Against Sola Scripture: A Q/A with Chris and Gabe

Definition of Sola Scriptura: Sola Scriptura as the reformers originally formulated the doctrine is the belief that Scripture is the Ultimate Authority for faith and practice in the Christians life. It is not a rejection of tradition, experience, reason or what have you, but these sources are to be measured against scripture as the ultimate decider. 

Q: What is your problem with the notion that only Scripture has spiritual authority for the Christian?

Chris’s A: I think it is possible for someone to sit down, read the Bible, and come to many correct conclusions about the Christian faith. However, the documented phenomenon of Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism (PIP) suggests that many people who read the Bible in seemingly good faith will arrive at contradictory interpretations. I do not think it is enough to say, “The essentials are clear.” What are the essentials, and who is it who decided what they are? Probably, someone other than Scripture, if one is careful enough to consider whence their interpretations originated. It seems pragmatically impossible for a large group of Christians to read the Bible and agree on its meaning. Even in the very first generation of Protestant Reformers, Luther and Calvin could not agree on a doctrine of communion, and they were actually unwilling to share church services together over this. Is the nature of communion a non-essential? Who gets to decide that? It seems to me that an extra-biblical, human authority is necessary to protect the correct interpretations of the Bible. Christ promised that the Holy Spirit would guide the Church into all truth. We see the apostolic council in Acts 15 seemingly fulfill this promise, and as a Catholic Christian, I would argue that we continue to see such councils — Nicea, Chalcedon, Florence, Trent, Vatican I, etc. — faithfully and authoritatively protect the correct views of Scripture against aberrations.

Gabe’s A: First of all, I believe we have misunderstood the concept of authority. The common definition of authority is that someone or something has a hierarchical position over someone or something; the common definition being an over and above approach to authority with the person or thing being over another. I understand authority differently, because I believe God’s Trinitarian nature is inherently non-hierarchical. So authority for me, is based in God’s non-hierarchical eternal nature, and is therefore also non-hierarchical. Authority as Jesus demonstrated in the incarnation and as described in the gospel of Mark is never an over and above kind of authority, but a side by side and among kind of authority. Jesus disturbs the hierarchical structures of the world. So when we discuss authority, that’s the framework I’m working from. Authority is based in God and we as God’s creation must imitate our creator. In this sense all of creation shares in God’s authority, not just scripture. In addition, historically, the canon of the New Testament wasn’t formed until the 5th century, practically speaking, you couldn’t have the doctrine of Sola Scriptura until the canon was formed. Early Christians would not have access to a canon in which could have served as their basis for Sola Scriptura, particularly if you equate scripture with canon. 

Q: Is it a uniquely Protestant dilemma?

Chris’s A: I would say it is not a uniquely Protestant dilemma. For example, in the Arian crisis of the Fourth Century, a large number of Bishops came to believe that Christ was a lesser deity than God. To be fair, a mixture of Greek philosophical and biblical language lent itself to this conclusion. But ultimately, it was the scholar St Athanasius and the laity who held to the view that Christ is “consubstantial” with the Father. Throughout time, there is always a risk that some people will rely on their own interpretations of the Bible — what John Henry Newman called a principle of “private judgment” — rather than the collective wisdom of the Church throughout time.

Gabe’s A: within the universal Orthodox Church I would say it is a uniquely Protestant phenomenon, with the exception of a few individuals in the history of the church prior to the Protestant reformation, such as John Wycliffe in the Middle Ages. But as a whole branch of Christianity deciding to adopt this kind of thinking, this began with the Protestant reformation. The early church, including those who wrote scripture and lived in the 1st century would not have been familiar with such thinking. 

Q: Does Scripture support Sola Scriptura?

Chris’s A: I would insist that Scripture is a unique authority. Its authority is more exalted than that of the Magisterium (Teaching Authority of the Catholic Church), but without the Magisterium, it would be very easy to become misguided as to the meaning of Scripture. Furthermore, Scripture itself testifies to the apostolic necessity of Tradition. Consider for example 2 Thessalonians 2:15, which strictly demands that the Thessalonian Christian’s adhere to both the written word and the spoken “traditions” of the Apostles.

Gabe’s A: No, Scripture itself refutes this idea. 1 Corinthians 3:11 says, “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.” And Matthew 28:18 says, “And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” He does not say “all authority and heaven have been given to Scripture.” 1 Timothy 2:5 says we have one mediator between us and God, Jesus Christ. In Mark 1:17 Jesus is recorded to having said, “Follow me,” He did not say follow the Bible. In the book of Matthew Jesus is recorded to having said a number of times, “You have that it is said…But I say unto you.” Here Jesus references a particular command from the Torah and then tells His listeners to listen to Him instead. Jesus tells us to listen to His words not scripture for His words were spoken before the New Testament was written. In Luke 10:22 it’s made clear that only Jesus reveals God, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” None of these texts places the Bible as the foundational authority of the Christian Faith, but claims those positions for Christ. The focus of all these passages is the centrality of Christ for faith and practice not scripture. 

