Book Review: The Shape of Sola Scriptura

Dear Reader,

I have spent a long time on Keith Mathison’s The Shape of Sola Scriptura. It is not a thin book, but beyond that there is also a lot to absorb from it. I had come to this book after many unfruitful and frustrating discussions with a recently turned Catholic friend. A large issue for him is authority in the church — Where does it come from? Who decides what the Bible means? I hoped that this book would provide some coherent answers to his questions and mine.

I am going to spend a couple of posts (at least) on The Shape of Sola Scriptura. In this first one I will attempt to give you more of a classical book review — what the book is about, what works in it, what doesn’t. In my next post I will delve deeper into Mathison’s arguments and give my own responses to them.

Mathison defines four views of the relationship between Bible and tradition. He calls them Tradition 0, 1, 2 and 3. He is a proponent of Tradition 1 which he defines as the reformation view of Sola Scriptura which views the Bible as the ultimate authority for God’s people but takes it in the context of the regula fidei, or Rule of Faith (we’ll come back to the specifics of what this means). Tradition 0 is, by his definition, a corruption of Sola Scriptura which he calls solo scriptura. It takes the Bible as the only authority, the result of which is that each Christian interprets the Bible for him or herself with no guiding principles and ultimately no uniformity in doctrine within the church. Tradition 2 adds Sacred Tradition to Scripture, a position which Mathison would say leads to the supplanting of Scripture by tradition as it is tradition which tells us what Scripture means. Lastly, Tradition 3 makes the church the authority over Scripture and Tradition, telling us what both mean. This is the view of the modern Roman Catholic Church with its Magisterium and papal infallibility.

Mathison divides his discussion into three main parts. He begins with the historical evidence from the early church on, asking what the church fathers had to say about tradition, and then moving on through the Medieval church, the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, discussing ideas which arise in the process (like papal infallibility). Mathison then truns to what Scripture has to say about tradition and about its own authority and then to more theoretical arguments for sola scriptura in a section he calls “The Theological Necessity of Sola Scriptura.” The very end of the book is devoted to some common objections to the Tradition 1 view.

Mathison is really trying to do two things in this book: to present and defend the view he subscribes to and to critique competing views. While my own view is very similar, though not identical to Mathison’s, I felt that he did a much better job of critiquing the positions of others than of presenting his own.

As I said, Mathison begins with the historical evidence from the early fathers. I found this section quite convincing as it is presented. I did wonder, however, if what he gives us is an accurate and complete account of the evidence. Everybody (or almost so, some “Tradition 0” Protestants don’t care) in this battle wants to trace their own position back to the church fathers. The ones Mathison cites seem to expound a view similar to his. The problem is that the Catholics and Orthodox will both give a different series of quotes, or perhaps even different takes on the same sources, that seem to support their view. I find this one of those subjects that it is very hard for me to draw a conclusion on, like global warming and evolution. “Experts” on both sides seem to present convincing evidence until you talk to the other side’s expert and find his evidence sounds just as convincing. While the body of writings from church fathers should be a finite one, it is nonetheless a large one and is itself subject to interpretation so it is hard for me as a lay person to take it all in and say “yes, this is what the church fathers thought” or “no, that is what they thought.”

Beyond this, there is the problem of being anachronistic, of reading our modern understandings into ancient writings. When we use or read the word “tradition,” we must always ask how it is being used. The early fathers did not have the arguments we are having so they weren’t setting out to answer our questions for us. We are left trying to look back and discern how they would have seen the issue when they never framed it the way we do. Here I should say that I have some problems with how Mathison frames the whole issue. His use of the labels Tradition 0, 1, 2, and 3, I find to be a bit oversimplified and to leave out some legitimate options. I do understand that it is helpful for a book like this to be able to boil it all down, but there is a fine line between giving us helpful terms with which to discuss an issue and oversimplifying or even misrepresenting an issue through one’s terminology. I actually really liked the categories Oberman uses which Mathison briefly references in a footnote on p. 86, but Mathison himself does not choose to use them.

As Mathison moves on from the early church period into the Middle Ages and beyond, he shows how new views of the interplay of Scripture and Tradition developed. His focus is really on the Roman Catholic position and though it is not his direct object at this point in the book, he (at least as far as I am concerned) raises a lot of legitimate questions about the Roman Catholic position and its origins. In fact, I think the strongest part of the book is the questions Mathison raises about the Catholic view. I will treat these specifically in my next post on the content of the book.

Though he devotes a short section to it, Mathison does not talk much about the Eastern Orthodox view and even admits that it does not really fit his categories. Neither does he discuss other, admittedly less widely held, views or address other branches of the Christian tree such as the Oriental Orthodox churches.

A main purpose of this book is to distinguish Mathison’s Tradition 1 view from the common Protestant position which he calls Tradition 0. Proponets of the latter accept no authority other than Scripture, and Mathison does a decent job of showing that this position is quite problematic because it so very subjective and because it leads to many, many divisions in the church and undercuts any attempt at defining absolute truth.

