Keith Mathison’s book The Shape of Sola Scriptura is an apologia for the classic Protestant dogma of sola scriptura (the Bible alone). The book is timely because in recent years a growing number of Protestants have become Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. Many of these former Protestants left because of a theological crisis, including the loss of confidence in sola scriptura. These conversions have given rise to a stream of apologetics materials challenging Protestant theology, sola scriptura in particular. Mathison’s book is needed because Protestantism must be able to provide a reasoned defense of its foundational tenets if it is to stop the exodus to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, and present itself as a reasonable faith.
Dr. Mathison structures his book along three lines: (1) the historical argument — the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura is consistent with the teachings of the early Church Fathers, (2) the biblical argument — the New Testament teaches sola scriptura, and (3) the pragmatic argument — sola scriptura is capable of providing church unity. He also makes use of Heiko Oberman’s categories of Tradition I (one source theory) for Protestantism and Tradition II (two source theory) for Roman Catholicism (Mathison p. 48). He then creates a new category Tradition 0 for modern Evangelicals. The new category was created to distinguish classical Protestants who respect the historic creeds from modern Evangelicals who disdain them.
The Historical Argument
There are problems with the way Dr. Mathison approaches the early Church Fathers in Chapter 1. One, he does not postulate a conceptual framework of Tradition I and II for the testing of data at the beginning of the chapter. Instead, he dives headlong into the data and at the end of the chapter draws conclusions to support his agenda — that the early Church Fathers believed in sola scriptura. Two, his method is to find a few sound bites from the Church Fathers to support his position. The teachings of the Church Fathers were complex and isolating a few choice quotes is poor scholarship. Three, his superficial presentation of the Church Fathers results in an anachronistic reading of the Church Fathers, i.e., imposing modern categories onto their writings.
Probably the most problematic aspect of Chapter 1 is the way Dr. Mathison frames the categories of Tradition I and II. While he acknowledges the importance of the traditioning process in Tradition I, he subtly introduces a Protestant bias. Mathison does not make explicit in Chapter 1 the premise that written tradition for Tradition I constitutes the “sole source of revelation” and is the “final authoritative norm of doctrine and practice” (p. 85, 120, 345). He makes that premise explicit in Chapter 3 and the concluding chapter. Not knowing this implicit bias can cause the reader of Chapter 1 to misread the Church Fathers as proto-Protestants. Furthermore, Mathison’s definition of sola scriptura contains an ambiguity that introduces an element of confusion. He presents Tradition I as “Scripture according to the regula fidei” (see p. 32), i.e., “Scripture with Tradition.” By defining sola scriptura in such a broad manner the result is a version of sola scriptura that even an Orthodox Christian can embrace — a ludicrous idea! A more useful approach would be to describe the theological method of the early Church as “Scripture in Tradition” and the Protestant method as “Scripture over Tradition.” Orthodox Christians can accept the former but not the latter. Defining Tradition I as “Scripture over Tradition” introduces a conceptual clarity that facilitates the testing of historical data.
Also, Mathison’s definition of Tradition II as a “secret oral tradition” (p. 45) is problematic in light of the historical evidence. The notion of a secret oral tradition was refuted by Irenaeus in his apologia against the Gnostics. The notion of an extra-scriptural revelation coequal to Scripture was rejected in the Montanist controversy. The early Church recognized the Apostolic Tradition in both written and oral forms as interdependent and binding on the Church. There is no historical evidence in the early Church of an extra-scriptural authority independent of Scripture — Mathison’s Tradition II. This means that there could not have been a Tradition II — as Mathison defined it — in the early Church. What Mathison labels Tradition II would not emerge until the Middle Ages in the Catholic Church as a result of the flourishing of Scholasticism and canon law. Thus, the way Mathison sets up the categories of Tradition I and II is problematic on conceptual and historical grounds, and as presently defined impedes our understanding of the historical data.
