Not Sold on Sola Scriptura

This is an email I sent to some friends and some of their responses:

I don’t by any means wish to cast myself into Protestant heresy, and perhaps I’m choking on a definition that is too tight; but I don’t know if I completely buy into Sola Scriptura. So I’m offering this gem/turd in a hope to stimulate discussion and be corrected if I’ve got this wrong (and please don’t call me a damnable papist, my spirit is weak).

There are specifically two areas where I see my conflict with the doctrine.

  1. Should the way Christians have practiced their faith for 2,000 years be taken lightly just because it isn’t specifically spelled out in the Bible (following a corrupt Pope aside)? Isn’t there merit in following the practices/doctrines of those who have discipled us and passed their faith on to us? I certainly think that everything needs to be held up to the standard of the Bible, but where the Bible is silent should we not listen to our forefathers and give their words and deeds weight? (organized weekly gatherings on Sunday to name one quick example)

  2. The Bible itself is not self-defined. There is no where in its pages that explain exactly what is and what is not to be included in the canon. The New Testament gives us some lessons on the scriptures, but those are all in reference to the Old Testament. So maybe that’s something, we know what the Old Testament is and what’s it’s useful for, but how do we know that Paul’s letter to Timothy is also in the same category? The only way I can figure out is to borrow a line from a singing Russian . . . .TRADITION. The New Testament canon is a product of tradition. That is a historical fact. The Bible never once names its parts and from what I can tell the writers of the New Testament didn’t make a group decision to start putting something together. There are some very good reasons the canon tradition was started, but none of them are scriptural themselves. If we don’t rely on at least that one tradition, we don’t even have a Bible to solely be instructed and inspired by.

    One of the arguments for the historicity and inerrancy of the Bible is that the Holy Spirit protected, directed and inspired the collection of the New Testament. An acceptance of this theory seems to also be an acceptance that something more than the Bible can be inspired and authoritative for all Christians.

Let me know if I’ve got this wrong or if I just have a simplified understanding of sola scriptura. In the mean time I’m going to find some rosary beads.


The responses I received:

One of my professors in Seminary said that something can be said to be biblical in one of three ways. I’d have to check my notes to make sure, but I think the three ways were something like this.
1) The teaching is explicitly addressed in the Bible. (e.g. Idolatry is sin)
2) The teaching doesn’t contradict Scripture. (e.g. Playing drums in a church service is acceptable)
3) It corresponds with Scriptural teachings. (e.g. The church should oppose abortion because the Bible teaches that the unborn is a life)

So on sola scriptura, I think you can argue that many of our traditions are biblical. It doesn’t mean that we have to do only what the Bible explicitly says and if it isn’t in the Bible we can’t do it. It means that if we are doing some practice that compromises biblical teaching, we throw it out because the Bible is our sole authority.

Those are my two cents. I don’t think you said anything heretical.

I agree. I think your reasoning is good, but it’s based on a simplified understanding of sola scriptura (and maybe that’s the accurate one the Protestants meant, and my definition is incorrect). I don’t think sola scriptura is saying you can only do what it in the Bible and that tradition is bad. There is a pastor in Russia who has this simplified understanding of sola scriptura. He wont allow a youth ministry in his church because it doesn’t mention that anywhere in the Bible. That is not sola scriptura in my view. Sola scriptura means that the Bible alone is authoritative. Tradition can be helpful, useful, and right, but not necessarily so because of human fallibility. So it should always be checked with Scriptural principles. If it does not contradict the Bible, it is acceptable but also changeable.

Maybe I’m the one who needs to go back and check my notes, but I thought that sola scriptura meant that scripture was the HIGHEST authority, not the ONLY authority. I had recently heard the analogy that the bible was like the supreme court. Human traditions are then like the lower courts. If something controversial comes up, it gets taken up to the highest authority for a decision, which in our case is the Bible. The analogy works, as the Bible is silent on many things, which can then be decided on at a lower, or local chuch or denominational, or even (shudder) papal authority. As long as the decision isn’t “unconstitutional,” or unbiblical, then we can submit to the decision, if it has been made by someone in the church who has authority over us, like a pastor, elder, etc…

