This post was edited August 11, 2014, Edits appear in red italics.
This is the post that I have been dreading. Attempting to keep a discussion of Sola Scriptura concise and accurate is like getting my wiener dog to stop chasing a ball. It’s just not going to happen. So please don’t take this one little entry as your only point of access into this centuries-old debate.
I begin by saying that Scripture should be seen as a coherent whole, containing the entirety of the Gospel message from Genesis to Revelation. This is the point of
Sola Scriptura: Scripture alone; the Bible, as the inspired (both directly and indirectly) word of God (as distinct from the Word, Jesus) is the only source that is authoritative for the faith and practice of Christians
I absolutely believe that Scripture, as the specific revelation of God (as opposed to the general revelation of nature), is the only source from whence faith and practice can be derived. There is no separate oral tradition. My Catholic friends who insist that such a tradition exists must also admit that this oral tradition is taken from the written word – simply not the written word of Scripture. Rather, oral tradition can often be traced to the second and third century pseudepigraphical (not written by the author named) documents such as the Protoevangelium of James. Despite Church Fathers noting that the document was of dubious origin, it was a popular work, and the belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary, first taught here, became entrenched.
When a doctrine can be traced to what was recognized as an unreliable source, we have a problem.
But Protestants are not free of problems, though they are not of the same sort.
There are two kinds of problems within the congregations who claim Sola Scriptura. The first is seen in cases where there is no rule in how to approach the Bible, no idea for an interpretive framework. “Me and my Bible,” is the cry of this set. Ancient Christians answered this cry when they developed what is referred to as the Rule of Faith:
The Rule of Faith enabled the church to identify, preserve and pass on a coherent doctrine of God in the face of competing accounts of Christian identity. . .The plurality of potential interpretations did not entail the equal legitimacy of all the various claims, as if the church simply appealed to tradition because the Bible was defenseless. Instead, the early Christians saw the Rule of Faith as a form of moral restraint against human tendencies to twist the Scriptures in a self-interested ways. (1; emphasis mine)
In other words, if you read the Bible and cannot come to the conclusion that you
believe in God the Father Almighty, the Maker of Heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy [Spirit], born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucifed, dead and buried;. . .the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into Heaven and [sits] and the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from [where] He shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy catholic [universal] Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, (2)
then you have a problem. This is the ancient, orthodox understanding of both the frame around and the conclusions of Scripture. This is the lens through which it must be read. There needs to be a basic framework through which it is rightly understood. The proliferation of groups and cults that take a handful of verses and run wild with them is more than enough comment on the dangerous places that too-simplistic an understanding of Sola Scriptura can lead.
Thankfully, many churches understand that the Bible must be approached in this way. However, there are other areas of entrapment, found in our fondness for adhering to and elevating certain ways of interpreting and applying that teaching to the detrimental eclipsing of Scripture itself.
Consider the theological hot-bed of eschatology (concerning the end of all things). There are denominations that absolutely insist, for example, upon a dispensational, premillenialist understanding of the end. Trouble is, whether anyone wants to admit it or not, Scripture does not spell this out for us. The only things that are perfectly clear about the end are:
Calamity will strike the earth.
Jesus will come back.
Everyone will be judged; those who are saved will enter into Heaven and those who are not will enter into Hell.
It’s not easily discernible whether a pre-, mid- or post-tribulation rapture of the Church will occur – or whether a rapture will happen at all. Nobody knows for sure what form the mark of the Beast will take. Is the scroll that only the Lamb is worthy to open (Rev. 5) a Scroll of Destiny or the Title Deed to the Earth? Are the two witnesses (Rev. 11) Moses and Elijah?
I fully understand that the Bible must be interpreted. We interpret anything we read. The problem arises when, as in our example of dispensational premillenialism, an interpretive theological tradition outside of Scripture is held with such tenacity that it becomes the authority. Anyone not holding to this tradition is seen, at best, as something of an idiot and, at worst, as being outside of the Body. This is not appropriate. We must be willing to see those who claim the essentials of faith as being our brothers and sisters, whether or not we agree down to the last dotted “i” and the last crossed “t.”
Once more allow me to emphasize that there is nothing wrong with holding to a particular understanding of the end times or of other things, such as soteriology. What I am attempting to show here is that we must not close our fists around such concepts and beat people with them. We must be willing to subordinate our systems to Scripture itself, constantly looking at the text and asking the Spirit for guidance.
Ultimately, Sola Scriptura is an accurate understanding of the Bible’s place in the life of a Christian. Surely we must say that it is God Himself who is the authoritative ruler on things pertaining to the faith and that the Bible, as His word to mankind, contains all that we need to know in order to establish a correct and ongoing relationship with Him. This is our authority. And yet we Protestants do not practice what we preach. In some cases we lack the most basic of frameworks, such as the Rule of Faith, and this leads us to some wildly inaccurate conclusions and dangerous cherry-picking. In others, our framework becomes so entrenched that we cannot and will not consider another view. We even go so far as to reject the trueness of our brothers and sisters who see a passage differently.
This should not be so.
For all posts in the Sola What? series, go here.
1. Daniel J. Treier. Introducing Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Recovering a Christian Practice. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 59.
2. Ibid., 58.