The Shape of Sola Scriptura, part 3

Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox see a divided Protestant church, much of it non-confessional and chaotic. They see an Evangelical movement disconnected not just from the pre-Reformation period, but from 20 years ago. They see worship lacking in reverence and content. So do many Protestants. Is it hard to see why some Evangelicals cross the Tiber and the Bosphorus?

Thankfully, Mathison firmly engages Rome and, to a lesser extent, Eastern Orthodoxy, without resorting to the fevered hyperbole so typical of writings on the subject. He details how both churches have deeply flawed understandings of authority and tradition, noting that sola scriptura was the unanimous position of the early church for the first three centuries. It was also the prevailing view for most of the Middle Ages, and of course the view of the great Reformers. It was not until the late Middle Ages that Churchment began asserting that the Church could make infallible, extra-Biblical pronouncements.

Roman Catholics pound away at sola scriptura more than any of the other solas. A common objection is that sola scriptura cannot account for the canon of Scripture, but this, as with so many Roman and Orthododox critiques, is really a criticism of solo scriptura. There is no inspired table of contents, so how is the canon binding for the “me and my Bible” adherent? Mathison attributes the canon to “the witness of the Holy Spirit given corporately to God’s people and made manifest by a nearly unanimous acceptance of the NT canon in all Christian churches.” The fallible communion of saints made an infallible judgement (fallible means “can err,” not “must err”), just as the fallible Jews preserved the canon of the Old Testament without need of an infallible pope or council. Rome itself made no decree on the canon until the 15th century Council of Florence; the 4th and 5th century synods were local.

As an aside, Mathison concurs with Charles Hodge that Rome is part of the visible church despite its many errors, just as the Jewish church at the time of Christ “professed fundamental error… and yet retained its being as a church, in the bosom of which the elect of God still lived.” Similarly, the Galatian church. While many of the Reformers referred to Rome as an antichrist, virtually all of them taught that Roman baptism was valid. Mathison asks the church to consider the logical implications of this: Rome may be a severely diseased branch, but it’s still on the tree. This does not mean that all Roman Catholics are saved, but in the spirit of Deut 29:29 it invites discretion before broad-brushing its members.

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