Some Ramblings on Sola Scriptura

In a blog post a week and a half ago, Peter Leithart addressed the issue of Sola Scriptura in relation to Christian Smith’s recent book How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps.  His defence there of sola Scriptura rightly understood was solid stuff, emphasising the importance of distinguishing between Scripture as sole authority and sole final authority.  Tradition may be a very important authority, may even be a guide to the interpretation of Scripture, but when the chips are down, tradition must always be revisable by Scripture, in a way that cannot be vice versa.  This line of argument is a reasonably familiar one, and yet it seems to me that there are really two distinct issues that have to be addressed when we are talking about sola Scriptura–the “intensive” question and the “extensive” question.  

The first concerns the “strength” of the sola–just how alone is Scripture, and how much is it aided by tradition?  What respective roles do the two play in establishing the rule of belief, and how much can each one do taken by itself?  The second concerns the scope of the sola–just how broadly does it reach?  On just how many issues are we claiming Scripture’s authority?  Is Scripture the authority over, say, mathematics?  This is the sort of idea that gets R2Kers all worked up.  Leithart’s notion of “final authority” is of course of some help here, for this allows that other authorities can command our respect in this field as much as they want, so long as they do not contradict Scripture, which, given how little Scripture has to say on the subject of mathematics, will be pretty rarely, if ever.  

This was of course how the Reformers explained the doctrine, according to their distinction between “things necessary for salvation” and “things indifferent.”  In things necessary, Scripture is the only authority; in things indifferent, it is the final authority.  Which means that, if Scripture is silent on a subject, you can believe whatever you want to, so long as you don’t say that it is necessary for anyone to believe thusly.  (At least, in theory that was the doctrine; pretty soon Protestants were saying that it was necessary not to believe in or do any number of things about which Scripture was silent.)  

This qualification also applied to the Reformation’s notion of the “perspicuity of Scripture,” a concept that has been much misunderstood and misused today.  The perspicuity of Scripture meant that God did not leave us so little guidance in His Word about the path of salvation that we needed other authorities and other information to repent and believe and be saved.  All the essentials, the bare necessities, were there in Scripture clear enough for the lowliest peasant to comprehend and act upon.  Of course, there were many matters in Scripture not so clear, and open to dispute; but the fact that they were so, according to the doctrine of perspicuity, was conclusive evidence that these were not matters necessary and essential.  


This, I take it, is the point on which Protestantism (or the varieties of it with which I am familiar), has veered so dangerously off-track, inciting a reaction away from its fractious dogmatism that often takes the form of a rejection of sola Scriptura altogether.  For, if one applies the doctrine of perspicuity too broadly, then potentially any doctrine can become the article of a standing or falling faith, potentially any doctrine can be a legitimate occasion for schism, since “it’s a matter of the authority of Scripture.”  If, for instance, I am convinced of Calvinism, and I am convinced it is demonstrated in Scripture, and I am convinced that Scripture is perspicuous, then if you reject Calvinism, this must be a rejection of the authority of Scripture.  It couldn’t be a difference of interpretation or application, since Scripture is clear.  Therefore, it must be because you refuse to accept Scripture’s authority.  Therefore, you have abandoned the material principle of the faith, and are on the brink of apostasy.  So the argument could run (although I’m not sure that’s how it has generally run in the case of church splits over Calvinism, which have usually proceeded on even more dubious theological logic).  

It is this theological breakdown that has contributed to the vitriol of recent debates between “liberals” and “conservatives,” and that distinguishes such recent debates from their counterparts a century ago.  Back when Machen left the PCUSA, it was, ostensibly at least, because the deity, resurrection and exclusivity of Christ were being rejected or at least quietly abandoned.  Nowadays, our great church splits and controversies occur over issues like Young Earth (or even Six-Day) Creation, women’s ordination, and homosexuality.  Now clearly none of these issues concern in themselves the essentials, the Gospel (although if one is Catholic, women’s ordination raises extremely serious issues about the apostolic succession, validity of the priesthood, and therefore ability to receive the means of grace–and so, presumably, affects salvation; and on the Creation issue, one can argue that the evolutionary narrative would have domino effects on key Christian doctrines that would ultimately undermine the Gospel).  And yet in many quarters, one, two, or all of these are considered make-or-break issues?  Why?

