradition as part of Rome’s teaching office.
Having many things to write unto you, I would not write with paper and ink: but I trust to come unto you, and speak face to face, that our joy may be full. II John 12
I had many things to write, but I will not with ink and pen write unto thee: but I trust I shall shortly see thee, and we shall speak face to face. III John 13f
These verses were referenced in the paper’s conclusion, not so much as outright proofs of the Roman Church’s doctrine, but as evidence tending to support it. In response it may be said that John’s purpose in coming in person rather than only in letter appears to have been determined more by the nature of pastoral care and Christian fellowship than by the nature of revelation. After all, John explicitly identifies his reason as being “that our joy may be full.” Since unwritten tradition moves men no closer to this end than the written word does, it is somewhat unnatural to read into this text a witness to the Roman position on revelation.
It was also asserted in the paper, again as something on the order of confirmatory evidence for a position already established: “That Moses and the Prophets were to write down everything is clear from the Old Testament writings... In the New Testament, however, these explicit divine commands to inscripturate are totally absent.” Two observations may be made in answer to this. First, in it is logical form it is essentially an argument from silence, and thus its value is doubtful, especially when other more forceful arguments can be made. But further, taking the argument at face value, the premise that the New Testament lacks any command to commit revelation to writing does itself appear questionable. In the opening chapter of the Apocalypse John is twice bidden to write down the vision that he receives (verses 11 and 19). This command to write is then reiterated at various important points in the prophesy (see the instructions to write to the angels of the seven particular churches, as well as 14:13, 19:9, and 21:5). It is true that no equally explicit command is found in the rest of the New Testament. However, it seems fair to infer from the Old Testament examples that such commands to write are more to be expected in prophetic literature than in other genres, and given that the Apocalypse is the only book of its type in the New Testament, it does not seem unusual that a command to write should be found in it but not in the other books.
With this the examination of the biblical witness brought forward in the paper must, for now, conclude, so that there be time to give something toward a defense of the Protestant position on Scripture.