So far we have outlined the history, theology and brief biblical defence of the Reformation understanding of sola scriptura. Let me summarize this doctrine before we probe its implications for the life of the believer. You can check out the previous blogs, here, here and here.
Sola scriptura was a doctrine believed and practiced, though not formally articulated, by the church throughout most of its history (cf. Matheson, The Shape of Sola Scriptura, chs. 1-3). It was in the middle ages that a second authority for the church began to emerge, that of the church and its traditions. Thus by the time of the Reformation the church held to two sources of infallible authority, the Church and Scripture, the former holding sway over the latter in all reality. On this issue Roman Catholics and Reformation Protestants continue to disagree.
Today we have two additional threats to the doctrine of sola scriptura from within Protestantism or more narrowly Evangelicalism, both of whom would pay lip-service to the doctrine. The first is an Anabaptist informed belief in solo scriptura and the second is what I have called Subjective Evangelicalism, the idea that God speaks authoritatively to people outside of Scripture in various ways. The former is guilty of redefining sola scriptura in “terms of secular Enlightenment rationalism and rugged democratic individualism.” This means that what is truly authoritative is an individual’s interpretation of Scripture with little or no regard to how the text has been interpreted in the past. This interpretation is then deemed right or wrong by our peers and not by appeal to the authority of previous church interpretation. Thus past interpretations of Scripture are mute to today’s discussion. This understanding of solo scriptura becomes Subjective Evangelicalism when you also allow for God to speak outside of Scripture in an authoritative way. Neither of these are sola scriptura as the Reformers understood it, but are forms of the two-source authority problem we see in Catholicism.
The Reformers objected to any form of dual authority. They affirmed that Scripture alone was the authority for the believer and the church and they argued that it was this perspective that was articulated by earlier theologians and should be the belief of all churches everywhere. They believed that tradition had its place in helping us understand the Scriptures and in the development of our theology and practice, but that tradition was always subject to the authority of God’s Word. They also understood that God speaks in and through Scripture alone and not by any other means. The Reformers believed that there was one authority alone for faith and practice – God’s Word – because God speaks in only one place – his Word.
So how do we apply this doctrine? Let me outline a few things:
- God’s word is his only authoritative, infallible and sufficient word – Sola scriptura starts here. We must hold to a high view of Scripture that affirms God’s speaking in Scripture and the norming norm that it then becomes. As Roger Olson says, “Scripture is our norming norm and tradition is our normed norm and… in a doctrinal controversy Scripture alone has absolute veto power while The Great Tradition (orthodox doctrine) has a vote but not a veto.”
- There is only one proper interpretation of a text and God expects us to obey it – The fact that there can be multiple interpretations of a text does not destroy sola scriptura. But it does highlight two things – our limited interpretational ability, and our need for others to aid our ability to interpret (more on this later). Multiple interpretations of a text means we need to work and dig more in order to find the right answer. God speaks the singular truth and we need to work hard to discover it by “rightly dividing his word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
- Do not expect God to speak outside of his word – God speaks in his word and we learn about him and his ways from his word. Period. God does not speak to us outside of his word with the regularity that some people suggest. God’s normative way of speaking to his people is though his word. To think that God will regularly speak to us outside of Scripture is “rebellious autonomy, and it is a usurpation of the prerogatives of God.” (Matheson). In other words, it is a denial of clear biblical witness, as we will see below.
- Expect God to speak in his word when it is properly interpreted – The wonderful thing about God’s word is that he uses it to speak to us, mould us and shape us. Read Psalm 119, or if you don’t have that kind of time, read 2 Timothy 3:16-17. God’s word is given to us so that “the man [or woman] of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” Is it not refreshing to know that all we need in order to be complete and equipped for everything is Scripture! Sometimes we can feel that God doesn’t care about us, that we are second class Christians since we don’t get a ‘word from the Lord’ or God doesn’t ‘speak to us’. But God has declared his word to be enough! We don’t need anything else to know him and know ourselves. The Bible is all we need for faith and godliness.
- Don’t be autonomous in your reading of Scripture – “The classical Reformed doctrine of sola scriptura meant that Scripture is the sole, final and infallible authority. It does not mean that the lone individual is the one to determine what that Scripture means.” (Matheson). This means that you need to read Scripture in the context of the church. That doesn’t mean, read it together with a bunch of other people who don’t really understand what they are reading. What it does mean is that you need to read the Bible at the same time that you are listening to good expositional preaching and bible teaching that is theologically sound and historically informed.
- Don’t be a chronological snob in your reading of Scripture – This is a further implication of the previous point. You need to pay sufficient attention to the way that Bible has been understood throughout the history of the church. We are not the first ones to read our Bible and we shouldn’t act like it. I’m going to assume, however, that you won’t have the ability to study church history or the history of theological development in the church. But you should expect your pastor to have this knowledge. A good expositional preacher and a learned bible teacher will have a solid grasp of theological history and the development of Christian thought. He will have an understanding of the history of interpretation and be able to interpret and apply Scripture better as a result. You will be the beneficiary of that. To borrow from Bernard of Chartes, “We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.”
- You must be a theologian to read the Bible properly – As Matheson observes, “Scripture was given to the Church within a certain pre-existing doctrinal context that had been preached by the Apostles for decades.” In other words, to properly understand a particular text of Scripture, you need a solid grasp of biblical and systematic theology. This you will develop with effort, and with assistance from capable pastors and elders, but is massively important to being a better reader of Scripture.
This brings our discussion of sola scriptura to a close. If you have any further questions please reply below. If they further our understanding I’ll post them and respond.
Soli Deo Gloria