The rhetoric is clear enough most of the time–“It’s a matter of the authority of Scripture!”  Perhaps these “liberals” don’t reject the deity or resurrection of Christ, but they’re rejecting the Bible, and these other doctrines are thus sure to fall by the wayside soon.  Scripture, we are told, is clear on these points, and therefore, there is no way to deviate on these points without openly flaunting Scripture.  By this means, each of these issues, and potentially any number of others, can become automatically just cause for a breaking of fellowship.  


But of course, we can’t be so quick to dismiss this as a failure to distinguish between things necessary and things secondary.  Because that distinction does not map straightforwardly on to “things clear in Scripture” vs. “things not clear in Scripture” (as Hooker sometimes seems to imply). Obviously, there are plenty of secondary, indeed, plenty of completely unimportant things that are quite clear in Scripture.  For instance, that Paul spent three years in Ephesus.  Does it matter?  Well, not really.  But since Scripture seems clear on the subject, then how do we respond if someone were inclined to deny this fact?  Presumably this denial (or pick your own crystal-clear example) would be a matter of great concern.

So then, I suppose, what this distinction forces us to do is ask again whether the matters debated really are so crystal clear that to reject them is to reject Scripture, instead of simply assuming that they are.


Of course, it is also worth noting that some issues currently under debate, particularly the Creation issue, also pertain to what I have called the intensive authority of Scripture, and perhaps raise similar questions to those of the relationship of Scripture and tradition that proved so crucial at the Reformation.  For what we are now forced to ask is whether Scripture can stand on its own, or whether we need to listen to the testimony of Scripture and science (or, Scripture and historical studies) together in order to find truth, whether science must function as the interpreter of Scripture on certain points in the way that tradition once claimed to.  For many, yielding an inch to science to science seems like a rejection of sola Scriptura.  But could we apply Leithart’s same logic here–science may exercise authority over our interpretations, so long as Scripture remains the final authority, in light of which, if push comes to shove, science must be revised and not vice versa?


All of these are but musings, thinking aloud, so to speak.  How they all fit together, and cash out in practice, I’m not at all sure, and I’d welcome any input.

14 thoughts on “Some Ramblings on Sola Scriptura

  1. There's a difficulty in the other direction with what you call the classical Protestant doctrine:

    The perspicuity of Scripture meant that God did not leave us so little guidance in His Word about the path of salvation that we needed other authorities and other information to repent and believe and be saved. All the essentials, the bare necessities, were there in Scripture clear enough for the lowliest peasant to comprehend and act upon. Of course, there were many matters in Scripture not so clear, and open to dispute; but the fact that they were so, according to the doctrine of perspicuity, was conclusive evidence that these were not matters necessary and essential.

    Assume for the moment (as the assumption in a reductio) this is a true doctrine. Is the doctrine of the Trinity, or the Deity of Christ, or anything else debated in the Ecumenical Creeds necessary for salvation? On the one hand, we must answer yes. Arius and Nestorius and Eutychius and Honorius are all Heresiarchs, condemned by an Ecumenical Council.And their positions are clearly false today. However, they were not so at the time–that's why they were debated. We who live after Athanasius and Basil and the Gregories can clearly see Arius is heretical. But it was not so in their day.So is Arianism heretical? Scripture was not clear enough for the lowliest peasant to comprehend and act upon the Deity of the Word. It seemed very plausible to everyone from the dock-workers to the best theologians of the day that the Word was the first creature. So it would seem, on the theory you quote, that it was not heretical.But Arianism is heresy, and was regarded as such even at the time by Athanasius. Which is a contradiction, and so the position you quote is false.If we wish to say that Arianism, and all the other heresies, are actually heresies, we need a slightly more precise understanding of Sola Scriptura than that.


  2. Don Frank

    Brad, I'm having trouble understanding why you tie Young Earth, women's ordination, and homosexuality as issues which divide. I aprreciate that dividing over whether or not one subscribes to young earth is not a good reason to divide, but are you saying that subscription to the practice of ordaining a homosexual is also not a good reason for dividing? I'm having trouble understanding your point here.