The weakest part of The Shape of Sola Scriptura is Mathison’s defense of his own position. He does acknowledge some of the problems inherent in his own position, most notably that it is quite dependent on our definition of what the church is which is another huge can of worms. Though he defers this discussion of this issue till near the end of the book, he does attempt to address it. I did not find his arguments very convincing at this point, however, nor his definitions of what a true church is very helpful. Though he uses Charles Hodges’ definition of a true church to attempt to define the issue, I was not enamored of Hodges’ approach and Mathison does not bring the issue of apostolic succession into it at all. One can argue that there is no such thing as apostolic succession, of course, but I don’t think we can ignore the question altogether. The fact is authority in the church has to come from somewhere, and Mathison does not address where it originates or what makes the authority of a given church legitimate. His only reference to this issue is a brief statement in passing that “The corporate judgment of the Church normally operates through those who have been especially gifted by the Holy Spirit with leadership and teaching gifts” (p.272). He does not expand upon this, however, and I am left wondering how one can discern the presence of these gifts, who gets to say whether an individual has them or not, and whether there are any other criteria he would use to establish legitimate leadership in the church.

Mathison says a number of times that the only time in history when we have seen Tradition 1 as the established view of the church for any length of time is in the early church. Though he believes Tradition 1, as he defines it, is the view of Reformers like Calvin he also says that it quickly degenerated into Tradition o. As I have noted, while I personally found Mathison’s evidence on the point convincing, there is no consensus on what the view of the early church was as every group wishes to claim it for their own side. We are left then with only a brief period when Tradition 1 clearly held sway to any degree in the early days of the Reformation. If this view did not last, I am left wondering if it is at all sustainable or if it inevitably becomes supplanted by what Mathison calls a Tradition 2 view in which tradition reigns over Scripture or degenerates into a Tradition 0 view in which every man’s opinion is his only guide. And if Tradition 1 is unsustainable, is it then untenable?

My last major criticism of Mathison’s  expounding of his position has to do with how he defines the Rule of Faith, or regula fidei, by which he believes Scripture is to be interpreted. As Mathison says, “The Reformers did not reject tradition; they rejected one particular concept of tradition in favor of another concept of tradition” (p. 345). The concept they favored, or at least which Mathison, proposes is found in the creeds. This, for him, is the Rule of Faith, that standard by which we are to discern orthodox from heretical interpretations of Scripture and also by which we are to discriminate between true and false churches. Mathison does not argue this point; he does not suggest that there might be other rules or embodiments of tradition. Nor does he spend time showing particularly that this is the standard the Reformers used. That is assumed rather than shown in this book. Mathison also does not pick a creed. He mentions the Apostles’, Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds but does not pick between them. It is worth noting that the Oriental Orthodox churches and the Assyrian Church of the East do not accept the creed of Chalcedon. I assume that by his definition, then, Mathison would not consider them true churches. Personally, I am not comfortable with doing so and the Roman Catholic church, which Mathison does believe is a true church, has in recent years said of the Oriental Orthodox churches at least that their differences are minor and that they share a common faith.

Mathison at times refers to “essential doctrines.” These he finds, again, embodied in the creeds (again undefined as to exactly which creeds are included and which are excluded). In addition to using these as the regula fidei by which we are to interpret Scripture, he also uses them as the test of a true church. But the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and (most) Protestant churches all accept these creeds. If we are to look at only the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds, we can add the Oriental Orthodox churches and Assyrian Church of the East to this list. And yet with this common confession we do not end up with much common belief. The whole point of this book is to show that how we view tradition relative to Scripture, what Tradition we use and what role we give it, are important. And yet in the end, Mathison picks a standard which all these churches accept though they end up in very different places on so many, many issues. The creeds themselves are open to interpretation to some degree and they provide little guidance for us in interpreting Scripture. They rule out extreme positions like that Jesus was not God, but they still leave quite a lot of room on other issues. So my biggest difference with Mathison’s position is that I do not find his definition of what Rule of Faith (which for him is the whole embodiment of tradition) we should be using very hepful. While I do agree with him in a general way on the relationship between Scripture and tradition, I am left still wondering what tradition we are to look to. Mathison’s deferral to the creeds I find very unsatisfactory. I am honestly not sure at this point how exactly I would define my own position. That is something I hope to get closer to working out in my next post in which I will delve more into the content of the book.

To sum up, then, my reactions to the book itself, I would say that The Shape of Sola Scriptura is well worth reading. It raises a lot of issues that need considering. While I am not 100% happy with Mathison’s categories, they do help us to think about the issues. He is strongest in his critiques of others’ positions, particularly of the Roman Catholic and solo scriptura positions, but he falters when it comes to defending his own position.  Ultimately, there is a lot here I agree with, but I am uncomfortable with his deferral to the creeds, and these only generally speaking, as the sole regula fidei by which we are to discern true from false interpretations.

Nebby

 

 

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