Protestantism, Patristics, and the Practice of Exegesis

Most of my training in biblical studies occurred in a Reformed Protestant context, for which I am quite thankful. However, one of the problems of Protestant perspectives on early church history is a tendency to think, “right doctrines, dodgy exegesis”. The narrative constructed is that the early church did alright, except they ‘declined’ more and more from the golden age of the apostles, until the glorious restoration of the Reformation put everything right.

That’s not a very accurate historical picture, and it’s not good historiography either. It also introduces an acute crisis into Protestant theology – how can Protestants confess the same doctrinal and creedal formulations, if they reject as unsound the methods that produced them? Did the fathers at Nicaea and Constantinople come up with the right answer from the wrong working? And if so, is that okay?

One of the questions behind my research questions is concerned with this very problem. If, as the popular notion goes, patristic exegesis was deeply flawed, then the results of that exegesis, namely Classsical Trinitarianism, are open to severe doubt, and the claims of Protestant churches to be creedally Nicene becomes problematic since they reject the foundations of Nicene (well, Theodosian) orthodoxy.

But, of course, the reality is a much more complicated affair.

For one, patristic exegesis isn’t a monolithic ‘thing’. While there are indeed far-flung examples of rampant allegorism, this is not the only or even the predominant method for reading scripture in Late Antiquity. The practice of those trained in Greek and Latin rhetoric looks quite a bit like historico-grammatical criticism (although it would be a mistake to equate the two).

Which is great, until you realise that very often fathers produce ‘correct’ doctrine from incorrect texts. There’s a whole example in Hilary where his text appears to have a negation where they major textual tradition has a positive statement. Hilary thus spends a considerable amount of time proving an ‘orthodox’ doctrine from a text of scripture that affirms the exact opposite of what most Christians would consider to be the authoritative version of the text.

The good news, at least so far as those pesky people who keep asking what the result of my PhD studies is, is that patristic exegetes are much better at exegesis than 1st year seminary students think they are.

The bad news is, a large basis of that exegesis is built on a soteriology that most Protestants, and probably a large portion of Roman Catholics, would find problematic. The rejection of the non-Nicene soteriologies built around the Son being a creature who acts as revealer, exemplar, and model of salvation, is part-and-parcel of the victory of a pro-Nicene soteriology in which salvation occurs as human nature, conceived in a universal and collective sense, is assumed by the Logos, sanctified, and ultimately deified through the resurrection and ascension, resulting in the glorification of humanity in Christ. While, theologically speaking, I think this is true and compatible with other soteriological motifs in scripture, it is a long way from the predominance of justification and substitutionary atonement in modern reformed circles.

No doubt at this point many would like to know, ‘so, what does this mean?’, ‘what are the implications for contemporary Christian doctrine and practice?’, to which I am not ready to give an answer by any means. I think the challenge is to work at the two-fold task of being an excellent exegete of Scripture, for what it says in and of itself, and to work at the task of reading the Fathers faithfully, to exegete their works for what they say, in the historical context in which they write, so as not to distort them for ulterior purposes.


13 responses

  1. Hi Seumas,
    I’ve enjoyed reading some of your posts so I thought I’d put in a comment!

    The relationship between the early church and modern Christianity is problematic. I agree that the early church was not monolithic but it is clear that the Church Fathers point to a church that was liturgical, sacramental, hierarchical and ascetic.

    Your point about ‘right doctrine, dodgy exegesis’ becomes a difficult point once you move beyond the realm of Trinitarian theology and christology. This, of course, depends on what flavour of Protestantism you belong. Take for example, Athanasius of Alexandria and his work ‘On the Incarnation’. It is clear he does not believe in a limited atonement or any of the other distinctive doctrines of 5 point Calvinism. Is he reading the Bible properly? He got it right about the eternal generation of the son but missed that one?

