Archive for the ‘Tradition’ Category

Twenty-Four Elders – Twenty-Four Books

January 23, 2013

People sometimes see what they want in allegory. If a modern Protestant sees the number 66 in an allegory, he naturally thinks of the 66 books of the Bible.  If the chapter divisions in Isaiah were original, we would be tempted to place significance on that point.  If a modern Protestant sees 27 or 39 he might (less obviously) see the number of books in the New and Old Testaments respectively.

The book of Revelation has a reference to “twenty-four elders” as well as “four beasts” or “four living creatures.” A very ancient tradition (dating back at least to Irenaeus) links those four beasts to the four gospels. What is interesting to discover is that there is a very old Western tradition associating the twenty-four elders with the twenty-four books of the Old Testament.

Why 24 instead of 39? There were different ways of numbering the books then. For example, the 12 minor prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi) were counted as a single book.  See some more discussion by Jerome, below.

The earliest Greek commentators on Revelation that I found did not make any mention of this twenty-four elder to twenty-four Old Testament books correspondence, possibly because in the East, the way of counting the Old Testament books was twenty-two, not twenty-four (due to making a couple less combinations).

The earliest Latin commentators, however, provide the correspondence.

Victorinus of Petovium (died c. A.D. 303):

The four animals are the four Gospels. “The first,” he says, “was similar to a lion, the second similar to a calf, the third similar to a man and the fourth similar to an eagle in flight. And they had six wings all around and eyes within and without, and they did not cease to say, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.'” And there were twenty-four elders who had twenty-four tribunals. These are the books of the prophets and of the law, which give the testimonies of the judgment. However, these twenty-four fathers are also the twelve apostles and the twelve patriarchs.

(Victorinus of Petovium, Commentary on Revelation 4 at section 4, in Latin Commentaries on Revelation, Weinrech trns., p. 7)

(Alternative translation from ANF07: The four living creatures are the four Gospels. “The first living creature was like to a lion, and the second was like to a calf, and the third had a face like to a man, and the fourth was like to a flying eagle; and they had six wings, and round about and within they were full of eyes; and they had no rest, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord Omnipotent. And the four and twenty elders, falling down before the throne, adored God.” The four and twenty elders are the twenty-four books of the prophets and of the law, which give testimonies of the judgment. Moreover, also, they are the twenty-four fathers—twelve apostles and twelve patriarchs.”)

The wings [the six wings each of the four beasts] are the testimonies of the Old Testament, that is, of the twenty-four books, the same number as the elders on the tribunals. For just as an animal cannot fly unless it has wings, neither can the preaching of the New Testament acquire faith unless its testimony is seen to correspond to those foretold in the Old Testament, through which it rises from the earth and flies.

The books of the Old Testament that are received are those twenty-four that we find in the epitomes of Theodore. However, as we have said, the twenty-four elders are the patriarchs and apostles who will judge the people.

(Victorinus of Petovium, Commentary on Revelation 4 at section 5, in Latin Commentaries on Revelation, Weinrech trns., p. 8)

(Alternative translation from ANF07: “Six wings.” These are the testimonies of the books of the Old Testament. Thus, twenty and four make as many as there are elders sitting upon the thrones. But as an animal cannot fly unless it have wings, so, too, the announcement of the New Testament gains no faith unless it have the fore-announced testimonies of the Old Testament, by which it is lifted from the earth, and flies.

And the books of the Old Testament that are received are twenty-four, which you will find in the epitomes of Theodore. But, moreover (as we have said), four and twenty elders, patriarchs and apostles, are to judge His people.)

“The twenty-four elders and the four animals had harps and bowls and were singing a new song.” The preaching of the Old Testament joined with the New reveals the Christian people singing a new song, that is, the proclaiming of their public confession.

(Victorinus of Petovium, Commentary on Revelation 5 at section 3, in Latin Commentaries on Revelation, Weinrech trns., p. 10)

(Alternative translation from ANF07: “Twenty-four elders and four living creatures, having harps and phials, and singing a new song.”] The proclamation of the Old Testament associated with the New, points out the Christian people singing a new song, that is, bearing their confession publicly.)

Apringius of Beja (6th Century):

He says that he had seen this Lamb in the midst of the throne, that is, in power and in divine majesty. “And among the four living creatures.” This is because he is known in the fourfold order of the Gospels. “And among the elders.” By this he indicates the chorus of the law and the prophets, or of the apostles.

(Apringus of Beja, Explanation of the Revelation at Revelation 5:6, in Latin Commentaries on Revelation, Weinrech trns., p. 44)

Caesarius of Arles (c. A.D. 470 – 542):

“Each of the living creatures had six wings all around.” In the living creatures we recognize also the twenty-four elders, for the total of six wings on each of the four creatures is twenty-four wings. Moreover, he say the living creatures around the throne, where he said that he had seen the elders. But how can a creature with six wings be similar to an eagle that has two wings, unless the four creatures, who have twenty-four wings and in whom we recognize the twenty-four elders, are one creature, that is, the church, which is like an eagle? We may also interpret the six wings to be the testimonies of the Old Testament. For just as a creature cannot fly unless it has wings, so also the preaching of the New Testament cannot produce faith unless it has the prophetic witness of the Old Testament by which it rises from the earth and flies.

“And they never rest.” The living creatures are the church that never rests but praises God without ceasing. We may also interpret the twenty-four elders to be either the books of the Old Testament or the patriarchs and the apostles.

(Caesarius of Arles, Exposition of the Apocalypse, Homily 3, in Latin Commentaries on Revelation, Weinrech trns., p. 70)

Bede the Venerable (c. A.D. 673 – 735):

And each of them had six wings. The wings lift the church into the heights by the perfection of their doctrine. The number six is said to be perfect, because it is the first number to be completed by the sum of its parts. For the number one is one-sixth of six; the number two is one-third of six; and the number three is one-half of six,; and together they make six. There is another interpretation. The six wings of the four living creatures make twenty-four wings, the same number as there are books in the Old Testament, by which the authority of the Evangelists is supported and the truth of the Evangelists is verified.

(Bede the Venerable, Exposition of the Apocalypse, at Revelation 4:8, in Latin Commentaries on Revelation, Weinrech trns., p. 126)(there is, I believe, a new translation of this work forthcoming)

Primasius (died. c. 560):

In one way, fore and aft, because the Church everywhere bearing fruit is broadened; it walks in the light of the face of God, and, his face revealed, gazes on the glory of God. In another way, fore and aft, he implies that the six-fold wings, which number twenty-four, are the books of the Old Testament, which we take up on canonical authority of the same number, just as there are twenty-four elders sitting above the thrones.

(Primasius, Commentary on the Apocalypse of John, Book I, Chapter IV. Translation by Benjamin Panciera, The Medieval Institute, University of Notre Dame)

Ambrose Autpert (c. A.D. 730 – 784):

The Church can be signified in the twenty-four elders under a different interpretation on account of the perfection of six which is completed in the four books of the holy Gospel. For the number six is held as perfect, for this reason that in six days God is thought to have completed all his works and in the sixth age of the world it is told that he reformed man. And so since the Church fulfills the works of the Fathers of the Old and New Testaments completed in the six ages of the world, just as in six days, and the four books of the holy Gospel, it is all correctly described in twenty-four elders. For four times six makes twenty-four. Or certainly, since it uses twenty-four books of the older Testament which it accepts with canonical authority in which it also recognizes that the New Testament was revealed, the Church is therefore figured in twenty-four elders. For this reason, the preaching of the New Testament is fruitful since strengthened from the Old, just as the Church takes the number from these same [books], by which it is perfected in sanctity.

(Ambrose Autpert, Expositionis in Apocalypsin, Libri III (4, 4). Translation by Benjamin Panciera, The Medieval Institute, University of Notre Dame).

