(For those with limited time, I suggest skipping down to "Whitaker's Refutation of Stapleton's First Supporting Argument" near the bottom of this post. Future entries will likely be significantly shorter.)
We live in an age where Roman Catholic apologists aggressively attempt to convert Protestants to Catholicism. Not only are Protestants in general targeted, but some groups, such as Called to Communion, work to bring Reformed Protestants in particular into submission to Rome.1
Whitaker lived in a similar age. The Catholic Church, reeling as it did from the initial blast of the Reformation, eventually rallied and issued, among other courses of action, an intellectual response to Protestantism through the Counter-Reformation. As far as Whitaker is concerned, Bellarmine and Stapleton are useful representatives of this effort. Their works set out to refute the distinctive Protestant beliefs and doctrines that Luther and Calvin had developed and refined, and to defend and promote the authority and authenticity of the Magisterium of Rome to define the limits of the canon and to officially interpret Scripture.
It must be noted that the debate has changed in some respects since Whitaker, Stapleton and Bellarmine. There have been a series of Catholic ecumenical councils and authoritative documents produced since the sixteenth century and these have some bearing on the official position of Catholicism since the Counter-Reformation. I do not wish to suggest that Disputations serves as a definitive work on contemporary challenges to Sola Scriptura, even if some of its arguments and discussions will be rather instructive and helpful in addressing them. (Indeed, it seems a variety of the Catholic arguments of the Counter-Reformation have merely been recycled, instead of improved or reformulated in any meaningful sense.)
Yet far from rendering Disputations obsolete in any way, these differences serve an unique purpose in critiquing modern Catholicism. Catholics like to claim a continuous succession from the Apostolic tradition of the Scriptures and early church, yet those readers intimately familiar with the post-Vatican II theological landscape might notice some significant differences between modern, liberal Catholicism and the rather conservative positions of Stapleton and Bellarmine as expressed in Disputations.
With that said, let us look at a dispute Whitaker considers to be not only "difficult and perplexed," but so critical that he does not "know whether there is any other controversy between [Papists and Protestants] of greater importance."2
(Readers will discover that clicking the previous footnote hyperlink will direct them to the location of this quote in the Google version of Disputations. I have endeavored to do this with all relevant footnotes. I hope this will encourage both Protestants and Catholics alike to further research this work of Whitaker.)
The First Controversy: Concerning the Authority of Scripture
The whole of the third section of Disputations deals with the single question of whether the church or Scripture enjoys more authority. This question finds itself fleshed out in whether we need the church to know the canon. If we do, then the Papists will be free to claim that Protestants need the Catholic Church, and specifically the Magisterium, to identify the source of all doctrine. Whitaker summarizes all of this as follows:
The state of the controversy, therefore, is this: Whether we should believe that these scriptures which we now have are sacred and canonical merely on account of the church's testimony, or rather on account of the internal persuasion of the Holy Spirit; which, as it makes the scripture canonical and authentic in itself, makes it also appear such to us, and without which the testimony of the church is dumb and inefficacious.3
As to which document or apologist best represents Catholicism on this point, Whitaker selects Stapleton4 and summarizes his assertion as follows:
To have a certain canon of scripture is most necessary to faith and religion. But without the authority of the church it is impossible to have a certain canon of scripture; since it cannot be clear and certain to us what book is legitimate, what supposititious, unless the church teach us.5
Stapleton is referring here to the difficulty Christians might have in knowing the canon of Scripture without reference to some body identifying it for them. There is some power in this argument. Indeed, forms of Stapleton's argument are still popular, although its particulars and consequences are drawn out in greater detail in our present day than by either Stapleton or Whitaker. While our contenders seem content to merely discuss the truthfulness of the question rather than what effects it has on the Christian (perhaps because all parties already understood what was at stake), modern Catholic apologists assert or suggest that the identification of the canon by the Catholic Church carries with it a validation of the Magisterium as the official interpreter of that canon:
I can show you plenty of [required extra-scriptural traditions which refute Sola Scriptura], but the one that's most likely to get your attention is the canon of the New Testament. That's part of God's revelation to the Church that comes down to us entirely outside of the Bible...Think about it: You must rely on that Tradition to know what the New Testament itself is, and you do accept it, by virtue of the fact that you have a Bible...And remember, too, that those epistles and Gospels are inspired by God himself and were given to the Church through revelation...The Church did not make those books [of the canon] inspired; God did. Similarly, the Catholic Church did not make them 'canonical'; God did, by the very fact that He revealed them. But it's no less true that the Catholic Church received this revelation from God and that the Church – which, don't forget, had been commissioned by Christ to authoritatively teach the meaning of the Inspired Scriptures – was charged with the twofold task of both interpreting Scripture as well as organizing and perpetuating its existence...under the sola scriptura rubric, Scripture exists in an absolute epistemological vacuum, since it and the veracity of its contents 'dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church.' If that's true, how then can anyone know with certitude what belongs in Scripture in the first place? The answer is you can't. Without recognizing the trustworthiness of the magisterium, endowed with Christ's own teaching authority, and the living apostolic Tradition of the Church (1 Cor. 11:1; 2 Thes. 2:15; 2 Tim. 2:2), there is no way to know for certain which books belong in Scripture and which do not.6
So the argument has some serious consequences. The claimed conclusion is no less than admitting the Magisterium of Rome is the valid interpreter of Scripture.
