Sola Scriptura as Rhetorical Posturing

At the end of his long argument against the Puritan doctrine of the regulative principle in Book III of the LEP, Richard Hooker makes a fascinating move.  Having mounted a deft and devastating critique of their assumptions about Scripture, reason, law, ecclesiology, etc., Hooker turns around and says that actually, he agrees with them, and they with him.  This is all just one great big misunderstanding, it seems.  Well, no, not quite; but Hooker does suggest that when it really comes down to it, most of the Puritan dissent was nothing but rhetorical posturing.  And it strikes me that Hooker is really onto something here, something relevant not merely for his own dispute, but for so many that we are familiar with today in theology and politics.

The Puritans, you see, had set themselves up as the defenders of sola Scriptura, against the “wicked inventions of men.”  They claimed that nothing should be done in the Church except according to the direction of Scripture, while their opponents were happy to bring in laws and ceremonies on merely human authority.  Big difference, right?  Well, it wasn’t quite that simple.  The conformists, as a matter of fact, were quite insistent on Scriptural authority in all areas of church practice as well, but they argued that, as Scripture did not give direct guidance on most particulars, and as the guidance that is given in Scripture is mostly only by way of examples, it was necessary to use discretion, reason, and tradition in applying them.  The Puritans, Hooker was convinced, ultimately believed the same thing!  Or rather, inasmuch as they were able to achieve anything like a consistent practice, they believed the same thing; for, if they really believed that Scripture alone and entirely provided all the answers and applications, it would be impossible for them to put in place any kind of complete liturgy and polity.  Instead, they had to grant that “in matter of circumstance they alter that which they have received, but in things of substance they keepe the lawes of Christ without chaunge”–and, said Hooker, this is precisely what the conformists believed.

The difference, then, was not on the level of general principle–Scripture alone vs. Scripture and reason–but on the level of particulars and the level of consistency.  The Puritans and the conformists disagreed a great deal over which particular bits of guidance in Scripture were changeable circumstances and which were of perpetual substance, and over what the best way was to apply the permanent principles in their own circumstances.  They also differed in that the conformists were able to consistently follow through on their stated principles, whereas the Puritans were destabilized by the felt need to be faithful to a rhetorical ideal that was completely impracticable.  This disconnect between rhetoric and reality did not merely make it difficult for them to achieve consistency and stability in their own practice, but even more seriously, made it impossible for them to have a civil and rational discussion with their opponents over differences.  If differences were merely over particular applications of generally shared overarching commitments, then a rational adjudication or a charitable bearing with one another ought to have been possible.  But once differences were elevated to the level of fundamental presuppositions–of faith vs. infidelity, God’s authority vs. man’s, Protestantism or popery–discussion and mutual edification prove almost impossible.  

No doubt this disconnect partially explains why Puritanism in all its forms (I use the term now in its broadest possible sense) has proven so uniquely fissiparous, splintering and schisming for the last four centuries.  Having often committed itself rhetorically to a standard of sola Scriptura that it simply could not follow through on, it was always dogged by discontents who thought it was compromising too much; and given the polarizing tendency of the rhetoric, small disputes over church order could readily be elevated to questions of basic orthodoxy, making reconciliation impossible. 


This same tendency, it seems to me, has come to epitomize so much of American Reformed and evangelical church life today.  For at least a couple centuries now our churches have been characterized by an endless contest of one-upsmanship, in which everyone struggles to prove that they take sola Scriptura with utmost seriousness, more seriously than anyone around them.  Something about our national psyche, it seems, has made us almost universally susceptible to this fundamentalist malaise–”Scripture alone, Scripture alone!” we cry, “Down with all merely human authority, with the vain inventions of ungodly reason.”  In the 19th century this battle-cry was unleashed against existing denominations and church authorities in favor of the individual Christian’s supposedly pure interpretation of Scripture.  In the 20th century, it has more often taken the form of a stalwart refusal to have anything to do with “secular academia”–whether that be historical or scientific scholarship–or “secular politics.”  (Don’t get me wrong, of course–in many particular battles, the sola Scriptura rally-cry has been deployed on the side of truth, and important truth, but the ethos conjured up has often been dangerous and destructive.)  

For the Reformed, this impulse has often taken the form of Scriptural absolutist movements like theonomy or presuppositionalism, movements which, like their 16th-century antecedents, find themselves uncomfortably perched between a rhetorical commitment that they can’t really follow through on, and a more sober articulation that they must follow in practice but which unfortunately puts them on the same general ground as their imagined opponents.

In each of these cases, the problem of course is not that sola Scriptura is not a valid principle, but that Scripture is not, alas, self-interpreting.  Scripture is never alone–it is always mediated through people, places, and times, mediated to particular circumstances on which other principles must necessarily be brought to bear.  The rhetorical commitment  to an extreme construal of sola Scriptura leads either to a frighteningly un-Scriptural radicalism on the part of those who try to follow through on the rhetoric, or an uncomfortable schizophrenia for those who try to bridge the rhetoric with the reality of their practice.  Worst of all, it proves terribly polarizing.  Opponents are cast as those who don’t take Scripture seriously, or don’t care about it, those who are worldly-minded, rationalist, secularist, liberal–in short, they are idolatrous, because they erect another authority alongside, or above, Scripture.  This makes dialogue and edification impossible, and pride and schism inevitable.  

