Luke 1 and Sola Scriptura: An Intro Explored

Here’s how St. Luke begins his Gospel:

1 Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us,
2 just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us,
3 I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus,
4 so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.
(Luke 1:1-4)

Am I the only person who doesn’t see that and say, “Ohhh, so that’s what Luke thought about sola Scriptura“? This may be just because I have a tendency to skim introductions, salutations, and the like: they seem ripe candidates for reading more than is there into Scriptural passages. I mean, if someone were reading my letters years from now, and saw that it said, “Dear so-and-so,” I don’t want them to get the wrong idea about me and so-and-so: I just sort of assume that the NT writers are following pretty standard customs for polite correspondence.

I say this because I’m in the middle of two books on sola Scriptura and Tradition. The first is Keith Mathison’s book The Shape of Sola Scriptura, and is written from a Protestant who is trying to restore sola Scriptura to the meaning that it had to the so-called Magisterial Reformers (I’ll go into much more detail later about what he means by this, but for now, if you just imagine something like the classic Lutheran view of Tradition, you’ll probably be close). I’m reading it in response to a suggestion made after my earlier posts on sola Scriptura, with the suggestion (more or less) that what I was opposing could more properly be termed “solo Scriptura.” The second book, which Mathison cites to in two footnotes (along with a lot of other Catholic books, which he doesn’t seem to have read, and doesn’t list in his bibliography) is Mark Shea’s By What Authority?: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition.

Both Shea and Mathison, strangely enough (to me, anyways), cite to this passage from Luke to defend their view on the relationship between Scripture and Tradition. That’s because, as both authors point out, Luke is clear that he’s writing to affirm what Theophilus already knows from oral tradition. The question then, revolves around how to interpret Luke’s stated purpose in v. 4, “so that you may realize the certainty of” those teachings. Mathison argues that Luke’s writing to settle the score, so the earlier oral traditions about what Jesus did or didn’t do can be laid to rest: if it’s in Luke’s Gospel, He did it. If not, He didn’t. Shea argues nearly the opposite, saying that Luke “appears to offer his writing in union with, not in replacement of” these teachings. In other words, Luke’s on the witness stand, and his testimony is part of a broader case (but supports the conclusion). Which view is right? Let’s explore.

Shea cites to it on pg. 81 of BWA? (Click here for Mark Shea’s book on Google books, so you can read along) However, he only includes Luke 1:3-4. After getting to “the teachings you have received,” he adds “that is, the oral paradosis,” or tradition. Then he says: “In other words, Luke also appears to offer his writing in union with, not in replacement of, the tradition Theophilus has received. He too seems to think that Theophilus should hold fast to the traditions that he was taught, either by word of mouth or by letter.” Fair enough. I wish, however, that Shea would have included the first two verses, because otherwise, it looks a little like he’s proof-texting. After all, v. 1 makes direct reference to the other compiled, written accounts which exist. In this case, I think it’s pretty clear from Luke v. 2 that v. 4 isn’t referring to those written accounts, but to the oral accounts upon which both Luke and other Gospel writers were basing their Gospels. Anyways, had he included verses 1 and 2, I think it would have been clearer for the reader to realize that his “that is, the oral paradosis” is, in fact, correct. [Edit: I don’t mean to imply that Shea is playing dirty pool, or proof-texting – I just think he omits important context which might leave him open to the charge].

Contrast that with the treatment Keith Mathison gives the passage on pg. 211 of SSS (Click here for Keith Mathison’s book on Google books, so you can read along). He speaks at some length on the passage, concluding that:

Luke equates that which has been “handed down” or “traditioned” with what he will write in his Gospel. It is to be an orderly account of “all these things,” not some of these things. It would defeat his own stated purpose for writing the book if he left out some necessary part of the gospel tradition. There is no reason, therefore, to suppose with Rome that Luke left out any secret teachings Jesus gave the Apostles.

It probably could go without saying that this is an ugly misstatement of the actual Catholic position: the Church has always openly and strenously denounced and denied any “secret traditions.” That was the Gnostic position, and it was the Catholic camp – a bunch of Mary-honoring, Dueterocanon-reading, Eucharist-worshipping Christians – that overcame them. The Catholic Church believes in Tradition, certainly; but not secret Tradition.* And presumably, someone writing a book on the topic should know that.

But besides that, his argument is pretty well self-defeating. If Luke includes all of the Apostolic tradition in his Gospel, we might as well throw out the other 26 books of the New Testament, and preach sola Lucan. Because Luke most certainly isn’t saying (and Mathison isn’t even claiming he’s saying), “my book is the missing piece to an otherwise assembled library: once you have this book, you’ll have the entirity of public Christian revelation.” This is the same flaw that I mentioned in II. of my earlier post, where I suggested that trying to use John 20:31 as a sola Scriptura proof text implodes, leaving you with sola Johannine. So if you buy Mathison’s argument that Luke, with his “perfect understanding of all things,” is laying out everything (so that oral tradition contains nothing which Luke’s Gospel doesn’t contain), then all of those details the other NT writers include must be false. The argument eats its own tail.

A big part of the problem here seems to be the absurdly bad KJV translation of Luke 1:3: ” It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus…” It’s from this that language that Mathison bases his “all things” argument (the NAB, which I quoted above, doesn’t say it), but step back a second. Could Luke possibly be saying, “I’ve had perfect understanding of all things from the very beginning”? The KJV’s translation makes Luke sound like he’s claiming godlike powers. The verb in question “means literally ‘to follow along a thing in mind,’ ‘to trace carefully,’ or ‘to accompany.'” (source) Any of those translations would have been superior at expressing Luke’s thoughts than what the KJV chose. Although, if Luke were omniscient and eternal, I could see why sola Lucan made sense…

Certainly, Luke intended his Gospel to supplement what Theophilus already knows, to confirm it, and as Mathison points out (correctly, in my opinion), to preserve it for future generations. On this, both authors agree, and it’s an insight I wouldn’t have noticed if not for them. So I’m appreciative to them both. But when it comes to the meaning of Luke 1:4, I think that Shea is the only one who is arguing something which doesn’t dismantle the rest of Scripture.

*In fact, private revelations of any sort (a broad term, including apparations of Mary to multitudes at once, at Fatima, for example) are not valid sources of binding revelation on anyone else. Obviously, if the Holy Spirit unmistakably tells you that you have to do something (and the Church determines, to the best of Her capability, that it’s not the devil playing a trick on you, or your own delusions, and that it doesn’t contradict the Faith), you should do it. But your neighbor doesn’t have to believe you, since he doesn’t have the Holy Spirit telling him: he’s only got you. While the Catholic Church believes that God is still actively at work in the world, the only source of revelation binding upon all the faithful is the faith delivered once unto the saints (Jude 1:3).

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