Sola Scriptura, “Scripture alone”, was a major battle-cry of the Reformation, and is loudly trumpeted today as a foundational principle of conservative, evangelical, and fundamentalist brands of Protestantism. It was first proclaimed in response to the superstitions and abuses of a deformed late medieval and renaissance Catholicism, and today is championed as an answer to the superstitions and abuses of modern and postmodern Liberalism. The abuses in both cases are major, a threat to the integrity of the Gospel, a barrier to the salvation of sinners, and a cancer raging in the body of the church. A strong corrective surely is needed, but there is a problem with the one offered.
Now, here is where I ruffle some feathers, raise some tempers, and generally get myself in trouble. I observe that an enormous proportion of official statements of faith and works of systematic theology begin with propositions about the nature and sole authority of Scripture. This is wrong for a variety of reasons (and I will probably revisit them), but for now it seems enough to concentrate on this one problem: Sola Scriptura never was, is not, and never shall be true, reasonable, possible, or even desirable — and no one has ever really acted as if it were. Scripture is never alone, nor should it be, nor can it be. Scripture has precisely no practical authority unless it is upheld and implemented by some other authority alongside.
What is the Bible?
The Bible is not self-defining, that is it does not list or describe within itself the documents to be included therein. It is true that some Scriptural books are quoted or referenced in some others (most notably the many Old Testament quotations in the New Testament), but many other books are never quoted or even mentioned, and, then again, several books are mentioned or even quoted that are either lost or simply never admitted to the canon (the Book of Jasher, the Book of Jubilees, and others in the Old Testament; and, in the New Testament, the Ascension of Moses, Enoch, and the mysterious source of Matthew 2:23). I have already discussed the establishment of contents and text in Article #1, Autographs, so it will suffice to repeat here that the Bible, while inspired (and presumably edited) by the Holy Spirit, was identified, upheld, and preserved by an authority outside itself, that of the Church created and guided by the same Holy Spirit. The Scriptures if alone do not exist (or at least cannot be found).
What is the Bible For?
The Bible, both testaments, was written as a number of separate volumes, almost all of them intended to be read in a public meeting, by an authorized reader, in the context of corporate teaching. We need to remember that, although the habit of private and personal study of and meditation upon the Scriptures is certainly praiseworthy, the Scriptures were simply not written with a view toward their use for personal, individual study. There are at least two reasons we have to assume this. In the first place, it was a preliterate society with a literate leadership. In other words, the majority could not read and thus needed to have documents read to them. Secondly, books (scrolls) were very expensive and thus accessible to very few, even if they could read them. It was only at the advent of printing that books became generally available, and only when there were sufficient books did it make sense for the majority to learn reading. In short, the modern Protestant dependence on ownership and reading of Bibles is actually a new thing on this earth, beginning in Europe at about the time of the Reformation, and not really before.
Secondly, most of the Bible was written with an eye toward its use in the proper training and discipline of God’s people (the church) by the leadership. Timothy had apparently learned much of the Old Testament at home from his mother and grandmother, a very unusual situation, but listen to what Paul told him to do with what he had learned;
2 Timothy 3:16 (KJV) All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
Do you see it? A vision of Scripture as a teaching tool, intended to hone a people into a fully united and well instructed body. Furthermore, much of Scripture is intended for use in public worship, notably the Psalms. Here the people sing God’s words together, and worship, far from being spontaneous, is guided and regulated by the written word. What is the Bible for? It is for use in and by the church.
For years I ministered in a fellowship that proclaimed its only standard of doctrine, government, worship, and life to be the Word of God, uninterpreted. Of course this was not true, a point we’ll come back to later, but neither was it really helpful. An uninterpreted book either remains unused on the shelf, gathering dust, like the Bible in nominally Christian homes, or it becomes a content-free ritual object. Sikhs have the Sacred Granth, written in several languages, solemnly chanted by priests who may understand none of them. Buddhists in Thailand, Japan, Mongolia, and Tibet chant sacred texts in Pali, a language they have not learned. Non-Arab Muslims memorize extensive passages of the Quran in Arabic, often without receiving a translation. Protestants used to speak scornfully of the Latin Mass. Is it any different to mouth words in English without seeking meaning, without interpretation? As faith without works is dead, so Scripture without interpretation is dead. Thus Scripture, to be of any use must be interpreted.
If, then, Scripture needs interpretation, how are we to know the correct interpretation? What must be accepted? What is acceptable? What must be rejected? To the Eastern Orthodox the standard is tradition. To Roman Catholics it is the magisterium, the teaching Authority of the church, centered around the papacy. Lutherans, marching under Luther’s battle cry of Sola Scriptura, are nonetheless fierce in their insistence that interpretation be governed by the Book of Concord, and Calvinists have a similar attitude toward their various confessional documents. Even non-confessional denominations, whose “only” standard is the Bible, have accepted interpretations, sometimes in astonishing detail, distinctive to each fellowship, and obligatory within it. We went so far as to credit the General Assembly with the divinely given unique right and power to interpret Scripture, thus effectually denying our own “Bible only” stance. The point is that some kind of standard of interpretation is inescapable. It will be there whether a group thinks it believes in it or not.
Some of the most disheartening words in theological discourse are these: “This is what it says to me,” or “This is how I see it.” Peter agreed with me when he wrote
2 Peter 1:19-21 We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.
Private interpretation has produced all manner of strange and novel doctrines, has borne fruit in the scandalous division of Christians (hundreds, perhaps thousands, of competing sects), and has spawned God-denying heresies, from Arianism to contemporary Modernism. I recently had the embarrassing experience of sitting in a meeting, listening to a fellow-pastor I respect, as he expounded upon Psalm 51 in such a way as to make Jesus not truly Mary’s son, and thus not truly human. I should have spoken out (but did not) for that is a major heresy, one dealt with once and for all (I had hoped) many centuries ago. Private interpretation, the authority of one’s own bright ideas, a sort of self-idolatry. Lord, deliver us!
