Feser on Problems with Sola Scriptura and the Quakerish Solution

Ed Feser often has interesting and thoughtful things to say. In this post he criticizes the concept of Sola Scriptura from the perspective of traditional Roman Catholicism but with a corresponding analysis of empiricism.

But what does this have to do with sola scriptura? The idea is this. Summarizing an early Jesuit critique of the Protestant doctrine, Feyerabend notes that (a) scripture alone can never tell you what counts as scripture, (b) scripture alone cannot tell you how to interpret scripture, and (c) scripture alone cannot give us a procedure for deriving consequences from scripture, applying it to new circumstances, and the like. Let’s elaborate on each and note the parallels with modern empiricism.

First, there is no passage in any book regarded as scriptural that tells you: “Here is a list of the books which constitute scripture.” And even if there were, how would we know that that passage is really part of scripture? For the Catholic, the problem doesn’t arise, because scripture is not the only authoritative source of revealed theological knowledge in the first place. It is rather part of a larger body of authoritative doctrine, which includes tradition and, ultimately, the decrees of an institutional, magisterial Church.

I agree the idea that you simply look something up in the Bible to find answers doesn’t work. Protestants I’ve heard say “Bible interprets Bible.” Well Bible interprets Bible to produce all sorts of contradictory understandings.

I sometimes have a hard time distinguishing between Sola Scriptura and fideism. I’m something of an expert on the political theology of the American Founding. While there were orthodox Trinitarians, deists, unitarians and folks all over the spectrum among them, the prevailing political theology rejected fideism and incorporated “essences” in nature as a necessary component for proper theological understanding (and it tended to be in nature, not in special revelation where they parked the public issues).

So here is James Wilson on how the Bible though it contains truth is an incomplete book:

But whoever expects to find, in [Scripture], particular directions for every moral doubt which arises, expects more than he will find. They generally presuppose a knowledge of the principles of morality; and are employed not so much in teaching new rules on this subject, as in enforcing the practice of those already known, by a greater certainty, and by new sanctions. They present the warmest recommendations and the strongest inducements in favour of virtue: they exhibit the most powerful dissuasives from vice. But the origin, the nature, and the extent of the several rights and duties they do not explain; nor do they specify in what instances one right or duty is entitled to preference over another. They are addressed to rational and moral agents, capable of previously knowing the rights of men, and the tendencies of actions; of approving what is good, and of disapproving what is evil.

Wilson ends the discussion by asserting “that the scriptures support, confirm, and corroborate, but do not supercede the operations of reason and the moral sense.”

The “operations of reason and the moral sense” were to Wilson among other things the teachings of the Scottish Common Sense Enlightenment in which he was imbibed. He could incorporate those truths into his theology just as Aquinas incorporated Aristotle.

This is a rejection of fideism. Is it a rejection of Sola Scriptura? Perhaps. Though I have learned that there is a much neglected tradition of the natural law in orthodox Protestantism (it goes without saying that such tradition exists in unorthodox, freethinking Protestantism too).

So if “the Bible alone” is insufficient, there is always the natural law as an added component to achieve a holistic understanding.

But this still does not solve the dilemma posed by Feser. On a personal note — the approach that I am sympathetic to — is the most radical Protestant one: The Quakerish approach. And that is to concede everything Feser and critics of Sola Scriptura note and conclude there is no problem. That’s because it’s up to the individual — radical priest that she is — to determine for herself how to understand, including which books are inspired, what they mean, and whether there are errors in them.

Now, it should be done “in good faith” according to the dictates of conscience. And truth is what it is. You don’t just get to make stuff up. There are a lot of learned folks out there who will call you out if you do.

