Edward Feser and Sola Scriptura

Edward Feser is a well known Catholic philosopher who teaches at Pasadena City College in California. I own two of his books: The Last Superstition, in which he criticizes the New Atheist movement and Five Proofs of the Existence of God. Feser’s style is witty and fun to read, and he looks past the superficial prattle of secular society, and into the deeper philosophical reasons for why atheism seems compelling to many people in the West today. So Feser is, as far as I’m concerned, “on the side of the angels.” And it’s necessary to say, when criticizing Catholic theology, that Catholics should be considered by Protestants, at least orthodox and faithful Catholics who truly believe in the Creeds, to be fellow Christians.

So with these caveats in place, let’s turn to the subject of the post, which is Feser’s cricism of the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Protestants traditionally believe that the Bible is the only final, authoritative source of theological knowledge. There may be other forms of spiritual knowledge which are also authoritative, such as creeds and confessions of various churches. But while we must regard them with seriousness and depart from them with “fear and trembling,” they are not as authoritative as the Bible, and they derive their authority from the fact that they teach the Bible. They don’t have authority in themselves. This contrasts with the Catholic belief that Catholic tradition is as authoritative as the Bible. The Catechism of the Catholic Church’s conclusion about the relationship between the Bible and Christian tradition is as follows: ‘As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, “does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.”‘ This seems to indicate that the Bible and tradition has equal authority as they are both part of the Word of God, as it is put earlier in the same section:'”Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal.”‘

Feser’s primary issue, which comes up both in the original post and in Feser’s response to criticism of that post, is the question of canonicity. Which books should be considered inspired? There is no passage in any scriptural book which gives us a list of books which are inspired and if there were, how would we know that this list is inspired? Feser is also concerned with how to interpret the Bible, even if it could be established that certain books are inspired. Feser finds fault with the claim that “scripture interprets scripture” because, “if you say that scriptural passage A is to be interpreted in light of scriptural passage B, then how do you know you’ve gotten B itself right? And why not say instead that B should be interpreted in light of A?” First, this assumes that there is a great problem with interpreting the Bible as a whole. I agree that there are some things in the Bible which are difficult to interpret, but that does not mean the entire Bible is difficult to interpret. So Feser asks, “how do you know you’ve gotten B itself right?”  I know in the same way I know when I’m reading Feser’s words or any other words. There are words, they typically signify certain meanings, and understand it if I know the meanings the words typically signify. There is no reason why this process, which works very well in general with ordinary texts, cannot work with the Bible. Time has shown this as well. There are many Protestant movements, but most of them agree on the basic articles of Christian faith, which is also taught by the Catholic Church, because they find these truths in the Bible.

But even if interpretation of the Bible was a problem throughout the entire text, the crucial question then is whether the Catholic solution to this problem is any better, but it isn’t. For why would an ordained Catholic or a Pope know principles of interpretation that others do not know? The problem of interpretation remains whether the individual doing the interpreting is ordained or not. Making a handful of people responsible for interpreting it doesn’t solve the problem. There will be more uniformity in what is believed, but that is no guarantee that what is believed will be right. Indeed, if the scripture is not read or interpreted by the vast majority of Christians, this makes it much easier for wrong interpretations to arise and flourish. It is very easy for those in power, or those who desire power, to bend the truth of the text to align with whatever they want to accomplish. This is harder to do when everyone has a copy of the text and reads it regularly. This will empower them to hold such corruption accountable. But even more than this, the Catholic teaching that is based on the Bible will also need to be interpreted by ordinary priests, and the sermons of those priests will have to be interpreted by ordinary laymen. Why is this interpretation not problematic as well? Why is it that only the interpretation of the Bible by ordinary people is very doubtful, but any other interpretation by ordinary people is fine and reliable?

