Aside

Candlelight Reading

Sola Scriptura is the dogma of Reformed Christianity that religious or theological authority comes from the bible alone (i.e. solely from scripture). This is the most distinctive belief of Protestantism because it is seen to dispense with the authoritative structures of traditional Christianity.

There is no one definitive version of this belief but I will sketch three broad types:

1. Fundamentalist- The bible is the one and only authoritative source of knowledge, period. God has provided that everything we need to know about any topic can be deduced from it.

2. Moderate- There can be traditions of Church teaching independent of the bible itself but their doctrines must all ultimately: a) originate from the bible and b) remain completely consistent with the bible.

3. Weak- There are particular theological matters where a bible passage is the ultimate authority, i.e. it overrules all other authorities there might be.

> From my reading and personal experience I think that most who hold this belief fall into the moderate category so that is the primary target of my three arguments.

First Refutation

1. If sola scriptura were true it would form an important part of what it means to be an authentic Christian (because it would define one’s relationship with God and one’s method of approaching theological issues).

2. Thus if sola scriptura were true it would be very unlikely that people who did not believe it could be exemplary Christians or saints.

3. But not only did the Christians of the first three centuries not have the New Testament (because it hadn’t been composed yet), but in large numbers they were willing to be tortured and die in the name of Christianity without having read the bible. Prominent evangelical John Piper confirms this.

4. It cannot be the case that these great martyrs and saints (including apostles) who followed Church tradition rather than the bible were not authentic Christians.

5. Therefore it is very unlikely that sola scriptura is true.

Second Refutation

1. In the Old Testament no liturgy was provided  for the regular worship in the Temple.

2. But we know that such instructions and liturgical forms existed because otherwise the Jews would have had nothing to do in the Temple- this worship was at the heart of their faith.

3. Therefore they must have had an authoritative non-scriptural tradition.

4. On the terms of sola scriptura the ultimate authority for assessing this tradition would be the the bible, more specifically the New Testament.

5. But the New Testament does not abolish the existence of tradition, indeed it tells us there were traditions right from the beginning of the Church – “Hold fast to the traditions you have been left” (2 Thes 2:16).

6. Therefore sola scriptura is false.

Third Refutation

There cannot be a doctrine of all doctrine being based on the bible because it there is nothing in the bible to base it on; sola scriptura is self-refuting.

Objection: What about 2 Tim 3:16 – “scripture is God breathed”?

Reply: First off, Paul only says that scripture is God breathed, not what literature isn’t God breathed, so doesn’t give us much help in delineating a canon of ultimate authority. Second, he cannot have been referring to the bible because it hadn’t been written yet. In any case, if he had meant that what would become the bible was to be the fundamental and ultimate authority he would have used the words ‘ordained’ or ‘written’ etc. rather than deliberately using the loose figurative term ‘breathed’. Speech is prior to interpretation (which comes after listening), so ‘God-breathed’ -spoken by God- does not imply that it is also given its interpretation by God.

Even if this verse could reliably be read as the proposition that the bible is authoritative, a) it would not be a rational justification for this because it is a circular argument (that proposition would itself only have authority if the bible was already independently known to be authoritative ), and b) it would give us no reason to think that the bible is any more authoritative than the Church.

Objection: This appears to be a matter of personal preference so we do not need Church tradition if we do not want it.

Reply: If Christianity is to have a secure reasonable foundation, one of the two has to be authoritative. Which one should we prefer?

1. If one believes that the Holy Spirit has provided an authoritative composition of scripture, then it is plausible a fortiori that it would also provide an authoritative interpretation of that scripture. Moreover, to do the former but not the latter would demonstrate a weakness in God’s providence or love.

2. Jesus is never recorded as saying in the New Testament that the Old Testament scriptures will be added to with more  books (let alone specifically 27), thus our having these books is based on the authority of the Church through the Holy Spirit. The Church composed the bible. Not just in the sense that the New Testament authors were members of the Church but more importantly in the sense of editing and compiling the biblical cannon we have today.

3. It is very unlikely that the bible could be authoritative while the Church that composed it was not, since we do not regard commands as authoritative unless they originate from an authoritative source.

4. The bible is authoritative.

5. Therefore it is much more reasonable to prioritise the authority of the Church over the bible – sola scriptura is false.

Conclusion

Sola scriptura is false. It should not be believed by any reasonable person, and Christians should denounce it as bibliolatry- undue idolizing of the bible as if it were part of the divine. We must be remembered, however, that as much as some Christians may put the church before the bible, that does not mean the two are in competition.

