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Matatics Responds

I know from my evangelical years that it's possible to thoughtfully and sincerely believe in Sola Scriptura. I see no need, therefore, to question either Mr. Jones's [1] intelligence or his integrity, or to suspect some pathological reason for his position. I only regret Jones does not return the courtesy.

According to Jones, my "disillusionment with Protestant arguments" is only "professed." Rather, my "experience," like a "big and hairy animal" which "tend[s] to follow habitual patterns of behavior and miss out on the finer points of life," may have "trapped [me] in patterns of thought which only serve [to] confirm [my] suspicions against rather obvious matters," thus leaving "unmanageable messes all over the place."

But what "habitual patterns of behavior" made me "miss out on the finer points of life," and what are those finer points of life -- the subtleties of Reformed theology? What "suspicions" does this amateur psychoanalysis suspect? And what does the impenetrable murk of this mumbo-jumbo mean by "matters" which are "rather obvious" (not obvious enough, it seems)? The "big and hairy animal" analogy might more correctly characterize the cryptic code Jones speaks on this speculative safari. His simian simile, like some scatological Sasquatch, has left such an "unmanageable mess" that it has utterly obscured his meaning, at least for me. Being no hermeneutical Hercules, I feel unable to unmuck these Augean stables.

Jones says his ad hominem attacks are appropriate because in my opening paragraphs I "appeal to [my] experience...to buttress [my] case." My autobiographical remarks weren't advanced as an argument, though, my conversion to Catholicism no more proves Catholicism is true than Catholics converting to evangelicalism prove evangelicalism true, or Calvinists becoming atheists prove atheism true. I simply wanted readers to know where I was coming from and that I understood Sola Scriptura, having once held it myself.

Jones begs to "dispute that background." Apparently I "so misunderstand Sola Scriptura" that he finds hard to believe that I was ever an evangelical Protestant, let alone a Calvinist: "How could a `Calvinist of Calvinists' genuinely maintain that the doctrine of Sola Scriptura implies that oral revelation was not normative prior to inscripturation?" The reader, though, will search my essay in vain for any evidence that my "case against Sola Scriptura...assumes a bizarre view common to Roman Catholic apologists...that Sola Scriptura precludes all forms of oral revelation," or that I held this view (the only Protestant to do so, mind you) prior to my conversion to Catholicism.

If there's one thing worse than seeing someone flog a dead horse, it's seeing someone repeatedly flog the wrong dead horse. Once and for all, Mr. Jones: There is no dispute between Protestants and Catholics that oral revelation occurred, that it was inspired, that it was normative. Protestants don't deny this, and Catholics don't claim they do. What Protestants do deny is that anyone has access to this oral revelation today apart from Scripture. Catholics disagree with this denial because under both covenants God commanded that revealed truth be passed down in oral as well as written form. If Jones wishes to address the issue rather than waste time attributing to Catholics critiques they do not in fact make, then he needs to produce some prooftext that rescinds these commands.

After contesting the genuineness of my Protestant past, Jones proceeds to critique my nine-step survey of the phenomenon of revelation in redemptive history. Though he initially seems to grasp that "these steps are not distinct arguments against the doctrine [of Sola Scriptura ]" taken individually, he nevertheless insists on ending his assessment of each step with the antiphon, "This step [too] doesn't entail the Matatics Magisterium conclusion." I actually didn't expect him to contest any of the points until we got to the close of the canon (points 7-9). The previous points (1-6) merely laid down the trajectories of revelation to demonstrate that the Catholic conclusion is in line with these trajectories, while the Protestant concept of Sola Scriptura is not.

1. My first point, for example, was simply a reminder that God has revealed himself in ways other than writing. Of course "advocates of Sola Scriptura hold this view as well;" I didn't imply otherwise.

2. If Jones agrees that God's covenants with creation and the patriarchs involved only oral revelation, how can he find "obviously fallacious" my "inference" that "a written document...while valuable, was no sine qua non of a covenant, no necessary instrument to it implementation or administration"? "Holograms" have nothing to do with it, Mr. Jones: Adam, Noah, Abraham, and others possessed no Scripture, yet they possessed and passed on God's covenant Word. That Word can thus be competently conveyed in an oral mode, and any prejudice against that mode is contrary to Scripture.

3. Jones tries yet again the trumped-up charge that my point must "mistakenly take Sola Scriptura to somehow rule out all oral revelation."

