Two days ago (March 30, 2017) I responded to a short article by Mormon blogger Robert Boylan in which he and his non-Mormon friend Errol Vincent Amey claimed I had quoted Irenaeus out of context. They have now responded in another piece on Boylan’s blog entitled “Bowman shoots…and misses on sola scriptura.” In what follows, I will sometimes refer to Amey and sometimes to Boylan, but it appears that for all intents and purposes Boylan’s post speaks for both of them.
In my article, I stated repeatedly that Irenaeus did not hold to the evangelical Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, but only that his position was far closer to sola scriptura than to the positions represented by Amey and Boylan:
Mr. Boylan’s blog post knocks down a straw man of his own creation. I did not claim that Irenaeus held to the evangelical Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura. I avoid such anachronistic claims for my positions just as I oppose them when they are made in defense of positions I reject. Irenaeus’s view of Scripture was to a great extent consistent with the later formal doctrine of sola scriptura, but he was addressing different concerns and some of the views he held on related matters were different than the views taken by most evangelicals….
As just mentioned, Irenaeus did hold to a view of Scripture that is to a considerable extent in line with that of the later Protestant Reformation principle of sola scriptura. Again, he did not hold to that doctrine in the same developed form or in the same theological and ecclesiastical context as the Reformers or later evangelicals, but his view does point generally in the same direction….
This may not be a full-blooded doctrine of sola scriptura, but it is functionally very close to it. And again, my point in quoting these statements from Irenaeus was not to show that he taught sola scriptura (per se) but that he would have rejected the objections to it raised by Mr. Amey and Mr. Boylan (especially the claim that the Scriptures were too ambiguous to be the basis for settling doctrinal disputes)….
In this regard Mr. Boylan’s only potentially useful point was that Irenaeus did not teach sola scriptura, which is another way of saying that Irenaeus was not a Protestant evangelical. And of course that is quite true, though Irenaeus’s position was far closer to the later developed idea of sola scriptura than Mr. Boylan allows. In any case, having set aside the straw man of Irenaeus as advocating the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, there is nothing left in Mr. Boylan’s polemic that requires a response.
Boylan didn’t miss these comments, because he refers to them when he says, “All his talk about me knocking down a straw man of my own creation earlier in his article is nothing short of projection on his behalf.” Yet Boylan’s piece never acknowledges what that straw man was, let alone addresses the point that he had misrepresented my position. Indeed, Boylan again misrepresent me as claiming that Irenaeus held to sola scriptura. Note the following comment Boylan makes toward the beginning of the piece:
Unfortunately for Bowman, his article mirrors much of his colleague C. Michael Patton’s abuse (actually Keith Mathison whom Patton was reliant upon) of Irenaeus, so his arguments have already been answered: Irenaeus did not hold to Sola Scriptura
Since I acknowledged some half a dozen times that Irenaeus did not hold to sola scriptura, an article arguing that “Irenaeus did not hold to Sola Scriptura” obviously is not really an answer to my arguments.
Interestingly enough, Boylan complains that I misrepresented both him and Amey. He claims first that I imputed to him an interpretation of Irenaeus that he never made. He writes, “I never claimed that Irenaeus held to the same theology as Latter-day Saints do vis-á-vis final authority, so Bowman is being his usual disingenuous self yet again.” But I never said that Boylan made that claim. Here is the passage from my previous article that he quotes as supposedly misrepresenting him:
This is the other passage in Against Heresies that Mr. Amey and Mr. Boylan quote (in part) to counter one of my quotations from the same book. However, there is nothing here that supports either Mr. Amey’s position (the Bible cannot be understood on its own because it is unclear but must be interpreted according to whatever the ante-Nicene fathers as a whole taught) or Mr. Boylan’s Mormon position (the Bible cannot be understood on its own because it is incomplete or altered but must be interpreted through latter-day scriptures and the voice of the modern prophets).
Please notice that I did not claim that Boylan attributed the Mormon position to Irenaeus. I pointed out that Irenaeus’s statement that Boylan had quoted did not support the Mormon position, but my point in context was simply that Irenaeus’s view was actually much closer to the evangelical position than it was to either Amey’s or Boylan’s position.
The claim that I misrepresented Amey is the more interesting charge. Boylan quotes a private communication from Amey in which he explained how I had misrepresented his position:
Here we see Bowman attacking a straw-man. My position is that the Scriptures can be understood without the assistance of ecumenical pre-Nicene teachings, except that persons who are indoctrinated with misinterpretations will not be inclined to see the clear teachings of the Scriptures.