    Take another example like Baptismal Regeneration. It was universally held by both Eastern and Western Fathers. Were they misreading the NT or are modern Evangelicals? You could make a long list – infant baptism, real presence in the Eucharist, continuing miracles, confession, iconography, prayers for the dead, synergy, veneration of saints, Marian devotion, etc, etc.

    The Protestant response to this problem that you mentioned causes all sorts of problems. If you believe in a slow corruption then you have to explain why the greatest Fathers of the 4th century held these beliefs? You also have to explain why the later Fathers did too? You have to explain why the Pre-Nicean Fathers did as well? You also have to explain why it took 1,000 years to ‘fix’ things with the Reformation?

    I also find it hard to swallow that native Greek speakers like Athanasius of Alexandria, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory the Theologian, Cyril of Alexandria, Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus, etc continually get their NT exegesis wrong but Reformation theologians get it right (of course, this is when they are disagree about the 5 solas).

  2. Thanks for your comment, there’s a lot that I agree with, and obviously things I don’t, but I only want to respond on a couple of points.

    Being a native Greek speaker certainly helps the Greek fathers a great deal, but it is no safeguard for their exegesis. In my view, they get plenty of things right, but there are plenty of places where they get things wrong. Their readings of OT passages often suffer from being based on the LXX. They regularly get the Apocalypse of John wrong because they don’t know what to do with Apocalyptic literature, and they don’t always agree among themselves anyway.

    I don’t think attempting to construct a meta-narrative of the course of Christianity is very helpful to careful historical inquiry. I don’t believe in golden ages or in narratives of decline/restoration/apostasy/etc.., they generally do not help us get a clear picture of the realia of historical periods and historical figures. If we want to understand why 4th century Fathers held certain beliefs, the best thing to do will be to study 4th century fathers’ writings, and place them in historical context and give some attention to historical trends that led to the 4th century writings (i.e., we shouldn’t neglect 1st-3rd century authors if we want to understand 4th century ones!).

  3. Hi Again,
    I did specifically refer to the NT in my remarks about knowledge of Greek not the Old Testament. The Apocalypse is very much the exception to the rule for the NT as it was used far less in Greek-speaking churches and the content was so difficult to understand. There are two Greek commentaries on the Apocalypse (by Oecumenius and Andrew of Caesarea) that have been translated into English (both have been translated twice in the last 10 years) and they don’t strike me as being particularly ‘out there’ in their interpretations. None of the interpretations were in anyway dogmatised and you are right that divergent interpretations were offered. However, I don’t think modern interpreters are any better off. I’ve heard plenty of howlers in my time. If you have any Greek Patristic comments on the Apocalypse that you consider particularly wrong I’d love to check them out!

    I think you under-rate the LXX. There are plenty of places where it preserves a superior reading to the Massoretic Text. There were some places where a mistranslation caused some problems but it resulted in a difficulty in understanding/ interpretation rather than a dogmatic error. Charles Hill translated dozens of Patristic Biblical Commentaries before his death. I have found plenty of gold as well as dodgy interpretation.

    I dislike vague generalities so I’ll give you some examples of Patristic exegesis that was universally accepted.
    2 Kings 13:20-21 (the bones of Elisha) along with Acts 19:11-12 (Paul’s miraculous handkerchief) was universally used as prooftexts (when people even bothered to provide a Biblical basis for the practice) for the use of relics. The Patristic evidence starts with the Martyrdom of Polycarp and continues after that. Big guns like Augustine and John Chrysostom actively promoted the practice. Archeology has unearthed numerous martyria. So what’s happening? Bad exegesis? Were they all idiots? The texts used are clear – there is no issue of language or translation.

    Another example is the ‘born again’ pericope in John 3:3-8. Starting with Justin Martyr (Apology 61) it has been referenced for baptism. Remember Justin is writing a mere 50/70 years after John was written. I once found 20 authors from the 2nd to the 10th century who linked John 3:3-8 to baptism without even trying. I couldn’t find any who gave a different interpretation. Yet, there are plenty of modern exegetes who would claim a different interpretation. Where does the bad exegesis lie? With the ancients or with the moderns?