This Western patristic view continued in the West throughout the middle ages:

Haymo of Halberstadt (died c. 853):

The same Church could also, according to another interpretation, be figured in the twenty-four elders. For this number is composed of the number six and the number four, because four sixes make twenty-four. The number six refers to works, because Almighty God completed His work in six days, and on the sixth day, at the sixth hour, redeemed man. The number four, however, refers to the four books of the Gospels. Because, however, the Holy Church, whether in the Old Testament or in the New, recalls and venerates the works of God, and preserves the books of the Holy Gospels, it [i.e. the Church] is also rightly understood in the twenty-four elders, or certainly according to the twenty-four books of the Old Testament, which are used according to canonical authority, in which the New Testament, and those things that are brought to fulfillment in it are acknowledged to be foretold. Whence also the Evangelist says of the two thieves who were crucified with Christ: this was done, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, which says, ‘And he was classed among the wicked…’

And each of the four animals had six wings. The wings of the animals signify the two Testaments, by which the Church is carried up to the Heavens. However, while there are two Testaments, the spiritual wings of the same Church, on account of this twin testament, which is found in the twelve tribes of Israel, or in the twelve apostles, these wings are multiplied, two by twelve, and they give twenty-four wings. For two twelves are twenty-four. In another way, the number twelve consists of the parts of the number seven, that is, of the number three and the number four. We can say either four threes or three fours make twelve, which is a sacred number, the number of the twelve Apostles. In the number three, faith in the Holy Trinity is understood, and in the number four, the four parts of the world. Twelve is thus multiplied by two, and we get twenty-four. The number of the elect is expressed in terms of this number, by whose preaching the faith of the Holy Trinity is spread to the four corners of the world, and the whole world is raised to Heaven. We can also understand these wings in another way. The natural law is understood in the first wing, the Law of Moses in the second wing, in the third the prophets, in the fourth the Gospels, in the fifth the Epistles of the Apostles, in the sixth Canonical authority, or the doctrine of Catholic men such as Jerome, Augustine and other holy Fathers.

(Haymo of Halberstadt, Exposition of the Apocalypse of S. John, Book 7, Book I, Chapter IV. PL 117:1007, 1010. Translation by Catherine Kavanaugh, University of Notre Dame).

Rupert, Abbot of Deutz (c. 1075–1129):

Around the throne are twenty-four thrones and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders dressed in robes with golden crowns on their heads. Just as on the seat the kingdom of God, so on these seats we understand the judicial power of the saints, about which is has been written, the saints will judge the nations. But why are the elders sitting on the seats shown to be twenty-four in number? On this matter the explanations of the Fathers diverge. For some (of whom St. Jerome is one and the most notable) wish the elders displayed throughout here to be understood as the twenty-four books of the old law. Some others understand in these same elders the Church born through the twin testaments of the patriarchs and the apostles, or certainly those who brought about the work’s perfection, which is commended to six-fold number, by clear preaching of the Gospel. For four times six makes twenty-four. But we judging neither interpretation to be useless, nevertheless dare to bring forth something certain from the majesty of the scriptures.

(Commentary of Rupert, Abbot of Deutz, On the Apocalypse of John, Book III, Chapter IV. Translation by Benjamin Panciera, The Medieval Institute, University of Notre Dame).

Peter Cellensis (c. 1115-1183):

And so, concerning the field of the belly of Jesus, in which all storehouses of wisdom and knowledge have been hidden, just as from a mound of wheat surrounded by lilies, twenty-four loaves (according to the number of twenty-four elders standing in the sight of the Lamb) in order to curb all hunger, cleanse all disease, and remove all weakness, with however much care I have been able to gather in this little book by breaking asunder the battle lines of overflowing cares. For this number both of the sons of Jacob and of the apostles of Christ signifies twice the number twelve. And so under this number are contained the books of the Old Testament. And so the complete instruction of souls is offered from this number of books and no less full refreshment is taken from this number of loaves. And so running from the east and west and north and south to the sign of Abraham that they not fail on the way, they refresh themselves from the loaves of the compassion of the Lord and they show the perpetual refreshment to their flaws.

(Peter Cellensis, De Panibus. Cap 2, PL 202:935-936).

Peter Blensensis (c. 1130 – 1203):

The Old Testament is so called because with the coming of the New, it ceased, which the Apostle also recalls, saying, ‘Certain things passed away, and behold! All things were made new.’ So the New Testament was so named because it makes new. For those who made this statement were none other than men called out of the Old [dispensation] by grace, and belonging now to the New Testament, which is the Kingdom of Heaven. The Hebrews accept the Old Testament as authorized by God in twenty-two books, according to the number of their letters, dividing them into three orders, that is, the Law, the Prophets and the Holy Writings…Five and eight added to nine make twenty-two, as is understood from the above. Some also add Ruth and Cinoth, which is called in Latin the Lamentations of Jeremiah, to the Hagiographies. These make twenty-four volumes of the Old Testament, just like the twenty-four elders who sit before the Face of God. The fourth [order?] is of those books accepted by us in the order of the Old Testament which are not in the Canon of the Hebrews. The first of them is the Book of Wisdom, the second Ecclesiasticus, the third Tobias, the fourth Judith, the fifth and sixth the Books of the Maccabees. The Church of Christ proclaims these and honors them as divine books, even though the Jews separate them as Apocrypha…The Book of Wisdom is found nowhere among the Hebrews, as a result of which it is far more redolent of Greek style than of Hebrew eloquence. The Jews affirm this to be Babylonian. Therefore they call it Wisdom, for in it the coming of Christ, who is the Wisdom of the Father, and His Passion, is evidently expressed. Now the Book of Ecclesiasticus was definitely composed by Jesus, son of Sirach and grandson of the great priest (high priest) Jesu, which Zacharias also mentions. This book is mainly known among the Latins by this title on account of its similarity to the sayings of Solomon. Indeed the statement of Ecclesiasticus is to be studied with great care, for it deals with the discipline of the whole Church and of religious discourse. This book is found among the Hebrews, but as Apocrypha. Judith, however, Tobias and the books of the Maccabees which were written by their author are the least established. They take their names from those whose deeds they describe…These are the writers of the holy books, who speaking by the Holy Spirit, have written in collaboration with him the rule to be believed and the precepts to be lived by for our erudition. Beyond these, other books are called Apocrypha, for ‘apocrypha’ are sayings, that is, secret sayings, which are doubtful. For the origin of them is hidden, nor does it appear to the Fathers, from whom the authority of the truth of Scriptures comes down to us in most clear and certain succession. Although some truth is found in these apocrypha, a great deal is false, nothing in them has canonical authority, and they are rightly judged by the wise not to be among those things to be believed, for a great deal is put out by heretics in the name of the Prophets, and more recently is the name of the Apostles. All that is called apocrypha has been removed following the diligent examination of canonical authority.

(Tractatus Quales sunt. De Divisone Et Scriptoribus Sacrorum Librorum. PL 207:1051B-1056. Translation by Catherine Kavanaugh, The Medieval Institute, University of Notre Dame).

Glossa Ordinaria published 1498:

There are, then, twenty-two canonical books of the old testament, corresponding to the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, as Eusebius reports, in book six of Ecclesiastical History, that Origen writes on the first Psalm; and Jerome says the same thing more fully and distinctly in his Helmeted Prologue to the books of Kings: All the books are divided into three parts by the Jews: into the law, which contains the five books of Moses; into the eight prophets; and into the nine hagiographa. This will be more clearly seen shortly. Some, however, separate the book of Ruth from the book of Judges, and the Lamentations of Jeremiah from Jeremiah, and count them among the hagiographa in order to make twenty-four books, corresponding to the twenty-four elders whom the Apocalypse presents as adoring the lamb. These are the books that are in the canon, as blessed Jerome writes at greater length in the Helmeted Prologue to the books of Kings.
In the first place are the five books of Moses, which are called the law, first of which is Genesis, second Exodus, third Leviticus, fourth Numbers, fifth Deuteronomy. Secondly follow the eight prophetic books, first of which is Joshua, second the book of Judges together with Ruth, third Samuel, i.e. first and second Kings, fourth Malachim, i.e. third and fourth Kings, fifth Isaiah, sixth Jeremiah with Lamentations, seventh Ezekiel, eighth the book of twelve prophets, first of which is Hosea, second Joel, third Amos, fourth Obadiah, fifth Jonah, sixth Micah, seventh Nahum, eighth Habakkuk, ninth Zephaniah, tenth Haggai, eleventh Zechariah, twelfth Malachi. Thirdly follow the nine hagiographa, first of which is Job, second Psalms, third Solomon’s Proverbs, fourth his Ecclesiastes, fifth his Song of Songs, sixth Daniel, seventh Paralipomenon, which is one book, not two, among the Jews, eighth Ezra with Nehemiah (for it is all one book), ninth Esther. And whatever is outside of these (I speak of the Old Testament), as Jerome says, should be placed in the apocrypha. 

