Sola Scriptura and the Anglican Scotist

by Al Kimel

In his article Taking Your Pick, the Anglican Scotist criticizes the appeal of “right-wing ECUSAans” (one of his favorite terms for anyone who disagrees with the present direction of the Episcopal Church) to the plain sense of Scripture. He believes that the Anglican commitment to creedal faith precludes any such simplistic appeal:

But committment to the Creeds sits uneasily with committment to Scripture alone as authoritative. Why? The Creeds assume the framework of Greek metaphysics, a framework not at home in Scripture. Scripture does not lay out a system of metaphysics like that of Aristotle, or Plotinus, or Philo. Any attempt to derive the Creeds from Scripture would take as premises extra-Biblical assumptions from Greek metaphysics. Keeping to Scripture alone as authoritative calls the Creeds and our committment to them into question. On the other hand, calling for confession of the Creeds implies the Bible is not authoritative alone. Indeed, given committment to the Creeds, it follows rather that Scripture interpreted through philosophy that cannot be found in Scripture is authoritative.

As readers of Pontifications know, one of the reasons I became Catholic was because I became convinced of the impossiblity of maintaining an authoritative Scripture within a Protestant framework. (See my 46 postings in the category “Authority”.) Hence I am sympathetic to the Scotist’s general argument, particularly when referring to the Nicene and Athanasian creeds, as opposed to the more primitive Apostles’ Creed. I do think Scotist underestimates the extent to which the early Church turned Greek metaphysics on its head in its articulation of the trinitarian faith, but the man has a point. Scripture does not employ the language of being/substance to speak of Jesus Christ, yet since Nicaea catholic Christianity has insisted that the creedal homoousion is an authoritative hermeneutical key to the right understanding of Scripture. Right-wing ECUSAans, therefore, are in a terrible dilemma, says Scotist. If they assert the authority of the creeds, then they cannot assert sola scriptura. If they assert sola scriptura, then they cannot assert creedal authority.

The thoughtful “right-wingers” I know in the Episcopal Church will immediately reply, and should immediately reply, that the Scotist’s argument does not apply to them, because they do not assert that Scripture is their only authority. See, for example, Dr William Witt’s response to Tobias Haller and his discussion of Richard Hooker. One really does have to wonder with whom the Scotist is arguing.

Scotist’s real concern, of course, is to find a way to liberate the Church from the inherited sexual moral tradition and its proscription of homoerotic behavior. He believes he has cleared the path by demonstrating that both the ECUSAan leadership and the ECUSAan right-wingers go outside of Scripture to explicate the truth of the gospel. If the right-wingers can do it to explicate the doctrine of the Holy Trinity then ECUSA can do it to justify the blessing of same-sex unions.

Has the Scotist made his case? I don’t think so. Anglican right-wingers are hardly as thoughtless, stupid, and unsophisticated as he apparently thinks they are. But let’s assume that he has. In that case, he has simply presented us with an excellent reason to leave Protestantism and become Catholic or Orthodox. Both of these traditions know that the Scriptures cannot be properly interpreted as God’s Word outside the Holy Tradition of the Church.

(Stay tuned)

16 Responses to “Sola Scriptura and the Anglican Scotist”

1. Christopher Says:
July 29th, 2005 at 11:20 am

Your point, Father Al, is well taken, which is why I’m searching for a home in the Catholic Church after coming to the conclusion that protestantism is, after all is said and done, an untenable place to be.

2. Michael Liccione Says:
July 29th, 2005 at 12:22 pm


I keep hoping that the prog case, whether made in Anglican or in Catholic terms, will turn out to be about something other than sex and power. I keep on being disappointed.


3. Susan F Peterson Says:
July 29th, 2005 at 2:18 pm

A blog called “Questioning Christian” referenced this argument of Anglican Scotist’s. Here is the comment I made there on July 5. No one commented on my comment, though. There it was meant to be a bit provocative. Here it will surprise no one.