    I wasn’t giving any narrative on church history (even though I do hold one). I was just pointing out a flaw in the Reformed narrative that you described. I personally take verses like John 14:17, 14:25-27, 16:13, 17:20-23 (amongst others) very seriously so I have to look for truth in church history.

    Calvin, in the Institutes (page 777 of the version I have), cites Athanasius, Basil and Cyril (presumably of Alexandra) as teachers raised up by God. However, if they ever met and had a conversation Calvin would have denounced them as papists in a minute (even though they weren’t) because their views on free will, sacraments, church government etc . This makes me doubt the slow, slow, slow, very slow slide into corruption, that nobody apparently noticed, until 1,0000 year later narrative.

  4. Apologies, I see that you did explicitly mention the NT on your comment about Greek. I missed that.

    Yes, many modern interpreters of the Apocalypse are very bad. There’s no shortage of bad interpretation, modern or ancient.

    I think you are imputing some views to me that I am not sure I have expressed, at the least I don’t hold. I think the LXXs (because the LXX is not a uniform monolith either) is a varied set of translations. Some points of which are indeed superior preservations of a Hebrew text, some of which are good renderings, some of which might be good renderings of alternate Hebrew versions, but also some of which are clearly struggling attempts to render a Hebrew text with which the particular translator doesn’t know what to do. And some of those cause different Fathers to struggle, and sometimes to simply go astray, because they are doing their best to interpret a text that is itself gone awry.

    So I neither lionise nor castigate the LXXs for what they are. So too with patristic exegeses. I want to understand patristic exegetes in their own context on their own terms, for better and for worse. So too reformers – in their own context. That’s why it’s beside hte point whether Calvin would denounce Athanasius, Basil and Cyril as ‘papists’ in our speculative history. Calvin writes highly polemical texts in an environment renowned for it. Actually, I think those three, if they time-travelled to the 16th century, would just go Orthodox. And we have the brief and ultimately unsuccessful correspondences between reformers and Orthodox, which probably gives us a fair idea of at least how reformers would understand Greek fathers of that stature). But still, beside the point.

    I don’t believe in a narrative of decline or corruption, but neither do I think the Fathers function as a consistent authority. They too are individuals, to be read against of their time and culture (as indeed we ourselves), which in turn, I believe, helps us read the Scriptural texts better.

    • I don’t mind either way, I’m certainly not offended if that’s your concern. But I also have plenty of things to keep busy, and I’m not sure where this is going.

  5. Hi Seumas,
    It is clear to me that you approach the Church Fathers and other early Christian authors very differently from me and I wish to explore this further.

    Firstly, the Reformers presumed that they were returning Christian doctrine and practice to a more original and authentic (ie Biblical) expression. A quick look at a document like John Calvin’s Letter to Jacopo Sadoleto confirms this. To say that the very authorities they cite don’t actually agree with them kind of removes the Reformers reason to exist.

    I found your views very secular. You seem to have forgotten the Holy Spirit. If the Church Fathers are products of their time and culture, then how do we work out what is authentic/Biblical/true? I have mentioned the scenario of the Church Fathers being in total agreement like the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. Is this a product of their time and culture or an authentic early Christian Doctrine? What about the Trinity? The eternal generation of the son? The inspiration of the Scriptures? I’m not sure what system you can use to determine what is conditional to time and place and what isn’t? Or for that matter which era is more prone to to time and place exegesis? How do we know the 16th century wasn’t the key time of biblical misunderstanding?

    Or why to don’t apply the same principle of ‘time and place’ understanding to the biblical authors themselves?

    The Reformation traditions stress the variety of Patristic views but they rarely think deeply on the issue of Patristic consensus. To read the Bible is to interpret it so it is difficult to escape the need for teachers/ interpreters. For example, the Reformed tradition believes in sola scriptura but they have spent 500 years developing their own exegetical tradition with their own commentaries, teachers, lexicons, terminology and ‘Fathers’. Do we exclude the previous 1500 years or not?