Whitaker's Refutation of Stapleton's First Supporting Argument
Stapleton adduces three arguments to support his assertion that we need the church to identify the canon, and thus the authority of the church is greater than the authority of the Scriptures. We will look at the first of these three here, and leave the other two for future posts. The first argument can be written as follows7:
P1 Nothing is more authoritative than God's teaching.
P2 God teaches only through the church.
C1 There is nothing more authoritative than the teaching of the church.
(It should be noted that Stapleton equates the church with the Magisterium.8)
Whitaker makes a variety of responses, some of which will be noted here (these are not in order as they appear in the text):
1. The only way Stapleton's argument can be truly successful is if he proves that "God and the church are the same thing." (It seems this can't be done without some kind of serious doctrinal error, so Stapleton's argument is rendered fallacious.)
2. Whitaker states an obvious truth--"that the authority of him who teaches is greater than that of him through whom one is taught"--and applies it to Stapleton's argument: Since the church is taught by God, the authority of the church is less than the authority of God. Therefore, there is something more authoritative than than the church. The conclusion is shown to be false.
3. And "it will more correctly follow from this reasoning, that nothing is more certain than the word of God and the scriptures, because it is God who addresses us in his word, and teaches us through his word." Not only is there something more authoritative than the church, but this Authority speaks to us directly through the Scriptures.
4. From this it follows that "we are not bound absolutely to receive whatever the church may teach us, but only whatever it proves itself to have been commanded by God to teach us, and with divine authority." In other words, the church is never free to claim that its doctrinal conclusions are absolute by virtue of its authority. It must demonstrate that it has successfully related the doctrine of God.
And how else could it do this but through Scripture?
Whitaker's counter-argument may be summed as follows:
P1 The one who teaches is greater in authority than the one who is taught.
P2 God instructs the church through Scripture.
C1 Therefore, Scripture is more authoritative than the church.
Here Whitaker accomplishes what Stapleton could not. Stapleton wished, in some sense, to equate the authority of God with the authority of the church. Yet if that relationship belongs to anything, it belongs first and foremost to Scripture. Scripture is God-breathed; the church enjoys no such status.
I suspect this can be considered a critical underlying aspect of any defense of Sola Scriptura: The source of God's specific and explicit instructions to His people is the God-breathed Scripture, not the church.
1. "Our aim is to effect reconciliation and reunion between Catholics and Protestants, particularly those of the Reformed tradition." Called to Communion, "What is the Purpose of Called to Communion?", http://www.calledtocommunion.com/about/ (accessed May 22, 2010).
2. William Whitaker, Disputations on Holy Scripture (Cambridge: Parker Society, 1894; reprint, Orlando: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2005), 275. Readers will find that the pagination of this version matches the Google books version.
3. Ibid., 280.
4. Ibid. Whitaker remarks, "Of all the popish authors, Stapleton hath treated this question with greatest acuteness: we shall, therefore, examine him specially in this debate."
5. Ibid., 285.
6. Patrick Madrid, Answer Me This (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2003), 127.
7. Whitaker, Disputations on Holy Scripture, 285-286. Unless otherwise noted, all of the material in this section is drawn from these pages.
8. "Meanwhile let us see what they mean by this word, the 'church.' Now, under the name of the church the papists understand not only that church which was in the times of the apostles (for Thomas of Walden is blamed on that account by Canus, Loc. Comm. Lib. n. c. 8, and also by Stapleton, Doctrin. Princip. Lib. ix. c. 12, 13), but the succeeding, and therefore the present church; yet not the whole people, but the pastors only. Canus, when he handles this question, understands by the church sometimes the pastors, sometimes councils, sometimes the Roman pontiff. Stapleton, Lib. ix. c. 1, applies this distinction: The church, as that term denotes the rulers and pastors of the faithful people, not only reveres the scripture, but also by its testimony commends, delivers down, and consigns it, that is to say, with reference to the people subject to them : but, as the church denotes the people or the pastors, as members and private persons, it only reveres the scripture. And when the church consigns the scripture, it 'does not make it authentic from being doubtful absolutely, but only in respect of us, nor does it make it authentic absolutely, but only in respect of us.' Hence we see what they understand by the term the church, and how they determine that the scripture is consigned and approved by the church." Ibid., 279.