In what follows, Dr. Mathison’s two categories will be utilized in a loose sense; Tradition I will be understood to refer to Scripture as the preeminent authority for faith and practice, and Tradition II will be understood to refer to tradition as an extra-scriptural source for doctrine and practice. An examination of the early Church shows problems with the distinction between Tradition I and Tradition II. The evidence show that the Church Fathers made no clear cut distinction between written and oral tradition. J.N.D. Kelly in Early Christian Doctrines noted that the early Church understood “tradition” as the doctrine of Christ and his apostles transmitted orally or in written form (1960:30-31). W.H.C. Frend in his The Rise of Christianity noted that by the year 200 the formation of the New Testament canon was near completion and had begun to take its place alongside the regula fidei, the episcopacy, and the liturgy as the basis for a unified church (p. 251). (See End Note #1) Therefore, the early Church acknowledged both oral tradition and the New Testament writings as authoritative sources. It did not draw any distinction between the two but saw them as interdependent.
A good example of the tight link between oral and written tradition is Irenaeus of Lyons, considered to be the leading theologian in the second century. Mathison’s reading of Irenaeus is surprisingly superficial. He quotes extensively from secondary sources and makes only a few brief paraphrases directly from Irenaeus. Brief references are made to Irenaeus’ use of “inscripturation” (Against Heresies (AH) 3.1) and the regula fidei (AH 3.4.2) as a means of protecting and preserving the Apostolic witness (p. 33). A more serious failing is Mathison’s failure to do justice to Irenaeus’ complex and nuanced understanding of the relationship of Scripture to the apostolic Tradition.
In Against Heresies 3.2-3.3 Irenaeus points to apostolic succession as a means of ensuring right doctrine. The apostolic message was safeguarded by the passing on of the creed (regula fidei) in baptism and by the office of the bishop, the successors to the apostles. Thus, the starting point for Irenaeus’ theology was the apostolic preaching both in oral and written forms. In another place, Irenaeus writes about the need for the pastor’s authority to be based upon apostolic succession:
This is why one must hear the presbyters who are in the church, those who have the succession from the apostles, as we have shown, and with the succession in the episcopate have received the sure spiritual gift of truth according to the good pleasure of the Father. As for all others who are separate from the original succession, in whatever place they gather, they are suspect (AH 4.26.2).
Irenaeus’ defense of Orthodoxy rests upon the traditioning process: (1) Tradition in oral form, (2) Tradition in written form, (3) the Rule of Faith received at baptism, and (4) the office of the bishop. All this together presents a picture quite different from Mathison’s Tradition I.
Even more problematic for Mathison’s Tradition I is Irenaeus’ complaint that if one confronts the Gnostics with Scripture they accuse the Scriptures of being ambiguous, and if one confronts the Gnostics with the tradition of the Apostles preserved through apostolic succession they claim a superior knowledge. He writes in exasperation:
It comes to this, therefore, these men do now consent neither to Scripture nor to tradition (AH 3.2; ANF Vol. 1, p. 415).
The above passage implies that Tradition II two-source model was very much a part of the early Church Fathers. The fact that Irenaeus, a second century Church Father, operated from a Tradition II paradigm refutes Mathison and Oberman’s claim that a transition to Tradition II took place in the fourth century (p. 32). This is where Mathison’s superficial reading of the Church Fathers hurts his fundamental argument. He must reconcile this passage with the Tradition I model or else he must reconsider the doctrine of sola scriptura.
Furthermore, Mathison must account for the evidence of Tradition II in other early Church Fathers. Clement of Alexandria who lived in the second century wrote about “ecclesiastical tradition” (Stromata 6.16), a tradition (gnosis) “imparted unwritten by the apostles” (Stromata 6.7), and the relation of Scripture with “ecclesiastical tradition” (Stromata 7.16). Another Church Father is Athanasius the Great who: (1) made reference to the “traditions of the Fathers” (Defence Against the Arians 2.30, 2.35), (2) declared “what our Fathers have delivered, this is true doctrine” (Defence of the Nicene Definition 2.4), and (3) appealed to the Faith held by the Church (Defence Against the Arians 38 and Deposition of Arius).
