The Protestant Principle

N. T. Wright’s work in New Testament scholarship is a breath of fresh air, insofar as it takes the documents in question seriously, does not approach them with an atheistic or anti-supernatural agenda, and provides a rigorous examination of the historical context in which those documents were written (his work on the Resurrection is particularly valuable). In the preface to one of his earlier books though, he gives a short description of the basic intentions of his work, which reveals something else that is essential to his approach, and that of many other scholars of the New Testament:

As the material presented here will show, and the longer works will reveal in much more detail, Christian traditions have often radically misunderstood the picture of Jesus in those Gospels, and only by hard historical work can we move towards a fuller comprehension of what the Gospels themselves were trying to say…

…I have been particularly concerned to put into the minds, hearts and hands of the next generation of thinking Christians the Jesus-shaped model of, and motivation for, a mission that will transform our world in the power of Jesus’ gospel.

The Challenge of Jesus (2000), pp.ix-x, SPCK.

            The most revealing words are that ‘only by hard historical work can we move towards a fuller comprehension of what the Gospels themselves were trying to say’ – in this passage is enshrined the idea, basic not only to New Testament studies, but to the whole Protestant project as well, that each generation has to sit down and work out afresh who Jesus was and what being His disciple means – we have to start from scratch, re-examining the traditions we have inherited, and work out ‘what the Gospels were trying to say’, as if these questions had not properly been answered already.

Just to clarify, I fully understand the need for each generation to use the tools and discoveries at its disposal in order to deepen our understanding of Scripture, and also that each era will face new cultural challenges, in the light of which Christian truths will have to be rearticulated and reapplied – this is indeed an essential task. What I am arguing against, and what I see as inherent in Wright’s modus operandi, is that the basic truths themselves – who Jesus really was and is, what He had to say, what His will for us is – have to be rediscovered by ‘hard historical work’.

This idea is rooted in two principles basic to the Protestant worldview. One of these is sola scriptura, the concept that Holy Scripture is the only source we have for knowing about God and His purposes, and that Tradition is ultimately either secondary or even completely irrelevant for interpreting the basic scriptural data (as Wright is an Anglican of the ‘open’ evangelical stripe, I presume he sees Tradition as secondary but not entirely irrelevant – useful perhaps, but not to be invoked unless absolutely necessary).

The second, and more pervasive principle, is that of private judgement – this is the idea that the individual believer is not beholden to any ecclesial authority in the act of interpretation, and that he or she is free to interpret the text in any way seen fit. This principle is linked to (and historically precedes) the anti-tradition strand which is formulated in sola scriptura. Most Protestants do in practice actually interpret the texts in the light of a particular tradition of their own, with relatively few taking it to its logical conclusion (total doctrinal liberalism), but the principle is common to all Protestant churches, and is at the root of what Wright has written in his preface.

For, if Scripture is our only true source and guide, and we are the final interpreters of such, absenting any absolute decrees from ecclesial representatives, then we do indeed have to do ‘hard historical work’ in each generation, in order to know Our Lord and His purposes for us. Once the possibility of the Church’s being able to pronounce infallibly on matters of faith and morals has been rejected, and even the errancy of Church councils has been admitted (c.f.; Article XXI of the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion) then it is up to us, here and now, to find out for ourselves what the Scripture really says and means – it is up to us to ‘work out’ who Jesus is and what He wants for us.

One problem with this model that immediately becomes apparent is that for fifteen hundred years or so, and in many parts of the world even today, the majority of people did not and have not the time or means to engage in such work. Most people in history have worked long hours, with little time or inclination to engage in high-level Bible studies or to read the latest scholarly revelations about what that Bible is actually trying to say. Most people throughout history, even if they had enough time, means and energy to do this, have also been illiterate and not trained in the sort of critical thinking necessary to embark on a systematic study of ancient texts and doctrine. As Jimmy Akin puts it in his article on sola scriptura:

It is thus hard to think of sola scriptura as anything but the theory spawned by a bunch of idealistic, Renaissance-era dilettantes–people who had an interest in being their own theologians, who had a classical education in critical thinking skills, who had adequate nutrition, who had plenty of leisure time for study, who had plenty of scholarly support materials, who had good reading skills, who had access to Bible-sellers, and most importantly, who had printed Bibles!

The average Christian today, even the average Christian in the developed world, does not fit that profile, and the average Christian in world history certainly did not, much less the average Christian in the early centuries. What this means, since God does not ask a person to do what they are incapable of doing, is that God does not expect the average Christian of world history to use sola scriptura. He expects the average Christian to obtain and maintain his knowledge of theology in some other way.

As sola scriptura and private judgement are so closely wedded to one another, I think that Akin’s argument stands against that too. We were never meant to work out afresh what God had done in Jesus Christ, and what His will for us is, and it is not only those characterised by Wright as ‘thinking Christians’ (i.e.; those who have enough time, money and training to read up on the latest scholarship) who were meant to benefit from the Gospel message. Instead, God provided us with a Church blessed with the charism of infallibility and able to preserve, reinterpret and transmit the saving knowledge and grace of Jesus Christ for all people and in all ages. In the words of the Second Vatican Council:

…the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.

