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.
- 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)
- 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.
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.