If you are arguing that tradition can be authoritative, then I guess I misunderstood. Sola scriptura, by definition, means Scripture alone. Scripture alone is our authority and not the traditions of the church. I see now what you are arguing about the canon being based on tradition and not on Scripture.
I think the argument about the canon is that what is canonical is also based on Scripture, not tradition. Some books that were accepted by early church fathers were rejected based on sola scriptura. They didn’t jive with accepted Scripture. One of the main criteria for books of the Bible is that it must be consistent with the rest of Scripture.
And my response:

Yeah, but there are plenty of books we think of as being consistent with the Bible but not scriptural. The criteria for the New Testament (written in the first century, by an apostle or close associate, etc.) is not scriptural per se. Each of the books being consistent with the others I can see as a self-validation process, but that is not the only test the books had applied to them. Is the decision to close the canon, for instance, a decision based on scripture?

The “Constitutional” theory brings some light to the issue, but in both cases there is still another authority over them. There is a bit of a chicken and egg thing going on. In the case of the Constitution, the Constitution has authority over individuals, but the collective majority has authority over the Constitution and can change and adapt it. As for the Bible, I’m not sure that we have it so clearly defined. We’d like to say that the Bible has authority over tradition, but did tradition get a “one shot” authority over scripture by defining the canon and then concede power? We don’t have a “take these 66 books thus-sayeth-the-Lord” from Jesus (THE ultimate authority) on this one, and if we did I’m sure we would have canonized it.

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23 thoughts on “Not Sold on Sola Scriptura

  1. I find the Bible as the Supreme Court an interesting analogy, not necessarily for what it says about the bible but what it says about certain views of the role of men and text. The view that the bible is the ultimate authority and that the bible “decides” controversial issues assumes that text can interpret text.

    The closer analogy (albeit still problematic) would be that the Bible is like the Constitution as both are text. But the Supreme Court justices are ultimately interpreters of the law and they are people. The Constitution never decides controversial issues. The Justices do. In fact, when the Constitution is silent on the matter, and it often is, it is the Justices who create rights that are not enumerated in the text itself. No where does the text of the Constitution say that the people have a ‘right to privacy’ or a ‘right to marriage.’ It isn’t the Constitution who decides whether we have these rights but rather the Justices who do and they disagree as to the practice of “finding” rights where the text is silent on the matter. Some believe that if the text doesn’t say it explicitly then the text should be amended. Others believe there are reasons which warrant the Justices finding unenumerated rights such as history, tradition, structure, etc.

    I would still hold that the Bible cannot be the ultimate court, but rather the bible could be likened to Constitution law which is ‘superior to any ordinary act of the legislature.’ However, it still needs to be interpreted like any text. Texts don’t read themselves. Texts must be read. In addition, I don’t think that simply having a Supreme Court means that everyone “agrees” that the Supreme Court decisions are the “right” decisions, but everyone is bound to them as a matter of law. Clearly, in matters of biblical interpretation no analogous Supreme Court exists on earth that everyone is bound to legally. One might suggest that God is the final arbiter but then the analogy breaks down at this point.

    The observation that “unconstitutional” is analogous to “unbiblical” is rather interesting and I’m not at all certain that people really believe this can be the case. The Supreme Court decides constitutionality, not the Constitution. Who decides biblicity? Not the bible. Biblical and unbiblical is a matter of interpretation and interpretation is something that people do, not texts.

  2. To me, the biggest problem with the doctrine of sola scriptura is that it isn’t taught in scripture. The whole idea seems rather self-contradictory.

  3. Here’s another response from a fried which answers to some degree what both of your comments:

    Good topic, and given the recent traction that Roman Catholicism has gotten amongst erstwhile evangelicals (e.g., Francis Beckwith), I’d say it’s critical that evangelical Protestants know what they mean by”Sola Scriptura”.

    The arguments I’ve heard from Catholics against this doctrine are twofold: (1) the Bible doesn’t teach “Sola Scriptura”; (2) therefore, in order to establish a doctrine of “Sola Scriptura”, one must appeal to church tradition.

    The Constitutional explanation is as critical to this discussion as it is correct: it would be a straw man of “Sola Scriptura” to suggest that it means that ONLY the Bible gives us truth/knowledge. This is the sort of misunderstanding/misrepresentation of the view that J.P. Moreland (correctly) assailed in his (oddly) controversial paper at ETS this last fall.

