Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth

"Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." – 2 Timothy 2:15 (KJV)

This verse seems to be a favorite among Evangelicals. It's an essential part of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura. It occurred to me yesterday that sola sciptura has not only the exegetical and hermeneutical consequences, with which most are already familiar, but also ecclesiological.

If there is a right way of dividing the Word, i.e. handling (RSV) or imparting without deviation (NAB), there must also be a wrong way (or several wrong ways). Obviously, Protestants do not believe that Catholics rightly divide the Word. We reject sola scriptura. In their eyes, that doctrine is essential to correct interpretation.

So I find myself wondering whose version of "scripture interpreting scripture" is to be believed? If sola scriptura is so right, shouldn't there be a single obvious Protestant counterpart to the Catholic Church? Why are there so many competing denominations today? Why are there thousands of new groups appearing every year? Shouldn't there be only one right division of the Word?

One of the key problems with sola scriptura is that it robs Protestants of a proper sense of ecclesiology. They have no unified Church to maintain and protect the Deposit of Faith. When only scripture can interpret scripture, there can be no authoritative external interpretation. For Catholics and Orthodox, this external authority is Sacred Tradition. It's what helps the Church maintain unity and orthodoxy. Heresy is relatively easy to identify and counter.

Protestants have no such authority to which they can appeal. One denominations's heresy is another's doctrine. Don't like what you're hearing? Find another place to hang your hat. Don't like any group you've tried? Start your own.

Why is sola scriptura a bad doctrine? By its fruits you will know it. One of those fruits is division in the Body of Christ.

Comments 19

  1. ELC wrote:

    “This verse seems to be a favorite among Evangelicals. It’s an essential part of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura.” With all due respect, I don’t think that’s correct. Of course, my own observations may be incorrect. But it seems to me that only dispensationalists place a great deal of emphasis on this scripture. ISTM that mainline Protestants (the spiritual heirs of the inventors of sola scriptura) hardly even notice it.

    Posted 05 Jun 2005 at 4:04 pm
  2. Funky Dung wrote:

    “I don’t know what you mean by binding, but the SBC is as loose a confederation of independent churches if there ever was one.”

    Never having had direct contact with them, I was speaking based on the numerous boycotts, rallying cries, and political endorsements they’ve made. They certainly look cohesive, regardless of whether they actually are.

    Posted 05 Jun 2005 at 3:24 am
  3. Funky Dung wrote:

    “To be fair, the more astute protestants do have catechisms, and the more anal (i.e., orthodox) among them refer to them quite a bit.”

    This is true, but the plurality of catechisms is part of the problem I described. 1) They’re not intended to be universally applicable or binding (or at least they’re not enforced as such) and 2) If you don’t like it, you can shop around until you find one you do like or start your own group. Protestants have a broad and deep family tree and they can all trace their roots back to someone who said, ala Cartman, “Screw you guys. I’m leaving.”

    Posted 04 Jun 2005 at 5:30 am
  4. Steve Nicoloso wrote:

    When I did decide to dive into the Tiber, it was my heart that led me, not my mind. Faith came first. Catechesis came later. The Church found me. I didn’t shop around for it.

    Well I thought you were using the term “catechism” metaphorically in the shopping story. If you put it this way, virtually no one is “shopping for a catechism.” The transient middle of Protestantism is not looking for catechesis. They don’t even know what that means. Instead, they’re looking for a feeling, for therapy, for good influences for their children, comfortable pews, large parking lots, and user-friendly interfaces, almost anything but a catechism.

    You’re right, faith ought (must) come first. Add to your faith, virtue; to virtue, knowledge… The problem isn’t what people are shopping for, it is that they’re shopping at all… this is generally indicative of a soul already poisoned the consumerist zeitgeist… I am, of course, excepted from this generalization 😉


    Posted 06 Jun 2005 at 1:32 am
  5. Funky Dung wrote:

    Actually, I did no such shopping around. I spent a few years as an agnostic. After that, I flirted with a non-denom Protestant group, but that had little impact and I basically remained agnostic. I was moved to give Christianity another chance by the actions and attitudes of my friends. I saw how their faith touched their lives and made them better, happier people. At first, I clung fiercely to my Protestant upbringing, which I brought with me when I gave RCIA a try. I was mainly there to pose annoying Protestant “gotcha” questions and had no intention of converting. When I did decide to dive into the Tiber, it was my heart that led me, not my mind. Faith came first. Catechesis came later. The Church found me. I didn’t shop around for it.

    Posted 05 Jun 2005 at 3:20 am
  6. Funky Dung wrote:

    Another problem of ecclesiology arises due to democracy (representative or direct) in denominations. As popular notions shift, so do church policies. Thus even in mainline Protestant denomination more and more heterodoxy is tolerated. The only Protestant group I can think of that often makes binding pronouncements is the Southern Baptist Convention.

