The Noose of the Westminster Confession which hangs Sola Scriptura

When arguing against our Protestant opponents – Arminian, Reformed, or otherwise – we are inevitably reminded that the Scripture is perspicuous in all things necessary for salvation. Such a claim is made, of course, in order to buttress the sixteenth century heresy of Sola Scriptura, and discount and attack the necessity of an institutional and hierarchical mechanism for definitively resolving disputes within the Church.

A dispute over the interpretation of a text may indicate that the meaning of the text is unclear and open to misunderstanding. Since therefore such a situation would gut the whole internal sustainability of the system of Sola Scriptura, the proponents of this system seek to exempt the bible from being unclear in certain instances thereby saving the coherence of their belief in such a system. However, as we all know, simply declaring something to be perspicuous does not necessarily make it so. In fact, while most Sola Scripturists believe that the bible is clear, it is clear only to them individually or factionally and not collectively. This reality, of course, completely destroys the whole idea of something being clear. Readers who are interested in reading my discussion of this topic in more detail can do so here.

In order to further highlight the problems which engulf Sola Scriptura and the perspicuity of Scripture, let us turn to the horse’s mouth, so to speak. The Westminster Confession says this:

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed. (WCF, Of the Holy Scripture, I:VI)

As the Confession makes plain, there are two ways of learning about the truth in Scripture. The Scripture will either reveal the truth explicitly or it will do so implicitly. While we can understand how a proponent of Sola Scriptura will claim that all things fundamental to salvation are clear because of explicit teachings in Scripture, it is very odd that they would do so when the teachings are not explicit. As the Confession admits, there are truths in Scripture which are implicit, which, by good and necessary consequence, may be deduced from Scripture.

Yet, this begs many questions:

1) How much deduction is allowed?

2) Does not more deduction make the conclusion less clear?

3) What if someone disagrees with the conclusion which is derived from logic of the accepted explicit truths?

4) Who decides if the deduction is to be accepted or rejected?

5) Can we use an implicit truth as a premise in an argument which forms another implicit truth?

In light of these difficulties, there are two things which become apparent. Firstly, as far as the Westminster Confession goes, the system of Sola Scriptura (and its principle plank of perspicuity) is greatly compromised by introducing the principle of deduction. By permitting an exegete to deduce doctrines, the Confession has put no boundary on how much deduction is acceptable. In fact, as more deduction is proposed on a question, a truth becomes less and less perspicuous, even though, objectively speaking, the proponent of the question may be correct in his conclusion.

Secondly, a semantic point of order needs to be made. SS Apologists are forever castigating Catholics for appealing to “implicit” support in Scripture for some of the Church’s doctrines – the Immcaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary both come to mind. It is rather ironic then to read that the Westminister Confession is effectively allowing the same thing – except that instead of pronouncing a doctrine as being “implicit” in Scripture, it says that the doctrine is “deduced”. Yet, quite obviously, it’s the same thing! This teaching from the Confession really belongs in the Catholic camp, since Catholics say that “implicit” teachings are embedded throughout Scripture, since Scripture is only a witness to the truth, not a textbook on all Christian doctrine. Moreover, the fact that Catholics can verify what one can “deduce” from Scripture by comparing it to what the Tradition taught on the same subject, then we have a confirmation that what we are “deducing” is indeed correct. Otherwise, all “deduction” is subject to the whims and biases of the deducer. Protestants have no authoritative confirmation for their “deductions” even though they may claim, from time to time, to be replicating this or that belief in the Patristics. Even here, however, this appeal is impotent since SS Apologists do not consider their consensus or their concilliar dogmas to be authoritative or definitive.

Thirdly, and quite paradoxically, the Catholic system of development of doctrine would fit quite nicely into the Confession’s permission to deduce truths from Scripture which are not explicitly contained therein. The difference between the Sola Scripturist and the Catholic is, of course, that the Catholic has answers to all of the questions proposed above. And not only that, in the case of a person who is able to deduce the truth of a doctrine which itself is not explicit, a Catholic can find the truth and propose it for “binding” whereas the Sola Scripturist is unable to share that truth definitively with his co-religionists.

Hence, according to the Westminister Confession, both Catholics and Protestants really approach Scripture in the same way — as not being able to explicitly teach all Christian doctrine. Yet it is the Catholics who have the only system (Authoritative Tradition and Authoritative Magisterium) which is able to fill the gaps, authoritatively, where Scripture is only implicit.

John Pacheco
The Catholic Legate
August 10, 2002

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