    You have already pointed out that 4th century soteriology is not exactly judicial penal substitution. Theosis was even held by Arians/Arianisers. That is why Athanasius’s arguments so convincing. I think the Fathers would have found Anselm’s Penal substitution doctrine very legalistic. I was wondering, do you go around pointing out to your Reformed friends that the Church Fathers weren’t Protestant?

    I personally think that deferring to the Fathers/Mothers prevents us from taking a ‘time and culture’ view of Christianity.

    I’ve rambled a bit. You say that the Fathers don’t function as a consistent authority for you? If you have time I would love you to explain this for me. When do we take Patristic views seriously and when don’t we?

    Peace out

  6. As for the Reformers, yes they sought to return to a more ‘Biblical’ expression of Christianity. But their very reformation was itself conditioned by historical reality. The very drive ‘ad fontes’ is the product of Humanism, but the reformers quote and use the Fathers not that differently from how the Medieval church does. The medieval church tended to preserve patristic material in catena format and quote fathers piecemeal. This citation approach, despite humanist retrievals, continued (and continues), though it was modified through humanist and reformer practices, but largely to an attempt to discern a patristic consensus as authoritative.

    I would not agree that my view is secular, though perhaps my writing style is. I will return to this point below.

    You ask how do we work out what is authentic/Biblical/true? Especially if, as I contend, all are products of their time and culture. I do think this is true, even for Biblical authors, but it is not a method of ‘explaining away’, as if to say, “Oh, they are products of their time/culture, therefore irrelevant.” No, it is a recognition of the inevitably subjective and historically conditioned nature of human existence. In one sense, then, to try and ‘extract’ a perspective-free pure objective truth is, I believe, an impossible task. Not because objective truth does not exist, but because all our comprehension of such truth is likewise subjective (we cannot exist but as subjects).

    Therefore I don’t think there are any magic hermeneutical keys to evaluate which time was the height, or the nadir, of biblical understanding. Rather, I think of the Fathers as I think of the Reformers – Christian believers in a time and place who were trying to read/interpret the Scriptures as well as they could, in their own milieu and with the tools available, and no doubt by the help of the Holy Spirit. As, I presume, am I. They are conversation partners, very learned ones, and fellow believers who speak even though passed.

    It’s not a hallmark of intelligent Protestantism or the Reformed tradition to exclude the prior 1500 years, and I do not think you find many scholars who do so. Nor is the development of 500 years of reformed exegetical tradition a counter-argument to sola scriptura. That tradition is founded upon the idea of sola scriptura – that authority resides in the text of Scripture, not in the tradition (and certainly not in an unwritten tradition).

    The Fathers don’t function as a consistent authority because I think the Scripture is the final authority. But we ought always to take patristic views seriously. Christianity isn’t timeless because (a) the Patristic period functions as a normative and objectivising time/culture, nor is it timeless because (b) there is a pure essence of Christianity that is able to be abstracted and distilled, but (c) because that essence of Christianity is always embodied and embody-able trans-culturally and trans-temporally.

  7. Hi Seumas,
    Thank you for further elaborating your views.

    Our discussion has inspired me to buy Hilary of Pointers ‘Commentary on Matthew’ that was translated a few years ago by the Catholic University of America Press. I’ve focused on Greek translations over the last few years and neglected the Latin.

    “I think the Scripture is the final authority” is problematic for me because, as you say, those who promoted this doctrine were very much influenced by their time/ place/culture. Your criteria itself is not a normative doctrine. How can you determine what is normative by using a criteria that is not itself normative?