Frankly, the authority for accepting both the Bible and the Creeds is the Church, which also teaches the truth about issues of sexual morality. Even authentic Anglicanism adhered to “the faith once delievered to the saints” which in practice included the teachings of the early councils of the church. And reformation Protestantism was not starting from ground zero either, in its interpretation of the Bible; it accepted the creeds, which were the reflection of the Christian church of the early centuries on scripture and the tradition which had been handed down..sometimes making use of Greek philosophical thought as well. Actually, I suspect that even the most Bible only fundamentalists can’t help to some degree reading the Bible in the tradition of the Church, without knowing it. Certain texts are seen to refer to the understanding of the Trinity and the Incarnation hashed out in the early centuries of the church-all the alternate possibilities which would be there if one really saw the text naked of tradition, do not even arise in the mind. And that’s a good thing.

Susan Peterson

4. 1di7 Says:
July 29th, 2005 at 2:45 pm

From Poland…

Well, you could say already that John’s Gospel contains some rather astounding philosophical and religious developments. That’s one thing that convinces me the Church was Catholic from the earliest days.

Another question is whether it’s not simply unreasonable to reject Greek philosophy just because it’s Greek. I mean, the world is the way it is, whether Plato or Aquinas says so.

5. Allen Lewis Says:
July 29th, 2005 at 3:58 pm

Yoour point is well-taken, Pontificator.

I had always thought that true Anglicanism relied on the tradition of the Early Church Fathers ( “… four councils and five centuries…”). But with the rise of “enlightened” theology, it seems that “experience” has replaced “tradition” as the touchstone of what Scripture acually means and how it applies.

However, the rise of so-call “affirming Catholicism” is an indicator that the Roman Cathoic Church is not immune from Zeitgeist theology and moral relativism. I will admit that the ineritia provided by the Magisterium does provide a defense against the revisionist onslaught. But still the battle will be constantly with us.

6. Allen Lewis Says:
July 29th, 2005 at 4:04 pm

By the way, Al, it is not hard to maintain an authoritative Scripture as long as we focus on Jesus and obedience to Him. Whenever we take our eyes off of Him and begin to focus on OUR wants and OUR needs, then we will be just as ready to bend and twist what Scripture says with the best revisionists and moral relativists!

Jesus calls us to be _disciples_, not theologians.

7. pontificator Says:
July 29th, 2005 at 5:54 pm

By the way, Al, it is not hard to maintain an authoritative Scripture as long as we focus on Jesus and obedience to Him.

Allen, everyone I know involved in the present disputes profess obedience to Christ. Should infants be baptized or not? Is the consecrated bread and wine of the Supper the Body and Blood of Christ? Are bishops ordained in the historical succession necessary to the life of the Church? May the divorced remarry? Is contraception permitted? Are abortions wrong? Are gay marriages permitted, given our present knowledge of sexuality?

I’m sorry but matters are just not as easy as you say.

8. William Tighe Says:
July 29th, 2005 at 10:13 pm

Re: #5, this is rather confusing. “Affirming Catholicism” is a purely Anglican movement (English in origin ca. 1989; its founders were three men, named Richard Holloway, Jeffrey John and Rowan Williams), so I fail to comprehend how its existence indicates anything about Roman Catholicism.

9. Allen Lewis Says:
July 30th, 2005 at 9:38 am

Brother Tighe,

I yield to your greater historical knowledge. I should know better than to make sweeping claims based on my limited knowledge on this blog. You are, of course, correct. My apologies.


10. dpc+ Says:
July 31st, 2005 at 9:35 am

I appreciate the comment about not being sure with whom he is arguing. I wonder myself at times in this vein; however, then I’ll read something from someone like Paul Z at Trinity (now) and be confirmed in my suspicions that the more protestant-leaning Anglicans (i.e., those who mistrust the authority of the Church) are the ones who most thoroughly uphold their appeal to private judgment and sola scritura…

and you’re right
as usual 😉
it doesn’t work.

