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Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Simple Look at Sola Scriptura

I once wrote:
...we see rejection of Sola Scriptura as the enthronement of whatever one feels as truth.
The reaction to that was simply stunning to me. While in retrospect I suppose that it would have been better to change "truth" in that sentence to "authoritative," in general the post seemed pretty clear, and the reaction thereto firmly convinced me of something I'd already been thinking: that some people are so determined to argue that what I write has only the most tangential relationship to what they read. I suppose, then, that what follows will be horribly misread by some people, but I'm going to take the chance anyway because too many people seem not to know what we mean when we say that the Bible is our final authority. I can't speak for others, but when I speak this way, I am usually referring either directly or indirectly to the Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura. There seems to be a lot of confusion about this these days, and--may God help us all--I am going to try to clear some of it up. I'm not claiming to be an expert or that my opinion on the subject carries any sort of official weight whatsoever. I am merely in hopes that some may find this useful.

What is Sola Scriptura? It is the principle that scripture alone--the Bible--is authoritative for faith and practice. That's it. James White says in the introduction to Scripture Alone:
The title of this work is Scripture Alone. Just as the phrase faith alone (sola fide, the great cry of the Reformation, though no longer the great cry of many who were once considered children of the Reformation) is often misrepresented, so too Scripture Alone could be misunderstood. When we say that faith alone brings justification, we are not saying that faith should be considered in a vacuum, separated from everything else God does in the the work of salvation. Instead, sola fide means that faith, apart from any concept of merit or works (actually in opposition thereto), is the sole means of justification. In the same way, Scripture alone does not mean that God zoomed by planet earth, dropped off the Scriptures, and left us on our own. As we will note when we define sola scriptura, this is not a claim, for instance, that there is no church or that there is no Spirit. The title does not suggest that Scripture, apart from the Spirit, outside the church, is God's only means of leading His people. It is, however, saying that Scripture is utterly unique in its nature as God-breathed revelation (nothing else is God-breathed); it is unparalleled and absolute in its authority; and it is the sole infallible rule of faith for the church. It is both a positive statement, asserting the supremacy and uniqueness of the Word, and a negative one, denying the existence of any other rule of authority on the same level. One would be dreadfully misunderstanding this book's title to think it supports the idea of a Christian absenting himself from the body of Christ, rejecting biblical teaching about elders and leaders, and perpetually sitting under a tree somewhere alone with the Bible.
Sola scriptura is not a statement that God never communicates in ways other than the Bible. It is not a statement that God does not speak through natural phenomena. The heavens declare the glory of God, for example. He makes the winds His messengers. The first chapter of Romans declares that this sort of communication from God is so effective a testimony to His existence that those who will not glorify Him have no excuse.

Sola Scriptura is not a statement that God never speaks audibly. I'm thinking of E.B. Sledge's claim in With the Old Breed (highly recommended, by the way) that in the midst of some of the worst fighting in World War II, he heard an audible voice say, "You will survive the war." Sledge never heard the voice before or after that, yet he went through the rest of the war utterly convinced that he would live. Is it possible that he had a stress-induced hallucination? Sure. Was it possible that he heard the audible voice of God? Sola Scriptura, as a principle, takes no position on the issue.

Sola Scriptura is not a statement that God never communicates through circumstances. I'm thinking of a former boss, very dissatisfied with the business approach his superiors were taking, who prayed and prayed and prayed for guidance as to whether he should go into business for himself--a decision that afforded him greater latitude in ministry to people, by the way. After some time, a whole series of remarkable events happened within, if I recall correctly, 24 hours. Someone offered--unasked--office space and up to eighty thousand dollars in loans. Someone else offered--again, unasked--to serve as an unpaid consultant, a critical step in obtaining a crucial license. Several other things happened; the dominoes all fell into place in about one day, and he concluded, not unreasonably, that God had answered his prayer, saying, "Yes, you are supposed to open this business."

Sola Scriptura is not a statement that there is no good and useful information and teaching in church tradition. It does not, for example, say that it is impossible that Peter was crucified upside-down in Rome.

Sola Scriptura is not a statement that God never communicates through an intense emotional experience. I feel sorry for those who've never experienced what can only be described as a wave of peace that thrills the anxious soul, in response to a heartfelt prayer for guidance, consolation, or direction.

Sola Scriptura is not even a statement that God has never spoken through the casting of the lot--though I can't imagine the circumstances under which I'd recommend the practice!

Sola Scriptura is not a statement that God never speaks through the dreams you have as you slumber peacefully--we hope--in your bed.

Sola Scriptura is not a statement that God never speaks through the church or other believers, or even non-believers (or even a donkey!) Is there a preacher alive who hasn't been told by people in his congregation, "I'm sure God meant that sermon just for me."?

