Saturday, June 10, 2006

Sola Scriptura, Part I

Sola scriptura is a pillar of Protestant Christianity. It is exceeded in importance only by the doctrine of Sola fide.

What is Sola scriptura? It is that one need not look outside the Bible for direction in matters either moral or spiritual. It is the doctrine that if one is in search of direction in some matter either spiritual or moral, one will find all that one needs in the Bible. (Be careful. It's not the doctrine that all that one needs will be explicitly said in Scripture. It is rather that one will find that materials to assemble what one needs within Scripture. How difficult will be the assembly? Not overly difficult. It's supposed to be something that anyone with even a modicum of intelligence can do. For the Protestant, we need no priesthood to interpret the Bible for us. We are quite capable to do it on our own.)

Sola scriptura is demonstrably false. Its falsity can be proved in a number of ways. Here I build my argument upon a what I think is a uncontroversial view of our obligations to nonhuman animals.

The Bible has very little to say about our obligations to nonhuman animals and what it does say is often either quite difficult to interpret or is so succinct that it is of little use. (I direct you to Proverbs 12:10, Isaiah 11:6-9, Genesis 9:1-3, Genesis 1:20-31. I know of no other verses relevant in this regard.) From these verses we get nothing like a complete view of our obligations to nonhuman animals. We do not get even an idea about how to begin to build such a view.

Of course much is said in the Bible about what we owe to other human beings, and to God. But the Bible fails to say how much of this, if any, is also applicable to nonhuman animals. It does seem that the Bible condones the consumption of animal flesh (at least of certain types). (Let us stress 'seems'. Some take Isiah 11 to show us that consumption of animal flesh is not part of God's original purpose for the world. It is rather a sign of its corruption, of its degradation.) But it says nothing about the kind of life, or death, we owe to those we eat. On that question, we are on our own.

One might perhaps say (Immanuel Kant said it) that we have no real obligations to nonhuman animals. If this were so, the Bible's silence on the matter would in no way undermine Sola scriptura. But Kant was quite self-evidently wrong. He do have real duties to nonhuman animals. We cannot torture them for pleasure. We cannot treat them as mere things and harm them unnecessarily as we would destroy a mere thing. We must pay heed to their needs, even when those exceed the need for the basics of survival. Some animals needs space to roam and the autonomy to roam it as they will. Some animals are intensely social and thus evince a need for the presence of others of their kind.

I do not intend here to even so much as sketch a complete theory of our obligations to nonhuman animals. Rather all that I wish to say is that we many such obligations.

The argument is complete. To sum: The Bible provides little to no guidance when the issue arises of our obligations to nonhuman animals. But we do have many such obligations. Thus Sola scriptura is false.

(I expect that most if not all Prostestants will at this point reply that if we cannot look to the Bible for the final word on all matters moral and spiritual, we will have no guidance on these matters at all and will thus lapse into a relativism of personal preference. I don't agree. I think that the only reason we can have to think the Bible God-breathed is that it concords with our own deepest moral intuitions. Moral intuition comes first. Belief in the Biblical truth is derivative and comes after. Expect a post on this in the future.)


Jim Jordan said...

Hello Franklin
I thought you might want to read Genesis 1 (Amplified Bible - more literal translation, includes synonyms)

26God said, Let Us [Father, Son, and Holy Spirit] make mankind in Our image, after Our likeness, and let them have complete authority over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the [tame] beasts, and over all of the earth, and over everything that creeps upon the earth.

Therefore we are in charge of them and with that the responsibility you mentioned - what comes with "ruling over".

27So God created man in His own image, in the image and likeness of God He created him; male and female He created them.

Very next verse. Here we see the image that we are made in - a spiritual image. If we have an innate feeling of obligation to nonhuman animals, it would be an implant that was part of our spiritual makeup. Our obligations to nonhuman animals are recorded specifically (Gen 1:26) and generally in Scripture (Gen 1:27).

28And God blessed them and said to them, Be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it [using all its vast resources in the service of God and man]; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and over every living creature that moves upon the earth.

29And God said, See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the land and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.

You see, we even get the run of the tomato patch. I know of NOTHING that is not addressed in the Bible. If you can think of anything else you think is not in the Scriptures, let me know.
Sorry but Sola Scriptura is still safe and sound. There might just be nothing new under the sun.

Take care,

Franklin Mason said...

Thanks, Jim.

I'd guess that most recall the word used in other translations, the word 'dominion'. The New RSV translation of Gen. 1:16 tells us that we have dominion over all nonhuman animals.

My question is this: what, from a practical point of view, does this come to? Does it mean that we can do whatever we wish with them? Some have said this; indeed I suspect that throughout most of the history of the West, Gen. 1:26 was taken as reason to use animals in whatever way we wish.

The problem with this interpretation is that it seems to say something false. There's much that we cannot do to nonhuman animals. We cannot, for instance, torture them for pleasure.

So then if Gen. 1:6 is to say something true, it must be interpreted in another way. The problem here is that, if Scripture is our sole guide, we do not know how to proceed. What do we say, for instance, about the genetic modification of nonhuman animals? What about their close confinement in so-called factory farms? What about animal experimentation? If some is permissible and some is not (and surely some is not), how do we distinguish what is permissible from what is not?

I submit that you will look in vain if you think that from Scripture you can easily assemble answers to such questions.

Now, I'm no more Catholic than I am Protestant, but I find the Catholic doctrine of Prima scriptura much more palatable. Certain theories of our obligations to nonhuman animals seem more concordant with Scripture than do others, but even those most certainly go beyond what Scripture has to say.

Jim Jordan said...

Hi Franklin
I think we should take the dominion/authority/rule over animals back to the time it was written. At that time a ruler certainly ruled over his subjects, but not with unlimited, tyrannical power. The most faithful interpretation would be that we rule over the animals as we are ruled over by a king. A king of that time who looks out for the welfare of his subjects would have been considered a "good" king - David, Solomon, etc. That's about a specific as it will get.

The idea of Sola Scriptura is simply that the Bible is the highest authority. We still have to interpret it for ourselves. That's the fun part. You are still allowed to interpret what our obligations are to nonhuman animals. I for one would not mind if everyone became a vegetarian! I recommend reading the works of great writers like Meister eckhart, Thomas Merton, C.S. Lewis, etc. They are excellent interpretations, but we are supposed to still smell a rat if something doesn't jive with scripture.

The problem with Prima Scriptura is that the Bible shares authority with those wonderful Catholic "traditions" like St. Augustine's call to celebacy, which by the way is unscriptural. In both doctrines we have the duty of interpretation. But I think you'd have to agree that interpreting the interpretation is a slippery slope.

The Bible should always have the Last Word. That's what Sola Scriptura really means. It's not a prohibition on reading anything extra-biblical. I read a ton of Bible commentaries. Interpretations by faithful intellectuals greatly enhance the absorption of Bible knowledge.

Thanks for a great discussion,

Jim Jordan said...

P.S. - Of course a king doesn't eat his subjects. Taxes devour them for him, but my interpretation of our dominion over the animals is that we use careful discretion. Eating the flesh of animals has heretofore been a necessity for survival. God gives an allowance for eating animals after the Flood.

Genesis 9 says
1 Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. 2 The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands. 3 Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.
4 "But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. 5 And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man.

There's even more food for thought!

Take care,