    Posted 04 Jun 2005 at 5:35 am
  7. Steve Nicoloso wrote:

    Baptist churches are among the most autonomous, autocephalous churches within Christendom. I don’t know what you mean by binding, but the SBC is as loose a confederation of independent churches if there ever was one. We visited a SB church in VA (once) with a woman pastor. Tongues are practiced in others. Some Baptist churches are led by powerful pastors (effectively creating an almost Catholic governance at a parish level), others are led by powerful congregations (which is surely the most unbiblical ecclesial governance ever invented). But one thing’s for sure: None are led by conventions… and most are quite proud of this fact.

    Your points about there being multiple catechisms and about the right (tacit or otherwise) of revolt (shopping around) are true. But I don’t think it is fair to say that particular catechisms are not binding in those particular churches. The Westminster Catechism is at least as binding (probably much more so) within OP and PCA circles as the CCC in the RCC. These groups splintered off the mainline Presbyterians precisely because the modernists no longer held or enforced the clear teaching of the catechism. This is why I often refer to such groups as theological fetishist. But I mean no disrespect thereby, for it is far more noble and righteous to stand strong for the faith handed down by their forefathers, than it is to simply stand for nothing, which is what their liberal mainline brethren do.

    The worst that can be said for such conservative prot groups is that they are merely wrong on a few doctrines. If they sin, they sin boldly. And those who sin boldly may very well come to repentance. But it is an entirely different eschelon of error to not have doctrine at all: for there is nothing of which to repent.


    Posted 04 Jun 2005 at 6:24 am
  8. Funky Dung wrote:

    BTW, I’m not condemning. I merely intended to show a fatal flaw in sola scriptura. I don’t often see it critiqued in an eccelesiological. Perhaps others have done so, but it was novel to me.

    Posted 05 Jun 2005 at 3:22 am
  9. Funky Dung wrote:

    Differences in liturgical practices and the degree of individual orthodoxy are not the same as differences in how orthodoxy is defined. Protestants have nothing like a catechism to which they can all refer. There is no single arbitrating body like the Vatican to settile disputes. Yes, they are all unified in their worship of Jesus Christ, but they vary greatly in how one defines proper worship (I mean dogma and doctrine, not liturgy, here.).

    Posted 03 Jun 2005 at 5:19 pm
  10. John wrote:

    Funky, you shopped around for a catechism you liked. Having found one, you now condemn others for doing the same searching you did.

    Posted 04 Jun 2005 at 11:10 pm
  11. Tom Smith wrote:

    I honestly don’t think the “there be millions of Protestant denominations” argument against sola scriptura is very good, simply because the groups that take sola scriptura seriously seem to be fairly close in doctrine, whereas people like ECUSA, ELCA, UCC and PCUSA really haven’t any doctrine. Not that I know much about Protestant denominations.

    Regarding Protestant ecclesiology, however, I do have a good deal to say. This notion of the Body of Christ being made up of basically everybody who wants to be part of it is simply garbage with no backing in Tradition or reason. It simply doesn’t make sense, and it was a way for Protestants to get around the fact that they couldn’t define the Body of Christ because they threw out any notion of authority, and were unable to stop schism and couldn’t effectively define orthodoxy in opposition to heresy. Unfortunately, a little bit closer to home, Vatican II came out with this wonderfully vague ecclesiological formula: “The Church of Christ subsists fully in the Catholic Church,” whereas the older, simpler, less vague, and probably more correct formula was simply: “The Church of Christ is the Catholic Church.” It was good that VII acknowledged that elements of truth exist in other particular churches (the Constantinopolitan Orthodox and the other old apostolic churches) and Protestant sects. It was good that VII acknowledged that grace can be conferred by the actions of non-Catholics (particularly among those without sacraments). (This is not to state that the preconciliar church was somehow uncharitable in its assessments of non-Catholic ecclesiae, but that there simply was no formal Catholic teaching on the status of other groups.) But why did the Fathers fuzzify a pretty clear and coherent teaching? Seriously, there can’t be a schism within the Mystical Body of Christ. That’s the patristic orthodoxy right there. That’s the biggest problem with the Protestant ecclesiology, if you ask me. How can there be separate communions within the one Body of Christ? It doesn’t make sense. I can kinda understand how others can be affiliated with the Body of Christ without being part of it, but separate Eucharistic Communions existing within? How can two different ecclesiae hold to mutually exclusive doctrines (one man’s heresy is another man’s orthodoxy) and be part of the Body of Christ? I think it might be because the Catholic and Orthodox view on the Body of Christ is much more sacramental, liturgical, and metaphysical than the Protestant view. Protestants, taking a fairly low view of the flesh because of New Testament verses of which I don’t recall, reject ex opere operato sacramental efficacity and patristic/scholastic notions of substantia/ousia, in the process bifurcating religion and metaphysics and effectively throwing up an insurmountable wall between the heavenly and the earthly. Apostolic Christians (I mean those with Apostolic Succession, who believe in Tradition), on the other hand, have no such wall between heaven and earth, and see every action as being actuated metaphysically and having direct results in the heavenly world as well as the earthly (how’s that to make you think twice about your concupiscent desires?). Having such a sacramental outlook on things makes for a much more serious and lofty conception of the Mystical Body of Christ, namely that it is sacramental in nature. Man, the world must seem so bland to Protestants.