4. Jones accuses me of a "Saussurean-like denigration of the written word" by drawing a "false dichotomy...between the words of a book and those of a person." But my fourth point provides no basis whatsoever for these irresponsible accusations.[2[

5. Jones claims that my fifth point works against Sola Scriptura only If I "mistakenly assume Sola Scriptura precludes," not just oral revelation now, but "the work of Christ" himself, but again no evidence is furnished for this, or for the equally spurious charge that "Matatics...assumes that Scripture is a collection of dead symbols."[3[

Nor is it true that "in order for Matatics' argument to carry any weight, we need a very literal understanding of John 5:19." My citation of John 5:19 was illustrative and incidental, not argumentative. Whether or not Jesus was in this instance following the Father's example (and he was), my point was that he provided for the continuation of his word by sending forth speakers, not assigning writers.

Furthermore, in his attempted reductio ad absurdum of what "a very literal understanding of John 5:19" would entail, Jones commits an unfortunate (but very common) logical blunder: The statement "Whatever A does B does also" doesn't yield the reverse conclusion that "Whatever B does, A does," yet this is the form his two "refutations" take.

In addition to these two errors, Jones's examples in fact pose no problem whatsoever to a "very literal understanding of John 5:19." The truth is that Christ walked on water precisely to imitate the Father (Job 9:8; Ps. 77:19) and thus furnish an indication of his divinity, and any standard Protestant commentary will say so. And "when Christ allowed Mary to pour ointment on his feet (Lk 7:38, 39) the Father was doing the same thing in heaven," i.e. allowing Mary to do this to Christ. Nothing happens expect the Father allows (Mt. 10:29; Jn. 19:11). Where is the problem Mr. Jones?[4[

6. Jones makes five points here, all of them invalid. First, not all arguments from silence are fallacious, as Jones himself says elsewhere. He needs to show why this one is.

Second, I nowhere claim that because Scripture doesn't record Christ commanding the apostles to write, he therefore never did. I simply pointed out that Scripture's silence on this point is deafening, which seems odd if Sola Scriptura is the fundamental of the faith Protestants think it is.

Third, Jones once again begs the question by sneaking in as a premise what he needs to demonstrate, namely that "whatever God chose to inscripturate is sufficient." None of his "prooftexts" support the premise: II Peter 1:2f and Hebrews 1:1-3 and 2:1-4 don't even mention Scripture, and II Timothy 3:16-17 fails as a prooftext for Sola Scriptura on several counts.[5[ It is unfortunate that Protestant polemicists go on citing, century after century, texts they've been told prove their point, without stopping to see if they really do or not.

Fourth, Jones's recurring refrain that this point does not single handedly establish my conclusion has already been answered.

Fifth, Jones misconstrues the Catholic's motive for adhering to Tradition as a desire for exhaustive knowledge of all that Christ or the apostles ever said. He misconstrues our appeal to John 21:25, which Catholics cite merely to prove that not everything was written down, not that everything that wasn't written down is contained in Tradition. Catholics "hold fast to tradition" not because Scripture plus Tradition bring all that was ever said, but because Scripture plus Tradition bring us all that we're required to know (II Thess. 2:15). Scripture alone does not.

7. Jones misquotes my seventh point. I never said "the preservation of God's word through inscripturation is a Protestant presupposition "without the slightest scrap of scriptural warrant" What I said was "The idea that inscripturation is the only way to permanently preserve revealed truth is a Protestant is a Protestant presupposition without the slightest scrap of scriptural warrant" [emphasis added]. There's a big difference.

Jones says I appear "ignorant of the fact that God Himself directed inscripturation of His revelation to preserve it for future generation," but he can't really believe I'm ignorant of the Bible verses he cites -- especially since I cite some of them myself in my first essay. In any case, his appeal to "the repeated Biblical precedent of transforming oral revelation into written form" is inadequate to prove his point. That God commanded inscripturation no one disputes. What Catholics dispute is the Protestant presumption that everything God wanted preserved was inscripturated and that such inscripturation was intended to replace oral tradition rather than be passed on alongside it as II Thessalonians 2:15 commands. Where are the prooftexts for these presumptions? Answer: nowhere.

What's more, when I attack the view that inscripturation is the only way to preserve revelation, I'm attacking a "straw man," says Jones, because "God could, if he so chose, preserve His Word on videotape, but He didn't." Jones often mentions "silly understandings of Sola Scriptura;" is this an example of a silly understanding of the Catholic case against Sola Scriptura? Does any Catholic deny that writing is the sole mode of preservation of God's Word on the grounds that videotape would do the trick? The issue is not what other recording mediums God could have used, but whether in addition to recorded materials of any sort God provided for ongoing oral tradition. Rebutting this is Jones's real task, not the multiplication of false dichotomies (writing versus videotape), all the more false for one of the terms not even being an option until the twentieth century.