Dr. Mathison quotes approvingly from Cyril of Jerusalem who asserts that all he taught could be confirmed by Scripture (pp. 31-32). It is surprising that Mathison devotes only one paragraph to Cyril of Jerusalem when his famous catechetical lectures are more complex and nuanced than Mathison lets on. For example, Cyril also makes mention of the traditioning process (Catechetical Lectures 5.13, 15.13, 17.3, 18.32). And even more troubling for Mathison’s Tradition I argument is Cyril’s closing exhortation to his Catechetical Lectures: “Hold fast these traditions undefiled and, keep yourselves free from offense (23.22).”
There is also a pragmatic problem with Cyril of Jerusalem. While he supposedly operates from Tradition I, the Church that Cyril describes hardly resembles the present day Protestant or Reformed churches. He talks about making the sign of the cross, baptism with the rite of exorcism, chrismation, and the Eucharist. These practices are alien to Calvinists and Puritans but familiar to Eastern Orthodox Christians. This raises the question: Why do the worship practices and church governance of many Presbyterian churches today bear a stronger resemblance to the Tradition 0 Evangelicals than Cyril of Jerusalem’s Tradition I?
There are problems with Mathison’s suggestion that by the fifth century a transition to Tradition II was underway. Mathison’s citation of Basil the Great’s On the Holy Spirit as evidence of this crucial transition (p. 32) is based upon a superficial reading. What is notable about Basil was not his reference to “unwritten customs” and “written teaching” (§66), other Church Fathers have made similar statements. Rather, it was his explicit and extensive use of the Liturgy in §3 and §13 in his theologizing. Basil’s theologizing on the basis of liturgy is an application of an ancient principle invoked by Irenaeus of Lyons: “But our opinion is in accord with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn establishes our opinion” (AH 4.18.5 in ANF Vol. I p. 486). Also, Basil in numerous places cites Scripture in support for his argument which points to Tradition I (see §6-12, especially §10). What we find in Basil’s On the Holy Spirit is a mature form of the patristic method that goes back to the earlier approach that viewed oral and written tradition as different forms of a singular apostolic Tradition. In short, Basil the Great’s theological method does not fit in neatly with Mathison’s Tradition I or II.
Thus, Mathison’s attempt to understand the early Church Fathers using Oberman’s categories of Tradition I and II involves a form of anachronism. Jaroslav Pelikan wrote in The Emergence of the Christian Tradition:
Clearly it is an anachronism to superimpose upon the discussions of the second and third centuries categories derived from the controversies over the relation of Scripture and tradition in the sixteenth century, for “in the ante-Nicene Church . . . there was no notion of sola Scriptura, but neither was there a doctrine of traditio sola.” (1971:115; italics in original).
He further notes that in the early Church the term “tradition” was used broadly to include doctrinal, liturgical, and exegetical materials.
The emergence of an ecclesiastical authority distinct from Scripture did not take place in the fifth and sixth centuries as posited by Mathison and Oberman but much later during the Middle Ages with the rise of Scholasticism and canon law. The emergence of a two source understanding of tradition in the Western Church marked a step away from the early Church and created a theological chasm between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. The contradictions embedded in the two source theory of tradition would also in time give rise to the Protestant Reformation.
In Chapter 2 Dr. Mathison describes the historical and theological context in which the Protestant Reformation and the doctrine of sola scriptura emerged. He goes into some detail describing the rising tensions between Tradition I and Tradition II among the medieval theologians and scholars. Yet an issue that Mathison fails to address is whether the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura was more a product of the humanist movement of the medieval period than a return to modus operandum of the early Church. Locating sola scriptura‘s origins in the humanist movement’s method of ad fontes (back to the sources) makes a lot of sense and would explain the considerable differences between the Protestant Reformation and the early Church. However, this opens the door for the criticism that the Reformed doctrine of sola scriptura is a historical novelty, something that Mathison denies (see p. 292, 298).
