Sola, Solo: Sounding Intellectual Really Isn’t Enough

The ancient Greeks had a saying: “Megon biblion, megon kakon,” which is literally translated as “Big book, big evil.” The meaning, of course, is that too much intellectualism is a very misguided and dangerous thing. No where is this more clearly illustrated than in a relatively recent online article by someone named James Patrick Holding, in which he takes a few pot shots at Mark’s article, “Is Sola Scriptura Reasonable“. Mr. Holding’s comments are in blue.


Now, before addressing each of Mr. Holding’s oh-so-silly points, let me first mention the fact that the article (by me) which he seeks to refute was written for the benefit of Fundamentalist Protestant Christians who, despite what “intellectuals” like Mr. Holding would like to believe, do take the false, man-made doctrine of “Sola Scriptura” (“Bible alone”) very literally, as if it is something intrinsic to orthodox Christianity, which it of course is not. In this, the Fundamentalists are at least a lot more honest (if still mistaken) in their views compared to their “intellectual” cousins, represented by the likes of Mr. Holding, who try (totally unsuccessfully) to either pretend that “Sola Scriptura” doesn’t really mean what its name clearly implies or to rationalize away the unavoidable conclusions of any honest analysis of the “Sola Scriptura” doctrine –namely, that it has no objective basis in either history, tradition, or practicality, and that it reduces Christianity to a totally subjective and relativistic “faith” (based solely on one’s personal interpretation of the Scriptural text). What’s more, as I pointed out in my article, the very Scriptures themselves (e.g. the Gospel of Matthew) are only known to be authoritative and inspired via, not the false, man-made doctrine of “Sola Scriptura,” but the authoritative and binding Apostolic oral Traditions of the Catholics Church (e.g. 2 Thess. 2:15). For, as even that great “intellectual” Martin Luther once said, …

“We are obliged to yield many things to the [Roman] Catholics –[for example] that they possess the Word of God, which we received from them, otherwise we should have known nothing about it” (Martin Luther, Comm in John 16).

Mr. Holding, however, displays no appreciation for this unavoidable historical fact. Rather, he writes things like …

Though the inspiration for this article comes from an essay by a Catholic apologist named Mark Bonocore, some of the principles involved reach into exchanges I have had with certain persons of late involving the question of Sola Scriptura. Not long ago I wrote an item here on what I called Sola Scriptura Extremis — a behavior that leads us to ignore Biblical contextual material with at worst an arbitrary and angry dismissal of the material simply because it is “not in the Bible.” My example then was the Wisdom Christology based on pre-NT Jewish documents; of late, it has also been the Semitic Totality concept, rejected by one letter-writer because he could not find it mentioned in the Bible. Bonocore’s commentary has the mold of an extreme in the other direction. What we have now is an argument that takes not too little, but too much, and uses false analogies to validate the process.

Oh, on the contrary, Mr. Holding. If you wish to subscribe to the dynamic of ‘Semitic totality’ (a very Catholic concept indeed), then you have no basis for rejecting the fact that the oral tradition of Faith was always, by Semites (like the Apostles), understood to be equally authoritative and binding with written material (i.e., inspired Scripture). This is why, needless to say, even modern Jews still accept the binding authority of both the Torah and the Mishna, which is the Mosaic oral Tradition that accompanies the Torah. Catholics live by both Scripture and Tradition just as our Jewish ancestors did –just as Jesus Himself and the Apostles did (e.g. 2 Thess. 2:15, 1 Cor. 11:2, etc.). So, why have you Protestants departed from this natural condition of ‘Semitic totality’? Mr. Holding goes on …

In what follows Bonocore will go on to claim that what we believe about Matthew with respect to the above comes to us via the Church Father Irenaeus (c. 180 AD), and argue, hey, if you accept Irenaeus on this subject, why not believe him when he speaks of Mary assisting in our salvation, or of a Real Presence in the Eucharist? ….suffice to say instead that Bonocore unloads a crate of oranges which he believes are apples. What is wrong with this picture? Manifestly, there is a technical problem: What about Papias? He was actually the first to testify about Matthew.