11. Michael Liccione Says:
August 1st, 2005 at 4:03 pm

Trackback Sacramentum Vitae

12. Andy M. Says:
August 2nd, 2005 at 11:07 pm
Re: #3

Susan F. Peterson,

The claim of Sola Scriptura is in some ways a denial of Holy Tradition. Having once been a member of an evangelical Protestant denomination, I can see that evangelicals really do accept a number of inherited Church traditions. Some examples that immediately come to mind:

The Trinity, Jesus being fully human and fully divine, Sunday worship, and the Satisfaction theory of the atonement (usually).

Many Protestants are in denial about the fact of their inheritence from the early Church. It is very doubtful that if you just handed a brand new Christian a Bible and told him to read it that he would dervive the idea of the Trinity. I’m assuming, of course, that he only read the Bible and receive no instruction in the faith.

13. The Anglican Scotist Says:
August 9th, 2005 at 12:49 am

Well, I looked at William Witt’s essay; compare it with Finnis’ work on natural law to see just how thin and watery Witt’s is. Yes, Witt is reasonable, and his thesis there is laudable, but so what? He simply does not argue at the appropriate depth to get the job he wishes to see finished done; for all I know, Witt can, but for whatever reason, will not. Haller is right not to be convinced–it is a sign of intellectual virtue to demand more. Hang out at the ACPA, for instance, to see some good philosophical theology taking shape in the relevant areas.

We need right and left philosopher-theologians, not pundits–more people not afraid doing ontology and ethics at the “foundational” level. I never meant to imply ECUSA’s right is overpopulated with the intellectually vicious and infirm: I do not think that at all. But honest dissatisfaction is an appropriate reaction to untutored argument, and it may well lead to better argument.

How much of ECUSA’s plight, right and left, is due to such a lamentable lack of training?

14. The Anglican Scotist Says:
August 9th, 2005 at 12:52 am

Oops–would I include myself among the legions of the lamentably ignorant? Sure. But I do claim for myself this tiny shred: the dissatisfaction.

15. William Witt (Albertus Parvus) Says:
August 10th, 2005 at 5:44 am

AS has looked at my essay in response to Haller, and regards it “thin and watery.” He complains that I do not argue at the “appropriate depth.” Well, yes, I was writing a short essay in response to an even shorter essay. Even so, the draft comes to thirty some double spaced pages, and the initial essay was much longer, but was edited for internet consumption. I could have gone into more depth, but this is the internet.

More to the point, AS does not address my arguments. Is he saying I have misrepresented or misunderstood Augustine, Thomas, Hooker et al? Or is saying that he himself disagrees with with them, as does Haller?

Is he arguing that Thomas or Hooker do not believe that sexual morality is part of natural law (in distinction to ceremonial, civil, or ecclesial law)? I’m not sure. But perhaps that’s because I’m simply incapable of sufficent intellectual depth to grasp his criticism. Thin and watery, don’t you know.

16. William Witt (Albertus Parvus) Says:
August 10th, 2005 at 6:00 am

One last point. Finnis seems to be arguing a case for “natural law” as “natural theology.” I think this is a fundamental confusion of what Aquinas and Hooker are about. When Aquinas and Hooker talk about “natural law” they are trying to understand what scripture says about God’s intentions for humanity in creation, irrespective of the fall, irrespective of particular forms of civil government, irrespective of Israel or the church’s religious rituals that follow from the fall. It’s all about understanding salvation in terms of re-creation/new creation. It’s not (at least primarily) about self-evident principles of moral knowledge known apart from biblical revelation. (The source here is Gen. 1 and 2, not Aristotle.) The “natural theology” approach is evidence of the post-Cartesian disruption between theology and philosophy, and is itself an illustration of modernism, IMHO. That is, Aquinas and Hooker are engaging in theology proper (fides quaerens intellectum), not what (is called today) philosophy, and certainly not “analytical philosophy.”