In Chapter 3 Mathison seeks to show that the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura was not a novelty but a return to the method of the early Church Fathers. He writes:
In fact, the position the magisterial Reformers maintained was essentially that which was held in the early Church and throughout most of the medieval Church–that Scripture was the sole source of revelation; that it was the final authoritative norm of doctrine and practice; that it was to be interpreted according to the regula fidei. In other words, the case can be made that the Reformers adhered to Tradition I (p. 85).
However, Mathison’s subsuming both the early Church Fathers and the Protestant Reformers under Tradition I is problematic. There is a subtle but important difference in the way they understood the role of tradition. While the Protestant Reformers accepted the regula fidei, they subordinated it to Scripture. There is no evidence of this subordination among the church Fathers.
Dr. Mathison claims that the Reformers used the same method as the early Church Fathers, but the evidence suggests that their theological method diverged significantly from the Church Fathers. The Protestant Reformers interposed a tension between Scripture and Tradition, something that did not exist in the early Church Fathers. Richard Muller observes:
The Reformation did not invent the view that scripture is the prior norm of doctrine, the source of all necessary doctrines, sufficient in its teachings for salvation. Such was the view of many medieval theologians and commentators. What the Reformation did in a new and forceful manner was to pose scripture against tradition and practices of the church and at the same time, define scripture as clear and certain in and of itself and therefore “self-interpreting” (Muller 1996:36; italics added).
The elevating of Scripture over tradition led to a more skeptical attitude towards the apostolic Tradition. Dillenberger and Welch note:
Luther and Calvin both studied and knew the church Fathers. They quoted Augustine most. Ideally, the Fathers were to be understood as those who expounded biblical truth, who led men to an understanding of the Bible. Actually, both of the reformers (Luther particularly) felt that the Fathers generally led not to the clarity of the gospel, but away from it. Even the councils of the church could not be taken as finally authoritative or necessarily correct (p. 53; italics added).
The difference in theological method resulted in significant theological differences between the Reformers and the early Church. Philip Schaff in Vol. II of his History of the Christian Church notes:
On the other hand the theology of the fathers still less accords with the Protestant standard of orthodoxy. We seek in vain among them for the evangelical doctrines of the exclusive authority of the Scriptures, justification by faith alone, the universal priesthood of the laity; and we find instead as early as the second century a high estimate of ecclesiastical traditions, meritorious and extra- meritorious works, and strong sacerdotal, sacramentarian, ritualistic, and ascetic tendencies, which gradually matured in the Greek and Roman types of catholicity (p. 628; italics added).
The disparity in doctrine and practice between Protestantism and the early Church Fathers makes Mathison’s claim that both shared sola scriptura vulnerable to criticism.
Mathison’s equating the Protestant sola scriptura with the patristic consensus can be attributed to a lack of familiarity with the early Church Fathers as well as to the ambiguous manner in which Tradition I and II were defined. The theology of the early Church had a singular source: The apostolic preaching in oral and written form. Over time the apostolic tradition evolved into Scripture in Tradition — Scripture surrounded by a matrix of the Creed (regula fidei), the episcopacy, the liturgy, the patristic consensus, and the Ecumenical Councils.
During the Middle Ages the theological enterprise underwent a number a major changes: (1) an extra-scriptural canon law emerged as an authority equal to Scripture, (2) it was soon joined by an extra-scriptural doctrinal tradition, and (3) it was supervised by a centralized Papacy (Pelikan Vol. 4 pp. 121-126). The theology of the medieval Catholic Church evolved into Tradition over Scripture. The Reformers challenged the Papal monopoly on doctrine by attributing to Scripture a radical sovereignty over the Papacy and all other authorities. This resulted in an inversion of the previous model resulting in Scripture over Tradition.
