The Unanimous Consent of the Fathers

I mentioned earlier that I’ve been a bit under-impressed with Keith Mathison’s The Shape of Sola Scriptura, and that he doesn’t seem to have a good grip on the topic he’s written a book on. The book attempts to take the creedal Protestant sola Scriptura view, and show its alleged superiority to both the Evangelical (“solo-Scriptura“) and Catholic/Orthodox view (interwined and equal Scripture and Tradition, plus a Church with real Authority to interpret those two). He knows his view, but doesn’t seem to know the Catholic view very well.

The best example of this is his understanding of “unanimous consent.” On the subject of Matthew 16:17-19, Mathison claims that “most of the early and medieval Church interpreted the ‘rock’ as Christ or as Peter’s faith, not as Peter himself.” He then says,

But why is this important? Vatican I and numerous other Roman Catholic decrees insist that no one may interpret Scripture contrary to the “unanimous consent” of the fathers. Aside from the fact that only on a handful of doctrines will one find anything approaching “unanimous consent,” this rules contradicts the modern Roman Catholic interpretation of this text. First of all, there was no unanimous consent on the meaning of the “rock.” Most interpreted it as Christ. Some interpreted it as Peter’s faith. A few interpreted it as Peter. (Mathison, p. 184-85)

I think he’s skewing the Patristic evidence to make even this point, but no matter. The larger problem is that he doesn’t understand what Vatican I and the other “decrees” are talking about. This provides a really concrete example showing what it does, and doesn’t, mean:

I. What It Does NOT Mean
The doctrine you can’t interpret Scripture contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers does not mean that you can only interpret Scripture where the Fathers are in 100% agreement with one another. These instances are, as Mathison says, all too rare. Just as the four Gospels include different things, the various Church Fathers include different things, and at least some times, they throw in their own beliefs or opinions (rather than what they were taught), and stray into pretty fallible territory. If we took Mathison’s view of the Catholic position, it would render the Church incapable of even forming a canon of Scripture. After all, the Church Fathers disagreed on its precise contents. I’ll go so far as to say that no Church could function if it tried to affirm that every ECF agreed on the specific point before it moved forward. We believe that Tradition is Sacred, not every word that comes from the mouth of a Church Father. We read the ECFs because they’re the early witnesses to the Deposit of Faith, and their writings reflect it.

II. What It Does Mean
On those core doctrines [nota bene: that’s all this applies to – not, say, their scientific views] on which 100% of the Church Fathers agree, what might be considered a Patristic “Mere Christianity,” it’s simply impossible for the Church to take a contrary view. On these issues, it would be pretty unthinkable anyways. All the Church Fathers believe in the Divinity of Christ. It’s impermissible for the Church (or anyone) to read Scripture in a way which denies the Divinity of Christ. That conclusion is barred by the unanimous consent of the Fathers.

There’s a second rule which can be derived from the first, although it’s less clearly in place. Where there are competing traditions, the Church can say which one is definitively Tradition, as opposed to the other Fathers’ incorrect theories. So here, the Church could say that the “rock” referred to Christ, Peter’s faith, Peter, or some combination of the above (most of the Fathers pretty clearly think that Jesus Christ built His [Christ’s] Church on Peter because of Peter’s Faith, and so the rock in question relates to at least the last two). The Church could not say that “rock” meant (say) the rocks of Caesari Phillipi, a view which has been put forward by various Protestants running from the obvious meaning of the text. That fourth view could be said to contradict the unanimous consent of the Fathers that it means Christ and/or Peter’s faith and/or Peter.

To take the example of canon, from above, the Church might have been guided by the Holy Spirit to affirm the canons of any of the number of canons found in the early Church (the most frequently reported being the one which was officially declared canon). Had She claimed a different canon, that judgment would have been contrary to the consent of the Fathers: She’d be taking a view contrary to everyone of Her sources. This means, incidentally, that the Catholic Church could never have possibly derived the Protestant canon, since it’s contrary to every Church Father.

I’d be interested in seeing Mathison attempt to respond to this view, rather than attacking the Church using an artificially high standard the Church doesn’t hold for Herself (and which he could never meet as a Protestant).

5 Comments

  1. Is there a list of specific Scripture passages that have a single interpretation as a result of this practice? I heard Jimmy Akin mention “8 or so” in his debate with James White, but I have not been able to find them.

    1. Doug,

      Not that I know of, although you might follow up with Akin to see to what he’s referring.

      There have been a handful of verses in which the Church has dogmatically declared that they mean something particular: for example, as I recall, the Council of Trent defined that the reference to being born again in John 3 refers to Baptism. But even in this case, there could be other, additional layers of interpretation.

    2. I’ve had more than one conversation with non-Catholics who scratch their head at the idea of Catholic Bible study: “What’s the point if the Church has already interpreted everything for you?”

  2. Hi Joe.

    In considering Catholicism, the Vatican I Council has been a hold up for me. Now, this post makes a lot of sense. If something is held unanimously then is it probably orthodox, though not everything orthodox is held unanimously. That seems to be what St. Vincent of Lerins was saying too. I can get that and believe it.

    However, the problem I’m having is in session 2 paragraph 3 where it says, “Likewise I accept Sacred Scripture according to that sense which Holy mother Church held and holds, since it is her right to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures; nor will I ever receive and interpret them except according to the unanimous consent of the fathers.

    It may just be a problem in translation, but I’m hung up on the phrase “except according to.” This sounds like no decree will be made unless there is unanimous consent.

    Can I get your thoughts on this this phrase?

    Thanks.

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