    I might also point out that this point helps undercut both (1) and (2) above, since it affords a more loose definition of “sola” than is (wrongly) assumed/attributed in those arguments.

    Second, to respond to Tim’s assertion that the New Testament isn’t self-attesting, I’d point out this isn’t entirely true: Peter puts Paul’s writings on par with the “scriptures” (II Peter 3:14-16). I’ve used this verse in debates with Catholics, since it’s coming from the man they take to be the first “Pope”.

    This, in conjunction with an earlier post, undercuts (1).

    And finally, we need to understand how the Protestant Reformers themselves regarded the canon in order to correct another misunderstanding: what scandalized the Catholics so much during the Reformation is that the Protestants held that it was NOT Church councils that determined, or even COULD determine, the authority of Scripture. Rather, the Scriptures themselves are “self-attesting” and, being themselves the work of the Holy Spirit, are simply received by those the Holy Spirit indwells. The canon is simply “recognized” and presupposed logically PRIOR TO the authority of any Church council.

    IF the Bible is the inspired Word of God, it can never be the part of a council to determine (in a CAUSAL manner) that it is such; rather, it is only the council’s part to “determine” in an epistemic/discerning sense that it is such. The word “recognize” might be more appropriate here.

    This, then, undercuts (2) entirely.

    But, so goes the rebuttal, don’t Protestants still rely on “tradition” with respect to the canon?

    Well, I think what ends up happening is that when Protestants and Catholics talk about the canon in terms of “tradition,” we must be very careful to realize that while we may use the same word, we’re using different dictionaries. “Tradition” in the Catholic sense is authoritative; “tradition” in the Protestant sense is prescriptive, but takes a back seat to the Scriptures themselves.

    The question that I think cuts to the heart of the issue is this: when Scripture and Church councils appear to be at odds, which one ends up judging the other?

    “Sola Scriptura” means that the Scriptures judge the councils.

    With Catholics,they must elevate the interpretation of Scripture (by the Church) to same level of authority as the Scriptures themselves. But this was precisely the error of the Pharisees with respect to the OT Law. No surprise then, given this parallel, that the great error of the Catholic church is that it preaches a false gospel of legalism as the Pharisees and Judaizers before them.

  4. I want to emphasize that my comment above (#1) is a critique of the analogy that the Bible is the Supreme Court, not a critique of sola scriptura.

    Tim, I don’t see that #3 answers to any degree issues raised by my comment (not that I should expect this since it wasn’t written in response to my comment). What do you see, Tim, that might offer some response?

  5. For example, Christ did not break the O.T. Law; He broke the mighty oral law of the Pharisees (Tradition with a big “T” ) in John 9. He enraged them.

    We all have religious tradition to reflect upon. But I desire for my religious traditions to remain at a small “t”. (God, please help me.) Ultimately defending religious tradition leads to abuse (again, look at John 9).

    The God breathed words of Scripture trump tradition. And the Spirit enflames those words in my heart above other words written down by humans.

    When engulfed in controversy and division, do we go back to examining scripture line upon line, or do we search creeds and church hierarchy edicts?

  6. #5 – eradicate the smiley face

    And Aquinas, I don’t know how you can separate the Bible from God’s voice of mercy and judgment in the courtroom.

  7. Aquinas, as you’ve noted, that response was not specifically made in reference to what you said, but it talked more about the Constitutional comparison.

  8. Tim, the only thing I found was one line: “The Constitutional explanation is as critical to this discussion as it is correct.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t explain why the explanation is correct.

  9. Tim, good topic. Tough topic. One not entirely satisfactory in the answer department. One I’ve had to acknowledge that can’t be fully solved to all my liking.

    First, I generally agree with your key points. 1) We should pay attention to tradition for good reason. It is the same reason most churches state their agreement to one of the council creeds. Many smart people have wrestled with these issues for a long time. 2) The Bible’s not self-defined per se.

    Secondly, recognize that you are talking about three separate things here. Tradition, Biblical inspiration, and the role of scripture relative to tradition. It might help to wrestle with these individually.

    On tradition, the answer to all your questions in my opinion is yes. But you didn’t ask another question that tees up sola scriptura. How do we know if a tradition is correct? And, let’s all acknowledge that tradition is what Jesus railed against in his ministry because it misunderstood the spirit of the scripture.

