Saturday, August 16, 2014

"Sola Scriptura"?

"Sola scriptura" is the Protestant doctrine of "scripture alone."  Here is a portion of the definition from
Sola scriptura means that Scripture alone is authoritative for the faith and practice of the Christian. The Bible is complete, authoritative, and true. . . Sola scriptura was the rallying cry of the Protestant Reformation. . . The only way to know for sure what God expects of us is to stay true to what we know He has revealed—the Bible. We can know, beyond the shadow of any doubt, that Scripture is true, authoritative, and reliable. The same cannot be said of tradition. 
The Word of God is the only authority for the Christian faith. Traditions are valid only when they are based on Scripture and are in full agreement with Scripture. Traditions that contradict the Bible are not of God and are not a valid aspect of the Christian faith. Sola scriptura is the only way to avoid subjectivity and keep personal opinion from taking priority over the teachings of the Bible. The essence of sola scriptura is basing your spiritual life on the Bible alone and rejecting any tradition or teaching that is not in full agreement with the Bible.
"Sola scriptura" encapsulates Protestant principles regarding church tradition-- and though historically this has generally referred to Roman Catholic tradition, it can refer to any church tradition. As a Protestant, I support the concept that church traditions-- even Protestant ones!-- should be tested in terms of whether they are supported by Scripture.  But the assumptions underlying this Protestant principle sometimes go completely unexamined, with the result that "sola scriptura" can potentially become a virtually incoherent teaching that is used to support authoritarian and spiritually abusive church practices.

Notice the statement in the quote above: "Sola scriptura is the only way to avoid subjectivity and keep personal opinion from taking priority over the teachings of the Bible." The unexamined assumption here is that subjectivity actually can be avoided-- that the Bible provides a method for examining church teachings and practices with a completely objective standard.

The problem is that we read the Bible as finite humans, and though we as Christians trust that God is the source and foundation of objective truth, we are not God and not capable of fully understanding God, nor can we fully step outside our own subjectivity.  The doctrine of sola scriptura sometimes leads us to assume that we can, as N. T. Wright puts it, "read the Bible straight":
There is, indeed, an evangelical assumption, common in some circles, that evangelicals do not have any tradition. We simply open the scripture, read what it says, and take it as applying to ourselves: there the matter ends, and we do not have any ‘tradition’. This is rather like the frequent Anglican assumption (being an Anglican myself I rather cherish this) that Anglicans have no doctrine peculiar to themselves: it is merely that if something is true the Church of England believes it. This, though not itself a refutation of the claim not to have any ‘tradition’, is for the moment sufficient indication of the inherent unlikeliness of the claim’s truth, and I am confident that most people, facing the question explicitly, will not wish that the claim be pressed. But I still find two things to be the case, both of which give me some cause for concern. First, there is an implied, and quite unwarranted, positivism: we imagine that we are ‘reading the text, straight’, and that if somebody disagrees with us it must be because they, unlike we ourselves, are secretly using ‘presuppositions’ of this or that sort. This is simply naïve, and actually astonishingly arrogant and dangerous. It fuels the second point, which is that evangelicals often use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ when they mean the authority of evangelical, or Protestant, theology, since the assumption is made that we (evangelicals, or Protestants) are the ones who know and believe what the Bible is saying.
 The fact is that "scriptura" by its very nature is a book that people read, so it cannot stand "sola" -- alone and isolated from the humans who read it.  Every time we read the Bible, we are seeing it through the windows of our own experience, and understanding it according to our own reasoning. And this practically always encompasses at least some church tradition regarding how to understand the text.  So sola scriptura, instead of giving us an objective means for judging the legitimacy of church tradition, ends up merely giving us the illusion of objectivity, while we fail to notice or examine the church traditions and other underlying factors which affect the way we understand the Bible texts.

That doesn't mean there's anything necessarily wrong with those traditional readings.  The consensus of a faith community on the meaning of a text is one check-and-balance against wild and erroneous readings that an individual might come up with on their own.  But faith communities are also human, and some traditional readings uphold human bastions of power and/or reflect human prejudices.  Protestantism arose because Christians like Martin Luther began to question and challenge the existing bastions of power-- but Protestantism itself soon adopted its own traditions and power structures.  Sometimes we Protestants fail to understand the extent to which our sola scriptura doctrine is informed by Protestant interpretative traditions.