    Why do I think sola scriptura is not normative?
    a) the Bible does not support sola scriptura – so it does not meet its own criteria. All the verses quoted to support the doctrine (like in the Westminster Confession) don’t actually support it.
    b) sola scriptura presupposes a closed canon but there is no unanimity on the canon within Christianity. The idea of a self authenticating canon sounds nice but collapses under the weight of the historical evidence to the contrary. Since scripture does not have an infallible list of books in itself, the minute you propose a list it is either just an opinion or in equal value with scripture (thus another authority). The increasing consensus is that the Rabbinic Canon that the Reformers so valued was very much a post-Christian product.
    c) The Apostolic Church could follow sola scriptura because the NT corpus was still in formation ( 35 AD – 100 AD?). What evidence is there that once the corpus was formed there was a change? You also have to wonder how things like worship were sorted out?
    d) It was unheard of in the early church. No Church Fathers’ believed in sola scriptura. I’ve read a lot on this. The Church Fathers cherished scripture. The Church Fathers defended scripture. The Church Fathers expounded Scripture. However, to confuse these views with sola scriptura is a major anachronism.
    e) As a methodology, sola scriptura simply doesn’t work. As you have stated, it presumes a level of objectivity that doesn’t exist. People can make scripture say pretty much what they want it to. No one can even figure out what are the ‘clear’ verses to help interpret ‘hard’ verses.

    Other matters
    To say that the Church Fathers were only studied piecemeal in florigilia and catanae is a bit of an overstatement. You know perfectly well that plenty Patristic treatise and commentaries survive as independent works. All you have do is look how proof text quotes of the Church Fathers at various councils were examined for context. For example Constantinople in 680 during the monothelite debate did exactly this. So did Nicaea in 787. Many of the iconoclastic proof texts were badly misquoted. Again at Florence in 1439 during the debate on the Filioque the Greeks were much better at putting their quotes in context. I am reminded of the way Mark of Ephesus correctly understood St Basil’s ‘Against Eunomius’ in the face of a corrupted version that was put forward by the Romans.

    My point about Reformed exegesis is that it provides the lens that you use to interpret scripture. There is a Roman Catholic lens. There is a Lutheran lens. There is a Baptists lens. There is a Methodist lens. There are Anglican lenses. There is a liberal lens. There is a humanist lens. However, few people will admit that is what they are doing when they read the Bible. They simply claim they are understanding the ‘plain meaning of scripture’. That is why a Baptist will read the bible and see no infant baptism but a Lutheran will do the same and see infant baptism. The Reformation exegetical traditions are very much a break from what came before. How do you know you aren’t trapped by the exegetical tradition of your upbringing?

    Example time
    The word kosmon (sorry I don’t have a Greek font on this device) in places like John 3:16 is usually translated as ‘world’ but we both know it really means ‘people’ or ‘the inhabited world’ or ‘humanity’. The Reformed lens through which you look at this word wants you to stand by limited atonement so you have to understand kosmon as ‘some people’ or ‘various segments of the inhabited world’. I take kosmon to to support a general atonement.

    When Reformed Christians do Early Church History and Patristics they are generally accurate. Not that I find many in this area. The ones I do see seem to be Mavericks like NT Wright and Frend or Chadwick. However, when they do historical theology or the development of doctrine they are generally off as they try to do that lapse into corruption thing (with Augustine being the one shining light) which is opinion disguised as scholarship.

    This post has already been a bit long. I’d like to tell you how I see things next time.
    PS: I’m using my email instead of my wife’s. I finally figured out how to change the settings.

    • I’m only going to reply to some of your points, for time’s sake.

      I think B and C claim too much. C would apply to the Old Testament period too. The fact that there are inspired texts is sufficient to establish a doctrine of scripture. That the borders and the timing of canon formation are disputed, does not suggest to me that the idea itself is totally unworkable. It seems to me that B and C provide an argument that ‘since we can’t decide when and where to close the canon, no texts can be treated as divinely inspired.’

      I agree with D, but not it’s implications. That is, I think Sola Scriptura is an anachronistic description of Patristic views of scripture. Nonetheless, the Fathers treat Scripture as divinely inspired, authoritative, and many other tenets that traditionally formulate Sola Scriptura.