8. On my eighth point, that "there is a standing command to pass on oral apostolic tradition and that the burden is on Protestants to show that this is repealed," Jones states, "Given the burden I bore in my first essay to the end that covenant history in Scripture is one long precedent for the claim that oral revelation regularly ceases and becomes inscripturated, I could simply point out that Mr. Matatics truly bears the burden of demonstrating why this precedent now changes." Sorry, Mr. Jones: I can't allow you to get away with such a burden-of-proof-shifting. The fact of the matter is that you have yet to produce one prooftext for your presumption that inscripturation ipso facto retires oral revelation. Until you do, the burden of proof rests squarely on your shoulders.

To show that even Protestants can perform works of supererogation, Jones gallantly volunteers to "bear this unnecessary burden" anyway, but does not better job of delivering it that he did in his first essay. He claims that he "and all advocates of Sola Scriptura maintain that II Thessalonians 2:15 is still in force," then turns around and says that there is no way to obey the command to hold fast to the oral tradition because there aren't any apostles around!

Jones plea, "Please, Mr. Matatics, find me an apostle of Christ, and I will heed his oral revelation!" is a glib way to sidestep the force of this command. Suppose some skeptic were to say to Jones, "Find the autographs written by an apostle of Christ, and I will heed his written revelation!" What would Jones say? He'd say, "We can still obey God's command to heed the written word, without the autographs, because we believe, on good evidence, that the copies of copies of copies that we possess faithfully preserve the wording of the original." Exactly, Mr. Jones! And I can equally respond, "We can still obey God's command to heed oral apostolic teaching, without the apostle himself present, because we believe, on good evidence, that we have in Sacred Tradition a faithful transmission of the original."

The problem is thus not that "Mr. Matatics has slipped in the assumption of apostolic succession in order to generate the alleged inconsistency;" on the contrary, I did not assume, but argued for, apostolic succession on the basis of Scripture (see my first essay, point 9). The problem is rather that Jones has slipped in the assumption that we somehow have grounds for believing in the reliable transmission of the Biblical text that are separable from any grounds for believing in the reliable transmission of oral tradition. What such grounds are there, Mr. Jones? Scripture nowhere states that there would be a providential preservation of the written text to function in subsequent ages as a trustworthy link to apostolic doctrine. (Statements to the effect that the Word of God abides forever or that Christ's words won't pass away don't restrict this to a written word, so quoting these only engages in the same unhelpful question-begging as before, since this assumes what the Protestant needs to prove: that God promises to preserve only Scripture.)

The fact is that the only ground anyone -- Protestant or Catholic -- has for confidence in the trustworthiness of our Biblical manuscripts is the general ground that Christ would preserve the faith in his Church. But this ground not only does not exclude oral tradition, it undermines the Protestant presumption that the Church fell into serious doctrinal error in the post-apostolic era. If the Church was incompetent to preserve the faith, on what ground can one hope (other than positing it in a purely fideistic fashion, which is all Protestants can do) that the Church was competent to preserve a reliable text of Scripture? Jones surely won't appeal to the science of textual criticism, since that science is not infallible, nor is it successful in filling in all the gaps. The earliest manuscripts we have are still copies of copies of copies. And if the science of textual criticism is admissible into the epistemological equation, why not the science of patrology, which established the Catholic understanding of the Christian faith as enjoying as much antiquity and consensus in the early Church as our text of Scripture? Jones, like all Protestants, hasn't yet grasped the lesson of the last five hundred years of history: that the reliability of the Church cannot be undermined without ultimately and inevitably undermining the reliability of Scripture.

What's more, Jones shows by his stout rejection of apostolic succession as "a contradiction in terms" that he has not taken adequate trouble to even understand the doctrine he claims to reject. The Catholic church has never taught that the successors to the apostles were apostles themselves. A successor to a founder is not a founder too, so the foundational uniqueness of the apostles remains intact.

Jones's befuddlement on this elementary point is all the more puzzling given my pains in my first essay (footnote 25) to explain the difference between the apostles and their successors. Jones counters the distinction by arguing that, since I deny the inspiration of the apostle's successors, I cannot "practice II Thessalonians 2:15 in the manner Paul teaches" any more than he can. This is a non-sequitur. The inspiration of the successors is no more necessary to my having reliable access to the original apostolic teaching than is the equally-absent inspiration of the manuscript copies we presently possess necessary to my having reliable access to the original Biblical autographs. In both cases, though the originals were inspired, the subsequent stages in transmission are not.