And then there's this.  When we say, as does, that "Scripture alone is authoritative for the faith and practice of the Christian," we have to face the fact that "scripture alone" has simply failed to yield one self-evident and incontrovertible meaning for each of its texts.  The reason is, of course, that scripture simply does not stand alone, but must be read and interpreted.  This doesn't mean that each interpretation of scripture is equally valid-- some methods of interpretation are more likely to yield truer results in terms of both the original human and the divine intent.  But always, as Paul states in 1 Corinthians 13:12, we see "through a glass, darkly."  We can't prove the human author's intent and we can't always fully grasp the divine intent.  So our reliance on sola scriptura as the rule for our faith and practice turns out not to actually be reliance on an objective and certain standard.

Ultimately, we have to rely on the Spirit of God to "guide us into all truth (John 16:13)."  But though Jesus said, "Your word is truth (John 17:17)," He also said earlier in the same passage that He is the truth (John 14:6)-- and we know from John 1:1 that He is also the word!  As I have said in another post, God seems to place much more priority on our trusting Him than on whether we are right about what a given passage of scripture means.  I don't get the impression that the Holy Spirit is particularly threatened by how many different understandings of Bible passages there are.  The truth He guides us into is apparently something much bigger than being right about what this or that scripture says.

The real problem comes when a particular church group uses sola scriptura to uphold their particular reading of the Bible as if that reading and the divine intent were one and the same. Protestant churches that do this are actually setting themselves up as a new magisterium with the power to dictate to their members how to believe and practice.  "Sola scriptura" can come to mean, "Disregard your own experience and reason, and ignore your gut instincts about right and wrong-- they are not to be trusted.  Only the Bible (and by that we actually mean 'what we have decided the Bible says') is to be trusted."  Claiming that the scripture is "clear" and that anyone who questions it is rebelling against God, they actually raise themselves up to the place of God in the lives of their followers.

I believe we do need to take the Bible very seriously and to do our best to understand it the way God would have us understand it.  But we need to do this with humility and with the knowledge that the center of Christianity is the Person of Christ-- that the Bible points us to Him, not the other way around.

"Sola scriptura" without that understanding is simply bibliolatry-- idolatry of the Bible. And it's dangerous.


Unknown said...

I think you're exactly right here. Time used to be that I was in one of the Christian camps who believed much as you describe. "It's in the Bible! The Bible is clear! Everyone who doesn't believe this way is either ignorant or distorting Scripture!"

...and then I started actually researching what other sides through. And the matter got a lot more complicated. Especially when I realized that they were saying exactly the same thing, that the Bible was clear, and so on and so forth.

In the end, all of us have traditions that we bring to the table. The denomination we grew up in or experienced, the beliefs our parents had, and the particular interpretations that those around us have, all of those color the way that we read the Bible. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, but... it has made me a lot less confident in any one particular interpretation.

On the one hand, that's probably a healthy attitude to have. On the other... man, sometimes I do wish I could go back to the days of pure certainty!

Kristen said...

Good points, Benjamin, and thanks for sharing your experience! I do think I have come to agree with Greg Boyd and other writers that certainty is really a different thing than faith.

Anonymous said...

What you are saying is: that the Holy Spirit isn't leading us to the truth, there i sno true or false teaching and that if one denomination claims to have the truth that they really don't because no real truth exists because the Bible is read through human filters.

So if the Holy Spirit is incapable of leading humans to the truth and people are incapable of finding the truth then why do you believe the Bible or God? Why do you trust God if you cannot get the truth like Jesus said?

Please stop speaking about theology, God, the Bible and Jesus. You do not know what you are talking about.

Kristen said...

Anonymous, as far as I can see, you barely read my post. I specifically say the opposite of what you just said. The Holy Spirit does lead us into all truth, there is real truth-- I don't think you understood anything that I wrote.

Anonymous said...

i understood everything you wrote. Your logic does not make any sense as you ignore so many passage of scripture which contradict your logic.

i addressed your post here;

Anonymous said...

i have posted a response to your comment on my website. thank you for taking the time to visit.

Kristen said...

And thank you for taking the time to visit mine. We must agree to disagree.

heather said...

Did you see you got a mention on Facebook page 'Christians tired of being misrepresented'. :) I always really enjoy your articles.

Kristen said...

Thanks for the heads-up, Heather!