      Sola Scriptura isn’t a methodology, in my view, it’s an authority claim. But texts still need to be read/interpreted. That’s exactly the dilemma that confronted 2nd century Christians in replying to Gnostics – appeals to the same texts produced very different theology! But it doesn’t get solved by an appeal to a higher authority. The way the Regula Fidei appears to work in exegetical debates is an interpretative mechanism, not a separate appeal to authority.

      I’m not claiming that patristic texts did not survive holistically, but it remains true that much of their usage, especially in the Western European tradition, involved catenae and florilegia. Systematic engagement with lengthier patristic texts is not absent, but it’s not the most common form of engagement in the medieval period.

      Yes, we all use a lens to interpret scripture. How do any of us know we aren’t trapped by our presuppositions? I take it that this is what objectivity in scholarship really ought to mean – an ability to refocus one’s eyes to see the glasses you are wearing! And, to be prepared to change/adjust/modify the lenses themselves. And lastly, to self-consciously confess those lenses. Scholarship doesn’t need to pretend to an impossible objectivity, but it ought to own its own biases.

      I don’t find your example particularly compelling in any direction, because it seems infected with a ‘real meaning’ fallacy. κόσμος can be translated in a variety of ways, since it has a fairly robust semantic range. The question ought to be, “when κόσμος gets used in John’s Gospel, how is it to be read in each instance?” and then subsequently, “Given how we read κόσμος in these different texts, what does this contribute to the question of the scope of atonement?” Surely that is a better procedure for arriving at doctrinal conclusions from exegetical bases.

  8. Hi Seumas,

    Sola Scriptura is not merely an anachronistic term to describe how the Church Fathers used the Bible but the belief itself is just as anachronistic. The best term I’ve heard to describe how the Fathers used the Bible is ‘prima scriptura’. Just because the Fathers had some overlap with ideas that are claimed by sola scriptura doesn’t help to prove sola scriptura. As I said in another post, a love and respect of the scriptures doesn’t equal sola scriptura. The Rule of Faith certainly has elements of Scriptural interpretation but that is too narrow. The tradition which the Church Fathers seem to talk about a lot has elements of praxis, collegiality, hierarchy and worship. Not an easy thing to grasp as it isn’t conveniently ‘one’ thing. Your example of Gnosticism is actually a good example of how Irenaeus, Tertullian, etc did not use sola scriptura as the Gnostics did not really accept the authority of the Gospels. The Gospel of Truth, The Gospel of Philip, The Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Judas are examples of their counter-scriptures. The canonical Gospels and the rest of Scripture had be supported by the authority of the Church via the bishops to guarantee their authenticity.

    One of the reasons I reject sola scriptura is that its historical trajectory is easy to see. It is very much a time and place belief. Firstly, there is the invention of printing. There were many more Bibles in circulation and pamphlets could be printed cheaply and circulated widely. Just about everyone could hold ‘truth’ in their hands. A very comfortable feeling!! You then have to throw in the Humanist compulsion to get back to the sources. The Reformation was really about primitivism, unfortunately the Reformers couldn’t reconstruct Christianity with what they had (but they tried anyway). Then there is the uncooperative stance of the (bad, bad, bad) Roman Catholic hierarchy. This meant the Reformers distrusted ‘The Church’ as it was hostile so they had to look for some other authority, which was the Bible mediated by the way they packaged it to the people. Finally, there was a healthy dose of proto-nationalism (Germanic people adopt Lutheranism, English become Anglicans, etc). Eastern Christians were ok to use for a few polemic points against the Roman Catholics but they were never a serious consideration as an authority (due to their terrible corruption, ignorance and superstition). Early Christians didn’t have any hang ups about authority like the Reformers. As a matter of fact, the Reformation/Counter-Reformation solution to authority is identical – both found their one source. The Roman Catholics had the Pope and the Reformers had the Bible. Since most early Christians were illiterate and Bibles so few they had to rely on others and it was no big deal as that was the way things were.

