Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Does the doctrine of sola scriptura cause divisions?

I listened to a debate between TurretinFan (an anonymous fellow who is affiliated somehow with Alpha and Omega Ministries) and William Albrecht, which you can listen to on TurretinFan's YouTube channel. The debate turned out to be more interesting than I expected it to be. I just wanted to add my own thoughts to the debate.

Albrecht's primary strategy was to show that there was a correlation between doctrinal and denominational differences and belief in sola scriptura. He explained the correlation by saying sola scriptura had caused the differences.

TurretinFan responded by saying that correlation is not causation.

I agree with TurretinFan, but that got me to thinking. If correlation alone is not enough to demonstrate causation, then how could one demonstrate causation? Well, one way might be to consider the alternative. In any case, we should expect that if we remove the cause, we should also remove the effect.

It isn't quite that easy, though, because there are several different alternatives to subscribing to sola scriptura. One alternative is to deny the authority of the Bible altogether. But clearly removing sola scriptura in that case would not result in greater unity. On the contrary, it results in greater diversity. There are a myriad of religions and non-religious worldviews that deny sola scriptura.

Another alternative is Roman Catholicism, which is the point of view Albrecht holds to. In the case of Roman Catholicism, rather than rejecting the authority of the Bible, they have an additional source of authority alongside the Bible--the teaching magisterium. But this alternative doesn't eliminate diversity in beliefs. Catholics differ with each other on all kinds of things. I heard a sermon by a Catholic priest a long time ago where he quoted a statistic saying that 75% of Catholics do not believe in transubstantiation, even though it is an essential doctrine of Catholicism.

Albrecht seemed to consider any difference in belief on a doctrinal issue as division, whether people separated because of it or not. By that standard, there is lots and lots of division within the Catholic Church. Since the effect (division) remains even in the absence of the supposed cause (sola scriptura), it follows that sola scriptura is not shown to be the cause of division.

That is not to say that sola scriptura doesn't cause any division. One could argue that sola scripture is one among other causes of division, though I think that would be more difficult to demonstrate. I don't think Albrecht successfully demonstrated that sola scriptura causes any division.

But I'm surprised TurretinFan wouldn't admit that it does. On theoretical grounds alone, we should expect it to. Instead, TurretinFan pointed to James 4:1ff as evidence that sin is the cause of division. He says, "Scripture actually tells us one of the reasons, the reason why we have disunity and division among the body of Christ. James 4:1 states..." and then he quotes it.

It's interesting that he corrects himself from saying, "one of the reasons" to saying "the reason." Why did he do that? Well, if sin is the reason, as if there's only one reason, then that would exclude sola scriptura as being a reason, and especially the reason. But if he said, "one of the reasons," then that does not exclude sola scriptura as being one of the reasons. The resolve of the debate is simply that sola scriptura causes division and disunity. If sola scriptura is one among various other causes of disunity and division, then the affirmative (Albrecht) would be in the right. But if sin is merely one of various reasons for disunity and division, then James 4:1 does not negate the resolve. It's irrelevant. So TurretinFan had to correct himself to make it relevant.

It might've been fruitful for them to have debated this passage a little, but they didn't.

I've always thought that arguments against the legitimacy of other views based on diversity of belief were weak arguments. It really all depends on where you draw the circle around "us" and "them." If you're a reformed Baptist, you could say "we" have unity, and since there's so much diversity of belief among everybody else, then "we" must be in the right. Anybody can do that. Jehovah's Witnesses can do that. Five buddhists who all agree with each other on everything could do that. Authority structures like Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, and Catholics have do create some unity, but the unity is the result of the structure, not the result of actually having the truth on some issue. Somebody could invent a religion, create an authoritative structure around it, and create unity as a result, but that wouldn't give them any claim to legitimacy just because there was unity within their religion and diversity without.

As I've said a number of times on this blog, some amount of uncertainty and division is inevitable, regardless of how you try to patch it up. You just have to live with it. Setting up an authority structure does not solve the problem.

First, you have to figure out which authority structure to listen to--the governing body of Jehovah's Witnesses, the prophets of the LDS Church, or the teaching magisterium of the Catholic Church, etc. Since it would be circular reasoning to take the authority of any of these organizations on their own authority, you're forced to use your own cognitive faculties to assess the evidence and arguments to come to a conclusion. And since we are fallible, we are subject to making mistakes in the process.

Second, you have to interpret the interpreter. And we've seen that all three of the organizations I've mentioned have reinterpreted their own past documents. Non-Catholics are not really damned to hell. Black people aren't really cursed by God. The anointed class of Jehovah's Witnesses are not really inspired prophets. Etc. etc. Having an authoritative interpreter of the Bible doesn't really solve the problem of Biblical interpretation; it only postpones the problem since you now have to interpret the interpreter.

We might as well all face the fact that we cannot escape the problem of interpretation. And with the problem comes diversity. We are going to misunderstand some things. We just have to do the best we can to study the Bible and understand it correctly and be willing to live with the fact that we are fallible and might get some things wrong. That's the inescapable position we're in.

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