(Biblia cum glosa ordinaria et expositione Lyre litterali et morali. Basel: Petri & Froben, 1498. British Museum IB.37895, vol. 1. Translation by Dr. Michael Woodward. See also Walafrid Strabo, Glossa ordinaria, De Canonicis et Non Canonicis Libris. PL 113:19-24).

William Webster also identified Richard of St. Victor, John of Salisbury, and Alphonsi Tostati, who identified the number of books of the Old Testament as twenty-four, apparently apart from a discussion of Revelation.

But of course, the key witness in the Western tradition is the great patristic advocate for excluding the apocrypha, Jerome (c. 347 – 420):

The first of these books is called Bresith, to which we give the name Genesis. The second, Elle Smoth, which bears the name Exodus; the third, Vaiecra, that is Leviticus; the fourth, Vaiedabber, which we call Numbers; the fifth, Elle Addabarim, which is entitled Deuteronomy. These are the five books of Moses, which they properly call Thorath, that is law.
The second class is composed of the Prophets, and they begin with Jesus the son of Nave, who among them is called Joshua the son of Nun. Next in the series is Spohtim,that is the book of Judges; and in the same book they include Ruth, because the events narrated occurred in the days of the Judges. Then comes Samuel, which we call First and Second Kings. The fourth is Malachim, that is, Kings, which is contained in the third and fourth volumes of Kings. And it is far better to say Malachim, that is Kings, than Malachoth, that is Kingdoms. For the author does not describe the Kingdoms of many nations, but that of one people, the people of Israel, which is comprised in the twelve tribes. The fifth is Isaiah, the sixth Jeremiah, the seventh Ezekiel, the eighth is the book of the Twelve Prophets, which is called among the Jews Thare Asra.
To the third class belong the Hariographa, of which the first book begins with Job, the second with David, whose writings they divide into five parts and comprise in one volume of Psalms; the third is Solomon, in three books, Proverbs, which they call Parables, that is Masaloth, Ecclesiastes, that is Coeleth, the Song of Songs, which they denote by the title Sir Assirim; the sixth is Daniel; the seventh, Dabre Aiamim, that is, Words of Days, which we may more expressively call a chronicle of the whole of the sacred history, the book that amongst us is called First and Second Chronicles; the eighth, Ezra, which itself is likewise divided amongst Greeks and Latins into two books; the ninth is Esther.
And so there are also twenty-two books of the Old Testament; that is, five of Moses, eight of the prophets, nine of the Hagiographa, though some include Ruth and Kinoth (Lamentations) amongst the Hagiographa, and think that these books ought to be reckoned separately; we should thus have twenty-four book of the old law. And these the Apocalypse of John represents by the twenty-four elders, who adore the Lamb, and with downcast looks offer their crowns, while in their presence stand the four living creatures with eyes before and behind, that is, looking to the past and the future, and with unwearied voice crying, Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, who wast, and art, and art to come.
This preface to the Scriptures may serve as a ‘helmeted’ introduction to all the books which we turn from Hebrew into Latin, so that we may be assured that what is not found in our list must be placed amongst the Apocryphal writings. Wisdom, therefore, which finally bears the name of Solomon, and the book of Jesus, the Son of Sirach, and Judith, and Tobias, and the Shepherd are not in the canon. The first book of Maccabees I have found to be Hebrew, the second is Greek, as can be proved from the very style. Seeing that all this is so, I beseech you, my reader, not to think that my labors are in any sense intended to disparage the old translators. For the service of the tabernacle of God each one offers what he can; some gold and silver and precious stones, others linen and blue and purple and scarlet; we shall do well if we offer skins and goats hair. 

(NPNF2, Vol. 6, St. Jerome, Prefaces to Jerome’s Works, The Books of Samuel and Kings, pp. 489-490).

(see also this summary of the work of William Webster regarding the canon)

How comprehensive is the survey above?   Francis X. Gumerlock has identified 21 patristic era (i.e. 2nd to 8th centuries) commentaries on Revelation. We have cited seven of the authors of the list namely Victorinus (3rd), Jerome (4th), Caesarius (8th), Primasius (9th), Apringius (10th), Bede (17th), and Ambrose Autpert (18th).

Additionally, we have reviewed the commentaries of Andrew of Caesarea and Oecumenius, whose commentaries does not make the association between the twenty-four elders and the twenty-four books (possibly because of the twenty-two book tradition).

Thus, within the 21 extant commentaries we have found seven that favor the 24 elders representing the Old Testament, and two that do not make any mention of this view.

If Hippolytus’ works originally had any interpretation of the significance of the twenty-four elders, it seems that they have been lost. The single mention he makes in his commentary on Daniel is too vague to say that he’s making any numerical association. Moreover the fragments of his commentary in Andrew of Caesarea do not pertain to this particular section of the text.

The main work attributed to Origen is not his, but a compilation of the works of other (later) authors. I’m looking forward to the forthcoming publication and translation of this work by Dr. Panayiotis Tzamalikos, who is the premiere authority on these scholia, which have sometimes been mistakenly attributed to Origen.

Didymus the Blind’s commentary is in fragments, and should be included with the Scholia mentioned above.  Dr. Tzamalikos has kindly informed me that the Scholia do not directly analyze the question of who the twenty-four elders are, but that contextually they seem to be “the saints” in general in Scholion 29.  I look forward to the publication of this work (the oldest commentary on Revelation) hopefully in April of this year (2013).

The only fragments of Tyconius I found translated are in the Revelation volume of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture collection, at pages 60, 66, and 136. In each of the fragments, he refers the 24 elders as corresponding to the whole church. The fragments are taken from Primasius, however, whose view we have discussed above. Moreover the second fragment appears to connect the twenty-four wings with the twenty-four elders and also with Scripture. Some of the difficulties in identifying Tyconius in Primasius are hinted at in the discussion of recovering Tyconius at page xxx of that same volume.

I have not checked Cassiodorus PL 70:1405-1418, which is basically a brief abstract. Cassiodorus’ use of the passage in the psalms (at psalms 24 and 117) does not make any mention of twenty-four books.

I have not checked Pseudo-Jerome, Pseudo-Isidore, and the other unknown patristic era authors that .Gumerlock identified.  I suspect that when review of the extant commentaries are complete, we will find that the Western authors for the most part favor the teachings of Victorinus and Jerome in making the association, whereas the Eastern authors will have no such tradition, particularly since the number of books in the Eastern canon was twenty-two.  Jerome provides a bridge between the two sides, in that he recognizes and approves of both ways of counting and reconciles them, as noted above.

As a final note, there are a number of additional commentaries on Revelation from the medieval period.  Joachim of Fiore, for example, produced a significant and controversial Exposition of the Apocalypse, which I briefly skimmed without finding any discussion of a relationship between the twenty-four elders and the twenty-four books.


P.S. A few more notes:

1. Obviously, this is one of many strands of Western tradition that Trent broke in treating the Apocrypha as Deuterocanonical.  I’m not aware of any evidence that Trent considered this issue or addressed it.  Certainly, Trent’s canons and decrees do not explain the appropriate interpretation of the twenty-four elders.

2. I’m not adopting this western tradition regarding the twenty-four elders.  While it is an interesting view, and one of several meanings assigned to the text in the West, I doubt that the 24-book enumeration goes all the way back to the 1st century (the 22-book enumeration does, as evidenced by Josephus).  Therefore, I doubt that the 24-book association was one that was originally intended.

3. Nevertheless, if one trusts in the reliability of tradition when it comes to interpretation of Scripture, one cannot really accept Trent.  Or, alternatively, if one can cast off a venerable and widespread Western tradition dating to the 3rd century simply because Trent says something that conflicts with it (without any explanation or discussion of the matter), what’s the point of calling tradition an authority?

4. Furthermore, compare this tradition in terms of weight and popularity with the novel interpretations of the woman of Revelation 11 as some kind of evidence for a bodily assumption.  This tradition is widespread and nearly universal amongst early Western commentators on Revelation, whereas the interpretation of the woman of Revelation 11 as evidence of a bodily assumption is something Mr. Albrecht couldn’t identify even one instance of in the history of the church up to the Reformation.