Yes, Mr. Holding, what about Saint Papias? For, he was from the very same Asian Christian tradition that produced Saint Irenaeus and Saint Polycarp —all of whom are saints of the Catholic Church; all of whom subscribed to the same Johanine Apostolic oral Traditions. And, indeed, Papias himself, like Irenaeus, is on record defending these Apostolic oral Traditions. He writes …

“But I shall not be unwilling to put down, along with my interpretations, whatsoever instructions I received with care at any time from the presbyters, and stored up with care in my memory, assuring you at the same time of their truth. For I did not, like the multitude, take pleasure in those who spoke much, but in those who taught the truth; nor in those who related strange commandments, but in those who rehearsed the commandments given by the Lord to faith, and proceeding from truth itself. If, then, any one who had attended on the presbyters came, I asked minutely after their sayings –what Andrew or Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the Lord’s disciples: which things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say. For I imagined that what was to be got from books was not so profitable to me as what came from the living and abiding voice.” (Papias in Eusebius, H.E.).

So, needless to say, Mr. Holding, Saint Irenaeus and Saint Papias are of “one mind” (1 Cor. 1:10) in this matter, and you may simply not pit them against each other as you would like to. But, Mr. Holding goes on …

More of relevance, what of simple comparison to other classical works and their attestation? The Gospels are all far and away in better shape in terms of external attestation than any other document from the ancient world.

Really? Well, that should come as a surprise to many classicists out there who take great pleasure in works like Plutarch’s “Lives,” or Caesar’s “The Gallic Wars,” or the “Dialogues” of Plato, or a great many other ancient works, of unquestionable integrity, which date from long before the Gospels were written. Clearly, Mr. Holding’s assertion above is a ridiculous and indefensible one; and not only because it is abundantly incorrect, but because it does nothing to prove his point. Even if the Gospel of Matthew is well-attested to (by ancient Catholic Christians, I might add), this doesn’t mean that (for someone who rejects the binding authority of Catholic oral Tradition) that these witnesses got it right or were telling the truth. Indeed, as Mr. Holding points out, Saint Papias is the earliest person on record referring to a Gospel of Matthew. However, Papias wrote in about the year A.D. 130 —a good 50 to 60 years (taking the most conservative estimates) after Matthew is said to have penned his Gospel. So, unlike those who witnessed the publication of something like Caesar’s “Gallic Wars,” Papias was not a first-hand witness. Ergo, how do we know his information is reliable? Why should we trust his story at all? Also, what Papias specifically says is very important here. He writes …

“Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.” (Ibid).

And this is all that Papias has to say about the subject of Matthew’s Gospel. So, given this fact, how do we know that Papias is speaking about the Gospel of Matthew as we have it today? After all, Papias only mentions the “oracles of the Lord,” and “oracles,” while the word can have a few meanings, most typically refers to “sayings” — that is, the statements or teachings of Jesus, not what He did or how He died and rose again (as recounted in the existing Gospel narrative). Also, Papias asserts that Matthew wrote these “oracles” down in “Hebrew” (he most likely means “Aramaic” — “the language of the Hebrews”), and then refers to people “interpreting” them ‘as best they could.’ Ah!

So, since our Gospel of Matthew is a Greek document, and not a Hebrew or Aramaic one, does this mean that we merely have an “interpretation” of what the inspired Apostle Matthew really wrote? Does this mean that there may be things in our Greek version of Matthew that are incorrect or spurious? After all, if each person merely interpreted Matthew’s original writings “as best he could,” how do we know that these “translators” didn’t mess things up or add material from their own imaginations? How do we know that what we have is reliable, authentic, and, yes, inspired? And the same goes for all the other New Testament Scriptures. This, of course, is an unavoidable problem for any Christian believer who unwisely discards the binding authority of the Apostolic oral Traditions of the Catholic Church.