Even though the Reformers sought to return to the theological method of the Church Fathers, they could not do so because their ecclesial context had changed radically. From a sociological standpoint, Mathison’s Tradition I consists of a written text and an ideology (regula fidei) with no mention of the social institution in which they function. Irenaeus on the other hand situates the written text and the ideology within the office of the bishop. Mathison’s avoidance of the episcopacy is contrary to the ecclesiology of the early Church. Ignatius of Antioch wrote:
See that you all follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery as if it were the Apostles. And reverence the deacons as the command of God. Let no one do any other things appertaining to the Church without the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop, or by one whom he appoints. (Letter to the Smyrnaeans VIII).
It was the office of the bishop that linked the congregation to the apostles and facilitated doctrinal unity across the Roman empire; without the episcopacy there is no effective unity. Ignatius’ emphasis in his letters on the church gathered around the bishop was not his own opinion but the “apostolic tradition” set down in writing in the face of his impending martyrdom (Eusebius’ Church History 3.36). The ecclesial structure of the early Church can be described as a conciliar episcopacy, something that Protestantism lacked due to the general rejection of the episcopacy (the exception being the Church of England). This raises a number of troubling questions: We have the Apostles’ writings but where are the bishops, the successors to the apostles? How can we claim to have the right reading of the Scripture apart from the tradition handed down by the bishops? Is our pastor’s seminary training sufficient to ensure the right reading of Scripture? And in light of Ignatius and Irenaeus, how can our church belong to a denomination that has no apostolic succession?
The Biblical Argument
Former Protestants have criticized sola scriptura as being unbiblical (pp. 287-289). Their critiques proceed along two lines: (1) nowhere does the Bible teach sola scriptura and (2) the Bible does in fact teach the need for tradition.
The case of the Bereans (Acts 17:10-11) provides a good example of Tradition II: “…for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” (NIV, italics added) What we see here is the Old Testament Scriptures being read in light of the Apostolic preaching. Here we see written tradition from the old covenant meeting the oral tradition of the new covenant and both operating in harmony with each other due to the fact that both have a common source: divine revelation. After Paul’s death his message continued on in the oral form through the memories of his listeners and in the written forms through his readers. There is no categorical distinction between oral and written tradition. Paul makes that clear in II Thessalonians 2:15 “…stand firm and hold to the traditions we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.” (NIV; italics added) Paul here is teaching that the Thessalonians were to hold fast to the apostolic message in both the written and oral form. Nowhere does he teach that the apostolic message in written form takes precedence over the apostolic message in oral form.
However, Mathison introduces a categorical distinction to defend sola scriptura. He argues that continuing revelation was only valid while the apostles were living but after the apostles died continuing revelation became inoperative and divine revelation became confined to the written text. He writes:
The error in this argument is the failure to distinguish between an era in which God’s revelation was still being communicated to His people and an era in which it has been completed (p. 161).
There are problems with Dr. Mathison’s position here. One, none of the apostles taught that the written form takes precedence over the oral form. Two, none of the early Church Fathers thought in terms of continuing revelations but in terms of the apostolic message in two forms, written and oral. Three, Mathison seems to assume that with the passing of the original apostles a crisis of authority took place in the early Church that was resolved by written tradition taking precedence over oral tradition. The question here is: Where does Mathison’s theory of the supposed superiority of the written tradition come from? What evidence is there among the early Church Fathers that such a transitional crisis happened?
There is no evidence from church history that such a crisis occurred. The early Church confronted three major crises that touched upon the issue of doctrinal authority: (1) Marcionism which denied the authority of the Old Testament and the non-Pauline epistles; (2) Gnosticism which denied the Incarnation and the teaching authority of the bishops; and (3) Montanism which insisted that true apostolic succession resided with those who continued to receive the special revelations by the Holy Spirit (see Pelikan 1971:109). There is no historical evidence to support Mathison’s assumption of written tradition superseding oral tradition. Until this is established, Mathison is open to being criticized for reading Scripture through a set of unproven assumptions.
