The doctrine of Sola scriptura is, I believe, a major problem for protestant theologians. Sola Scriptura is the doctrine that the bible is the sole infallible rule of faith, in can be summed up my Martin Luther in his Smalcald Articles:
For it will not do to frame articles of faith from the works or words of the holy Fathers; otherwise their kind of fare, of garments, of house, etc., would have to become an article of faith, as was done with relics. [We have, however, another rule, namely] The rule is: The Word of God shall establish articles of faith, and no one else, not even an angel.
Pretty clear, the problem is, at best, the creeds can be challenged significantly using the principle of sola scriptura, including the Trinitarian creed. At worst, the creeds completely fall apart when one takes the principle of sola scriptura seriously and to its end. Catholicism doesn’t have this problem, Catholicism has the Magisterium. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church Chapter 2 and Article 2 the doctrine is summed up thus:
96 What Christ entrusted to the apostles, they in turn handed on by their preaching and writing, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to all generations, until Christ returns in glory.
97 “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God” (DV 10) in which, as in a mirror, the pilgrim Church contemplates God, the source of all her riches.
98 “The Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes” (DV 8 # 1).
99 Thanks to its supernatural sense of faith, the People of God as a whole never ceases to welcome, to penetrate more deeply and to live more fully from the gift of divine Revelation.
100 The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him.
Like sola scriptura the doctrine is more or less clear, the Word of God is tradition and scripture as interpreted through the pope and bishops. This seems to make Catholicism immune to the arguments against the creeds, such as Trinitarianism, which are based specifically on a scriptural basis, given that Catholics can appeal to Tradition and the Papacy as authority along with scripture.
Does this hold up? Well let’s take a look at some statements in the Catechism on scripture (I understand that the Catechism is not the whole of Catholic theology, but it does give us a standard by which Catholic teaching is to be done). In Chapter 2 Article 3 it says:
In Sacred Scripture, God speaks to man in a human way. To interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm, and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words.
In order to discover the sacred authors’ intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current. “For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression.”
This “historical” level of exegesis has some serious implications for the creeds; let’s take the Trinity creed for an example. On a purely historical level one must interpret the New Testament with the pre-supposition of Unitarianism, why? Well, all the books in the New Testament were written by Unitarian Monotheistic Jews, and were written for Unitarian Monotheistic Jews, at least they were raised as Unitarian Monotheistic Jews and were in a community of Unitarian Monotheistic Jews, and so unless we have a good reason for thinking otherwise, we should start our exegesis assuming that. If one wants to argue that we should have a different starting point the argument must be that there is some pre-exegetical reason (cultural, historical, religious or otherwise) for that.
Now this doesn’t mean that presupposing Unitarianism couldn’t, in principle, lead to Trinitarianism. When we read the new testament documents, the presupposition was that, for example, those in communion with Gods people must follow the mosaic law, people must sacrifice at the temple and so on, but that doesn’t mean that the theology coming out from the new testament necessarily leads to that conclusion, it doesn’t, in fact Paul argued that the law was not necessary, but why did he need to do that? Because the presupposition was that one must follow the law to be in communion with Gods people. Had no one said anything about the law not being necessary anymore, or if there was nothing in the text that would indicate a change in the application of the Mosaic Law, we would then rightly assume that it was still valid for the Jewish nation. The same principle applies with the Jewish doctrine of Unitarian Monotheism.
On a purely historical level of interpretation, the kind a historical scholar would use, and the kind the Catholic Church endorses, one is going to have a very very hard time finding anything that would support the Trinitarian creed. But there is another level of interpretation prescribed by the Catechism:
But since Sacred Scripture is inspired, there is another and no less important principle of correct interpretation, without which Scripture would remain a dead letter. “Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written.”
The Second Vatican Council indicates three criteria for interpreting Scripture in accordance with the Spirit who inspired it.
Be especially attentive “to the content and unity of the whole Scripture”. Different as the books which compose it may be, Scripture is a unity by reason of the unity of God’s plan, of which Christ Jesus is the center and heart, open since his Passover.
