God "has chosen to teach [orthodoxy and orthopraxy] by the Holy Scriptures" – A Hippolytian Response to Mr. Alt

Mr. Scott Alt was kind enough to respond to the recent Dividing Line episode (and associated post) in which Dr. White and I responded to his previous set of questions.  Unfortunately, there is very limited interaction with any of the substance of points we raised.  In fact, I will skip over Section I of his response and go right to Section II, where Mr. Alt attempts to address Hippolytus and our comments about Hippolytus.

Mr. Alt states:

Hippolytus draws an analogy here between the man who attains his wisdom from “the dog​mas of the philoso​phers,” and the man who attains his piety from “the oracles of God.” But look at the claim: “Those who wish to practice piety will be unable to learn its practice from any other quarter than the oracles of God.” Leaving aside for the moment the fact that Hippolytus does not say that “the oracles of God” are to be found only in Scrip​ture, all he claims in this pas​sage is that one may derive the practice of piety from Scripture. But the claim of sola scrip​tura is that Scripture alone contains all that a Christian must believe and all that a Christian must practice in his worship. It claims nothing about where piousness is to be derived.

Mr. Alt’s analysis is wrong on a variety of points.

1. While Hippolytus does not explicitly state “the oracles of God are Scripture alone,” when he says “oracles of God” he means the Scriptures. I’m not sure what proof would satisfy Mr. Alt of this rather obvious fact. The same phrase “oracles of God” is found in Hippolytus’ work “On Christ and Antichrist,” where he uses it to refer to Scripture (Specifically Daniel in sections 31 and 51). It’s a Biblical term used in Romans 3:2 to refer to the Old Testament Scriptures.

Question for Mr. Alt: What do you think Hippolytus means by “oracles of God” if not “Scripture,” and why do you think that?

2. Mr. Alt’s argument mistakenly identifies what “practice piety” entails. To practice piety is live in accordance with orthodox doctrine. Obviously, Hippolytus does not spell this out in those exact words, but that’s what Hippolytus means.

Question for Mr. Alt: What do you think that Hippolytus means by “practice piety” if not “live in accordance with orthodox doctrine,” and why do you think that?

3. Mr. Alt’s assertion that “It claims nothing about where piousness is to be derived,” seems to have an even more fundamental problem. “Piousness” is not a tool used in practicing piety, but rather it is the outcome of practicing piety. Thus, if Scriptures teach us how to practice piety, they teach us how to “derive” or more precisely “produce” piousness. It’s not like “practice the fiddle,” where one is practicing use of the fiddle, but the fiddle itself is sold separately. Rather it’s liking practicing love, self-control, or any other virtue, where self-control, love, and so forth are the result of the practice.

Question to Mr. Alt: How could Scripture possibly teach the practice of piety without teaching what constitutes piousness?

4. Mr. Alt’s claim that “all he claims in this pas​sage is that one may derive the practice of piety from Scripture,” is patently false, even after we take into account the true meaning of “practice of piety.” After all, just as Hippolytus says that the knowledge of God is obtained “from the Holy Scriptures and no other source,” so likewise Hippolytus says that the practice of piety is not learned from “any other quarter than the oracles of God.” In short, the exclusive claim for the Scriptures is repeated in both the broad initial statement and the narrower clarifying comment.

Question to Mr. Alt: Do you deny that Hippolytus twice repeats his exclusive claim?

5. Mr. Alt fails to note that what constitutes the “practice of piety” is spelled out through the following sentences in which Hippolytus explains:

Whatever things, then, the Holy Scriptures declare, at these let us took; and
whatsoever things they teach, these let us learn; and
as the Father wills our belief to be, let us believe; and
as He wills the Son to be glorified, let us glorify Him; and
as He wills the Holy Spirit to be bestowed, let us receive Him.
Not according to our own will,
nor according to our own mind,
nor yet as using violently those things which are given by God, but
even as He has chosen to teach them by the Holy Scriptures, so let us discern them.

Those are the categories that Hippolytus subsumes on the description of “practice piety.”  They are teaching the knowledge and worship of the Trinity.