Flattening Flimsy Flim-Flam

July 21, 2009

Mr. Mark Shea (link) seems to think that Dr. White’s post (link) is so much “huff-puffery.” Thankfully, the flim-flam from which Mr. Shea’s argument is constructed is so flimsy that it is flattened by even fairly rudimentary analysis.

Mr. Shea seems to have forgotten the important lesson of the story of the three little pigs. The lesson wasn’t so much that one needs to label the bad guy as a wolf or call his arguments huffing and puffing, but that one needs to have a house built out of something more substantial than straw and/or sticks. In this case, Mr. Shea’s arguments are the argumentative equivalent of the straw house. Why? Because they lack the solid foundation of Scripture. As Cyril of Jerusalem (about A.D. 315 – 386) put it:

Even to me, who tell thee these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures.

– Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture IV, Section 17

Mr. Shea is clearly not fond of the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture. He writes: “The whole ‘Scripture is perspicuous’ thing is a classic case of elevating human tradition to the level of equality with the word of God.” We chuckle to ourselves wondering whether Mr. Shea, adhering to papal traditions as he does, means that as a criticism or a compliment.

After all, the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture goes back to the earliest Christian writers. For example, Justin Martyr (about A.D. 100 – 165) suggests that at least some of the Scriptures have a clear meaning that requires no interpretation:

Pay attention, therefore, to what I shall record out of the holy Scriptures, which do not need to be expounded, but only listened to.

– Justin Martyr, Dialog With Trypho, Chapter 55

Mr. Shea’s straw (over twigs) construction choice is revealed in his straw man argument:

It works like this: the enthusiast for the doctrine of the “perspicuity of Scripure” [sic] reasons “God always does what is best. Having a Bible that is perspicuous is best. Therefore, God has done that.”

Of course, neither Dr. White nor any serious proponent for Scripture’s perspicuity argues that way.

We have many arguments at our disposal, we might, as Irenaeus (about A.D. 130 – 200) did and take the position that the perspicuity of Scripture is self-evident, hidden only from the blind:

Since, therefore, the entire Scriptures, the prophets, and the Gospels, can be clearly, unambiguously, and harmoniously understood by all, although all do not believe them; and since they proclaim that one only God, to the exclusion of all others, formed all things by His word, whether visible or invisible, heavenly or earthly, in the water or under the earth, as I have shown from the very words of Scripture; and since the very system of creation to which we belong testifies, by what falls under our notice, that one Being made and governs it,—those persons will seem truly foolish who blind their eyes to such a clear demonstration, and will not behold the light of the announcement [made to them]; but they put fetters upon themselves, and every one of them imagines, by means of their obscure interpretations of the parables, that he has found out a God of his own.

– Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 2, Chapter 27, Section 2

But alas, while some of Mr. Shea’s colorful rhetoric (which we have striven, by way of flattery through imitation, to duplicate) may be fresh, some of the strawy arguments he uses are quite moldy by now. For example, he argues:

You can always find some sort of biblical justification for your pet idea. And with sufficient will power or ego, you can trumpet your pet idea as the Revealed Will of God Almighty, denouncing anybody who questions your pet theory, not as somebody who questions your pet theory, but as an enemy of God who “rails away” at God Almighty, while “The child of God knows better.” It’s a very cozy way to congratulate yourself.

This characterization of Scripture (in addition to leading one to make a note to oneself: “remember not to trust Mr. Shea’s biblical self-justifications”) is contrary to that of the founder of Latin Christianity, Tertullian (about A.D. 160 -220) who stated:

Then, if even the heretic seek refuge in the depraved thoughts of the vulgar, or the imaginations of the world, I must say to him: Part company with the heathen, O heretic! for although you are all agreed in imagining a God, yet while you do so in the name of Christ, so long as you deem yourself a Christian, you are a different man from a heathen: give him back his own views of things, since he does not himself learn from yours. Why lean upon a blind guide, if you have eyes of your own? Why be clothed by one who is naked, if you have put on Christ? Why use the shield of another, when the apostle gives you armour of your own? It would be better for him to learn from you to acknowledge the resurrection of the flesh, than for you from him to deny it; because if Christians must needs deny it, it would be sufficient if they did so from their own knowledge, without any instruction from the ignorant multitude. He, therefore, will not be a Christian who shall deny this doctrine which is confessed by Christians; denying it, moreover, on grounds which are adopted by a man who is not a Christian. Take away, indeed, from the heretics the wisdom which they share with the heathen, and let them support their inquiries from the Scriptures alone: they will then be unable to keep their ground. For that which commends men’s common sense is its very simplicity, and its participation in the same feelings, and its community of opinions; and it is deemed to be all the more trustworthy, inasmuch as its definitive statements are naked and open, and known to all. Divine reason, on the contrary, lies in the very pith and marrow of things, not on the surface, and very often is at variance with appearances.

– Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, Chapter 3

Mr. Shea doesn’t limit himself to suggesting that Scripture is ambiguous, he also argues that experience tells us that this is so:

The thing is, the perspicuity of Scripture is one of those ideas, like Marxism, that is the result of theory run amuck and removed entirely from the laboratory of real life … people who assert things like the Perspicuity of Scripture as Revealed Truth have to face the fact that the Laboratory of Experience is simply against them. The one thing Scripture is not is perspicuous.

I wonder if this is where Mr. Shea hopes to gain an edge on folks with less experience in the laboratory than he. I refer to folks like Athanasius (about A.D. 297 – 373) who wrote:

And this is usual with Scriptures, to express itself in inartificial and simple phrases.

– Athanasius, Four Discourses Against the Arians, Discourse 3

And again:

These are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these. For concerning these the Lord put to shame the Sadducees, and said, ‘Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures.’ And He reproved the Jews, saying, ‘Search the Scriptures, for these are they that testify of Me.

– Athanasius, Letter 39, Section 6

Perhaps, as I say, Mr. Shea believes himself a better Christian scientist or laboratory technician in the laboratory of life than Athanasius. If so, then no doubt he will not be shy to proclaim his experimental superiority over Hilary of Poitiers (about A.D. 315 – 367) who declared:

The Lord enunciated the faith of the Gospel in the simplest words that could be found, and fitted His discourses to our understanding, so far as the weakness of our nature allowed Him, without saying anything unworthy of the majesty of His own nature.

– Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, Book 9, Section 40

Mr. Shea assures us (attempting to justify his pet idea from Scripture – see above) that:

That’s not me talking, that’s 2 Peter:
So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. (2 Peter 3:15-16)

One wonders if Mr. Shea is aware of how this verse was understood by the early Christians. Augustine (about A.D. 354 – 430) explains:

For it is none other than the question of God’s grace which has caused persons of no understanding to think that the Apostle Paul prescribes it to us as a rule, “Let us do evil that good may come.” It is in reference to these that the Apostle Peter writes in his second Epistle; “Wherefore, beloved, seeing that you look for such things, be diligent, that you may be found of Him in peace, without spot and blameless and account that the long-suffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also, according to the wisdom given unto him, has written unto you; as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things: in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other Scriptures, unto their own destruction.” Take good heed, then, to these fearful words of the great apostle; and when you feel that you do not understand, put your faith in the meanwhile in the inspired word of God, and believe both that man’s will is free, and that there is also God’s grace, without whose help man’s free will can neither be turned towards God, nor make any progress in God. And what you piously believe, that pray that you may have a wise understanding of.

– Augustine, Letter 214, Sections 6-7

Augustine understood Peter to be saying that it may be very hard to reconcile Paul’s teaching of Grace and of Free Will, but we should simply accept the plain teaching both that men have wills and that God gives grace. I won’t derail this with a further discussion of Augustine’s compatibilism, but suffice that this passage demonstrates that Augustine at least viewed Peter as suggesting that the error is not in thinking that Paul speaks in riddles, but simply that he speaks about things that are hard fully to understand.

Shea throws another straw man into the pile by asserting that the rebuttal to citation of 2 Peter 3:15-16 is as follows:

Standard boilerplate replies generally run toward saying things like “Paul’s writing is perspicuous, it’s just the ignorant and unstable who screw things up.”