But Feser may respond that interpretation by the Church is itself inspired. But then we get the same problem that Feser contends is a problem for Protestantism. How do we know that that interpretation is inspired? Who is designating that interpretation as inspired? Feser doesn’t think it is rational to take the inspiration of the Bible as a given, and yet he takes the inspiration of the Popes or ordained Catholics as a given. How is Feser’s approach more rational? Feser seems to anticipate this sort of objection, but I think his response is inadequate. He says that there is no “sola” fixed to the Catholic doctrine, that sola scriptura was a self-consciously revolutionary doctrine and that the Catholic doctrine is not a clear-cut or simple thesis that can be criticized in the same way. These points, whether true or not, are irrelevant. We do not need to criticize the whole Catholic doctrine of inspiration. We are criticizing Feser’s argument for why the Protestant doctrine is wrong. Those are two different things. And the Catholic doctrine doesn’t require a “sola” in order to fall prey to the same problem. This is just a restatement of his own view and is circular. In response to the claim that the Catholic doctrine falls prey to the same problem, Feser contends that it is not like sola scriptura and so couldn’t fall prey to the same problem. But this is circular, because that assumes that it must be like sola scriptura in order to fall prey to the same problem, when that is precisely the question being considered! If we cannot regard the Bible as authoritative without someone to designate its canon and content as inspired, then we will also need a similar declaration or designation for whoever takes it upon themselves to declare that the Bible is authoritative. That designation of the Bible as authoritative would also need to be inspired in order for us to listen to it without question. But if something external to the Bible requires the authoritative and inspired declaration that it is inspired, then that inspired declaration needs another inspired declaration that that inspired declaration is inspired. And that inspired declaration would need another inspired declaration that it is inspired and so on and so on…ad infinitum. Feser’s reasoning only triggers an infinite regress. If inspired word requires inspired word to designate it as such, then you will never be able to trust any inspired word.

Feser contends that Sola Scriptura is self-defeating, because “the sola scriptura advocate inevitably, and inconsistently, surreptitiously appeals to something beyond scripture in order to tell us what scripture is.” This isn’t true. If you take the Bible as a given, then you are not appealing to anything beyond scripture to tell you what scripture is. You may say that this is irrational, but it is not self-defeating ( and it is no more irrational than taking the interpretation of Popes and Catholic councils as a given). Also, the use of rational proofs to give reason for thinking that at least some Biblical books are inspired do not appeal to anything inspired to make the case that it is inspired. Also, it makes rational sense to only regard the Christian tradition that is closest to the events and the person and teaching of Jesus ( the Apostles) as authoritative, and not all the other derivative Christian tradition that developed afterward.

Feser appeals to something related to the problem of interpretation, which is the problem of application. How do you apply the principles of the Bible to all the complicated and varied circumstances that people find themselves in? Once again, Feser uses instances in which it is unclear how to do this and generalizes them. He assumes that it is always unclear how to apply what the Bible says, which is false. I agree that there is some discretion or judgment involved. Paul tells us in Timothy to not appoint people to positions in the church who are given to “much wine.” What is “much wine”? Three glasses? Four glasses? Or is it four glasses within the span of 2 hours that is wrong? Or maybe the span of 1 hour? Is it okay then to drink four glasses within the span of 5 hours? What is the exact size these glasses must be? So perhaps Feser says it is then the function of the Church to tell us, for example, that it is “much wine” when we have more than 2 glasses within the span of an hour, and we don’t have certain metabolic problems which cause us to become more drunk on ingesting alcohol than the normal person. But Paul specifically avoids this sort of legalistic absorption ( of having rules to clarify biblical rules, and yet more rules to clarify those ones), because he is trying to raise mature believers who can make these sorts of judgments for themselves. So, if interpretation often requires some judgment or discretion, which it may, why do ordained Catholics have more authority to do this than ordinary believers? So the problem again is that there may be a legitimate dilemma here, but the Catholic position does not provide any satisfactory answer to it. In other words, it is as much a dilemma for the Catholic as it is for the Protestant, which is why Catholics shouldn’t use it against Protestants.

So, while I think there are good arguments we can use to show that certain books of the Bible really are inspired, such as the argument that John Wenham uses in Christ and the Bible. These are not needed here. All that’s required is to show that the dilemma raised by this criticism of the Protestant position is not resolved by the Catholic solution (namely someone to authoritatively declare that the Bible is inspired, interpret it and apply it).

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