Question to Mr. Alt: Do you deny that Hippolytus is explaining that both doctrine (orthodoxy) and worship (orthopraxy) are to be derived from Scripture? and do you acknowledge that this is the “knowledge of God” referred to in the first sentence and the “practice of piety” referred to in the second sentence?

Mr. Alt goes on to accuse of “playing a shell game with sola scriptura.”  I think his analogy is inappropriate (for a variety of reasons), but more importantly his accusation is premised on (among other things) his faulty reasoning regarding what Hippolytus says.

Mr. Alt then expresses some confusion as to the relevance of a passage where Hippolytus corrects the attempts of Noetus’ disciples to make an argument from Scripture through proper exegesis of Scripture.   Before going on to acknowledge that two more quotations from Hippolytus evidence his approach of refuting his opponents from Scripture, Mr. Alt provides a statement that is more significant than he probably realizes:

Hippolytus is addressing him​self to errors that have been made in exegesis. His opponents are attempting to derive their doctrine, denying the Trinity, from Scripture. Hippolytus argues back that “the Scriptures do not set forth the matter in this manner.” Their interpretation is incorrect, but–take careful note here–both Hippolytus and his opponents are arguing from the Scripture. There is no question that his opponents are attempting to derive their doctrine else​where. They truly believe that their denial of the Trinity is biblical. Apart from the fact that Hippolytus could hardly argue this question apart from scriptural exegesis, one could very easily claim that this pas​sage high​lights one of the key difficulties with sola scriptura that Catholic apologists constantly point out: Unless one has an interpretive authority who is under​stood to be infallible, you can argue about the proper exegesis of Scripture until the sun goes down, it’s possible that your interpretation is wrong, and you have no way to know that. Hippolytus’ opponents believed they were arguing soundly from Scripture. But they weren’t.

Before getting to the significance of Mr. Alt’s comments, let’s dismiss his “no question” point.  Hippolytus plainly does not give Noetus or his disciples the credit that Mr. Alt gives him. Hippolytus suggests that Noetus (and/or his disciples) used his own will and his own mind to do violence to Scripture (“mutilate the Scriptures” section 4), rather than being instructed from Scripture, as can be seen from the colored passage above.

Check out how Hippolytus characterizes it (section 1 of the work):

Some others are secretly introducing another doctrine, who have become disciples of one Noetus, who was a native of Smyrna, (and) lived not very long ago. This person was greatly puffed up and inflated with pride, being inspired by the conceit of a strange spirit. He alleged that Christ was the Father Himself, and that the Father Himself was born, and suffered, and died. You see what pride of heart and what a strange inflated spirit had insinuated themselves into him. From his other actions, then, the proof is already given us that he spoke not with a pure spirit; for he who blasphemes against the Holy Ghost is cast out from the holy inheritance. He alleged that he was himself Moses, and that Aaron was his brother. When the blessed presbyters heard this, they summoned him before the Church, and examined him. But he denied at first that he held such opinions. Afterwards, however, taking shelter among some, and having gathered round him some others who had embraced the same error, he wished thereafter to uphold his dogma openly as correct. And the blessed presbyters called him again before them, and examined him. But he stood out against them, saying, What evil, then, am I doing in glorifying Christ? And the presbyters replied to him, We too know in truth one God; we know Christ; we know that the Son suffered even as He suffered, and died even as He died, and rose again on the third day, and is at the right hand of the Father, and comes to judge the living and the dead. And these things which we have learned we allege. Then, after examining him, they expelled him from the Church. And he was carried to such a pitch of pride, that he established a school.

Hippolytus does not view Noetus as someone who honestly thought that Scriptures taught that Jesus is the Father.  No, Hippolytus thought Noetus was (to paraphrase) a demoniac nutcase, who thought he was Moses.  Noetus and his disciples may have appealed to Scripture, but Hippolytus does not chalk this up to an honest misunderstanding.  In fact, Hippolytus accuses them of selectively quoting one class of passages from Scripture, rather than treating Scripture as a whole (Section 3).  We will come back to that point shortly, I think.