Of course, that’s not the primary response although it does sound a bit like what Augustine and other fathers have said.

The primary response is that the doctrine of perspicuity doesn’t claim that every text of Scripture is equally clear. Just that the necessary things are clear. And the second is like it: “some things hard to understand” suggests what should be blindingly obvious to all, namely that Paul’s letters also contain some things not hard to understand (not by logical necessity, of course, but simply common inference).

After chopping the straw man into little bits with reference to Revelation and Job, Mr. Shea decides to present a view of perspicuity that is a little closer to accurate mixed in with more straw:

What doctrines like the “perspicuity of Scripture” *really* mean is “Scripture means what I take it to mean, no more, no less. The easy to understand parts are the parts that agree with what I think. The hard to understand parts are the parts that a) talk about unimportant stuff or b) must be subordinated to what I understand.”

Most of that, the part about perspicuity meaning that “Scripture means what I take it to mean,” is just another straw man, but you’ll recognize hiding behind the bulky straw man the actual position lurking as a sub-point.

One wonders whether Mr. Shea is even aware of what John Chrysostom (A.D. 347 – 407) spoke about the perspicuity of Scripture:

What do I come in for, you say, if I do not hear some one discoursing? This is the ruin and destruction of all. For what need of a person to discourse? This necessity arises from our sloth. Wherefore any necessity for a homily? All things are clear and open that are in the divine Scriptures; the necessary things are all plain. But because ye are hearers for pleasure’s sake, for that reason also you seek these things. For tell me, with what pomp of words did Paul speak? and yet he converted the world. Or with what the unlettered Peter? But I know not, you say, the things that are contained in the Scriptures. Why? For are they spoken in Hebrew? Are they in Latin, or in foreign tongues? Are they not in Greek? But they are expressed obscurely, you say: What is it that is obscure? Tell me. Are there not histories? For (of course) you know the plain parts, in that you enquire about the obscure. There are numberless histories in the Scriptures. Tell me one of these. But you cannot. These things are an excuse, and mere words. Every day, you say, one hears the same things. Tell me, then, do you not hear the same things in the theaters? Do you not see the same things in the race-course? Are not all things the same? Is it not always the same sun that rises? Is it not the same food that we use? I should like to ask you, since you say that you every day hear the same things; tell me, from what Prophet was the passage that was read? from what Apostle, or what Epistle? But you cannot tell me—you seem to hear strange things. When therefore you wish to be slothful, you say that they are the same things. But when you are questioned, you are in the case of one who never heard them. If they are the same, you ought to know them. But you are ignorant of them.

– John Chrysostom, Homily 3 on 2 Thessalonians

I realize that this may sound to Mr. Shea like John Chrysostom is saying:

“Ignorant and unstable people may twist Scripture, but I am safe from all that so I understand perfectly what Scripture means. And when the Church disagrees with me, that’s because the ignorant and unstable are disagreeing with me, who am not ignorant or unstable.”[the argument he puts in the mouth of perspicuity advocates]

But I wonder if he’d be so bold as to claim that Athanasius was saying almost exactly that when Athanasius (against the vast majority of the church of his day) contended:

“But,” says the Arian, “is it not written?” Yes, it is written! And it is necessary that it should be said. But what is well written is ill understood by heretics. If they had understood and grasped the terms in which Christianity is expressed, they would not have called the Lord of glory [1 Corinthians 2:8; cf. James 2:1] a creature nor stumbled over what is well written.

– Athanasius, Epistle to Serapion

But perhaps he just means that the church fathers were unaware of the practical consequences of their doctrines. After all, Mr. Shea points out the large number of denominations of Protestants relying on the false 33,000 number (previously shown to be false). The early church fathers, after all, were not around to see this consequence that Mr. Shea attributes to the doctrine of perspicuity. But Mr. Shea downplays the issue of divisions because he recognizes that there are many divisions within his own church.

Instead, Mr. Shea plays up what he thinks are major differences, for example: “you are still faced,” he says, “with colossal and mutually contradictory differences between say, Oneness Pentecostals (who deny the Trinity) and Trinitarian Protestant.” One wonders if Mr. Shea really thinks the core Trinitarian and especially Christological doctrines are not clear from Scripture. On such a point he would seem to be at odds with men like Theodoret (about A.D. 393 – 457) who stated:

Although you have not yet met me, I think that your excellency is aware of the open calumnies that have been published against me, for you have often heard me preaching in church, when I have proclaimed the Lord Jesus, and have pointed out the properties alike of the Godhead and of the manhood; for we do not divide one Son into two, but, worshipping the Only-begotten, point out the distinction between flesh and Godhead. This, indeed, is I think confessed even by the Arians, who do not call the flesh Godhead, nor address the Godhead as flesh. Holy Scripture clearly teaches us both natures.

– Theordoret, Letter 99

Or Augustine:

In order, therefore, that the human mind might be purged from falsities of this kind, Holy Scripture, which suits itself to babes has not avoided words drawn from any class of things really existing, through which, as by nourishment, our understanding might rise gradually to things divine and transcendent.

– Augustine, On the Trinity, Book 1, Chapter 1, Section 2

Or Novation (about A.D. 200 – 251) who proves the Trinity from Scripture:

Unless, therefore, we hold all this with fitting veneration and lawful argument, we shall reasonably be thought to have furnished a scandal to the heretics, not assuredly by the fault of the heavenly Scriptures, which never deceive; but by the presumption of human error, whereby they have chosen to be heretics.

– Novation, On the Trinity, Chapter 30

If so, if Mr. Shea really thinks that the Scripture is not clear on the important topic of the Trinity, we are puzzled why he thinks the Bible is clear on other things. For example, Mr. Shea himself confessed the perspicuity of Scripture with respect to the at least occasional permissibility of the death penalty:

Some Catholics are fine with this. The reasons for this vary. Some already oppose the death penalty on other grounds and, in fact, go further than the Church by trying to say the Church errs in permitting it at all. I think they are wrong both for theological reasons (i.e. Scripture clearly permits it at times) and for practical reasons (sometimes people just need killing for the common good). Some agree with the Church’s teaching as it is laid out in Evangelium Vitae.


Likewise, Mr. Shea thinks that Scripture teaches clearly that we will get our wish:

Ask yourself: is Islam or the West more likely to produce such a person? Personally, I have a lot of trouble seeing such a figure arising in Islam, with it rock hard insistence on the distinction between creature and Creator. The West, on the other hand, is chockablock with philosophies, religious movements, pop psych, technology, literary movements, art, music, and politics which are all, in their own ways, laboring to summon just such a one from our midst. Scripture says pretty clearly that we will get our wish.


So strange that God would, in his Word, make such relatively trivial things clear while leaving more important things mired in ambiguity.

But Mr. Shea’s straw house will collapse. It collapses in the face of a few small puffs from Scripture:

John 20:31 But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.

The purpose of John’s gospel is to write so that people would believe and be saved. Implicitly, this shows that the necessary things for salvation may be understood from John’s gospel.

1 John 5:13 These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.

Same for John’s catholic epistle as for his gospel. He wrote so that we would believe.

2 Timothy 3:15 And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.

The Scriptures are able to make one wise to salvation. This, again, implies that they teach with sufficient clarity the things necessary to be known for salvation.

2 Timothy 3:16-17
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.

Again, the very purpose of Scripture is not just to furnish the believer but to do so “throughly.”

John 5:39 Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.

Scripture reveals Christ, and the command to “search” at least suggests that Christ can be found by those who search.

1 Corinthians 10:11 Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.

Scripture is written for our admonition, which implies that we can read it and be admonished.

Rom 15:4 For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.

The Scriptures were written for our learning, which likewise implies that we can read it and learn. (See also Romans 4:23-25)

But what about those folks who claim that Scripture is ambiguous and cannot be understood without tradition? We give them the following answer from tradition:

When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but vivâ voce: wherefore also Paul declared, “But we speak wisdom among those that are perfect, but not the wisdom of this world” [1 Cor. ii. 6]. And this wisdom each one of them alleges to be the fiction of his own inventing, forsooth; so that, according to their idea, the truth properly resides at one time in Valentinus, at another in Marcion, at another in Cerinthus, then afterwards in Basilides, or has even been indifferently in any other opponent, who could speak nothing pertaining to salvation. For every one of these men, being altogether of a perverse disposition, depraving the system of truth, is not ashamed to preach himself.