Thus in his reading of the New Testament texts, Mathison is not engaging in exegesis but eisegesis, the mistake of reading something into the text. Mathison’s low regard for oral tradition can be seen in his claim that it is “inherently unstable” and cannot be “independently verified” (p. 175). This attitude is radically at odds with that of Irenaeus and the other Church Fathers. The Reformers’ controversy with the Catholic Church resulted in a skewed understanding of the Early Church’s Tradition I. Jaroslav Pelikan in The Vindication of Tradition noted: “…one of the most intriguing aspects of this kind of study is the uncovering of the processes by which the very antitraditionalism of the Reformation has itself become a tradition” (p. 11).
Dr. Mathison cites Luke 1:1-4 as evidence that the apostolic teaching requires securing by written form (p. 175). It should be noted that the apostolic teaching can be secured in other forms as well. Paul spoke of the traditioning process taking place through: (1) the Good News (I Corinthians 15:3-5), (2) the Eucharist (I Corinthians 11:23-26), and (3) the office of the bishop (II Timothy 2:2). (See End Note #2) A common thread running through these verses is the idea of Paul having received his teaching from Christ and his passing on this teaching to his followers through the regula fidei, the Eucharist, and the episcopacy. When we view these as an interlocking and mutually reinforcing hermeneutical matrix we find something that closely resembles the Orthodox model of Scripture in Tradition. The question here is: Why does Mathison insist on securing the apostolic tradition solely within the written text?
The Pragmatic Argument
Protestantism’s denominational chaos has been cited as proof of sola scriptura’s inability to provide a unifying theological framework. To those who ask if sola scriptura has ever worked in practice, Mathison replies “nowhere” if we are talking about the distorted version of sola scriptura — Tradition 0 (Popular Evangelicalism), but it did work well for the first three to four hundred years if we are talking about Tradition I (pp. 289-290). This argument is based upon the fact that in the early Church there was no infallible bishop exercising universal jurisdiction (p. 290). But it should be kept in mind that the early Church comprised a network of bishops who dealt with major theological issues through local, regional, and universal councils. By means of a conciliar episcopacy the early Church was able to avoid the denominational pluralism that plagued Protestantism early on.
With respect to Protestantism over the past five centuries Mathison has had to concede that it has not worked well (p. 290). When we look at the Reformed tradition, which we can assume had the best understanding of sola scriptura, we find similar practical difficulties. Which particular Reformed denomination has been most faithful to the principle of sola scriptura? PCUSA, PCA, OPC, RCA, EPC, BPC, CPC, CPCA, WPCUS, ARPC, RPCA, RPCGA, or CREC? (See End Note #3) Has sola scriptura proven to be a source of doctrinal unity or division in the Reformed churches?
The pragmatic argument deserves more than the two page rebuttal made by Mathison. Dr. Mathison lists three reasons why sola scriptura hasn’t worked so far: (1) the Reformation took place long after the initial schisms, (2) sola scriptura was soon replaced by a distorted version “solo scriptura” espoused by Evangelicals, and (3) the rise of the Enlightenment (p. 290). But his defense of sola scriptura against the charge of hermeneutical chaos suffers from a serious gap. None of these explanations account for the Marburg Colloquy in 1527 where Luther and Zwingli met to debate the meaning of words of Christ: “This is my body.” Their failure to work out the practical implications of how to celebrate the Lord’s Supper constitutes one of Protestantism’s earliest failures. This tragic event took place just ten years after Luther’s 95 Theses with the result that the Protestant movement soon was divided into three factions. Calvin was unable to forge a theological consensus beyond his own circle of followers. In Chapter 3, “Martin Luther and John Calvin,” Mathison makes no mention of Ulrich Zwingli, the great Swiss Reformer. This shows a serious gap in Mathison’s historical analysis. The Marburg Colloquy is an early occurrence of the impracticality of sola scriptura for the magisterial Reformation and is something Mathison needs to address.