    On the cannon all the New Testament with the possible exception of Hebrews was written by or written under an Apostle’s authority who directly witnessed Jesus. True there’s no exact line of demarcation but the early church clearly recognized which pieces they perceived to be inspired. Paul’s letters circulated as a group, and 2 Peter clearly puts Paul’s writings in the scripture camp. Finally, the church fathers recognized early that the cannon was closed and that no other inspired scripture was being written.

    But this isn’t entirely a satisfactory answer. The Old Testament wasn’t written under the same guidelines, though being a prophet definitely helped. Proverbs and Song of Solomon were largely written by a man very adrift from God. Definitely didn’t finish out the way Paul and the other Apostles did. So, why can’t new scripture be written? It comes down how one would know if it were. What tests should we take it through to verify it is inspired?

    Thirdly is the issue of sola scriptura. Do we believe that the scripture is inspired and infallible? This is the critical question. Every scripture needs a reader, an interpreter. The scripture can only act as we read and absorb it. Problem is, there are days where I’m not perfect. Okay, more than occasional days. Is this true of anyone else? Is this true of everyone else? Is there anyone who can perfectly read, interpret and absorb the Bible all the time? I don’t think so. Thus tradition has the possibility of corruption. And tradition then needs a judge. That judge is the correct interpretation of the scripture. Thus scripture is foundational.

    So, how did I land on all this?

    First, I have to acknowledge that I’m not entirely at ease with the box that we’ve created to say what is cannon and what is not. Problem is, I can’t think of any better solution, and the extreme of an open cannon I think has to be admitted as dangerous and would have to have a very, very high bar. And it has to be something higher than so and so declares he’s inspired and wrote such and such.

    I also have to say that we should give greater credence to tradition, but that we should test these traditions against what we see in the scripture. We see in Acts 17:11 that the Thessalonicans even tested Paul’s message against the scriptures. Seems like a pretty good model to follow.

    Likewise, I have to acknowledge that tradition could be inspired. The Holy Spirit is at work, and I expect that He is daily creating through people inspired actions. These should be replicated. But, again, how do I know it is inspired? By the fruit, by the Holy Spirit’s testimony inside me, by other good Christians, and by the scriptures.

  10. Your post has caused me to wonder about how Jesus used scripture during His ministry. He assumed the role of interpreter at times, such as when He read from Isaiah in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-21). Other times He used scripture as simple authoritative statements, as in His response to the devil after His forty day fast (Matt 4:3-11).

    Is there, perhaps, some kind of clue to be found in the way that Jesus used the scriptures? Tim said it would be really easy to accept sola scriptura if there was record of Jesus saying what is and what is not scripture. In the absence of such evidence, I ask if there is some way to determine how we should view scripture by looking at how Jesus used scripture.

  11. A side note on this subject. I was listening to what I assume is an evangelical radio program where the commentator mentioned that thought that speaking in tongues was a “false gospel” because it implied that God was still revealing things on top of the bible.

    It seemed that commentator had made the conclusion that if you think that God is speaking through you in tongues then it makes sense that you could write this down and it could be considered scripture, so he concluded that speaking in tongues could not be inspired since the canon was closed and God was not adding anything to the Bible.

    I am assuming this is not a common view of protestants, especially among charismatics, but it seems like this conclusion is almost warranted if you really believe that the canon has been closed by God.

  12. Jared, I think you comment highlights what I am bucking against. That is an extreme position. Who was it? Even most cessasionist (those who believe the gifts of the Holy Spirit have ceased) believe that God still, at times, speaks into people’s lives and offers them direction.

    He’s kind of going at the tongues issue from the wrong end by first assuming the canon is closed.

    As I think through the intricacies of this problem, it’s clear that what’s important to figure out is what does “sola” mean. The variations on that lead to a number of different implications.

  13. The respondents who insisted that sola scriptura means that scripture is the supreme authority rather than that it is the only authority are absolutely right. At least, that’s the way Luther conceived it. (He was its inventor.) The Zwinglians, the Swiss Anabaptists, and the Puritans took sola scriptura much more literally than Luther had intended. He would have been horrified by their regulative principle, which in my opinion is simply untenable.

  14. It just seems apparent to me that the direct word of God is going to be superior to the word that we get second-hand through the scriptures.

