Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Sola Scriptura Confusion [SK]

A colleague of mine forwarded an email from a dedicated pro-lifer who faithfully serves our cause, but who disagrees with my take on extra-biblical knowledge. The email doesn't challenge my biblical citations, but still finds fault with my piece (edited for brevity):

I do not agree with Scott... His reasoning follows the reasoning of Erasmus when he debated Luther. (Same argument about extra-biblical truth) I don't disagree with many of his specific points, just the weaving together of them to bring out the pattern of incrementalism. This is the age old battle over "sola-scriptura" and it does make a difference because "ideas have consequences"... This debate is like a repeat of the Reformation in our day.
Lots wrong here, starting with the definition of sola scriptura (SS). Briefly, SS never meant "Bible only," as in we can only use Scripture for what we understand. The protestant reformers never said such a thing. Rather, it means the Bible is our only theological authority, that Scripture alone gives us knowledge leading to salvation. As a Calvinist who affirms the five solas of the Reformation, I fully agree with this view. Nowhere do the reformers say that science, philosophy, etc.,--what some call pagan philosophies--can't be used to inform our general understanding.

Greg Koukl, making this same point, cites John Calvin as follows:

In reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator....How then can we deny that truth must have beamed on those ancient lawgivers who arranged civil order and discipline with so much equity? Shall we say that the philosophers, in their exquisite researches and skillful description of nature, were blind?...Therefore, since it is manifest that men whom the Scriptures term natural, are so acute and clear-sighted in the investigation of inferior things, their example should teach us how many gifts the Lord has left in possession of human nature, not withstanding of its having been despoiled of the true good.
Koukl goes on to explain Calvin's position regarding extra-biblical knowledge (footnotes included in his piece):

According to Calvin, only man's supernatural gifts were lost, specifically "the light of faith and righteousness, which would have been sufficient for the attainment of heavenly life and everlasting felicity."

Would this great Reformer condemn the contributions of modern psychology as mere worldly wisdom? No, that's all part of the natural gifting God has given to man. Calvin even extols what he calls the shrewd observations of Aristotle:

"Aristotle seems to me to have made a very shrewd distinction between incontinence and intemperance. Where incontinence reigns, he says, that through the passion particular knowledge is suppressed: so that the individual sees not in his own misdeed the evil which he sees generally in similar cases; but when the passion is over, repentance immediately succeeds."

The broader context of this passage makes Aristotle's point clearer. People have a tendency to acknowledge general moral principles, but go into denial when they personally contemplate committing sin. Afterwards, guilt and remorse set in.

Whether one agrees with the particular point or not is incidental. What is important is that John Calvin--a principal Reformer utterly dedicated to the biblical doctrine of "total depravity"--quotes an unregenerate Greek philosopher on the vicissitudes of the human psyche. Calvin is using Aristotle's psychology to help articulate an aspect of man's fallenness.
Exactly. As I said in a previous post, Paul did a similar thing in Acts 17, quoting pagan poets to make his case for the gospel.

FYI, the Protestant Reformation was principally about two things largely unrelated to the value of extra biblical knowledge in general. Namely, the dispute was over how one understands justification (that is, how sinners get right with God) and over what constitutes legitimate theological authority (namely, is it Scripture alone or Scripture plus church tradition?) I have no interest in debating those questions here (and I won't--this is a bioethics blog), suffice to say the real battle lines over SS were not about the value of extra-biblical sources of knowledge in helping us grow in wisdom.

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