What’s more, Mr. Holding above refers to wide-spread “external attestation” to the origin and reliability of Matthew’s Gospel. Well, aside from Papias and Irenaeus, Mr. Holding would certainly be hard pressed to find anyone attesting to the origin or reliability of Matthew’s Gospel before the mid 3rd Century (i.e., Saint Clement of Alexandria being the earliest to mention the subject after Papias and Irenaeus). Now, of course, a great many people attest to Matthew’s integrity after this time. But, I defy Mr. Holding, from Papias’ earliest reference on, to produce one ancient witness to the reliability of Matthew’s Gospel who does not also subscribe to a belief in the binding authority of Apostolic oral Tradition and/or who does not hold to the present oral Traditions of the Catholic Church. Ergo, the point of my originally article stands: Those who tell us about the origin, reliability, and inspiration of Matthew’s Gospel also subscribed to the oral Traditions of Catholic Christianity, and so one has no basis for believing that Matthew’s Gospel is written by Matthew (or is inspired) unless one accepts the other oral Traditions of Catholic Christianity.

Yet, Mr. Holding goes on …

What about internal evidence? I must inform Bonocore that Irey [sic] was far from the only mouth to my ear on this subject.

Needless to say, nothing in the Gospel of Matthew itself tells us that it was authored by the Apostle Matthew or inspired by God. Christians who believe this believe it based on the oral Tradition of the Catholic Church. You simply cannot avoid this fact, Mr. Holding. But, Mr. Holding also writes …

How do I know it is inspired? Practically speaking, I don’t know the way I know my dog is now lying beside me. I can only test it for veracity, and if it is true, it is certainly a candidate to be considered inspired; and if it is true indeed, then whether it is inspired or not makes little practical difference.

As any genuine believer in Christ knows, all of this is pseudo-intellectual poppycock. Here, Mr. Holding reduces the objective reality of the Christian Faith to a purely subjective (and thus relativistic) exercise in personal discernment. Indeed, those who hold the Koran to be the inspired Word of God can offer exactly the same argument. This does not excuse the a-historical nonsense presented in the Koran, however. Nor does it establish a reliable origin or inspired nature for the Gospel of Matthew.

Indeed, Mr. Holding refers to personally “testing” the “veracity” of the Gospel of Matthew. Yet, he never tells us what these “tests” are based on — what his objective standard for determining the reliability and inspiration of the Gospel of Matthew is. I, however, have no problem presenting my own objective standard for believing (with full personal certitude) that the Gospel of Matthew was written by the Apostle Matthew and inspired by Almighty God. And my objective standard for this is the binding, Spirit-guided oral Tradition of the Catholic Church which, per Christ’s promise, in verses like John 14:16-17, 16:13, and Matt 16:18-19, cannot err in such dogmatic matters. Now, as a Protestant, Mr. Holding of course does not agree with me on this. Yet, what is he able to offer as a substitute? Does he have another objective standard?

Or, like all Protestants, is his standard merely a personal, and thus purely subjective, one? Well, if so, then is Mr. Holding claiming personal infallibility on par with the claimed, Spirit-guided infallibly of the Catholic Church? If not, then is he saying that he could very well be wrong about the origin and inspiration of the Gospel of Matthew, as well as that of all the other NT Scriptures — that their origin and inspiration can be validly disputed? If so, then Mr. Holding reveals himself as the relativist that I think he is. And a Christian (a follower of Truth Personified) cannot be a relativist. Mr. Holding goes on to say ….

The word of a person, even the author, is as intelligent Skeptics have pointed out, a circular reasoning exercise. Which leads to a certain flaw in Bonocore’s method: testimony that “X authored document Y” is not in the same category-conception as, “the Eucharist contains a Real Presence of Christ”. The former is tangible. The latter is theoretical and philosophical.

My, my. If Mr. Holding ever wishes to give up his pursuit of “Protestant” apologetics, he certainly has a career as a John Kerry speech writer. For, the statement above is about as twisted and incoherent as a Kerry statement on foreign policy. And while Mr. Holding obviously thinks that his assertion above makes him sound “smart,” if you bother to sift through the pseudo-intellectual babble, the argument of the Skeptics which he cites to support his own position actually argues for my own! For, it is Mr. Holding who is arguing for internal evidence from the Gospel of Matthew to support the reliability and authenticity of the Gospel of Matthew. I, on the other hand, have consistently made the claim, and even proved, that one has no basis for believing in the origin, reliability or inspiration of Matthew’s Gospel independently of the binding and authoritative Traditional witness of the Catholic Church. So, who is Mr. Holding arguing against? Is it me or himself? He also writes …

In the end Bonocore finds himself saying, we believe Matthew is inspired and so on, “because you trust the Church’s Sacred oral Tradition on this matter.” Yet who has claimed that the tradition is inerrant?