9. On my ninth point Jones charges me with failing to offer scriptural support for my "key point" (good choice of words, Mr. Jones) that "succession to office was conceived of as dynastic succession and filial inheritance." He needs to go back and re-read my essay, where ample evidence is cited. What else does Paul mean by referring to Timothy and Titus, the two bishops he personally appointed as successors, as his "true sons in the faith"? And what of the fact, in the particular case of Peter, that the office of chief steward of the royal house was one of dynastic succession (cf. e.g. Is. 22:24)? The fact is, that is how everybody (except the Gnostics) understood apostolic succession in the early church; nobody spiritualized it away in the (not un-Gnostic) way the sixteenth-century Protestant "Reformers" did. In any case, the burden is not on me in this debate to provide a full-blown defense of apostolic succession or any other aspect of Catholic ecclesiology (including magisterial infallibility or institutional unity). Rather, the debate is on whether Scripture teaches Sola Scriptura, and the burden of proof is on Jones to provide at least one prooftext that Scripture is, after passing of the apostles, the only God-intended infallible source of apostolic doctrine -- something Jones has yet to do.

What of Jones's summation, then, that my Biblical case fails on four counts? First, it's not the case that "[my] argument only succeeds if [I] assume the legitimacy of apostolic succession." My argument is not that apostolic succession is taught, but that Sola Scriptura isn't. Second, it is just not true that I "repeatedly assume the false view that Sola Scriptura precludes oral revelation." Third, my nine steps were never intended to entail my conclusion individually, though the last three, taken together and in line with the preceding ones, do. And fourth, Jones has yet to show that any of the steps "fail on their own account due to fallacious inferences."

Jones claims that in the next section of my essay after raising several charges of question-begging and equivocation against him I actually "refute myself" by somehow demonstrating that the charges don't apply to him after all. He offers no proof this in fact happens. Here you see the desperate ploy of a desperate man. Jones can't extricate himself from my charges, so he argues I've done it for him! He further diverts attention from his predicament by dredging up, for the umpteenth time, the counter-charge that "Mr. Matatics is committed to the false understanding of Sola Scriptura which precludes any oral revelation as normative." I leave the reader to draw his own conclusion.

Jones's second footnote is filled with the following further confusions:

1. For me to insist that "scriptura" means "writing" bespeaks "false notion of Sola Scriptura." No, that's the accepted meaning of the term.

2. To conclude that since "Scripture" and "the Word of God" are often interchangeable, and "the Word of God" is often oral, therefore "Scripture" can mean "oral Word of God" is embarrassingly bad logic.

3. I have no problem allowing Protestants to define their own doctrines. My point is that neither the Reformers nor the WCF define "Scripture" as an oral entity. If all that Jones means is that much in Scripture has oral antecedents, then there is no distinctively Protestant doctrine, and thus not what we are arguing about.

4. Jones has still not produced any prooftext that oral revelation is by God's design utterly superseded by written revelation.

5. Jones muddies the waters with the unhelpful example of "transmitting Paul's letter to the Ephesians by phone to a friend in Africa." What is your point, Mr. Jones -- that Protestants thus do not find oral transmission of God's Word objectionable? Given this not what you and I know the Catholic Church claims to do by magisterially passing down Sacred Tradition, why waste time attacking this silly straw man?

6. If Sola Scriptura does not contend that Scripture alone brings us the teaching of prophets and apostles in normative form, what does it teach? I'm not sure even Jones knows what he wants to attack and what he wants to defend.

When Jones says " the Old Testament does not contain anything close to a body of authoritative tradition or an infallible institution on par with Scripture," he still sidesteps the inspired, infallible institution of the office of prophet, and the fact that oracles not written down but passed down functioned as authoritative Tradition. He erroneously assumes when Jesus rejected uninspired "traditions of men" which conflicted with God's Word (oral or written)as Jones would say) he was rejecting all Old Covenant Tradition (Mt. 15:1-9). If so, why didn't Jesus reject the tradition, nowhere taught in the Old Testament, of "Moses' seat," an institution he said possessed morally binding authority (Mt. 23:2)? Why didn't Paul reject the extrabiblical tradition of the rolling rock in the wilderness, rather than derive a major Christological type and covenantal continuity from it (I Cor. 10:4), or the extrabiblical tradition of Jannes and Jambres opposing Moses, instead of using them as types of the false teachers plaguing his ministry (II Tim. 3:8)? Why didn't Jude reject the extrabiblical traditions of the archangel's dispute with Satan over Moses' body and the patriarch Enoch's prophecy of coming judgment, rather than derive doctrines from and support moral principles with them (Jude 9, 14f)? These examples prove that neither our Lord nor the apostles practiced Sola Scriptura, contrary to what a more superficial reading of the New Testament might conclude.