Unlike Amey and Boylan, who refused to acknowledge my correction of their misrepresentation of my position, I acknowledge and appreciate Amey’s clarification. I do think, though, that in practical terms what I said accurately reflects the way Amey argued in our Facebook discussions over the past several months. Perhaps without intending to do so, Amey argued as if the Bible could not be understood accurately or properly except through the ante-Nicene fathers. He did so in at least two ways that can be seen in the recent Facebook thread that led to this series of blog pieces. First, Amey argued, as do all critics of sola scriptura, that sola scriptura cannot be true because there are so many Protestant denominations with different interpretations of the Bible:
If your perspective on the Scriptures were true…then there wouldn’t be tens of thousands of different Christian orders and denominations today with often radically different interpretations of the Scriptures causing schism and devisions. But because there are tens of thousands of different Christian orders and denominations today with often radically different interpretations of the Scriptures causing schism and devisions, we therefore know that your perspectives on the Scriptures cannot be true.
This objection to sola scriptura presupposes that Scripture is simply too difficult to understand without some help from outside Scripture—help that Amey argues is to be sought in the writings of the ante-Nicene fathers.
Second, Amey characterized evangelicals (and anyone else who disagreed with his position) as egomaniacs for thinking that they could understand the Scriptures better than the ante-Nicene fathers (see the same thread linked above for these comments, found here and here):
Note also how Rob has mischaracterized my criticism of egomania as applying to Evangelicals at large when in fact I am instead applying it to anyone, Evangelical or not, who imagines that they personally understand the Scriptures better than all of the pre-Nicene Christian leaders, thinkers, and martyrs combined, which is an entirely warranted criticism.
Like the Gnostics, you’re always going to believe that you can interpret the Scriptures better than all of the early churches to whom the Apostles once and for all delivered the faith, aren’t you?
Third, Amey argued that Christians today simply cannot understand the Bible better than the ante-Nicene fathers did, so that we will necessarily have a better understanding of the Bible by reading their writings (see here and here):
Christians today are not going to understand the writings of the Apostles as well as the personal students of the Apostles did, let alone better than they did.
It is inane to assert that more knowledge is gained from a document alone than by both the document and a commentary on the document by one who studied under the author of said document.
Again, I am glad to have Amey affirm that the Bible can be understood apart from the ante-Nicene fathers. At the same time, I do think this affirmation stands in some tension with his numerous statements on Facebook that appeared to argue otherwise. Indeed, after criticizing me for supposedly knocking down a straw man of his view, Amey reiterated the same thinking (as quoted in Boylan’s post):
What is the need for conferring with the most ancient churches who were in intimate communion with the Apostles unless the oral tradition of the Apostles was not viewed as at least a secondary authority and supplemental to the Scriptures?
The claim that there is a “need” of this “secondary authority” that is “supplemental to the Scriptures” makes no sense if the Scriptures can be understood accurately without it. Thus, I do not think that Amey has satisfactorily explained how his position does not impugn the sufficient clarity of Scripture.
The rest of Boylan’s post continues to criticize me as if I had argued that Irenaeus held to sola scriptura, which I have already shown is an outright misrepresentation. For the most part, Amey and Boylan simply ignored the substantive argumentation of my post and attacked what apparently they wished I had said.
Postscript (4/3/2017): The day after this post appeared, Boylan posted a counterattack. He characterized this post as a “hit piece” but ignored everything I said here except for my pointing out that he had misrepresented me as claiming that Irenaeus held to the evangelical Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura. As per his usual style, instead of Boylan admitting that he had misrepresented me, he characterized the situation as one in which “Bowman admits that Irenaeus did not hold to Sola Scriptura.” Boylan also attempts to divert attention from his misrepresentation by suggesting that there is a serious disagreement between my position and that of other evangelicals who have argued that Irenaeus did hold to sola scriptura: “Hopefully, he can tell Michael Patton, James White, and other Protestants apologists to stop citing and abusing Irenaeus as if he were an early witness to the belief the Bible is formally sufficient.” Here Boylan ignores my more fully nuanced statements clarifying that “Irenaeus did not hold to the evangelical Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura” (bold emphasis added), most notable this statement from my first post in this exchange:
As just mentioned, Irenaeus did hold to a view of Scripture that is to a considerable extent in line with that of the later Protestant Reformation principle of sola scriptura. Again, he did not hold to that doctrine in the same developed form or in the same theological and ecclesiastical context as the Reformers or later evangelicals, but his view does point generally in the same direction…. This may not be a full-blooded doctrine of sola scriptura, but it is functionally very close to it.
Perhaps Boylan could take some time out of his busy blogging schedule trying to manufacture divisions among evangelicals over interpretations of historical theology and give some attention to the huge gap between his Mormon theology and that of his non-Mormon friend Mr. Amey. Or he might attempt some serious engagement of the whole argument I presented on the subject of Irenaeus’s view of Scripture. What he has been doing up to now has not been constructive.