So here we have another level of interpretation, a spiritual interpretation based on the full witness of scripture. This interpretation adds the rest of scripture as a layer of context. However even at this level we have a problem, the Trinitarian creed is never spelled out in scripture, and it is never directly asserted. So, on this level of interpretation how do we get to a trinity?
Some might argue that you can get there through a cumulative case. A scripture by itself might not be a strong case, it might not state the creed or even state a precursor to the creed, but the scripture might hint toward a precursor to the trinity (for example the Deity of Christ), and when taken all together, you get a cumulative case for the trinity. This is the general strategy of Trinitarian apologists. Here’s the problem, the cumulative scriptural case is only as strong as the individual scriptures that make it up. If each scripture can be easily interpreted in a way that fits better with the full witness of scripture and within the historical context than the Trinitarian interpretation, then we must dump the Trinitarian interpretation, then taken together, there is no cumulative case. I talked about this tactic used by Trinitarian apologists in a previous post, calling it the machine gun filled with blanks approach.
So I don’t think this level of interpretation gives you the creeds either. So what’s left? Well the Catechism mentions one more level of interpretation:
Read the Scripture within “the living Tradition of the whole Church”. According to a saying of the Fathers, Sacred Scripture is written principally in the Church’s heart rather than in documents and records, for the Church carries in her Tradition the living memorial of God’s Word, and it is the Holy Spirit who gives her the spiritual interpretation of the Scripture (“. . . according to the spiritual meaning which the Spirit grants to the Church”).
Be attentive to the analogy of faith. By “analogy of faith” we mean the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation.
Here is the big Catholic save. We have the tradition, which is in the Church’s “heart” (but actually in the fathers, and in the fathers selected, and the interpretation of the fathers but later theologians). Now as to whether the “fathers” were all Trinitarians, especially the ante-Nicene fathers is a whole different debate, and I think a good case can be made that many of them were Unitarians. That being said the Catechism describes tradition thus:
77 “In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority.” Indeed, “the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time.”
78 This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition, since it is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it. Through Tradition, “the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.” “The sayings of the holy Fathers are a witness to the life-giving presence of this Tradition, showing how its riches are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and her prayer.”
It also describes the relationship between scripture and tradition in this way:
Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal.” Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ, who promised to remain with his own “always, to the close of the age”.
As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, “does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honoured with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.”
Apostolic Tradition and ecclesial traditions
83 The Tradition here in question comes from the apostles and hands on what they received from Jesus’ teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit. The first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition.
But here we have a problem, if what is defined as “tradition” by the Church is to be accepted and honoured with equal sentiment as scripture, and vice versa, what does one do when the clear message of scripture, interpreted both historically and within the context of the whole of scripture, conflicts with the tradition? What does one do?
Here are a few options.
- We re-interpret scripture to fit the accepted tradition, no matter how unhistorical or unsubstantiated by the rest of scripture that interpretation is.
- We ignore tradition
- We look for perhaps a mistake in the transmission of tradition or perhaps in the biblical text
- We re-interpret the tradition to fit the historical and contextual reading of scripture
- We ignore scripture
I’m sure there are more options, that being said the Catholic position has usually been the first one. Here’s the problem, in that case accepting the full inspiration of scripture is kind of meaningless, if the scripture is only to be interpreted historically and biblically contextually if it fits with tradition, then the real source is tradition. If the church is the only entity allowed to property define tradition and interpret scripture, and the historical or contextual standard is only valid if it fits with the churches definition of tradition, what you’re left with is, rather than sola-scriptura, we’re left with sola-ecclesia, only the church.
However if the scriptures are inspired, and we know they are, they must hold sway. They must hold sway using what I believe the Catholic church is right on, but the historical interpretation as well as the interpretation in the light of the rest of scripture, if that conflicts with tradition, then instead of bending scripture to tradition, tradition should bend to scripture, even if that means some of the dogmas and creeds need to go.