Thursday, July 12, 2007

Sola Scriptura, Part II

I took a few minutes to scan old posts, and found that I'd not said all that I might about Sola scriptura. I did take it on once here. But I should take it on again. I've not stated my best arguments against it (though no doubt the materials for those arguments are scattered throughout The Philosophical Midwife.)

Before I defined Sola scriptura in this way, and the definition still seems good to me:

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, there's no need for a priesthood to interpret the Bible for us. We are quite able to do it on our own.)

Here are three quick and dirty arguments against this doctrine.

1. Tradition, in the form of the oral transmission of the materials that became the gospels, the books of the Old Testament, etc. preceded Scripture. Indeed Tradition gave us Scripture. Why assume that in our time tradition has lost all value or importance? Why for instance assume that the Spirit does less for us that was done for the 1st century Christians. To assume that the Spirit acts now only as an aid to Scriptural interpretation (as so many now assume) seems to arbitrarily limit the activity of the Spirit.

2. One might also ask about the process whereby the books of our Bible were declared canonical. The Bible did not drop whole from heaven. Rather it did not assume final form until the late 4th century after many years of debate about what books to include in it. I don’t mean to cast doubt upon it; I do accept it as authoritative. Rather I mean to say that its editors - those men of the church who brought its books together and declared it finished - can’t have been guided, at least not completely, by the Bible, for no book of the Bible says what books are to be included in the Bible. Thus the editors must have had extra-Biblical guidance, and as before that guidance came in the form of God’s Spirit. So at that time Sola scriptura was surely false. Why assume that it became true? Why, as before, assume that at the end of the 4th century the Spirit suddenly curtailed its activity so that it came only to aid in the interpretation of the Bible? That seems arbitrary and indefensible. Indeed the assumption that the Spirit did so curtail its activity is extra-Scriptural, and thus seems an assumption that the defenders of Sola scriptura cannot defend.

3. Last let us ask about the justification of Sola scriptura. The defender of Sola Scriptura would of course look to the Bible itself for that justification, for she holds that no religious doctrine can be defended except by reference to Scripture. So then the defender of Sola Scriptura will very likely assume the inerrancy of Scripture too, for she needs that inerrancy to justify her Sola Scriptura. (Indeed history shows that defenders of Sola scriptura almost always also defend Biblical Inerrancy.) Thus to justify Sola scriptura, we must first justify Biblical Inerrancy. But here’s where we get into trouble. For how would Biblical Inerrancy be defended? Sola scriptura requires that we look only to the Bible to defend Biblical Inerrancy. But that means that we must assume Biblical Inerrancy in the defense of Biblical Inerrancy. Such obviously circular arguments establish nothing.

The conclusion of course is that the Christian need not look only to the Bible for moral and spiritual direction. It is to be found elsewhere too. (Where would that elsewhere be if not in the stable Spirit-guided traditions of the Church?)


Tom Gilson said...

Your definition of sola Scriptura is common enough among some Protestant churches, Franklin, but it's not one that I would want to try to defend. In fact, in the past I've taken issue with some leaders on it. A few would say, for example, that no counseling should ever be practiced except that which is straight from the Bible. The Bible itself doesn't support this view. In Proverbs it tells us to look at the ants for wisdom. If we can learn from ants, we can learn from other people, too!

Some Protestants take the priesthood of the believer to an unrealistic extent. Thinking unreflectively, they assume that they are reading and exegeting Scripture independently, as if no one had ploughed any ground for them. This is hardly true. We all live in a context in which much doctrinal work has been done, and we rely on it, whether consciously or unconsciously. Your point about the development of the canon is a prime example of this.

There's a discussion on this at , where they present a better definition:

The Scriptures are the final and only infallible source of authority for the Christian, but not the only authority. They contain all that is necessary [all the information necessary, that is] for salvation.

I take this to mean that we can and should explore the Scripture to confirm and/or challenge the deliverances of tradition and other authority. The fact remains, though, that many Godly people have been doing this for many years, so where old questions have been addressed, we can have pretty good confidence in the old answers. (Newer questions, like the age of the universe or the possibility of theistic evolution, are not so settled.)

As to inerrancy being a circular argument, it is true that we get our doctrine of inspiration from a document that we take to be inspired. But that doctrine has massive support, in the way the prophets spoke of their messages coming from God, in the support Jesus Christ gave to the Old Testament, in the affirmation of 2 Timothy 3:16f, in the fulfillment of prophecy, in archaeological confirmations of the Bible's historicity, and much more. Furthermore it is philosophically supported, in that it's consistent with a view of God such that God would want to communicate to people and that if he did so, he would do so with truth (he is able to speak 100% truly and would surely do so rather than deceive).