Q: If Scripture is not the only Revelation of Christ, then what are the others?

Chris’s A: The deposit of faith is the ultimate Revelation of God in Christ. It contains both Scripture and Tradition. Scripture, because all of the Scriptures are about Christ (Luke 24:27), and Tradition, because Christ taught His Apostles the true meaning of Scripture, and His Apostles handed down that Tradition of exegesis to their successors, the Bishops. The role of the Church’s Bishops in the protection of the Christian faith was essential to St Irenaeus of Lyons’ argument against the gnostics. The gnostics read Scripture, but Irenaeus held that the gnostics had separated themselves from Tradition, the views of the Apostles passed down through the Bishops. Because the gnostics could not associate their interpretations of the Bible with a known line of Bishops traceable to the Apostles (not Scripture per se, rather the Apostles themselves), Irenaeus concluded they were in heresy. Apostolic Tradition functions, in Irenaeus’ view, as a complementary authority to Scripture. While Scripture is the most privileged form of Christian special revelation, and though all doctrine is contained at least implicitly therein, on account of our distance from the apostolic age and the earthly ministry of Christ, the meaning of Scripture can, without reference to Sacred Tradition, easily be obscured.

Gabe’s A: in my assessment Christ Himself is revelation, Scripture is not. When God speaks His Word it is His Son whom is spoken. Revelation is inexplicably tied to the God-Head. This is why Scripture can never be Revelation in and of itself. Scripture is a response and witness to Christ whose very presence is Revelation. However Scripture can and does get picked up and used by God serving as a vehicle which carries Christ the Word and Revelation of God. Karl Barth once said God can speak through a Dead Donkey’s Ass if He wanted too. And as the incarnational God, not only does God want too, it’s part of God’s very nature to do so. He is not limited in His choice of vehicles to carry Himself as the Word. Thus God can use Scripture, Tradition, Experience, Reason and whole host of other means in which to carry Himself.

Q: If Sola Scriptura is not true, then what is the role of Scripture? Is the privilege of Scripture harmed?

Chris’s A: Scripture is, without question, the most important form of Tradition. But the extra-biblical Tradition is absolutely essential to preserving sound doctrine; that is, to ensuring that the right interpretations of Scripture are maintained in the face of attacks upon them. If Sola Scriptura is not true, I would argue that Scripture is more dignified than if Sola Scriptura were true. If Sola Scriptura were true, it would mean that we could rely on no merely human interpretation of the Bible. Every reading of the Scriptures, every sermon and commentary and exegesis, would by definition be anthropogenic. We could ultimately never arrive in confidence that we have rightly divided the word of truth; “only the Bible has authority” finally means that we can never verify that we have properly understood the Bible. What merely human authority could tell us that we have? And so, the common route for the believer in Sola Scriptura is to deny that Scripture really tells us that much about Christ. What is the sacrament of baptism? Confession? Communion? Some say we don’t really know. Christ wasn’t clear about it, they say. But what if He was? And what if He left the Church on earth precisely to safeguard concepts that may otherwise be forgotten? And what if He revealed more to us than we would have dreamt possible?

Gabe’s A: the role of Scripture is, as Jesus is recorded to have said in John: 5:39, too point beyond itself to the one that not only gives us life, but is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and that one is Jesus Christ The Living Word of God. We must never confuse the witness to Christ with Christ, which I think is what we have done when we search for life in the scriptures as the Pharisees did. Scripture has no ontological privileged and therefore is not harmed in that sense. However Scripture has been a constant source for theological reflection for the life of Faith within the Church, and in that sense it is given privilege, though not a sole privilege. I don’t see how it could be hurt unless we completely removed the scriptures from our theological reflection in the church. Which I do not believe that will ever happen.

One thought on “Against Sola Scripture: A Q/A with Chris and Gabe

  1. Boy, I loved reading this! And I enjoyed both sets of answers, reflecting Spirit-led responses to good questions.

    On a tangential, yet still germane, note., I only just read an exhasutive list of all the ways the Bible is studied and interpreted, along with a shorthand to understand all these dizzying categories–to understand scripture from the perspective of the author, from the perspective of the text itself, and from the perspective of the reader. It occured to me the first two categories are static in that they do not change. Though we may discover evermore -about- the categories, the content is, in the end, exhaustible.

    However, the third category is inexhaustible, for there will always be yet another reader. And it is within the reader the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, is at work. It is right exactly here where the Word is living and active.

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