Something similar, I should add (though briefly, to keep this post from ranging too broadly), seems to infest American political discourse.  Ideologues who dominate public discourse (particularly those whom evangelicals like) are dedicated to propositions like “the government should have nothing to do with the economy” or “private property is an absolute and sacred right” or “that government is best which governs least”–propositions that, I am convinced, hardly any of them can really mean, or consistently act upon, at any rate.  In reality, the question isn’t whether the government shouldn’t be involved with the economy, but merely how much and in what ways it should be involved–complete uninvolvement is by the nature of the case impossible.  The rhetoric functions as a polarizing weapon, one that demonizes the opposition, makes dialogue impossible, and actually drives more and more people toward a radicalism at odds with their existing practice.  


No doubt the Church bears some responsibility for helping to foster this black-and-white, total war mindset.  And if we are to regain sanity in our culture and the ability to talk to one another again, it must begin with repentance in the Church and a renunciation of the self-justifying rhetorical smokescreens that obscure the issues at hand, demonize the opposition, and absolve us of any responsibility for the schisms we thus generate.  

Another reason to love Hooker. 🙂

5 thoughts on “Sola Scriptura as Rhetorical Posturing

  1. Bradley

    So then, in summary: sola scriptura isn't just silly, it's actually impossible, in much the same way that the regulative principle is impossible. Brilliant. I think I like Hooker, too.


  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Sure, but don't get me wrong. This isn't so much an attack on the classical doctrine of sola Scriptura…the best of the Reformers understood all along that it had to be qualified in all these ways, though there was perhaps still a tendency to overstate things rhetorically. The criticism is about the way the doctrine has been developed and commonly imagined in many parts of the Protestant tradition. Glad to hear you like Hooker now. Though I should add that I've been re-reading bits of Calvin's Institutes, and it's remarkable how much of the good Hookerian stuff is all there in Calvin, believe it or not–we've just had Calvin mediated to us by a Puritan stream that runs quite contrary to many aspects of his thought. For instance, inasmuch as Calvin even had a regulative principle, it was only that which any Protestant Reformer had–that you could not *bind the conscience* in the Church outside of Scripture. You could certainly institute rites and orders outside of (though of course, not contrary to) Scripture, indeed, you could even make them outwardly binding, just not binding before God (much more on this to follow in posts over the next couple weeks, I hope).


  3. aaron

    I am a Eastern Orthodox Christian and I have some questions and comments I would like you to repond to. Please also listen to this and let me know what you think. The LORD said HE would build HIS Church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. If the Protestants are right and the Church fell into heresy for almost 1500 years until the reformations then did not the gates of hell prevail. Did you know the early Church had the Sacraments and liturgy. There is no evidence of a group of Christians before the Waldesians who held Protestant Doctrine. If all facts are considered it is the Protestants who are heretical. The Bible clearly shows the LORD left a visible Church with leaders not just his Holy WORD. I was shocked when I found out that the early Church fathers writings were by no means protestant in doctrine from St Augustine to Athanasius Even more convincing was the writings of st Ignatius of Antioch a student of St John the apostle whose writings are clearly not protestant The protestant doctrine of Sola Fide opposes scripture "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. " There is not one place in the bible that says we are save by faith alone. In fact the only place that uses faith alone is James 2:24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. I do not see any difference in the modern day heresy of easy believism and the protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone. Even some of the reformers were sacramental . I think you would be surprise also on Luther's and Calvin's view on Mary The true Church has to have apostolic succession and be one. I have heard there are over 20 000 protestant denominations with all different doctrines and practices. Where the Orthodox Church has stood firm for 2000 years holding to 2 Thessalonians 2:15 Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle. I believe it is true that he who studies history ceases to be protestant. I still consider protestants brothers and sisters who are outside the true Church which holds the fullness of the faith. The bible says whosoever believes in HIM shall not perish but have everlasting life not whosoever has calvin reform theology shall be saved. Take care brother Aaron


  4. Brad Littlejohn

    Aaron,As you obviously have not read much if any of my blog, and it doesn't appear that you even read this post (which was more or less a critique of sola Scriptura), it doesn't seem that there would be much point in trying to engage with your off-topic soapbox oration.Suffice to say very briefly that of course the Church did not fall into heresy for 1,500 years, or 1,000 years, or anything like that; I certainly don't think that, and I don't think many leading Protestants have either; of course the early Church had sacraments and liturgy–lots of them, and I'm all for both; of course no one before the Waldensians held Protestant doctrine–indeed, no one before the Protestants held Protestant doctrine–that's true by definition; of course the Lord left a visible church with leaders; of course the early Church writings were not Protestant, though there were of course several important points of common ground; of course the Reformers were deeply sacramental, and good for them; and of course I know what they thought about Mary, and don't have any reason to disagree.So do some homework next time before you let loose with your schpiel. A bit of homework might do you well in regard to the doctrine of justification by faith as well, which I expect hardly resembles your imagination of it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s