2. But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. For [they maintain] that the apostles intermingled the things of the law with the words of the Saviour; and that not the apostles alone, but even the Lord Himself, spoke as at one time from the Demiurge, at another from the intermediate place, and yet again from the Pleroma, but that they themselves, indubitably, unsulliedly, and purely, have knowledge of the hidden mystery: this is, indeed, to blaspheme their Creator after a most impudent manner! It comes to this, therefore, that these men do now consent neither to Scripture nor to tradition.

3. Such are the adversaries with whom we have to deal, my very dear friend, endeavouring like slippery serpents to escape at all points. Where-fore they must be opposed at all points, if per-chance, by cutting off their retreat, we may succeed in turning them back to the truth. For, though it is not an easy thing for a soul under the influence of error to repent, yet, on the other hand, it is not altogether impossible to escape from error when the truth is brought alongside it.

– Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 2, Section 1

Yes, we face the same straw houses today that Irenaeus did then. We have shown that Scripture claims perspicuity for itself at least implicitly. Perhaps, in Mr. Shea’s metaphor, that’s our “huff.” Furthermore, we have shown that the tradition of the early church acknowledged that perspicuity as well – our “puff” I suppose. But we see that Mr. Shea accepts neither Scripture nor Tradition, just as the heretics did not with whom Irenaeus dealt. And so Mr. Shea’s house of flim-flam straw-men arguments falls, flattened by the weight of Scripture and Tradition with our meager “huff-puffery” serving only to present the truths as they are and not to add any weight of our own authority to the mix.


Easter Eggs and Jesus’ Rebirth?

April 13, 2009

Mr. Lankford recently directed me to the following statement that betrays a misunderstanding of the connection between Easter and eggs:

Easter means nothing to me. Which is why I bought all these eggs.

Eggs aren’t religious symbols to me. I’m not a Christian recognising the death and rebirth of Jesus. Not a Jew celebrating the triumph of life over death as told in the Passover Haggadah. Not a pagan invoking springtime and life’s renewal. (I approve of springtime and life’s renewal, just not in a spiritual way.)

I’d like to take a second to clarify a couple of things. For those atheists who have no idea what Christianity teaches, we do not teach that Christ was reborn. Christ died and was resurrected from the dead on the third day. That resurrection was of the same body that died, not a new body.

Christianity also speaks of a rebirth or regeneration, but this is a spiritual rebirth, and it is something all those who believe in Christ have already experienced. It is a transformation of the spiritual faculties of man so that he turns from a hatred of God and disbelief in His Son, to a love of God and belief in His Son.

But what about the eggs? Everyone knows that Easter eggs are a popular tradition around Easter time. What’s that about?

The eggs may get tagged by various folks with various theological explanations, but the fact of the matter is more straightforward. During Lent (a fasting period of 40 days before Easter) the traditional fast included abstinence from a number of things, including eggs.

Chickens, however, continue to lay eggs during this time of year, since they are unaware of this tradition, which did not come from their creator. Thus, by the time Easter comes around one has potentially a large number of eggs that have been laid that are just sitting around. The result is a glut of eggs on the market around Easter time, making them quite cheap for a short amount of time, as well as making them available for such frivolities as painting etc.

It is simply a tradition that arose out of someone’s desire to turn eggs into something more interesting and decorative than they were. Also, hard-boiled and painted, an egg can last quite a while, even without refrigeration (please don’t test this and don’t view this blog as medical or dietary advice). Once Easter arrives and the Lenten fast is over, the painted eggs can be cracked up and eaten, and other egg-intensive foods (such as pastries and “pascha breads”) can be made at a relatively affordable cost.

The eggs, therefore, may have been tagged with significance by some folks (some parish priests seem fond of tagging everything with significance) – but such a significance is ex post facto, with more practical and aesthetic considerations being chief.


Not Because of Sola Scriptura

November 20, 2008

This ultra-traditional (not a technical term) sect of Catholicism is effectively its own denomination (link). They would claim, I believe, to be “Catholic” and they claim that the real pope is locked up in a Vatican dungeon, so they cannot really be called Sedavacantists.

The folks out there who have been trying to wield the “Sola Scriptura causes disunity” claim have trouble dealing with this kind of data. Rationally, though, if cultic groups of this sort can crop up without any reference to Sola Scriptura, why besides blatant exercise of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy would one blame the large number of denominations on Sola Scriptura? To put it a different way, don’t groups like this demonstrate that people tend to form their own groups regardless of Sola Scriptura?


An Inconvenient Conciliar Truth – Part 01

September 4, 2008

An Inconvenient Conciliar Truth – Part 01

Some folks seem to find relying on councils a comfort. For these folks, there are some inconvenient facts that they must face. This post is the first in what, Lord willing, will be a multi-part series.

Council of Elvira (306)

This fourth century Spanish council, attended by around 20 bishops and about the same number of “priests,” ultimately issued eighty-one canons (sometimes it is claimed that only the first 21 of these canons were original, and that the others were added later). Canon XXVI forbade paintings in churches. While this shows that painting began to be introduced into churches quite early (otherwise, no canon prohibiting such behavior would be necessary), it also shows early resistance to such idolatry.

It is also significant because iconodules (those who believe the use of images of God in worship to be acceptable) tend to point to an eighth century council in support of their position. It is an inconvenient fact, however, that the eight century council upon which they rely was a departure from earlier conciliar decisions.


2 Thess 2:15 – Comments Answered

April 2, 2008


“Reginald de Piperno” has provided a post that appears to be aimed at objecting to my previous post on 2 Thessalonians 2:15, available here. I appreciate that he read my post and took the time to respond.


As best I understand, RdP grants 1(a) and seems to grant 1(b) although he wants to define “gospel” broadly. RdP makes a claim of apparent self-contradiction, but RdP appears to have overlooked that an area can be defined other ways than by its boundaries. We may not know the precise content of Paul’s preaching that is referenced, but we know the topic and the topic is the gospel.

RdP also appears to grant (2). RdP doesn’t seem to directly engage (3), although he goes on to discuss Impacts (a)-(d).

RdP appears to grant (a)-(b). It’s unclear whether RdP grants (c) … he says he doesn’t see its relevance. Perhaps we should presume he does grant (c), as he doesn’t provide any reason not to accept it. Finally, with respect to impact (d), RdP says that Catholics wouldn’t say it that way … but I suppose that RdP doesn’t directly disagree with (d).

RdP seems to try, in the course of mostly agreeing with what I had written, to insert various contentions that Catholicism does not abuse the text, because (apparently) Catholicism doesn’t disagree with what I had written. However, RdP ends his consideration of the post, with the Impacts, without getting to the three specific abuses. It would be interesting to hear whether RdP would agree that those identified abuses are actually abuses or not.

I’m not overly worried about the inserted dialog provided by RdP. Presumably the underlying concerns expressed in RdP’s dialog may be set aside by reference to several concrete examples of how the verse is put to use by “traditionist” commentators.

Concrete Examples

I provide the following example abuses of the verse. I know that some of these are from fairly popular Catholic sites, so hopefully no one will think I picked only the most obscure or atypical Catholic presentations. In one or two instances, the person may even be a non-Catholic … I was focused more on the content and error than on the person presenting it:

1. “Well for starters, look in your Bible in Thessalonians: [quotation of 2Thes 2:15] This verse is telling you to honor the traditions which have been handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation.” (Source)

Antidote: No, it’s telling the Thessalonians to hold fast to the gospel preached to them by Paul. See “Specific Abuse 3.”

2. “Well I guess if Sola Scriptura is correct then II Thessalonians 2, 14 would be incorrect then. [quotation of 2Thes 2:14/15, depending on your version] We all know that St. Paul is correct though.” (Source)

Antidote: Paul is correct, but 2 Thessalonians 2:14/15 doesn’t indicate that the Thessalonians are to hold to any extra-scriptural doctrine. See “Specific Abuse 2.”