  15. Seth that poses three follow up questions

    1) How are you sure what you are hearing is from God as even angels may appear and deceive you?

    2) If some one else is claiming they have heard from God, which is superior: their second-hand revelation or accepted scripture?

    3) Is what a contemporary individual hears from God automatically authoritative for all Christians?

    Chris, Welcome. I think I used to see you bumping around MaDB. You’ve got some interesting stuff on your blog.

  16. 1) How are you sure what you are hearing is from God as even angels may appear and deceive you?

    I know this will sound silly to anyone who is not inclined to take Joseph Smith seriously already. But he actually did lay out a method for “discerning spirits” as he called it. He said the easiest way to find out, is to ask to shake the being’s hand. If it’s an evil spirit, it will try and fail (being without a physical body). If it is a resurrected being, it will do so and you will feel it. If it is a righteous spirit, it will decline the request (anyone else know if I got that all right?).

    But to respond in a way more accessible to those not wrapped up in the Mormon worldview though… I would say that any encounter with an angel would not be deserving of automatic credence with me. It would have to be judged by the means available to me, of which scripture is one such means.

    2) If some one else is claiming they have heard from God, which is superior: their second-hand revelation or accepted scripture?

    If the Holy Ghost confirms the witness of the scripture, that makes it truth for me. If the Holy Ghost confirms the words of someone else, that makes it truth for me. Simple enough.

    3) Is what a contemporary individual hears from God automatically authoritative for all Christians?

    Nope, it’s authoritative for them though.

  17. Since you bring up that section of the D&C I wonder how you view the discrepancy with that text and the temple ceremony? I assume that discussion of the temple is okay unless it’s specifically about the tokens and ordinances. If that question is off limits, let me know.

  18. Off limits to many Mormons, but not to me.

    That part is symbolic. Peter, James, and John were obviously not corporeal beings at the time of Adam and Eve. The portrayal is meant to be symbolic of a passing of authority.

    Everything in the Endowment ceremony is to be taken symbolically rather than literally.

  19. Ultimately scripture is tradition, i.e. writings that are traditionally assumed to be inspired. It seems that what makes scripture is not inspiration alone, but a consensus of acceptance. Sola Scriptura, in the Lutherist conception Chris describes, appears to mean, in essence, that we should measure every new direction in religion (including new inspiration) against those writings that are traditionally held to be inspired.

    If you believe that God is continuing to reveal things, I think you have to admit that the reasons that Protestants do not have any new scripture are mostly political.

  20. Sola scriptura meaning scripture is our highest authority; scripture alone is our highest authority . . . We believe that scripture is our metaphorical supreme court of highest authority . . . The point is that there are lesser courts of authority. Let me distinguish this from solo scriptura, solo scriptura is that scripture alone is our authority, we don’t believe that. We believe that scripture alone is our highest authority . . . Some people know things about technology, about the environment, about the human body, about medicine, about, diet nutrition, and all these things of things, and we believe in sola scriptura and that is, we have lesser courts of authority: Go to the college, go to the doctor, read a philosopher, study medicine and science . . . So, think of it in terms of courts, the Bible is the supreme court of authority, and there are lesser lower courts of medicine and science and reason and tradition and history and experience and we use them all the time and test them by highest court.” (Revelation: God Speaks. 47:39 – 50:28).

    It is helpful, I suppose, for Christian who are extreme and believe there is no knowledge outside the bible. But I think this analogy confuses information or knowledge with authority. I suppose that this analogy suggest that knowledge can exist outside the bible but it can’t conflict with the bible. However, I wouldn’t call his view a constitutional analogy, but rather a higher-lower court analogy.

    The problem is this: Who are the judges who serve in the lower courts? The judges are people. Driscoll points these people out: the doctor, the philosopher, “people” know things, he says. However, in this analogy the supreme court of highest authority is the only court without any people. Either that or the analogy suggests that each of us, whenever we feel there is a dispute, puts on the black robes and becomes a Supreme Court justice and interprets the text ourselves. There are people and there are texts. In real life, the lower courts have people who interpret texts, and the higher courts have people who interpret texts. It is only in this revelation-higher-lower-court analogy where apparently the highest court has no justices. Again, please don’t assume this is a criticism of sola scriptura. I just don’t think the analogy is accurate.

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