Mathison’s Critique of Eastern Orthodoxy
Mathison’s critique of the Orthodox position relied heavily on modern sources, e.g., Timothy Ware (1993), Georges Florovsky (1987), Archimandrite Chryostomos (1984), and Hierodeacon Gregory (1995). It is surprising that he did not make use of the “Confessions of Dositheus” (1672) which is listed in Leith’s Creeds of the Churches which he cites in his book. The Confessions of Dositheus is important for two reasons. One, it is a response to Cyril Lucaris, the Patriarch of Constantinople who embraced John Calvin’s teachings and was subsequently deposed. Two, it was a conciliar response to a theological crisis. A synod was convened in Jerusalem in 1672 and Patriarch Dositheus drew up the Church’s official stance with respect to Calvinism. If anything, this is the source document Mathison should have cited in his critique of Eastern Orthodoxy; his failure to do so is indicative of his lack of familiarity with Orthodoxy.
The greatest strength and at the same time the greatest weakness of Mathison’s book is his four fold categories of Tradition 0, I, II, and III. His four fold categories facilitates comparison and analysis of the different theological positions taken by the Church Fathers, Protestant Reformers, Roman Catholics, and modern Evangelicals. However, we find Dr. Mathison admitting that Eastern Orthodoxy does not fall into any of the categories he constructed.
The concept of Scripture, tradition, and the Church in the Eastern Orthodox church does not parallel any of the concepts we have already discussed. It does not fall into the category of Tradition 0, I, II, or III as these have been explained. The isolation of the Eastern church from the Western church led to an entirely different development of this concept (p. 225).
The result is that Mathison’s taxonomy of Tradition is not equipped to critically assess Eastern Orthodoxy. This is a major weakness in his book. It creates ambiguity and confusion with respect to our understanding of the early Church. Dr. Mathison finds that the early Church Fathers accepted sola scriptura, a claim that the Orthodox Church — which claims unbroken continuity with the early Church — would take issue with. This leaves the reader wondering: Was the early Church Protestant or Orthodox? A refinement of conceptual categories is needed in order to better understand and compare the early Church’s understanding of Scripture and Tradition with that of Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Until that is done, Mathison lacks the conceptual tools for undertaking a serious critique of Orthodox theology. It proposed that Mathison’s ambiguous Tradition I (Scripture with Tradition) be replaced with “Scripture in Tradition” for the early Church and “Scripture over Tradition” for the Protestant Reformers. Below is an alternative taxonomy.
|Church Type||Theological Method||Governance Structure|
|Early Church Fathers||Scripture in Tradition||Conciliar Episcopacy|
|Medieval Catholicism||Tradition Over Scripture||Centralized Papacy|
|Protestant Reformation||Scripture Over Tradition||Denominationalism|
|Protestant Fundamentalism||Scripture Without Tradition||Non-Denominationalism|
The advantage of this alternative typology is that: (1) it shifts the focus from source to authority, (2) it takes into account the social context in which doctrinal decisions are made and implemented, and (3) it avoids the conceptual ambiguities of Mathison’s Tradition I.
In summary, Dr. Mathison’s book has serious shortcomings: (1) his treatment of the early Church Fathers is superficial and simplistic, (2) his attempt to apply Tradition I and II involved an anachronistic reading of the early Church Fathers, (3) his dismissal of the New Testament passages dealing with oral tradition is based upon an unproven assumption of the superiority of written tradition over oral tradition, (4) his plea for patience in allowing sola scriptura to prove itself in modern Protestantism is not a reasoned argument, and (5) his framework of Tradition I vs. Tradition II is unable to assess the Eastern Orthodox position.