3. “Divine Revelation “By Letter” (2 Thess 2:15): The Bible … The Bible itself does not define what it includes; nor does it claim to contain all that God revealed. Paul affirms that some of what is handed on–the way Jews passed on revelation–was “by letter,” in writing.” (Source)

Antidote: Paul is not distinguishing between Scriptural and oral traditions, but between his preaching and written admonitions. We’re passing over the canon issue for now, and we agree that the Bible does not claim to contain all that God revealed. That sentence is just provided for context. See “Specific Abuse 2.”

4. “2 Thess. 2:15 – the fullness of the Gospel is the apostolic tradition which includes either teaching by word of mouth or by letter. Scripture does not say “letter alone.” The Catholic Church has the fullness of the Christian faith through its rich traditions of Scripture, oral tradition and teaching authority (or Magisterium).” (Source)

Antidote: There’s simply no way to a get a tripartite division from 2 Thess. 2:15, even with the most violent of abuse. Furthermore, Paul does not in any way suggest that Scripture does not itself of itself contain the entirety of the fullness of the Christian faith. Instead, Paul’s direction is specific to the brethren to whom he preached the gospel at Thessalonica. One interesting aspect of this particular explanation is that it appears to recognize the relationship between the gospel and “traditions” mentioned in the verse. If you try to make “the gospel” to broad a category, you are going to run into difficulties in another area: something that may or may not be appreciated by this comment’s author. This comment doesn’t fit neatly into one of the example specific abuses mentioned in my original post.

5. “FACT: There is something in Scripture advocating reliance on both Scripture as well as oral Tradition [citation to 2 Thess 2:15 among other verses]. … the same Scripture which testifies that Christian truth comes to us in two ways: through Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition (2 Thess 2:15). ” (Source)

Antidote: This one is more subtle. It’s actually not wrong until you understand that the author is suggesting that “oral Tradition” is as reliable as Scripture, and that Paul is speaking of oral Tradition in the abused verse. Of course, the verse says neither of those things, though it is the case that we can and do rely on the preached word and on oral traditions. We do not rely on them as though they were a rule of faith, but then again we are not preached to by apostles. See “Specific Abuse 2.”

6. “This means that Scripture itself is tradition and it is part of the greater category of Tradition (cf. 2 Thess. 2:15). Both means of transmitting the deposit of faith, Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, are bound closely together and communicate one with the other.” (Source)

Antidote: In fairness, again, this one is rather nuanced. For one thing, the author uses the “cf.” tag, which means we shouldn’t necessarily assume that he’s saying the verse says just what he’s claimed. On the other hand, considering the page as a whole, it seems to be what the author is trying to convey. If so, then he’s abusing the text – because it does not establish the Roman Catholic categories that the article presupposes in much of its discussion. Again, this doesn’t neatly fall into one of the specific examples of abuse mentioned in my original post.

7. “The point, however, is that the things taught – not merely written – are deemed to be of equal authority with the epistle. And it is nothing but question-begging to insist that their content is the same.” (Source)

Antidote: The verse doesn’t say that the things taught are of equal authority with those written. It says that the Thessalonians should hold fast to the Gospel Paul taught, whether he did so by word or epistle. It does not say that Paul was creating general categories (such as the Roman Catholic categories) or that Paul was contrasting all things written with a separate category of all unwritten things. Reading those “traditionist” categories into the verse is question-begging. Furthermore, the question that is raised is not whether what Paul preached was coterminous with what Paul wrote to the Thessalonians. Instead, the question raised is whether Paul preached some “gospel” that expands beyond the 4-in-1 gospel, the acts of the apostles, and the rest of Scripture. To assert that the “traditions” commended by Paul in anyway exceed the content of Scripture would also be question-begging. This particular comment seems closest to “Specific Abuse 2,” in my original post.

Conclusion / Warnings

As a general caveat, I encourage skeptical readers to click through to the pages linked as “source” material for the quotations provided. Perhaps you will disagree about the way that I’ve quoted the material.

Furthermore, just because the people who made the comments above are (or some of them are or were or called themselves) Catholic, doesn’t make any of their positions “the Catholic position.” That’s not how Catholic theology works. Nevertheless, they are arguments that Catholics try to use to justify acceptance of what are – upon a reasonable inquiry into the historical data – traditions of men.

Tradition Distinguished – Abuse of 2 Thessalonians 2:15 Thwarted

April 1, 2008

Those who wish to oppose the doctrine of Sola Scriptura typically run to 2 Thessalonians 2:15 as one of the first passages to discuss. As will be demonstrated below, this verse does not support such abuse, and – in fact – demonstrates the eisegetical mindset of those who seek to use it to oppose a doctrine that our only infallible rule of faith is Scripture.

2 Thessalonians 2:15 Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.

The usual way this verse is abused is to make a loose claim, such as:

a) See, tradition according to Scripture includes both written and oral components; and

b) See, oral tradition is also as binding as written tradition.

There are several reasons why these are abuses, and there are several reasons why even these abuses are not particularly helpful to those who usually attempt them.

Reasons why such loose statements are abuses of the text or unhelpful to those trying to use them.

1(a). We do not know precisely the content of the traditions mentioned is. The significance of this fact will become apparent shortly.

1(b). We know from the context that the general content of these traditions is the gospel:

2Th 2:13-15
13But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth: 14Whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.

2. The “brethren” (not simply the bishops/elders) are those who received the “traditions” mentioned.

3. The “traditions” mentioned are a combination of the things preached to those brethren and “our epistle” and not between the things preached and Scripture generally.

Impacts of the facts above.

Why are these three/four facts significant to stop abuse of the verse?

A) The verse is not saying to hold anything taught outside of Scripture, as such.
B) The verse is not saying to hold fast to something other than the gospel.
C) The verse is not saying making a general statement about all teachings by every apostle.
D) The verse is not saying that Scripture generally fails to contain the gospel to which Paul required the Thessalonians to hold fast.

Specific Abuse 1
If someone is trying to say that we need to permit some “tradition,” because this verse says so, we need to ask ourselves (and them, if they’ll answer) three questions:

1) Is the tradition that they want us to permit the gospel preached by Paul to the Thessalonians, or something else?

2) Is the tradition they want us to permit something that they can demonstrate Paul taught to the Thessalonians at all?

3) Is the tradition they want us to permit something that they can demonstrate that any of the apostles or prophets of the apostolic age taught to the Thessalonians?

If the answers are “something else,” “no,” and “no” (as is usally the case) then it should be apparent that their reliance on this verse is completely in appropriate.

Specific Abuse 2
Likewise, if someone is trying to use this verse to suggest that we must consider as infallibly authoritative something in addition to Scripture, we need to ask ourselves (and them, if possible) three questions:

1) Does the verse contrast Scripture and oral traditions or “our epistle” and other “things preached”?

2) Does the verse say that the Thessalonians had been preached extrascriptural doctrines?

3) Does the verse explain anything about the “things preached” beyond that they were the “truth” and “the gospel”?

If the answers are “the latter,” “no,” and “no” then it should be apparent that the verse cannot stand for the proposition for which they are attempting to use it.

Specific Abuse 3
Finally, if the verse is provided as an argument that the magesterium of the church has been entrusted with oral teachings that are passed down orally for long periods of time, but which must be accepted when finally revealed to the public, we must ask the following questions:

1) Is there any reason to think that Paul taught things in secret, especially from this verse?

2) Is the verse directed to the leaders of the Thessalonian church or to the brethren?

3) Does the verse specify that the “things taught” were not things that were committed to writing?

If the answer is “no,” “brethren,” and “no,” then it should be apparent that the verse is being abused by the person citing it.


As demonstrated above, 2 Thessalonians 2:15 does not defeat Sola Scriptura, nor does it establish the “traditionist” positions. It’s important, of course, to recall that those two things are separate issues. The “traditionist” position that we have to have an infallible magesterium in addition to Scripture is not proved simply by attacking Sola Scriptura. For example, the “traditionist” claims for their tradition are not simply that there is a body of inspired knowledge that is additional to Scripture that was taught by the apostles. Instead, the claim is usually a claim to be able to – in essence – add to the base of inspired knowledge additional infallible teaching that was not the teaching (by word or letter) of Paul to the Thessalonians. In short, to make assertions that 2 Thessalonians 2:15, because it uses the words “traditions” is supportive of a “traditionist” position such as Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, is simply to demonstrate one’s unfamiliarity with the text, and one’s inability to consider what the text itself has to say.

