The devil’s triumph

Catholics tend to understand the protestant Sola Scriptura as either material sufficiency or private interpretation, but taken the first way it isn’t heretical an taken in the second sense it isn’t protestant, since fatally underqualified. Private interpretation is downstream from what the protestant is actually driving at, which is one reason why he is immune from the argument – perfectly true as far as it goes – that scripture never demands Sola Scriptura.

Protestantism at its most persuasive takes Sola Scriptura as discipleship to scripture as God’s word. It insists on the bible as uniquely inspired and not simply inerrant or infallible, since its words are properly spoken by God even if through the instrumentality of a human author contributing his full humanity. So taken, the Sola can mean that Christianity has no time for anything but the meditation on Scripture. Any other book speaks a merely human word, and though we’ve been blessed with some preternaturally wise, holy and intelligent persons they all fall infinitely short of speaking an inspired word.  Only scripture gives us access to the energy of properly divine speech, which not only commands but gives the power to fulfill the command.

But then we’re back with the original problem: none of this is heretical. But that’s too tepid – this is the faith! It should be shouted from the rooftops! The only meaningful critique of protestantism is one that manages to preserve all this better than protestantism.

We might get something of this critique in the basic axiom of language which, as Thomas puts it, is that language is essentially interpersonal. Robinson Crusoe needs his wits and sensation more than ever but his language not at all, except as a habit-relic. Language exists within what we now call a community. In giving one word to the human race, God made the whole of human history in one sense the community of the word, even though we are not fully perfect participants in this community simply by being born. Nevertheless, the word was given so that persons might become full and perfect participants. So far, all this falls out from Sola Scriptura.

As we only have one word and one human race there can be only one community too, running thorough the whole of history and continuing till its consummation. Like any community, it requires some rational principle directing its continued existence (aka authority) and it’s here that the best part of protestantism becomes a poor fit with the way protestantism itself developed. When the western Church split it’s hard to argue against protestants showing themselves as the better disciples of the divine word as inspired, but its also hard to argue against the Latin Church doing a better job at maintaining the visible, authoritative community in which the word has meaning.

The devil’s great triumph in Western Christianity was to divide the community of the word into those zealous for the word and those zealous for the community. Catholics were wounded by relating to scriptural devotion as somehow protestant; protestants were wounded by seeing any attempt to situate the divine word within a visible, historical community as degrading it to “the traditions of men.” Again, Catholicism came to stress its visible historical power more and more as time went on, concentrating more and more power in Rome even as Rome’s actual authority diminished to almost nothing; protestantism stressed the divine character of scripture to such an extent that any demonstration that it was spoken within a properly human community was practically a refutation. At the end of this all we get a pope as international celebrity-oracle who should fix everything and a protestantism that takes scripture as refuted by its redaction history and by the diverse traditions of, say, Christ’s infancy narratives, the Synoptic vs. Johannine Christ, the details of the passion and resurrection, etc. The last word on all this is one that all sides should agree on: only God can save us.

 

 

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