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  • Writer's pictureThe Other Paul

Responding to JY Lewis' Confusions

Just a quick post to demonstrate just how dangerous category confusions can be.

I responded to a tweet {I} by Brother Augustine (Michael Witcoff) on how "Sola-Scriptura Protestants" allegedly cannot answer how Christians knew what Apostolic teaching was before the first New Testament documents were written. I, a Sola-Scriptura Protestant, gave a pretty easy answer {II} that any half-learned Protestant would give; they knew it by the spoken words of the Apostles themselves. Witcoff clearly did not understand a basic nuance of Sola Scriptura, that it was not always an active principle, that there were times of spoken revelation. He responded with confusions, I with clarity. You can see our full interaction under my quote tweet.

But then a certain JY Lewis also replied to me, with a tweet {III} so densely packed with confusions that I was genuinely impressed. It is of the kind that can only be answered with plenty of necessary unpacking, so that's why I'm blogging it here rather than giving him a thread.

First, the Tweet in full (no corrections):

You are a being specious. After 100 ad when the last apostle died until the formation of the canon in 300 ad. How did they pass along the faith? Further in principle how did laity people who largely couldn't read know the faith? Apostolic tradition. Try being less dishonest.

Whew lad.

Let's go line by line:

I - The Formation of the Canon

"After 100 ad when the last apostle died until the formation of the canon in 300 ad..."

WHOA, slam on the brakes there mate. The "formation of the canon" in A.D. 300?! What on earth was this? Was there some ecumenical council that fixed the canon for the whole Christian world in A.D. 300 that I am - and apparently everybody but Lewis is - unaware of?

Obviously not. Not only is it precarious to point out such specific dates as that, but there was not *ever* an absolutely fixed canon even after the first millennium; numerous church fathers and scholars gave their own personal reckonings of the canon {IV}. The first true "fixing" we can point to is specific to the Roman church, which properly fixed a canon for their communion on the 8th of April 1546, in session 4 of the Council of Trent {V}. Protestants likewise generally fixed the Protocanon to the 66-book set we have today, with many adopting a Deuterocanon that Rome likewise held to, but while keeping it in a Deuterocanonical status (whereas Trent elevated those books to the same status as the other 66). And then you have Easternism - Lewis' tradition - which has not established an official canon. Indeed, Saints of the Orthodox Church have published many varying canons, and no Council has definitively settled the issue for them. One look at my friend Craig Truglia's (Orthodox Christian Theology) primer on the issue on his channel {VI} to gain some real perspective on this issue. I'm not posing this as a problem for the Eastern communion, but showing how Lewis' own tradition disagrees with his picture of history.

How the issue should be framed is by seeing how from the virtual beginning of the faith Christian figures were proposing and/or assumed what they perceived were sets of canonical scriptures, Old and New Testament. Many church fathers give their own canon lists, confidently asserting them to be the divine scriptures themselves, fathers like Athanasius, Jerome, Cyril of Jerusalem, and many others. Individuals like them clearly believed there were books that can be discerned as scripture, even if they differed among themselves on certain books (whilst the vast majority of books were common to all).

Now, why am I spilling so much ink on this one point? Isn't this merely ancillary to Lewis' main point? In fact, it is not. Casting doubt on the integrity of scripture's contents is core to the Orthobro apologetic that he presents. Like the Gnostic sects of Irenaeus' day, he has to cast doubt on the clarity of God's word in order to present his alien traditions as the answer clarifying lens. But as shown above, the lack of a uniform canon enforced across the whole Christian world is *not* the same as a lack of canon(s) simplicitur. That there wasn't a universally enforced list is irrelevant; numerous fathers from the earliest times reckoned lists of the Holy Scripture according to their knowledge gleaned from honest study, writers like Melito of Sardis, Origen, Julius Africanus (by implication of his dialogue with Origen on the OT canon), and the anonymous authors behind the Muratorian Fragment and the Bryennios list; all from before A.D. 300. And this doesn't consider the obvious reality that virtually every Christian writer would at some point quote a work as scripture, with formulae like "It is written," or else explicitly calling such works "scripture." Logically, therefore, they have a category of certain works they consider divine, distinct from all other human works.

And so, there were individual fathers and communities who identified what they considered to be scripture, and therefore Sola Scriptura was a very possible principle by which they may have oeperated.

II - The Passing on of the Faith

"How did they pass along the faith? Further in principle how did laity people who largely couldn't read know the faith?"

Easy; both by passing on the scriptures - which were possessed from the beginning, even if not the whole collection - and by oral teaching. "Aha!" Says the Orthobro, "You accept oral tradition! You just denied Sola Scriptura!!"

Except, of course, Sola Scriptura does not in any way, shape, or form entail a rejection of oral teaching, or the reliability thereof. The assertion is very simply this; scripture alone is the infallible rule of faith for determining doctrine, and by further implication is the only inherently authoritative instrument for such. This says nothing about the usefulness or reliability of oral teaching, especially for the illiterate. It's also not a problem for Sola Scriptura for the simple fact that Christian communities read out loud the scriptures {VII}, allowing the illiterate to hear the written words of God. Additionally, even if certain laity could not read the scriptures or access them regularly, that does not in itself invalidate Sola Scriptura, since there were always leaders throughout the Christian communities with access to the scriptures and the responsibility to exposit them. Once again, what does Sola Scriptura say? That scripture is the only thing we *use* at all? Or the simply only infallible, inherently authoritative source of doctrine, which may then be further exposited and preached by word of mouth? It's the latter.

III - Apostolic Tradition

Lewis finishes by raising "Apostolic Tradition" as the answer to how illiterate believers and those before his (mythical) closing of the canon could come to know the doctrines of the faith. Of course, like most Orthobro and Trad-Cath apologetics, he has to rest upon a fundamental category confusion in order to stump the unlearned Protestant; unfortunately, he attempted this on me.

To be clear, I don't think it was a deliberate confusion; it is so pervasive from these trad apologists that they may well just commit this error without thinking. What I am talking about is the conflation of the means of communicating the faith in everyday life (e.g. oral preaching, teaching, etc.) with the divine sources from which we fundamentally glean said faith. Priests teaching the faith to their flock is not "Apostolic Tradition"; it's just teaching, which Prots do all the time. Apostolic Tradition for Rome and the East is a concept of an all-encompassing body of oral tradition passed down from the Apostles, a divine source of the doctrines of the faith apart from scripture. This is a source of doctrine, not the mere act of teaching and passing on doctrine, which, once again, Sola Scriptura does not deny.

That's about all I need to say about this cringe take. Suffice to say, Lewis' tweet shows that Orthobro apologists are actively ruining the rational faculties of those under their teaching. There are, by contrast, Eastern apologists and content makers who make genuinely insightful content that is worthy of engagement, such as Craig Truglia of Orthodox Christian Theology (mentioned before) and Seraphim Hamilton (Kabane). Check them out if you want to see the better side of online Orthodox thought.


IV - For a comprehensive survey of Patristic canon lists from just within the first 4 centuries of the Church, see The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity: Texts and Analysis, by Edmon L. Gallagher and John D. Meade.

VI - Orthodox Christian Theology, Muh Epistemic Certainty! Bible Edition

VII - See Justin Martyr, First Apology, ch.67, wherein he details the weekly Christian service, including the detail that "all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits..." In other words, at least as far as Justin knew, believers were hearing the scriptures read weekly at minimum. This is in the mid 2nd century; almost 150 years before A.D. 300.

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Oct 05, 2022


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