Why I Care About “The Shape of Sola Scriptura”

I know I’ve taken Keith Mathison’s book, The Shape of Sola Scriptura, to task on numerous occasions. There are five primary reasons for this:

  • First, this book is all the rage right now amongst certain Reformed circles, and I’ve heard it recommended numerous times. If the book were obscure, it wouldn’t be worth addressing. But this is a book which a large number of people seem to think is accurate.

  • Second, the book is seriously and demonstrably wrong on dozens of critical facts. It isn’t just that he and I disagree on how to interpret x. It’s that he claims a Church Father said x, and the exact opposite is true. He’s just factually incorrect on countless issues, and irrefutably so.
  • Third, the book’s argument is important. If Mathison was correct that the Early Church Fathers really believed in Scripture alone, and rejected all extra-Biblical Tradition, that would be a serious blow to Catholicism. If Mathison were right that this rejection was universal in the pre-Augustinian age, that would absolutely destroy the primary understanding of Sacred Tradition within the Catholic Church. So it really matters that Mathison is diligently presenting accurate evidence, and drawing appropriate conclusions from that evidence.
  • Fourth, the book is very hard to fact-check, unless you want to read a lot of Patristics. As a general rule, instead of quoting the Early Church Fathers (or whatever primary source we’re dealing with), Mathison “summarizes” for his readers what the Church Father said, or quotes a secondary source “summarizing,” or he’ll summarize the secondary source’s summary. So a reader just has to take his word for it. And it turns out, Mathison and those he quotes are wrong a lot, but a reader has no way of knowing that without doing hours worth of research. Since I love reading the Church Fathers, it made sense to me to do the legwork. I’ve made a point of actually quoting the Fathers in question, and linking to copies of translations of their work. This way, people can determine for themselves who’s accurately representing what the Church Fathers Say.

  • Fifth, I think Mathison and those who read him are a reasonable and honest lot. In my experience, this book has been popular in some of the Protestant circles I most respect. Allowing the book to go unanswered would poison reasonable minds, and answering the book seems like a constructive approach for both those who enjoy the book, and Mathison himself. I’ve seen him respond in the past to criticisms of the book, and I hope he reads and, if necessary, responds to what I’ve written and will write. In short, I don’t think Mathison’s acted in bad faith.

Or to put it all more simply, I think that there are people out there who are interested in the Catholic Church, but who determine that it’s not the true Church because this book and others like it convince them on the basis of faulty evidence. If I thought Mathison and his readers were just a bunch of bigots, it probably wouldn’t be worth the time to respond. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it gives me an excuse to read the Fathers. That said, if there are any other books / articles / arguments out there which are either (a) particularly troubling to you as a Catholic, or (b) particularly convincing to you that Catholicism isn’t the true Church, as a Protestant, let me know! If I haven’t read them, I’ll do my best to read them an respond to them here. Don’t be shy about it: if it helps even one person, it’ll be worthwhile, but must likely, if one person’s troubled by it, they’re not alone!

On that note, I’ve gone back and created a “Keith Mathison tag” for those who are interested in reading more on the subject. I’ll also be posting another response to an argument which both he and, to a lesser extent, C.S. Lewis raise in opposition to joining the Catholic Church: namely, that joining up means you have to believe whatever the Church decides She believes tomorrow. Finally, if you’ve got an interest in the book, and want sources other than moi, I’d also suggest the incredible blog Called to Communion (which starting today, you can see on the right side of the screen). Bryan Cross responds to the major premise of the book HERE, and there are various additions from him and others here, here, here, here and here.

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