  3. Albert

    There are some important differences between authorities besides Scripture so it's difficult to get the analogies to work. For example, one difference between historical studies and science is that science seems intrinsically opposed to miracles because miracles do not lend themselves to experimental scrutiny and yet cover the same space; historical studies have no intrinsic structural bias against miracles (at least not in the same way). Not only does resolution often lie in recognizing the nature, character and limits of each particular authority, but disagreement also occurs because of other social, historical, technological, economic, etc. authorities and influences as well. These need to be recognized and accounted for, which can be difficult for specialized theologians to do; the temptation for modern theologians is to carve out a "theological space" where one doesn't have to deal with "external" matters besides text and historical theology. But external, non-theological influences really do matter as to how we understand things today.


  4. Kent Will

    We also have to admit one of the primary factors complicating "perspicuity" is sin. For instance I think we would be hard pressed to say that liberal churches support homosexual ordination out of an honest effort to submit the ethics of their age to the standards of the Bible.


  5. Another great post Brad! My only problem with what you wrote is that when someone says that homosexual ordination justifies schism, this is first and foremost because of an ethical failure not a doctrinal failure. Thus, I don't feel you do justice to the issue by comparing schism over homosexual ordination to issues like old earth creationism, etc. It may be clearer from scripture that Paul spent three years in Ephesus than it is that long-term monogamous same-sex relationships are wrong; but the comparison breaks down precisely because what is at stake is not detached doctrines that can be measured on an abstract scale of perspicuity. When one is confronted with a practicing homosexual seeking ordination, the doctrinal error is minimal compared to the ethical failure, and most of the requirements for leadership hinge on matters of ethics. If someone wants to get ordained who has made a career shipping guns to terrorists, the issue is not primarily that the authority of scripture is at stake because here is someone who apparently doesn't believe that scripture is as clear as it actually is on the sinfulness of shipping guns to terrorists; the issue is rather that the church's integrity is at stake because this person is seriously compromised on a moral level. Because reformed Protestants are at heart rationalists, we have to make a doctrinal issue (in this case, the authority of scripture) at stake; but what is actually at stake is not so much theology and as the church's integrity. Put another way, suppose we have person A who is seeking ordination and believes that Bible condemns same-sex unions, yet is still a practicing homosexual in spite of that belief, with person B who is seeking ordination and believes that the Bible allows same-sex unions but is a heterosexual and morally upright man. Ordaining either of them may be problematic, but which is worse? Surely it is worse to ordain person A precisely because what is at stake here is ethics and not doctrine. Now of course one cannot fully separate them, for the epistemic grounds for knowing what constitutes ethical failure is ultimately theologically derived, but I think you know what I'm trying to say.


  6. Brad Littlejohn

    Don,I'm treating them together as issues over which contemporary churches have divided and are dividing, which do not in themselves concern the essentials of the faith, the proclamation of the Gospel, etc.; in each case, the grounds for division are often stated not to be the seriousness of the issue in itself, but what it says about the authority of Scripture–evolutionism, or women's ordination, or homosexual ordination are taken to be rejections of the clear testimony of Scripture, and therefore a rejection of Scripture. This is what all three have in common. How we evaluate this objection–and other objections to these things–obviously differs in each case. As you might guess, I think young-earth creation to be the silliest issue to divide about, no matter what I think personally about the issue, while I think division over women's ordination is more understandable, and division over homosexual ordination is most understandable. Whether the last constitutes "a good reason for dividing" will, I think, depend on all kinds of particular factors about the denomination in question (for instance, I tend to think, based on my understanding of the situation, that conservatives in the Church of Scotland currently should *not* leave over the issue).Robin (since your remark relates to the above),Yes, this is well-put. And this is why, as I just said to Don, I was not trying to say that the three were equivalent in every respect–only that they were analogous insofar as they were argued in terms of "authority of Scripture"–as they often are. The way you are addressing the homosexuality issue is of course, I think, a much more helpful and direct way to approach it. The problem is that we don't have a very good precedent for explaining how ethical issues might or might not be a legitimate basis for division. Historically, churches have disciplined bad conduct, but have split over doctrinal issues. The creeds and confessions that are our basis for unity speak primarily or even exclusively about doctrinal issues. Is this a mistake in our heritage? Possibly. But what is the alternative? If bad ethical conduct, and the willingness among some in the Church to countenance it, is as monumental an issue as the current homosexuality debate is, if it is a clear basis for massive church divisions, then presumably this can't be limited to homosexuality. What about adulterers and fornicators in the ministry (and presumably this will include the illegitimately divorced? What about issues besides sex? For instance, greed, usury, exploitation, or condoning of these practices? These are rife within conservative North American churches. Either we need to turn into Pharisaical policemen and start dividing over all kinds of things, or we need to say that ethical problems are not a basis for church divisions. Or we need to give a convincing rationale as to which ethical issues are and which aren't. This is why I think so many Protestants have not stuck to your line of argument, but have insisted on making this an issue of the authority of Scripture.