It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.

Dei Verbum, 10.

            Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition are part of one seamless deposit of faith, and both grew out of the Church that Christ founded – to remove Scripture from the context of Tradition and Magisterium is not only to commit an act of violation, but to render it impotent and/or susceptible to misapplication. Similarly, the Church that guards this deposit can naturally be the only true guarantor of its meaning, and for an act of interpretation to be authentic and true to the apostolic witness, it cannot be divorced from the teaching office which expresses clearly and assuredly the mind of the Body of Christ.

The Protestant Reformation, in deciding to so remove Scripture from its natural home, unleashed a spirit of individualism into Christianity which disrupted unity, which removed the individual believer from the nurturing body of witness, reflection and devotion of the Church’s life, and which has finally resulted in a new magisterium – that of the academy. The professional theologians are the new popes, and each group has their own personal favourite, whom they are sure has at last discovered the real Jesus or the true message (until a new, more compelling school  of thought appears that is). Surely, this is not what God intended. Rather, as Akin says in his article, ‘He expects the average Christian to obtain and maintain his knowledge of theology in some other way’ – and that way is in humble submission to and cooperation with the Church He founded.

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5 thoughts on “The Protestant Principle

  1. I just stumbled across your blog due to the “N.T. Wright” tag on this post. The only reason I’m commenting is because I’m presently reading The New Testament and the People of God and in it Wright speaks specifically and at great length (and depth) to this subject.

    I have no interest in debating “sola scriptura,” I just want to point out that you’ve set up a terribly simplistic straw man (“sola scriptura” = “private interpretations”) that Wright in particular expressly denies. Just because one doesn’t look to the Roman Catholic church for “authoritative interpretation” doesn’t mean that one is left with no other option but to their own private interpretation or that of their favorite PhD. That’s a false dichotomy, and while it may apply to some, it certainly doesn’t apply to Wright, or most protestants for that matter.

    • Hello, and thanks for your comments.

      Whether or not Wright or yourself deny that sola scriptura and private judgement are very closely related (I certainly didn’t equate the two, so I think your criticism there is misconceived), I think it is undeniable that this is indeed the case – if Scripture is the ultimate authority for Protestants, then the texts require an act of interpretation, and this will be carried out either according to the individual’s lights, or formed by the particular church tradition they’ve been formed in (which, incidentally, will itself have been founded upon a particular interpretation of Scripture – hence the great number of Protestant denominations).

      I do agree that most Protestants don’t simply ‘go it alone’ as it were; in fact I stated this expressly in my post, where I say:

      ‘Most Protestants do in practice actually interpret the texts in the light of a particular tradition of their own, with relatively few taking it to its logical conclusion (total doctrinal liberalism), but the principle is common to all Protestant churches, and is at the root of what Wright has written in his preface’

      My point is rather that there is no logical reason why, once Scripture has been removed from the context in which it was written, its canon was decided, the creedal doctrines through which most Christians view it to some extent (i.e.; from the Church) one should not interpret it simply according to one’s own preferences.

      Also, private judgement was indeed a foundational issue for the Reformers. It was just that Luther, Calvin et al wanted THEIR interpretation to be definitive, not the Church’s. Luther himself was dismayed at the degree of fragmentation that had already occurred by the end of his life, due to the principle of private judgement, but it was a principle that he had (in part) unleashed.

      If you’re interested, here is a talk by Keith Ward, in which he lays out the connection between private judgement and doctrinal liberalism:

  2. The Protestant Reformation, in deciding to so remove Scripture from its natural home,

    EARTHQUAKE TREMORS

    I think Protestants base their entire foundation on scripture (or so they claim as do Catholics) and one reason for the Reformation and contemporary Protestant disagreement it that they feel it is the Catholic Church that has deviated from scripture. Certainly such is a reason that Puritans finally separation from Church of England.

    Of course one can debate who has deviated or not. I am just pointing out from a historical view that both sides accuse the other of deviation. I think the reason Protestants have contempt for Catholics is that the Church is founded more on tradition than scripture in their opinion. One may also disagree but I merely state it as the Protestant view not entering into the who is wrong or right debate.

    • Well, I certainly can’t argue with anything you’ve said here – this is certainly the way that Protestants see things. Obviously I disagree with their position, but your overview of the whole situation is fair.

      I just think one can make a much better case for Protestants having ‘deviated’, given that Scripture was written by the Church, and had always been interpreted in the light of Sacred Tradition (contra private judgement) until the Reformation.

      One can argue the relative virtues of Catholicism and Protestantism on various grounds, but it does seem clear that historically at least, the latter is a novelty – there is not much in the Reformers principles that any of the Apostles or Church Fathers would have recognised.

  3. Pingback: G. K. Chesterton: The Keys and the Creed | Journey Towards Easter

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