Tom Gilson said...

I'm sorry about that over-lengthy link! It didn't show up that way at all in the preview.

SteveK said...

I agree with you Franklin and I agree with everything Tom said. I grew up Catholic but never had sola scriptura explained to me (!). I first heard about it a few years ago (!!) and immediately rejected it for the reasons you mentioned in your post.

I wonder how many people really believe in the definition you gave vs. the definition Tom gave. My guess is that most would side with Tom after it was explained to them, but maybe I'm wrong.

I've also wondered if many of the differences between Catholics and non-Catholics are minor. Not all the differences, but many of them.

I've had discussions with Catholics that started off with the assumption that there were huge differences between our beliefs. As we progressed I found that most (not all) of the difference were minor and sometimes we were saying the same thing, only we were using different words.

In my life experience I've come to agree with this comment from Tom's link

...for Protestants (and Catholics) to consider how close we really are when it comes to the historic Christian faith. As well, my thoughts are that we consider the possibility that both sides have been talking past each for quite some time

Franklin Mason said...

We're closer than I thought we were, Tom. But I expect that there's still space between us. If I understand, you think that there are authoritative sources outside Scripture, but you give Scripture pride of place. It is, you say, the final and the only infallible authority. But I would reply that it was not always thus, for Christianity preceded the existence of the New Testament but did not have to make do with a less than infallible sources of authority. Whatever that non-Scriptural infallible source was, I would assume that it's still in existence.

Moreover, if as I said, oral tradition gave rise to (at least parts of) the New Testament, we cannot think that that oral traditional was epistemologically any less up to snuff than is Scripture. Indeed it would seem that the infallibility of Scripture has to be founded on the infallibility of the oral traditions (and the work of the Bible editors) that gave rise to it. If they were any less than infallible, Scripture would be less than infallible.

I'll come back to your last paragraph later. I have deep reservations about the argument it presents.

SteveK said...

Indeed it would seem that the infallibility of Scripture has to be founded on the infallibility of the oral traditions (and the work of the Bible editors) that gave rise to it. If they were any less than infallible, Scripture would be less than infallible.

I think you can view the message contained in scripture from two different vantage points. The first being the original message as revealed to the various individuals by God before it was put on parchment or passed down by oral tradition. The second being the message handed down via oral tradition.

The first has no oral tradition because it is the first link in the chain, so-to-speak. The question regarding final infallible authority is actually two questions:

1) Is the original message the final infallible authority

2) Is the message we have today the same as the original message?

Answering (2) requires faith in extra-biblical sources of authority. Answering (1) requires faith alone.

Am I wrong??

Franklin Mason said...


If I understand you, I fully agree with what you say before you ask the question at the end about final infallibility. But when you say that 1 requires faith alone, I'm not certain that I follow. Do you mean faith in the Bible alone? My point was that a fully thought-through Biblical faith requires that we assume the authority of non-Biblical sources; faith in the Bible can't stand alone, but rather only together with Spirit guided tradition do we have a sure foundation for faith.

SteveK said...

Maybe I don't really understand it myself.

I guess I'm saying that faith in the bible CAN stand alone IF by that you mean spirit-guided faith in the truth value of the first link in the chain of revealed knowledge.

You trust that Jesus really said to 'love your neighbor as yourself' instead of saying 'kill your neighbor when you have the chance'. Seems to me that oral tradition can't help you here.

SteveK said...

I think I goofed with the 'love your neighbor' example. Here's one I hope will clarify better....

God revealed that we are sinners in need of salvation. That message was believed to be true and got passed on by oral tradition. However the question remains: Am I really a sinner in need of salvation? Seems I can only know this by spirit-guided faith. Yes? No? Maybe?

Or, to put it in the words of the skeptic: Just because God said it was true doesn't mean it's true.

Franklin Mason said...


God revealed that we are sinners in need of salvation. That message was believed to be true and got passed on by oral tradition. However the question remains: Am I really a sinner in need of salvation? Seems I can only know this by spirit-guided faith.

Yes, a Spirit-guided faith seems necessary here. But notice that it isn't my faith alone, nor the work of the Spirit upon me alone that seems necessary. With no Bible to tell me the story of Christ, it seems that I would know nothing of Christ. Thus it seems that I need the Bible for my faith, and so it seems to that I must trust those responsible for its creation. How am I able to trust them? By my faith that the Spirit guided them too.

Faith suffices, as you say. But I suppose that my point is that faith is, to some degree, a corporate affair. In our time, it doesn't seem to be something that one can have by oneself, in isolation. One has to be embedded in a community of believers. (Oh, how very Catholic I sound.)