  7. Brad Littlejohn

    Matt, Yes, I agree with you that there seem to be problems with the standard Protestant doctrine, at least if I'm understanding it correctly. And that's part of my question here–am I? It sure looks like (as Steven says in his comment), that certain issues that would appear to be non-essential are considerably clearer than other issues that we would take to be absolute essentials–indeed, that some of these latter are simply not perspicuous at all. Now, the whole "lowliest peasant" language comes from early in the Reformation, when folks like Luther and Tyndale are quite optimistic. Later in the century, Protestants, chastened by all the excesses that this principle seemed to lead to, are much more careful in their formulations. Hooker, for instance, would say that the essentials are either explicit in Scripture or else can be necessarily deduced from it. This necessary deduction may be extraordinarily long and difficult (just as say, non-Euclidean geometry proceeds by necessary deductions, but took millennia to discover), but he would say that once the Church did figure out orthodox Trinitarian theology, it was able to see that this was in fact a necessary deduction from Scripture. This is a highly-qualified notion of perspicuity, though it seeks to preserve the backbone of the doctrine. But what then about things that clearly do not seem by nature to be among the essentials, and yet are thoroughly perspicuous in Scripture, as Steven says homosexuality is (although I know many good and smart Christian men who don't think it is)? Do they become essential by being perspicuous (as conservatives will argue)? Or should we rather say that because they are not essential, they must not be strictly perspicuous, and are up for debate (as more liberal folks will argue)? I'm not sure…but I'm trying to figure out how the Protestant Reformers would answer the question.Kent,Yes. But since we are all sinful, we must then ask if the doctrine is useful at all (although I do still think it is)–for how can we be sure what should and shouldn't be clear to us, if our eyes are clouded by sin? But, I should add, I think there are definitely liberal churches that "support homosexual ordination out of an honest effort to submit the ethics of their age to the standards of the Bible"–they would simply focus on what they saw as the "trajectory" and "overall message" of the Gospel, rather than on particular Biblical standards, which they would see as culturally-conditioned. At least, that's how some I've encountered would, I think, view it.Albert, Well put. I merely suggested there might be some kind of analogy. But obviously, these different authorities do all function quite differently. For one thing, arguments for the authority of tradition usually suppose some kind of ongoing guidance of the Spirit in the Church's life that ensures a certain reliability of tradition; appeals to the authority of science or historical study could not lay claim to this supernatural aid.


  8. Brad,You wrote, " tradition must always be revisable by Scripture, in a way that cannot be vice versa."I can understand why that needs to be the case for a Protestant view of scripture, but is it so? Reflect for a moment on the Reformers' work regarding the formal canon as it existe din their day. They revised it, shortening the canon. And it seems to me that they did so largely on the grounds of tradition and that their act was an act of tradition, ecclesial authority, however Protestants wish to cash that out. It seems then that the revising acting is a two way street perhaps something like what Rawls had in mind between cases and principles.


  9. Don Frank

    Brad,I suggest the decision as to whether or not to divide must at least consider the degree to which the denomination explicitly approves of the bad ethical conduct. Rom 1:32 is helpful here, seeming to distinguish between doing and approving.