Sola Scriptura is, rather, a statement that the Bible is theopneustos, God-breathed, that God used the human writers of scripture just as a human calligrapher might use a collection of pens, to record exactly what He wanted to reveal to mankind as useful for doctrine, reproof, correction, etc. It is a statement that God does not use these other forms of communication in such a way that the scripture is abrogated, nullified, or "broken" in any way. It is a statement that these other forms of communication are to be tested by the scripture rather than elevated above it as superior revelation. It is the statement that scripture alone is revealed as an authoritative rule of faith and doctrine for the Church.

What does this mean? It means that though God may (note: I did not say will) communicate with you through nature, circumstances, tradition, dreams, emotions, the church, preaching, commentaries, the casting of the lot, Urim and Thummim, or even an audible voice, the church is not responsible to God to shape its belief or practice according to the communication you've received. You may be utterly convinced that God has called you to ministry, for example (and you may well have been), but your "call" is not authoritative for faith and doctrine; the church is not responsible to believe you've been called solely on the basis of your "having a peace about it." The church is only responsible to believe you've been called if you can demonstrate it from Scripture. (Note carefully that I did not say that the church cannot believe you've been called without a Scriptural demonstration, only that they are not responsible to believe it.)

More importantly, in my opinion, it means that your private revelations, traditions, what-have-you, cannot be used to shape or to deny doctrine. You cannot appeal to Tradition and say that all believers are responsible to believe in the Assumption of Mary; you cannot expect the church to believe in Universalism on the basis of an audible voice that you heard and believe to be from God; you cannot teach as doctrine that men should wear a coat and tie to church services because that is the common sentiment amongst church members; the church is not responsible to believe that homosexuality is acceptable because the Spirit has revealed to you that Romans 1 is outdated and culturally biased.

It is curious that the Reformers saw Sola Scriptura as a liberating doctrine, that it liberated them from the suffocating, pretentious, and illicit add-ons to the Faith that had been perpetrated by the Roman church, and that now many see it as something to be rejected because it confines them. They prefer to be able to believe things that aren't found in Scripture (such as Homosexuality is just fine as long as it is in a committed relationship or I know my friend is going to Heaven because I know her and she is a really nice person and no one could be that nice without knowing Jesus or Hell is just something the church uses to control the masses or Carlton Pearson is right and everyone's going to Heaven or You can draw closer to God through Transcendental Meditation or Raja Yoga or It's okay to pray to or worship idols or saints because it draws me closer to God and they act as intermediators between me and Jesus or You can believe that salvation is by works plus faith and still be a Christian) and find it annoying that the church rejects their ideas on the basis that Scripture is authoritative and their personal visions are not. That allowing a multiplicity of personal visions to be considered authoritative for faith and practice would lead to a kind of spiritual enslavement worse than anything they've encountered seems not to occur to them.

Or possibly, just possibly, they want to do the enslaving, at least to the extent of silencing criticism of their positions.

The usual--or at least I've heard it so often that I think of it as "the usual"--objection to sola scriptura is that God is the ultimate authority, not the Bible. I always find this objection completely vacuous; of course God is the ultimate authority; that is why what He says is ultimately authoritative. If you want to tell me that God is your ultimate authority, the first thing through my mind is always, "Fine, I understand that; what has He been telling you? By what means has He been telling it to you? By Urim and Thummim, perhaps? If you have definitive communication from God Himself to the effect that something He has said in the Bible is no longer binding or useful, is there some reason you wouldn't go public with your claim that God has, through you his prophet, said something different? If what He has said to you isn't different from what is in the Bible, exactly what is your issue?"

If the communication you've received from God agrees with the Bible, or if you're saying that what you're hearing from God isn't authoritative for faith and practice, I have a hard time understanding exactly what your issue with sola scriptura is; if what you say you've heard from God disagrees with the Bible, then what this ignernt ol' redneck needs from you is not some pious-sounding pronouncement that God is your ultimate authority, but some reason I should believe that what you are saying is theopneustos, God-breathed, communication from God on the level of scripture. If you can't provide such a reason, you'll have to pardon me if I don't take you seriously. It sounds like you are trying to pass off the opinions of men as authoritative communication from God.


  1. Excellent post! Thanks so much for this - I, too, believe in Sola Scriptura, but hadn't thought through the what-it-does-and-doesn't-mean quite as thoroughly as this.

    BTW, thanks for stopping by CatHouse Chat and commenting; now I can read your blog, too ;-) ! (and I like the "hard to categorize" - it is quite appropriate, considering the way I flit from one topic to another LOL)

    Best blessings, and thanks again!

  2. You're very kind. I've liked your style for a long time now. Thanks for reading!