Does Mathison Commit a Sleight of Hand?

In his book The Shape of Sola Scriptura Mathison spends the last section responding to Roman Catholic and Orthodox objections to sola scriptura.  He rebuts every Roman objection by saying, “This would be true, if it applied to solo scriptura.  But we hold to sola scriptura.”  This raises the next question:  what is sola scriptura?  Mathison anticipates that in a footnote and says that sola scriptura is Tradition I.

One then asks, “What is Tradition I?”  Mathison’s answer to this question is very important.  Mathison has written the best defense of sola scriptura.  If he can successfully answer this question he wins the debate.  Mathison responds that Tradition I is the regula fide.  What is the regula fide?  The regula fide is the message of the apostles that would later be the written text of the New Testament.  How do we respond to this?  Does Mathison give a good enough argument?

  • He doesn’t offer concrete enough evidence that the regula fide = the later written text.  Otherwise, interpreting scripture in light of the regula fide–and presupposing that this is authoritative–is subjecting Scripture to an extra-scriptural standard, something Mathison’s position explicitly rejects.
  • Is it really true that the regula fide is just the earlier form of the later written text?  When the apostle Paul preached to the churches, sometimes for three years at one church, did he just recite what would later be his letters?  And one must also keep in mind this objection in light of St John’s later warnings against adding to the word.

Mathison quotes Irenaeus saying that Irenaues saw the holy tradition as synonymous with the inscripturated text.  But Irenaeus said no such thing. In fact, that’s the very position he is arguing against.

Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 2.

The heretics follow neither Scripture nor Tradition

1. 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 viva voce: wherefore also Paul declared, “But we speak wisdom among those that are perfect, but not the wisdom of this world.” 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. Wherefore they must be opposed at all points, if perchance, 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.”

I am going to give the rest of Mathison’s Part 1 another read, to see if he offers a more substantial argument.