    If this reply seemed uncharitable, it certainly wasn’t meant to be.

    Posted 13 Jun 2005 at 5:37 am
  12. John wrote:

    I would caution that the uniformity of the Church is largely over stated. The Church varies state to state and even parish to parish. Also, there are branches such as the Polish Catholic Church of the Coptic Church which Rome accepts as being part of Catholicism even though they are different.

    Likewise, aren’t all the various Protestant branches united through their worship of Christ?

    Also, it’s worth noting that the splintering of Protestant branches is an overwhelmingly American phenomina. Europe never developed nearly as many denominations.

    Posted 03 Jun 2005 at 5:02 pm
  13. Tom Smith wrote:

    Oh, about practicing orthodox Christians being closer to Orthodox Jews than progressive Christians, I think you’re right on, Steve. As a Catholic, I feel, at a very basic level, that I have a very similar worldview, outlook, and fundamental lifestyle to those of orthodox religious belief, across the board, but paricularly to those who have a similar heaven/earth metaphysic, as Jews do (as near as I can tell, anyway).

    Posted 13 Jun 2005 at 5:42 am
  14. Tom Smith wrote:

    Oh, one more thing about the Protestant vs. Catholic conceptions of the Mystical Body of Christ. In the more sacramental outlook, each action causes cosmic reverberations, and as such, one becomes very aware of God’s presence, and the effects of one’s actions.

    Posted 13 Jun 2005 at 5:45 am
  15. Ken Eiler wrote:

    Re sola scriptura, the Pontificator (a long time Episcopal priest who has recently announced his conversion to Roman Catholicism) posted on it awhile back on his Pontifications blogsite at:


    I think all of you will find it interesting.


    Posted 08 Jun 2005 at 3:27 pm
  16. Steve N wrote:

    To be fair, the more astute protestants do have catechisms, and the more anal (i.e., orthodox) among them refer to them quite a bit. The most famous of these are no doubt Luther’s Catechisms (Small and Large) and the Westminster Catechism). So, ironically, these groups most closely allied with the reformation and most purely fixated on its dogmas (one of of course being sola scriptura), are the ones that provide an ecclesial remedy to the excesses of sola scriptura, which you correctly note. In conservative Lutheran (LCMS, WELS) and Presbyterian (OP, PCA) churches, members, and absolutely positively teachers, must subscribe to the Lutheran or Westmininster Catechisms, respectively, not in so far as they are in accord with scripture, but because they are in accord with Scripture.

    The real mess comes with low church prots (which is the vast unwashed mass of evangelicalism), where “sola scriptura” is nary a stone’s throw from “do whatever the hell you think”. Most such prots have never so much as heard of a catechism, much less regarded ecclesial authority as essential to the faith. Hence, the main body of evangelicalism has already slipped well into the domain of Moral Therapeutic Deism (Nationalistic Paganism) vis-a-vis historically recognizable orthodox Christianity.

    Never one to mince words….

    My $0.02

    Posted 03 Jun 2005 at 11:10 pm
  17. Steve Nicoloso wrote:

    Wow, Ken! Pontificator’s protestant correspondent started with the strongest position I’d ever heard in support of Scripture Alone. And then levelled it with the most devastating argument against I’ve ever seen. It is getting very difficult for me to imagine a future outside the RCC or the Orthodox.


    Posted 09 Jun 2005 at 10:06 pm
  18. Jerry Nora wrote:

    Yes, John, Funky did, and he’s not denying free will to people, he’s just denying that all catechisms are equal.

    Posted 05 Jun 2005 at 3:16 am
  19. Steve Nicoloso wrote:

    ZzziingG! Ouch!! It’s true to some extent, Funky. I myself am “shopping” for a catechism (one with a community to match its rigor and faithfulness). This is why I think we need to go easy at least some of the Protestants. Those who hold sola scriptura most tightly (conservative, often Catholic baiting, theological fetishists) are also the ones most deeply rooted in the “traditions” of their forefathers. These are not the types going out and starting a new protestant denomination every 12 hours (which is an educated guess at the worldwide rate). Faithful Catholics have far more in common with faithful PCAers and LCMSers (and, truth be told, more in common with Hasidic Jews) than they have in common with “progessives” of their own faith.

    My $0.02

    Posted 05 Jun 2005 at 1:06 am

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