Perhaps all this has failed to convince so I will finish by appealing to the bible itself. The bible is clear that the teaching of the Church (as distinct from scripture) is Accurate: John 16:13, Acts 15:28, and 1 John 4:6. And as such it has full Authority: Matt 28:18-20, Acts 15:6-29, Acts 16:4, 1 Peter 5:5 and Heb 13:17. Moreover, it is the Church, not the bible that is “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15), so the Church must be one (John 10:16) and consequently, anyone who refuses to listen to the Church should be cast out (Matt 18:17-18) because to reject the Church is to reject Christ (Luke 10:16).

Against Evangelicalism: Sola Scriptura

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6 responses »

  1. I’m not sure I agree with your original definition of ‘Sola Scriptura’. I doubt that the reformers would have agreed with it either, given how heavily they relied upon the writings of Augustine, Chrysostom etc! ‘Sola Scriptura’ is not about being the sole authority per se, but about being the sole ultimate authority. In other words, scripture alone has the trump card! That doesn’t mean that Church traditions have no authority, rather it means that their authority is subject to the authority of scripture.

    In that sense, I suppose I am a ‘moderate’, though I can’t see why traditions without explicit biblical foundations can’t still be valid (so long as they don’t actually go against scripture). So arguments 1 and 2 have little weight for me. Argument 3 is pretty shaky as well, Saul prophecied for a time (1 Samuel 10) and yet he was hardly a righteous man for the majority of his life. And what about when Paul slags off Peter’s behaviour in Galatians 2 – clearly his apostleship didn’t make him infallible! Prophecy doesn’t mean that the person who prophesies is infallible in everything that they say and do, just that what they say in that moment is the word of God (often attested to by signs and miracles). The same is true of the scripture, they are written prophecy (not denying, of course, their simultaneous human authorship). Oh and 2 Timothy 3:16 is probably referring to the Old Testament scriptures, which are also authoritative for the Christian (though not always in a straightforward way). But feel free to come back to me on all of that.

  2. If you find that the criticisms don’t apply to anything that you as an Evangelical believe then that’s great. Of course I’m not going to say something is wrong if my criticisms don’t apply to it. I had to put this at the start because it is the basis of so many criticisms Evangelicals make of other theologies.

    Sorry I haven’t got further with this I thought I would have posted at least two more parts by now.

  3. Pingback: Got No Beef With Me? « Vibrant Bliss

  4. This is a good foundation for a refutation of sola scriptura (a refutation with which I am 100% sympathetic). But I would go further, analyzing what it would mean for a single book to be the “word of God” in any exclusive way in the first place. Such a discussion would have to both ask what sort of God we are talking about and also analyze how we think about God acting in the world. I think as those lines of thought are pursued, it would become only more clear that the Bible should be seen more as a dialogue between God and humanity–or, better yet, a monologue by humanity in search of God–than some sort of divine personal summary.

    I’m really looking forward to seeing more of your work in the “Against Evangelism” series!

  5. Dear Peter, thank you for your valuable and thought provoking contribution to the facebook campaign to remove Seán Cardinal Brady. Though I am forced to reintroduce you, in the hope of fostering a light-hearted and lasting contact with yourself, to my little friend; ‘the logical razor,’ in this discussion. You conclude, after an enjoyable Thomistic refutatio, that the Reformation doctrine of “Sola Scriptura is false.” This conclusion is interesting, not for the process of logical refutation, but rather for its absence of a logical counter Truth. One would have to defend the logical veracity of any counter claim, and this is certainly where the Atheistic and secular arguments have us theologians by the proverbial short and curlys. There is, as yet, no philosophically sound defence for the existence of God; which would, of necessity, be required to underpin any truth claims of an authoritative source which might adequately counter Sola Scriptura.

    More to the point, and this is why one has not thoroughly engaged with the lines of reasoning within the refutations, is the fact that we live in the twenty-first century. Theology has moved on quite a bit from this ‘auld nut’ of the sixteenth century. If the spiritual end of this doctrine, and that of adherence to the Roman Magisterium, is to worship God in Jesus Christ, then surely the purpose and vocation of the contemporary theologian is to use our commonalities as a point of departure in articulating the Gospel in a relevant way to an increasingly hostile and rapidly secularising world. One would very much like to hear your thoughts on this.

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