There's little space left to deal with Jones's remaining points, and little need: they've already been answered, again and again.[6] His second offering, in sum, has two major flaws, and both of them bring us round full circle to his opening concerns about big, hairy animals. First, he repeatedly charges me with misunderstanding Sola Scriptura both before and after my conversion to Catholicism, a misunderstanding mediated by my supposedly-skewing experience. Well, any stick is good enough to beat a dog with, and any stigma is good enough to beat a dogma with. The dogma in this case is the Catholic contention that Scripture is neither sole nor sufficient but supplemented by Tradition and Magisterium; the stigma is the supposition that evangelicals who surrender Sola Scriptura and become Catholics do so from some experiential or psychological defect. This is the constant canard of commentators on conversions to Catholicism. The idea that such conversions are not theologically-driven and the converts in question reject something they really don't understand, is an understandably attractive one, but not an accurate one in my case or the case of any evangelical convert I know. The stigma doesn't stick, and the dogma doggedly stands.

If Jones's first flaw is a faulty psychoanalysis, his second is a faulty scriptural analysis. To switch the canine simile, Jones, in search of scriptural supports for Sola Scriptura, ambles through the two testaments like an amiable retriever who has buried a bone and can't quite remember where. However, much he ambles, he comes up empty. His bark, though noticeably louder than in his opening essay, is still much worse than his bite. Given his failure in his first and second efforts to produce prooftexts for the cessation of oral Tradition, he'll have to have a lot more teeth in his next and final attempt if he's to vindicate Sola Scriptura as a notion Bible-believing Christians ought to support.

I want to reemphasize my recognition of Mr. Jones and all evangelicals as fellow Christians; I wish him, and them, well. And I pray that we all my be willing to submit our most-cherished notions to the authoritative sentence of Scripture. For the clear teaching of Scripture, and the constant teaching of Christian Tradition and the Church's Magisterium, is that Scripture must ever be interpreted in harmony with that Tradition and Magisterium, and not in isolation from them. This is the conclusion to which I came, and the conclusion I crave for all my brothers and sisters who seek after scriptural truth.


Notes

[1 ] Hereafter, "Jones," not to be disrespectful but to save space.

2 ] By the way, Protestants are not alone in "following Peter's lead." Catholics do so, too -- a fortiori.

[3 ] Is Mr. Jones's [hyperbolic] remark that "every Protestant is familiar with Hebrews 4:10" [it's actually verse 12] intended to imply that Catholics aren't?

[4 ] Perhaps Mr. Jones was thinking that a "very literal interpretation of John 5:19" would entail the Father allowing Mary to anoint the Father's feet, or, alternatively, the Father anointing Christ's feet. If so, he is (yet again) reading Scripture in a sloppy fashion: John 5:19 doesn't say that whatever people do to Christ they do to the Father, nor that whatever people do to Christ, the Father does to Christ. Jones was right in stating that when it comes to John 5:19, "embarrassments arise," but the embarrassments are all his.

[5 ] Protestants like to point out that Paul says the Scriptures can make Timothy "perfect" (KJV) or "complete" (RSV). But the Scriptures Timothy was to "continue in" to become a "complete" man of God were those he had known "from infancy," namely the Old Testament. If Paul was excluding anything else as necessary to achieving this "perfection," he was therefore excluding not only oral tradition but subsequent Scripture (i.e. the New Testament) as well. If Timothy could become "complete" without having to read, say, the Gospel of John or the Book of Revelation, then so could someone today. Secondly, James says that the virtue of "steadfastness" makes one "perfect and complete" (James 1:4, RSV). Which is necessary: Scripture or steadfastness? Clearly both of them, as well as such other things as faith, hope, and love. While II Timothy 3:17, James 1:4, and a host of similar statements says that "X" brings about perfection, none of them says that "X alone" brings about perfection. The same goes for the other attributes of Scripture listed in II Timothy 3:15-17: Paul nowhere says that Scripture alone inculcates salvific wisdom, is inspired, trains us in righteousness, and so forth -- as if these things wouldn't be true of preaching, for example. Protestants subconsciously add the word "sola" to Paul's description of "scriptura," but it's as exegetically illicit as was Luther's addition of "sola" to "fide" in Romans 3:28.

[6 ] Except his accusation that in my final section I "lose [my] cool and let [my] rhetoric fly" (with occasional pit-stops for "pandering"), but he's all wet if he concludes from a few aquatic analogies ("Calvinistic cataract"), maritime metaphors ("Captain Jones"), alliterative phrases ("tour-giving tugboat") or pointed puns ("Maid of the Missed") that I lost my composure, though I appreciate his pastoral solicitude.


7-18-96 tew
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