Why sola scriptura is positivist
July 3, 2014 § 95 Comments
But there are also many other things which Jesus did; which, if they were written every one, the world itself, I think, would not be able to contain the books that should be written. – John 21:25
Positivism can be understood in any number of equivalent ways. One way is to understand it as the assertion of a positive, rigorous demarcation between one kind of knowledge and another: as the belief that there is a straightforward mechanical verification procedure which can be used to determine whether any given proposition is (say) scientific or unscientific. “Mechanical” here means roughly “a neutral procedure that doesn’t rely on any particular metaphysical assumptions.” (Ahem).
In the discussion at Free Northerner, a commenter and I were haggling over the protestant doctrine of sola scriptura (a kind of Scriptural verificationism). He cites the sixth Article of Religion of the Church of England as an expression of the doctrine:
Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.
Frustrated at my contention that infallible doctrine is underdetermined by the formal text of Scripture he asked:
Question: Do you believe all infallible doctrine is rooted in the teaching of the Prophets and Apostles?
Certainly infallible doctrine is “rooted in” the teaching of the Prophets, the Apostles, and of Christ Himself. Scripture itself is rooted in the teaching of the Prophets and the Apostles, and tells us explicitly that many things were not written down.
It doesn’t follow that scripture is complete (indeed it seems to assert its own incompleteness). It doesn’t follow that the idea of it being complete – providing a rigorous demarcation criteria between infallible doctrines and other propositions, that the text alone can verify which doctrines are necessary or infallible – is even rationally coherent.
Even the rigorous mathematical formalisms of quantum mechanics underdetermine the choice of theories (Bohm vs Copenhagen). It isn’t that every theory is compatible with every formalism (the extreme end of the postmodern error, roughly); but there are multiple compatible theories for any formalism.
Put somewhat roughly into more everyday concepts, any sufficiently interesting text admits of multiple mutually incompatible interpretations which, although inconsistent with each other, are all consistent with the text. The text alone cannot determine which of these interpretations is the correct one.
Scripture likewise underdetermines theory choice about any number of important doctrinal questions: e.g. the issues raised by novatianism and donatism – and some would even argue, with some merit, the Holy Trinity. After all arianism and nestorianism would never have been ‘things’ if Scripture alone could decide the question.