But this is how William Livingston, a Quakerish American Founding Father put it in the context of explaining to a then prominent member of the religious right why the Bible/Christian religion would not be part of the organic “higher law” of the Articles of Confederation/the United States:

[A]nd to have made the ‘law of the eternal God, as contained in the sacred Scriptures, of the Old and New Testament, the supreme law of the United States,’ would, I conceive, have laid the foundation of endless altercation and dispute, as the very first question that would have arisen upon that article would be, whether we were bound by the ceremonial as well as the moral law, delivered by Moses to the people of Israel. Should we confine ourselves to the law of God, as contained in the Scriptures of the New Testament (which is undoubtedly obligatory upon all Christians), there would still have been endless disputes about the construction of the of these laws. Shall the meaning be ascertained by every individual for himself, or by public authority? If the first, all human laws respecting the subject are merely nugatory; if the latter, government must assume the detestable power of Henry the Eighth, and enforce their own interpretations with pains and penalties.

For your second article, I think there could be no occasion in the confederacy, provision having been made to prevent all such claim by the particular constitution of each State, and the Congress, as such, having no right to interfere with the internal police of any branch of the league, farther than is stipulated by the confederation.

To the effect of part of your third article, that of promoting purity of manners, all legislators and magistrates are bound by a superior obligation to that of any vote or compact of their own; and the inseparable connexion between the morals of the people and the good of society will compel them to pay due attention to external regularity and decorum; but true piety again has never been agreed upon by mankind, and I should not be willing that any human tribunal should settle its definition for me.

The bold face is mine.

Livingston is sympathetic to the notion that each individual decides for himself how to understand the Christian religion. Therefore any and all human laws that try to properly understand, define or Livingston’s actual word “respect[]” Christianity are nugatory.

It’s a good argument as to why America was not founded to be a “Christian nation.”


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Jon Rowe is a full Professor of Business at Mercer County Community College, where he teaches business, law, and legal issues relating to politics. Of course, his views do not necessarily represent those of his employer. ...more →

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13 thoughts on “Feser on Problems with Sola Scriptura and the Quakerish Solution

  1. Interesting. I like this argument very much, actually.

    It’s a good argument as to why America was not founded to be a “Christian nation.”

    Seems to me one of the most radical religious beliefs ever (EVER!) entertained was the concept of a priesthood of all believers. Embracing that view (which I do!) entails that every individual who believes in Christ has a direct, unmediated relationship with God. Course, any particular person’s view of Christ, and the resulting relationship with God (including what God is or might be!), will in turn depend on how the many and varied testimonials about Christ – not necessarily limited to the Big Four – are themselves interpreted, including the possibility of a complete rejection of any of the conventionally accepted views following from (any of) those testimonials and any narrow meaning of the term “Christian religion” derived from them. Which leads me to the Big Finish: to what extent does the concept of a Priesthood of all Believers include people who view Christ (ie., “believe in him”) as merely affirming that each individual can establish their own direct, unmediated, a-Religious relationship with God? If so, then it’s possible that our nation was founded as a “Christian nation”, but one which is radically different than promulgated by contemporary Christians.

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    • The emphasis on the individual’s experience of God is existentially satisfying but it also leads to weird places like Person P saying “A” and Person Q saying “~A” and, according to this, both of them being not wrong.

      And the only way that both A and ~A can be not wrong is if A is nonsense.

      I mean, the wackiest example of this knowledge received by God (but not by His Word) relates to the Wedding at Cana. People who know in their heart that Jesus was the Son of God (in an interesting sense of the term… more interesting than “we’re all God’s children” gets us), who know in their heart that the Wedding at Cana happened, that Jesus was at this wedding, that Jesus committed a miracle there… but it wasn’t that Jesus turned water into wine but that he turned it into a tasty non-alcoholic drink (or maybe a raisin paste).

      How do you know this?, I asked. The Bible says this thing and it also uses the word “oin” (which is a word that we still use today, pronounced a little differently), I said.

      “I know it in my heart.”

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      • The emphasis on the individual’s experience of God is existentially satisfying but it also leads to weird places like Person P saying “A” and Person Q saying “~A” and, according to this, both of them being not wrong.

