Last night at our Table Talk, we continued the topic of divine revelation and focused on the nature of the Bible. We concluded the night by talking about the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura, and I thought it would be helpful to give a summary of that discussion here.
The Protestant Reformation held to the principle of sola scriptura which states that the Bible is the only ultimate authority in matters of faith. This was necessary due to the medieval church’s elevation of the teaching office of bishops and the papacy above the Scriptures.
Sola scriptura does not say that the Bible is the only authority in the world. It does not even say that the Bible is the only intellectual or moral authority in the world. What sola scriptura says is that the Bible is the only ultimate or infallible authority in matters of righteousness and salvation, and that all other authorities ought to be informed by and consistent with its teachings.
Sola scriptura is actually supported both by reason and by the teachings of Scripture. Reason would appeal to the nature of the Scriptures. The Scriptures are God’s words written to us, and they are thus meant to be read, understood, and obeyed. Since they are God’s words, they carry His authority. It is because they are breathed-out by God that they are free from error and are fixed and sure (2 Timothy 3:16-17). They need to be written down so that they can remain constant over many years.
The Major Rivals to Sola Scriptura
Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy both reject sola scriptura, instead arguing that the Bible is a product of the life of the church. It must be read in tandem with, and at times in subordination to, sacred tradition as interpreted by the leading bishops of the church.
Roman Catholicism has actually had at least 2 positions in the past. The first was called partim partim, Latin for “partly this and partly that.” Partim partim teaches that part of divine teaching is in the Scriptures and part is found in the oral tradition of the apostles, passed down through the bishops and later codified by the teaching magisterium. This is a sort of “two source” understanding, and it was the most common view of Rome at the time of the Reformation and is what you will see the Protestant Reformers criticizing. This view was assumed by the Council of Trent, though no explicit statement was given defining it. It has fallen out of favor because as historical research has advanced, fewer and fewer later catholic doctrines could be positively found in ancient tradition, especially the first three hundred years.
Most Roman Catholic theologians today hold to a view known as “the material sufficiency” of the Scriptures. This view does hold that all doctrines “come” from Scripture, or are contained in it, but later tradition must be used as a guide for interpreation. In the most extreme cases, the teaching magisterium acts as the ultimate interpreter, culminating in infallible interpretation, given occasionally by the pope or ecumenical councils. In addition to this, it is common to hear that doctrine has “developed,” and that what was once only present in the most obscure and “seed” form has developed into a larger and more complex doctrine due to the passage of time, greater understanding, and subsequent disagreement. Though the stricter popes of the 19th century actually condemned this kind of argument, it has regained popularity through the modernizing reforms of the 2nd Vatican Council, as well as the increased influence of John Henry Newman and the French Nouvelle Theologie.
The problem with this second view is that it makes the debate revolve around “interpretation,” and therefore it seems to suggest that individuals cannot adequately interpret texts or ideas without outside assistance. If this were true, however, it would prove too much. It is far more complicated to demonstrate which interpreter is the most accurate and trustworthy than it is to show the grammar and logical implication of a Biblical text. In fact, the religious stress on supernatural interpreters too-often plays into the hands of postmodern and progressivist philosophies which seek to remove religious claims from rational discourse altogether. If something cannot be reasonably engaged with apart from a special power play, then it becomes the product of a sort of “faith community” or “religious tradition,” which is inherently subjectivist. Outsiders cannot rightly be faulted for not understanding, and claims to public truth and “realism” must be attenuated or abandoned altogether.
Eastern Orthodoxy holds to a similar position, though they attempt to limit their tradition to what they call the “consensus of the fathers.” This is a claim that the essential orthodox teachings can be found in the points where the church fathers agree. This sounds reasonable enough, but problems arise when we question the extension of the thinkers included as “fathers.” Who gets to decide which early Christian theologians are “fathers” or not, and how many are required to reach a consensus? Reducing questions of truth to majoritarianism is never safe, and this method always reduces to the interpretation of the leading bishops and the majority sentiment of the orthodox communities at the time.
Against these objections, Protestants maintain that the tradition of the Church can and should serve as a history of exegesis, and that it should be honored but never made ultimate. It is always a secondary standard to the Scriptures, and a reasonable historical-grammatical reading of the Bible must be possible in order to preserve its nature and dignity as a meaningful text. When we examine the early church theologians, what we see are appeals to the Scriptures as foundational authorities, and they never grant that the heretics have a mistaken but potentially-plausible interpretation. No, the orthodox church fathers always insist that the biblical teaching is clear.
Biblical Texts For Sola Scriptura
Psalm 119:105—Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
We could choose many passages from the Old Testament, but this verse from the psalms expresses the idea. God’s Word is a guide meant to be followed. The presuppositions behind this are pretty basic: it is possible to understand the word and follow it.
Mark 7:1-16—Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for elevating the traditions of men to the status of divine command. This narrative was very influential for the Protestant Reformers.
Acts 17:11—Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.
In Berea, the believers are complimented for using the Scriptures as a guide to examine the teachings of Paul. Not even an apostle was allowed to avoid accountability. We see the principle of sola scriptura at work.
Galatians 1:8-9—But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.
Paul makes it plain that the gospel has a constant truth value and that not even miraculous appearances have the right to change it. The truth is not based merely on authority. Believers are capable of evaluating what they hear and judging it by a constant gospel message.
These passages give us a clear picture of how the Bible “worked” in the life of the church.