May God give us wisdom to hold fast to the gospel that Paul preached to the Thessalonians,


Christ’s Objection to the Corban Exception

February 9, 2008

In Jesus days, the leaders of the Jews had developed a tradition whereby a child could refuse to assist his parents. In the following pericope, Jesus addresses that tradition:

Mark 7:9-13
9And he [Jesus] said unto them [the Pharisees and scribes], Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition. 10For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death: 11But ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free. 12And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother; 13Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.

Let us see first the commandments that Jesus identifies:

Exodus 20:12 Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.

Deuteronomy 5:16 Honour thy father and thy mother, as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee; that thy days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with thee, in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.

Exodus 21:17 And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death.

Deuteronomy 27:16 Cursed be he that setteth light by his father or his mother. And all the people shall say, Amen.

Jesus has identified both the positive and negative ordinances that are relevant. The first ordinance was: honor your parents, the second, if you dishonor your parents, capital punishment.

Nevertheless, despite these commandments, the Jews (meaning the leaders, the Pharisees and Scribes) sought to find exceptions.

Scripture states only that the way to meet the exception was to say “it is a gift,” by which we understand that they meant a gift to God. Scripture does not specify how they justified such a tradition.

According to one person with whom I was recently discussing the matter, the justification was an appeal to:

Numbers 30:2 If a man vow a vow unto the LORD, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth.

In other words, the justification would be that Numbers 30:2 can be used to trump paternal requests by vowing to give the item to God, and consequently tying ones own hands from granting one’s parents request. This is a rather ironic interpretation, when one considers the context of the verse.

Likewise, this same person suggested that Leviticus 27:28 might be used to justify the tradition:

Leviticus 27:28 Notwithstanding no devoted thing, that a man shall devote unto the LORD of all that he hath, both of man and beast, and of the field of his possession, shall be sold or redeemed: every devoted thing is most holy unto the LORD.

The point is that if you give it to God, it is God’s, and consequently you cannot sell it or redeem it. How could you sell it if you had already given it to God? Well, one might give some fraction of the fruit of the land to God. For example, someone might swear an oath to God that if God will give him a son, he will give God a third of the wheat that his land produces. The result is that every year, at harvest time, he needs to give that wheat to God, and not sell it.

So, how might someone seek to set those two verses against the first five? The answer is this, when your parents come to you for help, you swear an oath to give the things to God, which then prevents you from giving them to your parents. See? Ah, but wouldn’t that mean you had to give them to God? Oh, no. You see, you just give them to God conditionally, upon the condition that you live 200 years, or you promise to given them to God in 200 years. You see? Now, you never have to give up your stuff, either to God or your parents. Amazing, eh?

But, of course, such an interpretation of the latter two verses is plainly wrong, not only because it is so patently absurd (since the person has no real intent to fulfill his vow to God), but because it contradicts the commands to honor one’s parents. In other words, the interpretation is clearly wrong because it sets Scripture against Scripture. God authorized men to swear to Him and to devote things to him, but not in order to violate His commandments. A man may not lawfully swear an oath to kill an innocent man, although the Jews sometimes tried this:

Acts 23:12 And when it was day, certain of the Jews banded together, and bound themselves under a curse, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul.

Nor would God honor such an oath. Those who make such foolish oaths place themselves under inescapable shame. So also with those who make oaths to avoid honoring their parents, or to steal, or to commit adultery.

God cannot be set against himself, but men are fond of trying to find ways to do so. The “Corban” exception was one such example, and (as noted above) Jesus pointed out that the Jews did many things like that.

May God give us grace not to elevate the traditions of men to the level of the Word of God,


Steve Makes a Good Point about Oral Tradition

February 3, 2008

Over at Triablogue, Steve Hays has provided a short and amusing look at the logic behind the flawed argument that goes:

1. Paul says Timothy should keep the things Paul communicated to him orally;
2. Paul did not place any time limit on that command;
3. Therefore, Timothy had to follow them indefinitely; and
3. Therefore, also, we have to keep those oral commands.

Of course, the argument is flawed. But Steve Hays tweaks the argument’s nose in a fairly succinct and effective way.

Enjoy! (link) (to which I would simply add: That thou doest, do quickly.)


Dining at Dover

January 24, 2008

Years ago, before the Chunnel, Dover England was known for its white, chalk cliffs. These rocks are very in calcium: in fact they are mostly calcium carbonate. Calcium is an important mineral for human life. Bones have a large calcium composition, and most doctors these days recommend calcium supplements to women, especially as the approach and pass menopause.

It would be absurd to seize on the fact of Calcium’s importance, to move to Dover and start dining on its cliff faces. Living off the land: literally! It wouldn’t just be absurd, it would be deadly. A person would die if he attempted to do such a thing.

We see a similar mistake in a recent post by “Orthodox,” who states: “White is effectively telling us that tradition ought to influence our interpretation of the text,” and then continues, “Great! But by how much, one might ask? Once given permission to employ this principle, he can hardly complain if we really employ it, can he?” (emphasis original) (source)

And of course, the answer is that we can complain if people abuse any good thing. Paul gave Timothy permission to drink alcohol:

1 Timothy 5:23 Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities.

But that was not permission for Timothy to get really “medicated” whenever he wanted. Frankly, it would be absurd to suggest such a thing, and it would take a die-hard alcoholic to seek to justify his abuse by reference to that verse.

Even so, tradition has a place. Tradition is useful, and it is arrogant to ignore tradition. The Reformers have been noting this from the beginning of the Reformation. Orthodox mentions one part of the Dividing Line message (link to DL) that interested him, but he forgets to mention that Calvin (for example) frequently made reference to and relied on the teachings of the early church fathers.

“Orthodox” mockingly claims that if “ignoring the historical position of the church equals arrogance, then being a Reformed Baptist has got to be pretty high on the arrogance scale,” but his comment simply betrays his own ignorance of Reformed Baptists. It’s hardly the case that “Reformed Baptists” ignore church history. They may get some of it wrong, and they may have difficulty justifying their baptismal practices historically, but they don’t “ignore” history – at least none that I have met do.

“Orthodox” also asks: “why are they holding positions unknown in the history of the first 15 centuries of church?” (of which, “Orthodox” supposes that limited atonement is an example) Poor “Orthodox” – I really think he believes his own propaganda, and yet it is cruelly ironic, because he is demonstrating his ignorance of church history.

Limited atonement can be viewed, and I’ll not get into the full argument here (nor in the combox), as simply a more developed explanation of atonement as that provided by Anselm of Cantebury (1033-1109) and expanded upon by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). “Orthodox” may even be surprised to realize that the controversy over “limited atonement” actually post-dates Calvin (not because Calvin was a universalist as the Amyraldians would like to content), but simply because it was not a matter of debate. It became an issue when the universalist position became advocated by the Remonstrants.

Indeed, while limited atonement per se may not have been discussed previously, it was largely because of a lack of controversy. It is not as though Calvin or Luther cast of the shackles of universalism to rediscover the truth of limited atonement: instead, the Reformation more fully developed soteriological doctrines that were already known.

But that historical trivia is mostly an ironic aside. The bottom line is that whether or not the doctrine were merely a revival of a Scriptural doctrine, or a better explanation of an existing doctrine within Western Christianity, tradition is not the end of the matter. In the former case, if the Bible says it, we must believe it, and we must buck the contrary tradition, though not without caution. In the latter case, we must be sure to confirm that the doctrine is not just traditional but also Biblical.

In short, we must have a balanced diet. We must use our minds: we must search Scripture. On the other hand, we must do so with caution, aware of our own fallibility, and appreciative of the effort of theological giants that have gone before us. We must resist the urge to cast off the traditions of the elders in favor of anarchy and antinomianism. Tradition is good and useful, as part of healthy church life. But we’d be Dover diners to try to live by tradition rather than by the Word of God.

As Luther pointed out, relying on tradition alone ends most controversies: but does so by doctrinal stagnation. Deep mud doesn’t create a stir – in fact it, in a sense, stabilizes; but those mired therein are not better for the stability it provides. Don’t fall prey to Satan’s devices: do not cease to search Scripture.

May God give us wisdom as we do so,


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