  10. Brad Littlejohn

    Perry,Yes, the canon always does pose a thorny issue. What the Reformers would have said was that they were following the principle of "Scripture interprets Scripture"–you use the more central and clear texts as a yardstick to judge more peripheral and unclear texts. By looking at the characteristics and truths that most of Scripture seemed to exhibit, they determined that the apocryphal texts did not share some of these key characteristics and truths, but sometimes in fact contradicted them. Therefore, they determined that these texts weren't Scripture.Not exactly a cut-and-dried, objective and incontestable procedure. But nonetheless, in principle it doesn't seem irreconcilable with their basic commitment.Don,Yes, but you see, when you put it that way, we've shifted back to a discussion about belief. Can we split because people are doing wicked things, as Robin suggests? Or can we split because there are people who don't believe those things are wicked, as you suggest? The problems with the former I already addressed; the problems with your approach, then, is that this erroneous belief can hardly be considered to touch on the core of Christian belief. It is a false belief, but on a question that I think we would have to admit is relatively peripheral — not just in that it pertains to our response to the Gospel, not the Gospel itself, but in that, if you look at the New Testament, any number of ethical issues are far more central. Are we then justified in splitting because of different beliefs of this sort?I don't have a very good answer, but I'll go ahead and let on where I think the answer might lie. The problem is not about bad action per se or bad belief per se. It is about, of course, the two together. Bad belief about actions, in a context where those actions are actual, and not merely hypothetical. Life together in the Church requires a certain unity of action; a common vision of the good, and how to pursue it, common standards about what response God requires of us. Obviously, we can agree to disagree on many things–such as what kinds of movies we should let our children watch–without destroying our capacity to have genuine community, unity of purpose and witness. And obviously, there are some things where disagreement would make life together pretty much impossible; e.g., if some people in the Church were wanting to encourage and practice infanticide. Now, which category does homosexuality fall in? I'm not actually sure. I can see a strong case for saying that, although this disagreement is not over the heart of the Gospel, and so there is no necessity of separation (which is what much recent rhetoric sounds like), the disagreement so undermines the Church's unity of action and witness that it makes continued communion within the same institution harmful if not impossible; therefore, separation is the only safe course of action. However, since this is ultimately a pragmatic judgment, rather than one of religious necessity, it requires careful attention to circumstances and rather more disciplined rhetoric than much of what we have recently heard.At least, so I am inclined to think at the moment.


  11. Bradley

    For instance, that Paul spent three years in Ephesus. Does it matter? Well, not really. But since Scripture seems clear on the subject, then how do we respond if someone were inclined to deny this fact? Presumably this denial (or pick your own crystal-clear example) would be a matter of great concern.

    I don't think this is of great concern. Denying Paul's trip to Ephesus holds no great danger per se, either theologically or ethically. The only danger we might identify is potential, i.e., some of the possible implications of holding the view. If a person denies 3 years in Ephesus, we might soon see the ugly monster of Biblical Errancy raise its head, and if that happens we might encounter all sorts of other problems. He might even deny the resurrection! Now that would be a big deal. Thankfully, people are inconsistent and rarely follow through the implications of their views. Potential problems don't always turn into actual problems. You mentioned above the "domino effect" that Evolution might have on a person's theology, and I do believe that logically there is such an effect. But many Christian Evolutionists don't think through the implications of denying a historical Adam and embracing radical nominalism. And so, the domino effect often doesn't happen….not because the path isn't there, but because people aren't consistent enough to follow it. (To some degree or another, I suspect we all fall into this "inconsistent" category, and it's truly a gift from God that we don't follow through the full implications of our flawed theology!)Therefore, it seems to me that we should only deal harshly with the problems that we actually encounter. When it comes to potential problems (like denying Paul's trip to Ephesus, or denying Gen 1-3), I'm inclined to say that grace should abound. If they ever brew into actual problems, then obviously they should be dealt with appropriately.


  12. Brad Littlejohn

    Thanks Bradley–this is exactly the conclusion I have come to over the last few years. The first place it struck me was with Calvinism and Arminianism. Calvinists would get so worked up that Arminianism led logically to Pelagianism, to self-salvation, to a denial of the sovereignty of God, etc., and yet almost no Arminians I knew actually held to those things. Likewise, Arminians feared all kinds of doctrinal consequences from Calvinism that most Calvinists were sensible enough to avoid. Now perhaps one or both sides lacked logical consistency, and it might be worth debating some of those points, but it was never helpful to elevate the stakes of the debate so that one's opponent, by saying something that *might*, by a long slippery slope progression, lead to Pelagianism, actually *was* a Pelagian. And I think that "the authority of Scripture" is a common way in which this slippery-slope argument is brought in to raise the stakes of debate in any theological conversation so that charity is soon eclipsed by a zeal for purity of the faith.


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