Uh, … The Catholic Church. And so does Sacred Scripture itself:

  • 2 Thess. 2:15: “Stand firm and hold fast to the Traditions you were taught, whether by an ORAL STATEMENT or by a letter from us.”
  • Phil 4:9: “Keep on doing what you have learned and received and HEARD and SEEN IN ME. Then the God of peace will be with you.”
  • 1 Cor. 11:2: “I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold fast to the Traditions, just as I handed them on to you.”
  • 2 Thess. 3:6: “We instruct you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to shun any brother who conducts himself in a disorderly way and not according to the TRADITION they received from us.”
  • 1 Peter 1:25: “…but the Word of the Lord REMAINS FOREVER. This is the Word that has been PROCLAIMED TO YOU (i.e., orally).”

Indeed, Mr. Holding, where does Scripture, or any Christian before the 16th Century Reformation, ever claim that Apostolic Tradition is not inerrant?

Who clustered our obligations so?

Again, the Catholic Church.

As one of our Catholic readers comments, as he sees it, Bonocore’s method is “a sort of Catholic fundamentalism”, one which “could be used to burn us Catholics too.”

Well, I fail to see how any faithful Catholic could be so “burned” by adhering to the Catholic dogmatic belief in Sacred oral Tradition. Obviously, this so-called “Catholic reader” of yours is no such thing, but can only be a liberal-modernist dissident who wishes to imitate your own Protestant errors. Very sad. As for his suggestion that I am a “Catholic fundamentalist,” one wonders if this person would also classify the Popes and the fathers of our Ecumenical Councils as “fundamentalists” as well, since they too all uphold the dogma of Sacred oral Tradition (see the Council of Trent, Vatican I, Vatican II, etc.). Ergo, this person is clearly not a Catholic in any realistic sense of the word, but just another “intellectual” relativist like Mr. Holding himself.

Mr. Holding also writes …

I am often asked if I believe in inerrancy: I do, but I do not use it as a presupposition when I operate. I simply focus on whether the Word is true, and argue from that corner, so that the results are the same.

I don’t think that I even need to dignify this irrational silliness with a response. Needless to say, Mr. Holding has no way of knowing whether or not the Word is “true” unless he begins with a pre-existing premise of inspired inerrancy, which in turn must be based on some external objective standard. Again, he clearly displays himself as a relativist with a purely subjective sense of “Christianity.” Arch-heretics are born from such as these. As I said above, any Muslim can say the same about the Koran.

But, he goes on ….

The obvious reason for this is that in an argumentational context, one could easily be accused of assuming inerrancy to prove inerrancy (a charge that has indeed been falsely leveled by certain nuisance Skeptics). Bonocore, regrettably, could easily fall on the same account.

“Bonocore” has not merely fallen into this account, but willingly embraces it! Yes, the inerrant nature of the Catholic Church proves the inerrancy of inspired Scripture. In fact, that is the one and only thing which objectively proves that Scripture is inspired and inerrant –that is, accepting the Christ-founded, Spirit-guided Catholic Church as one’s objective standard of Truth (per 1 Tim 3:15). Otherwise, one has no valid reason for being a Christian at all, since one’s ultimate knowledge of Christ depends totally on the reliability and credibility of Catholic Christianity —that is, those who founded the Catholic Church and who were witnesses to the Resurrection. All of Christian belief comes from this, as do the Scriptures themselves which is, of course, the very point of my original article. If one is not willing to accept the oral witness of the Catholic Church, which is believed to be Spirit-guided and infallible, then one has no reason to accept the reliability or inerrancy of the NT Scriptures, or to accept Christianity at all — unless one wishes to cook up some “progressive,” purely-subjective “intellectual” rationalizations, which of course are no better or more rooted in reality than the choice to believe in Islam, or Mormonism, or the like. And Mr. Holding goes on …

As I indicated in my other article linked above, Sola Scriptura cannot be believed in a vacuum. “Sola” does not give us leave to ignore or bypass contextual elements that give the text meaning.