The more significant part of Mr. Alt’s comment is this:

Apart from the fact that Hippolytus could hardly argue this question apart from scriptural exegesis, one could very easily claim that this pas​sage high​lights one of the key difficulties with sola scriptura that Catholic apologists constantly point out: Unless one has an interpretive authority who is under​stood to be infallible, you can argue about the proper exegesis of Scripture until the sun goes down, it’s possible that your interpretation is wrong, and you have no way to know that. Hippolytus’ opponents believed they were arguing soundly from Scripture. But they weren’t.

What’s significant is that Hippolytus shows absolutely no awareness of this supposed “key difficulty.”  Hippolytus (like us) thinks that Scripture interprets Scripture.  For example, he states: “The Scriptures speak what is right; but Noetus is of a different mind from them. Yet, though Noetus does not understand the truth, the Scriptures are not at once to be repudiated.” (Section 3)

It’s not the fault of Scriptures that Noetus was wrong, as though Scripture needs some external infallible interpreter.  Rather it is Noetus’ fault, for ignore one class of Scripture texts.  Hippolytus explains (section 3):

In this way, then, they choose to set forth these things, and they make use only of one class of passages; just in the same one-sided manner that Theodotus employed when he sought to prove that Christ was a mere man. But neither has the one party nor the other understood the matter rightly, as the Scriptures themselves confute their senselessness, and attest the truth

Rather than appealing to some external supposedly infallible interpreter, Hippolytus claims that Scriptures themselves confute the senselessness of the heretics, whether they deny the fact that Christ is God but not the Father, or they affirm that Christ is not God because he is not the Father.

Hippolytus didn’t think that appeals to Scripture are moot appeals that settle nothing.  He thought that  Scripture itself decided the question.

“Within this section, Mr. Alt concludes with the following claims:

But in neither of these does Hippolytus claim what Tur​ret​inFan wants him to. Hippolytus refutes his opponents from Scripture, but nowhere does he make the claim that only Scripture is capable of refuting the​o​log​i​cal error. There is, as I’ve pointed out, an exclusivity that Reformed apologists make for Scripture when it comes to the​o​log​i​cal doctrine. And nowhere in any of these pas​sages does Hippolytus make such a claim. Sola scriptura cannot be defended merely because a particular Church Father used the Scripture to refute a the​o​log​i​cal error. The Catholic Church has no difficulty with the​o​log​i​cal error being refuted from the Bible.

First, of course, even Sola Scriptura does not deny that one can use reason to refute internally inconsistent arguments. But second, Hippolytus does identify Scripture as the sole source for infallible theological dogma, as we discussed above.

Mr. Alt’s characterization of “merely because a particular Church Father used the Scripture to refute a the​o​log​i​cal error,” is just wrong. That’s not the limit of our claim. It is true that appeals to Scripture are not really consistent with the idea that the listener is unable to reliably understand what Scripture says without an infallible external interpreter. But it would be possible for the fathers to make the same inconsistent appeals to Scripture that modern Roman apologists make. It would be possible if they thought there were some other infallible dogmatic source of authority, or if they thought private persons were unable to judge teachers, because they lacked interpretive authority.

But that hypothesis is not supported by the evidence. Rather, consistently the major fathers in case after case only describe Scripture as infallible and make the kind of exclusive claims for its authority that we have observed in Hippolytus above.

The fathers may have been inconsistent on a variety of things, but Hippolytus was not being inconsistent as Benedict XVI sometimes is. When he said, “no other source” and “unable to learn its practice from any other quarter” he described Scripture in the exclusive terms that Mr. Alt is demanding we produce.

We don’t agree that this is really necessary to demonstrate Sola Scriptura.  It’s sufficient to simply affirm the sufficiency of Scripture and not to offer any other infallible sources of authority.  It’s not necessary to make the universal negative claim – it’s enough to make the positive claims of sufficiency, and not to offer or accept any equal.

Lord willing, we will consider another section of Mr. Alt’s post in an upcoming reply.

-TurretinFan

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