        Isn’t that the conundrum Jon was trying to resolve in the OP, tho (granted, with a different focus)? Doesn’t that exact problem exist not only between but also amongst members of various sects basing their beliefs on the same texts?

        And the only way that both A and ~A can be not wrong is if A is nonsense.

        Indeedy. And yet!, people continue to believe that scripture reveals spiritual truths regarding A.

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        • Isn’t that the conundrum Jon was trying to resolve in the OP, tho (granted, with a different focus)?

          Well, the conundrum gives the game away, though.

          Did you ever read “The Three Christs of Ypsilanti“?

          Back before we had psychiatric ethics, Milton Rokeach dealt with three of his patients who all thought they were Jesus Christ by putting them in a support group with each other. The take that two of them had was something to the effect of “those poor deluded guys, no wonder they’re in the nuthouse” (the third believed that the other two were dead and being operated by machines).

          The interpretation of the Bible by an outside source (preferably an infallible one) can prevent this guy knowing A in his heart and that gal knowing ~A.

          In practice, government must assume the detestable power of Henry the Eighth, now less detestable that we’ve seen where the priesthood of the individual inevitably leads: ad absurdum.

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          • The interpretation of the Bible by an outside source (preferably an infallible one) can prevent this guy knowing A in his heart and that gal knowing ~A.

            I don’t see how. I mean, history is replete with examples of folks who’ve rejected “outside” interpretations of religious texts.

            That point notwithstanding, are you talking about the use of religion as tool of social control? IF so, that’s a different topic, no?

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  2. As a, uh, Baptist in bad standing, or at least in somewhat disagreement with my church, I have come to a conclusion:

    There is no such thing as sola scriptura.

    Everyone reads scripture through a lens, imperfectly. Some denominations explain what that lens should be, and explicitly put that information in front of everyone, saying ‘This is what your lens should look like.’. Sola scriptura denominations, OTOH, just have that lens grow ‘organically’, apparently, without anyone managing it.

    I’ve…started to distrust the second of those, despite being raises Baptist and still being that. At least with the first, I can point at the published documentation of the lens, which everyone agrees exists…and I can argue with that. With the second, it’s much harder, because people wearing those lenses literally cannot see the lens, and think what they are seeing is the *actual truth* of how to view the scripture.

    And I’ve also come to notice that a lot of the ‘organic’ growth, in recent decades, has been *deliberately structured by politics*.

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    • I really like this lens analogy.

      I’m from a similar background (raised evangelical), but I’ve gone through a long atheist period. The all-consuming certainty of my parents’ churches really turned me off. After all, I could see various nuances, conflicts, and complexities in their theology – so how do people have “faith”?

      I’ve come to see Christianity itself as a lens through which to see the world. Just as we read scripture with the color of our own interpretations, we all navigate life through the color of our religious and moral beliefs. Grounding my beliefs in the general shape of Christianity – God, Jesus, sin and forgiveness – is what works for me.

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    • I agree pretty strongly with everything says here.

      If I had one very minor quibble, it would that this sentence:

      And I’ve also come to notice that a lot of the ‘organic’ growth, in recent decades, has been *deliberately structured by politics*.

      doesn’t need the “in recent decades” bit.

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      • “nougat” – refers to “nut” (see also “nucleus”) – so used for the nutty filling of some chocolate confections. Arguably, it is or should be a matter of shame to the candy industry, and for all of us, that nowadays any filling, including the whipped chocolate and egg whites filling of the 3 Musketeers Bar, is referred to as “nougat.”

        “nugatory” – less well-attested etymology, refers to unimportant things, trifles (-> trivia), also jests – in programming refers to code that can be removed safely, but retained without harm.

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  3. Richard Rohr has written a lot about a non-dualistic view of things in which A and -A are both true and correct.
    The classic example is the Trinity, in which things are separate yet intertwined.
    The idea is found in most religions where the reality of the universe is more mystical than we can grasp.
    Even on a more prosaic level it can be said that we find our most authentic individual self in the communion with others.

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