Then it’s not “Sola Scriptura,” then, is it? The so-called “contextual elements” that you refer to (if they are authentic) reside in the history and oral traditons of ancient (Catholic) Christianity; ergo, scriptura et traditio est, non est sola scriptura. Mr. Holding also says ….

The natural result of such illogic is King James Onlyism, if we are consistent, since this would mean we cannot even use lexicons or concordances to understand the text better.

And how do you know that such “academic” measures will lead you to a reliable or comprehensive understanding of the Sacred text? As Catholic scholar Dr. Art Sippo once pointed out, ‘Protestantism replaced Liturgical heritage with academia.’ It assumes that the Christian Faith is a mere academic exercise rather than a Liturgical mystery handed down through Covenantal heritage, as was the Old Covenant before it. Indeed, just as one does not become a Jew through study alone, one does not become an orthodox Christian without participating in the living Covenantal Tradition of the Church that always was, from the time of the Apostles. This is the underlying error of Mr. Holding’s position. And he has the nerve to speak of “Semitic totality,” eh? But, Mr. Holding continues …

Theoretically, sacred tradition could offer such a context and could provide an authoritative understanding, the same way a lexicon could —

Again, Mr. Holding’s very unwise preoccupation with academia is obvious here. Sacred Tradition is more than a mere “lexicon.” Rather, it is, as Thomas Aquinas described it, a “sensus fidelium” –a “sense of the faith.” Just as an Italian possesses a comprehensive knowledge of what it is to be Italian, and just as an Irishman possesses a comprehensive knowledge of what it is to be an Irishman, and just as a Jew possesses a comprehensive knowledge of what it is to be Jew, so a Catholic, who lives his or her Catholic Faith, possesses a comprehensive knowledge of the Apostolic Faith –something which is arrived at through living experience and participation (i.e., “Traditio”), not through merely reading or studying a book. For, no Italian, or Irishman, or Jew needs to study a book to discern, appreciate, or intimately know his or her cultural heritage, nor can any mere intellectual gain a comprehensive or integrated knowledge of Italian, or Irish, or Jewish culture from simply studying these cultures from afar. Rather, what is necessary is intimate participation in the cultures themselves before one can say that they truly know what it is to be Italian, or Irish, or Jewish, etc. And it’s the same with Catholic Christianity, which was established to be a Covenant people of God –the new Chosen People (see: 1 Peter 2:9-10), all sharing in one body of Sacred Apostolic Tradition. This, more than any other reason, is why Protestants read the Scriptures incorrectly and why they disagree among themselves on fundamental doctrines which are supposedly “self-evident” from the Scriptures. At present, we have over 30,000 separate Protestant denominations — all with the same Bible, but all intepretating it differently. Clearly, someone is doing something wrong. But, on the issue of Tradition, Mr. Holding continues …

whether it [Sacred Tradition] deserves a pre-eminent place in reaching an understanding, as Bonocore seems to intimate, cannot be decided by a personal referendum on the subject any more than an intelligent belief in inerrancy can be arrived at by the same means.

Sure it can, Mr. Holding. However, you are correct insofar that it is not a personal referendum which has established the objective truth of the preeminence of Sacred Tradition. Rather, it is the Christ-established, Spirit-guided authority of the Catholic Church which has done this. If you do not accept that authority, then feel free not to do so. But, don’t pretend that you have a valid or historical reason for doing so, because you do not. And Mr. Holding concludes …

Either one is circular reasoning, and while that will make some people quite delighted and give them contented laurels to rest on, those who take the matter too far with end up, as we stated before, as fundamentalist atheists or Wayne Harringtons at worst, or filled with cognitive dissonance which makes you an ineffective and unbelievable witness at best.

Well, as I said, Mr. Holding, we Catholics have an objective standard for our belief in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, where, as you pretty much admitted in your article, you obviously do not. So, while you may irrationally and unreasonably accuse us of resting on “laurels” as you say, the truth is that our Christian Faith rests upon the authority of a Christ-established Rock (Matt 16:18). Yours, however, rests upon, well, what exactly would that be?

Pax et bonum

Mark Bonocore
The Catholic Legate
October 16, 2004

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