    B) The issue of an open canon is important as it shows the church in the process of forming a canon. The Reformers mistakenly thought the OT canon was pre-Christian but the latest scholarship now dates the Rabbinic Canon to the 2nd or 3rd century. If the church had a say in the canon then it had authority. I’m not sure why a bunch of rabbis in the 3rd century have any more authority than the Pope?

    A Protestant can say the Bible does not support prayers for the dead but a Catholic can turn around and say their Bible has 2 Maccabees which has an example of the practice. See the problem.

    The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has a distinctively long OT canon. The Assyrian Church has a short 22 book NT canon. The Roman Catholic canon is (slightly) different from the Eastern Orthodox canon. Protestants rely on the rabbinic canon. To say that the church had a say does not diminish the authority of scripture at all. Does saying the Gospels have human authors detract from their scriptural status? Do you think modern Catholics and Orthodox think less of scripture than Protestants?

    As I see it those (like Rudolf Butlmann, Bart Ehrman) who set out to disparage scripture are generally ex members of the sola scriptura camp.

    C) The early Christians (c35 – 100 AD) didn’t wait around for the NT to be written and then formed into a canon so they could function. They baptised, worshiped, conducted the Eucharist, lived their lives and organised their communities. The Pauline epistles are very much occasional works not ‘how to’ instructions. In a written culture like ours it is easy to underestimate the praxis of an oral culture like there’s. They didn’t believe the ‘real presence’ of the Eucharist because it was or wasn’t in the NT but because that is what they did and were taught. They didn’t believe the baptismal regeneration because it was or wasn’t in the NT but because that is what they did and were taught. I could go on.
    That is why Cyril of Jerusalem can advocate a narrow OT canon and claims he follows scripture but then simultaneously advocate prayers for the dead.

    You say that sola scriptura is not a methodology but an ‘authority claim’. Unfortunately, your claim is a methodology that is blatantly faulty. As for me I’m happy to apply the Vincentian Canon to find out what’s legitimate. Or, as I have said, if you acknowledge that the early church was liturgical, sacramental, hierarchical and ascetic then you can use a process of elimination to eliminate contenders and see who you have left over.

    sorry to be a bit polemical but I do get carried away.
    Sola Scriptura means that the Church Fathers are not authorities (consistent or otherwise) at all – they are merely signposts that you can agree or disagree with at whim.

    While individual Fathers are important, the main appeal to authority is to points where they are at a consensus. I ask again, what do you do when there is a Patristic Consensus?

  9. I just took a look at the Westminster Confession and they seem to think that sola scriptura is contained in the Bible. They have a whole section of supposed proof texts (all of which dont actually prove their point). This approach is typical of Reformed confessions.

    Another issue I have is that during my years as an Anglican/Reformed Christian no one seemed to know exactly what doctrines were sufficient for salvation. It’s hard to know if the Bible is sufficient when no one seems to be clear on what is sufficient regarding core beliefs despite everyone talking about the material and formal sufficiency of scripture a lot. Not only does every denomination have their own list there is also lots of variation with them.

    As for kosmon/kosmos Arminians and Calvinists have been dancing around for 450 years trying to out scholarship each other with no clear outcome. I have been told that the steep decline of 5 point Calvinism in the last 50 years is an indication that that particular set of doctrines has move on from the time/place/culture that made them popular.

    • Two questions for you:

      1. What do you think Sola Scriptura means?

      2. And how does differ in your mind from ‘Prima Scriptura’?

      I don’t think confessional statements are great places to derive theology from. That is the opposite to a good methodology – a confessional statement ought to summarise a theological position derived from Scripture, not prooftext it.

      As for the question of ‘what doctrines are necessary for salvation’? That is really a whole different question. I suspect most protestants would say, “None.” Because their soteriology is not built upon knowledge. That is a neo-gnostic approach.