To better understand sola scriptura, you need to understand the way in which tradition and Scripture interact. By tradition I am referring to the way in which the church has read the Bible in the past and in certain situations created creeds, confessions and catechisms to articulate and solidify its reading of Scripture as orthodox. Sola scriptura asserts the role of tradition in the church in such a way that affirms the infallible authority of Scripture. In understanding things this way, the traditions of the church are simply the way in which God has overseen the interpretation of his authoritative word throughout the 2000 years that the Church has been in organizational existence. A true understanding of the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura has a significant place for tradition, and values it highly, but not in place of God’s word. It is, after all, sola scriptura not solo scriptura or scriptura plus.
I have divided this discussion into two parts. Wrong views of Scripture and its authority and the sole correct view.
Wrong views of Scriptures Authority
Roman Catholic – Tradition on par with Scripture
This is the Roman Catholic perspective that was articulated by William of Ockham and embraced in the later creeds of the Catholic church (Trent and beyond). There are two sources of authority for the church – Scripture and tradition – because it is understood that both contain revelation from God and thus both are authoritative for the church. For Catholics, the traditions of the church and the Scriptures themselves, are both revelation and thus are both equally authoritative. As such, the two never contradict each other.
Anabaptist (past and present) – Scripture only
This is the typical approach of the Anabaptists, both past and present. It is probably, sad to say, the default view of most evangelical churches as well. Arising in the theology of the early Anabaptists, this perspective holds that we don’t really need the traditions of the church including past interpretations of Scripture, and the theological conclusions that may press on our current reading of the biblical text. This belief holds that all that is needed to properly interpret Scripture is the Bible and the presence of the Holy Spirit. Thus we are all equally qualified to read the Bible as long as two things are at work – we have a Bible we can read, and we are a believer. Tradition plays no role in biblical interpretation. This perspective is definitely NOT the sola scriptura of the Reformers and it has given rise to a great deal of individualism in interpretation and has led to all sorts of crazy theology, both heterodox and heretical.
Subjective Evangelicalism – Scripture and the Spirit speaking are equal authorities
This last group believes in the authority of Scripture, as do the previous three. It also is closer to the ‘Scripture only’ approach than to the Catholic perspective or traditional sola scriptura (see below). But to the ‘Scripture only’ perspective it adds a dangerous piece. This perspective believes in another authoritative word of God; a word that comes from God directly to an individual believer through thoughts, moments, images, words, etc., after times of meditation and/or prayer. The idea is that God ‘speaks’ directly to us at certain moments in our lives and that those words, thoughts or images are his direct speech to us. They are, in short, God’s revelation to us as individuals. Advocates of this view will say that this ‘speaking’ needs to be evaluated against the standard of Scripture. They articulate that God would not contradict the Bible and thus we need to check his ‘word against Scripture to ensure that it is truly God speaking. This may sound OK, but in reality it merely creates two authoritative utterances that the believer must submit to, because it has affirmed twin revelations of God – the Bible, and whatever it is I am thinking or feeling that Scripture does not deny. In essence, I think, this perspective is no different than the Catholic understanding of authority. But instead of tradition and Scripture being held to equal levels of authority, Scripture and the ‘speaking of God to me’ are equal levels of authority. This all sounds very Catholic, which is why you could refer to this view as Subjective Evangelical Catholicism.
This perspective is even further afield of the sola scriptura of the Reformers than the previous view, and it has given rise to overwhelmingly unbiblical subjectivism that has led to all sorts of whacked out theology and has set people on dangerous paths of Christian living.
The Right Way to View the Authority of Scripture – Sola Scriptura
Reformational Protestant – Tradition in service of Scripture
The Reformers view of the relationship of Scripture and tradition goes back to the early church. Together, they believed that Scripture was the only infallible revelation of God and thus it is to be the only authority for the church. The church, then, must stand under the sole authority of the Scriptures, yet all the while recognizing that it was indebted to the traditions of the church because they aided in determining the proper understanding of the Scriptures. Mathison concludes, “To summarize the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura, or the Reformation doctrine of the relation between Scripture and tradition, we may say that Scripture is to be understood as the sole source of divine revelation; it is the only inspired, infallible, final, and authoritative norm of faith and practice. It is to be interpreted in and by the church; and it is to be interpreted within the hermeneutical context of the rule of faith.” (Mathison)
Charles Hodge puts the Reformational understanding of sola scriptura this way,
Again, Protestants admit that as there has been an uninterrupted tradition of truth from the protevangelium [Genesis 3:15] to the close of the Apocalypse, so there has been a stream of traditionary teaching flowing through the Christian Church from the day of Pentecost to the present time. This tradition is so far a rule of faith that nothing contrary to it can be true. Christians do not stand isolated, each holding his own creed. They constitute one body, having one common creed. Rejecting that creed, or any of its parts, is the rejection of the fellowship of Christians, incompatible with the communion of saints, or membership in the body of Christ. In other words, Protestants admit that there is a common faith of the Church, which no man is at liberty to reject, and which no man can reject and be a Christian.
Next time we will discuss the biblical case for sola scriptura which will further shed light on the beauty and applicability of this great doctrine of the Reformation.
Before I leave you, I would like to recommend a good read on this topic from which I gleaned much inspiration and information for this blog – Keith Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura.
Soli Deo Gloria