As an apologia Dr. Mathison’s book falls short of its intended purpose. Probably the main cause for the book’s weaknesses arise from Mathison giving more attention to countering Roman Catholicism than to Eastern Orthodoxy. It is hoped that a theologian of Mathison’s caliber will: (1) give more attention to the Orthodox Church and (2) take another closer look at the early Church Fathers.
If Sola Scriptura Fails…
Dr. Mathison notes that the “branch theory” of the visible Church is a corollary of sola scriptura (p. 319). This means that if sola scriptura is shown to be untenable, then the “branch theory” must be discarded in favor of the one visible Church model. As a good Calvinist Dr. Mathison holds to a high view of the Church. He writes:
Christians are to be in submission to the Church, but the Church is not identical to Rome. The difficulty today is that the Church has been fragmented into many pieces making identification of the “Church” a significant problem (p. 312).
Ruling out the Catholic Church, this leaves us with the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church claims that it is the one holy catholic and apostolic Church confessed in the Nicene Creed. They base this assertion on two criteria set forth by Irenaeus: apostolicity and catholicity.
The tradition of the apostles, made clear in all the world, can be clearly seen in every church by those who wish to behold the truth. We can eumerate those who were established by the apostles as bishops in the churches, and their successors down to our time, none of whom taught or thought of anything like their [the Gnostics] mad ideas (AH 3.3.1; Richardson 1970:371).
The Orthodox Church can trace its apostolic succession directly back to the original apostles. Furthermore, the Orthodox Church is united by a faith and worship that spans across time and space. As Irenaeus wrote:
Having received this preaching and this faith, as I have said, the Church, although scattered in the whole world, carefully preserves it, as if living in one house. She believes these things [everywhere] alike, as if she had but one heart and one soul, and preaches them harmoniously, teaches them, and hands them down, as if she had but one mouth (AH 1.10.2; Richardson 1970:360).
The Orthodox Church has the unity of faith and doctrinal stability that is so sadly lacking among Protestants. Ultimately, sola scriptura must be recognized for what it is: A theological innovation that has no place in the historic Christian faith. Where the Roman Catholic approach is the Church over Scripture, the Eastern Orthodox approach is Scripture in Tradition. The Orthodox Church has guarded the apostolic Faith from heresies and innovation for the past two millennia. Protestants need to give serious consideration to Orthodoxy’s claim to have the stable framework for the right reading of Scripture.
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End Note #1
It is important for modern day Protestants to put themselves in the place of the early Christians who had no printed Bibles and whose only access to the Scriptures was through the Sunday liturgy (I Timothy 4:13, Justin Martyr’s First Apology 67). Also, the Scriptures read out loud in the liturgy were part of the received tradition. A formally defined universal and standard canon of Scripture would not come into existence until the fourth century. Thus, the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura contains a number of assumptions that could not apply to the situation of the early Church
End Note #2
(1) “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for ours sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve (I Corinthians 15:3-5, NIV, italics added);
(2) “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (I Corinthians 11:23-26, NIV, italics added); and
(3) “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to each others” (II Timothy 2:2, NIV, italics added).
End Note #3
The acronyms stand for: PCUSA (Presbyterian Church USA), PCA (Presbyterian Church in America, OPC (Orthodox Presbyterian Church), RCA (Reformed Church of America), EPC (Evangelical Presbyterian Church), BPC (Bible Presbyterian Church), CPC (Cumberland Presbyterian Church), CPCA (Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America), WPCUS (Westminster Presbyterian Church in the United States), ARPC (Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church), RPCA (Reformed Presbyterian Church in America), RPCGA (Reformed Presbyterian Church General Assembly), CREC (Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches).
Coming Soon: The review of Keith Mathison’s The Shape of Sola Scriptura opens the 4 part Contra Sola Scriptura series. Future postings will include biblical, historical, and sociological critiques of sola scriptura.