No, the Bible is never alone, and I am never alone with it. The Bible is not mine (“My Bible says …” has to be one of the most offensive phrases ever coined.) It wasn’t given to me to control or interpret. It wasn’t given to America. It wasn’t given to the twentieth (or 21st) Century. It wasn’t given to Luther or Calvin, or to the pope of Rome. The Bible was given to the Church of God — to the whole church — to the church of every century, every generation — to the church of every race, every nation, every language. It wasn’t given to seminary professors. It wasn’t given to country preachers. It wasn’t given to the rich. It wasn’t given to the poor. The Bible was given to the Church of God — to the whole church — to the church of every economic and cultural level. It was given to the church and the church owns it. Not me, not you, not the experts — the church, the whole church.
A Dangerous Book
The Bible, taken by itself, is a dangerous book, and it is not hard to see the roots of the medieval and counterreformation reluctance to see it in lay hands. In fact, subsequent events appear to ratify these fears. The Bible has been misused widely, grievously, and often sincerely. It has been misused to support anti-Semitism, chattel slavery, racial prejudice, and other injustices. It has been proclaimed as the basis for wars, murders, and thefts, for colonialism and the destruction of ancient cultures, both for economic oppression and for revolution.
The Bible has been used gloriously to speak truth, but it has also been quoted endlessly and contentiously to produce disruptions, divisions, and a relentless atomization in the Body of Christ. There is no shortage of “Bible only” sects whose God is not the God of Jesus and His church (Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Way, the heirs of H. W. Armstrong, and many others) or is described in such a muddle as to be barely recognizable (“Jesus only” Pentecostals, for example). There are also sects that are more orthodox in the central core of theology, but have used the Bible to teach bizarre and dangerous practices (snake handling, abstinence from medical care), an astonishing range of petty legalisms (no alcohol, no wedding ring, don’t wear red, no dancing, ad infinitum), and a wide variety of truly eccentric ideas (such as the reemergence of the one true church in Cherokee County NC in 1903. I used to teach this one!)
What is the problem here? It is precisely Sola Scriptura, taken to its limit, i.e. the use of Scripture by people who refuse to listen to the church, yes, to tradition. Holy Writ is such a vast collection, speaking of such awesomely incomprehensible mysteries that it is simply beyond the ability of one person or even of a group to unravel. To attempt to do so is to court disaster. Fortunately, however, you and I don’t need to do it alone. It is not our book; it was given to the church; and the church stretches across time and across cultures and across this planet. The church has time enough, minds enough, and prayers enough to seek truth, and has the guaranteed presence of the Holy Spirit to guide and aid the search. How do we come up with a correct interpretation of Scripture? Well, maybe Tevye had the right idea after all. The word is “Tradition.”
Now you’ll be wondering, “Is this Protestant preacher putting tradition on a par with Scripture?” Well, do I accept any other authority equal to the Bible? The simple answer is , “No!” The Book is uniquely the Word of God, occupying a position above every other authority. It is the ultimate judge of every teaching, every practice, yes, every tradition. But the Book is never alone. It did not appear of itself, “Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” It did not announce itself, but was identified, we could even say selected, by a living and active church over a period of centuries. It has ever and always had its main use in the assembly of Christian people. It has belonged to a church, taught in that church, carried the worship of that church, been preserved by that church, and been interpreted within that church. The ongoing life of a church is best described as tradition, that which is handed down, and the tradition of the church is, first and foremost, the Book it has used and handed down for so many centuries. That primary tradition is handled with reverence, used, studied, and interpreted in the fellowship that has preserved it. In short, there is a tradition of interpretation, and Scripture cannot be properly interpreted outside it. He who ignores the wisdom of the centuries does so at his own hazard and that of others. No, tradition is not infallible. It may indeed err, and indeed has, but it cannot be ignored. Some would dispose of “the traditions of men” completely (though they always do so under the influence of other traditions), and others would place Scripture and Tradition as co-equal sources of truth. Some would even consider Scripture a mere part of tradition. All these viewpoints seem inadequate. Perhaps the following will come somewhere near the truth:
Scripture, identified, preserved, and interpreted by tradition; tradition judged by Scripture.
Some of the crucial doctrines of Scripture are not specifically formulated in the Book and are usually described in non-Scriptural terminology. These doctrines were honed to a fine edge over several centuries, during which other formulations were demonstrated to be so inadequate as to deserve condemnation. The result is eminently in accord with the Bible, in fact necessary for a proper understanding of the text, but cannot successfully be extracted from it by individuals, and requires a more technical vocabulary for clear expression.
The Trinity. An adequate description of the Christian God must deal with His absolute unity. There is no God beside Him. It must also deal with the full divinity of three separate entities, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. Threeness and oneness are both central attributes. The term “Trinity” itself is nowhere in the Bible, but was coined to fill the need of discussing this suprarational truth. The Trinity is described as having one “nature” in three “persons”, also nonbiblical terms. For generations Christians wrangled in a confused fashion with these seeming contradictions until a vocabulary was developed to label the concepts. Notice, that these concepts are beyond comprehension, but, with proper words, can be affirmed and discussed. Here a traditional apparatus makes it possible to study Scripture without confusion. Anyone who tries to get along without these terms simply flounders around. I’ve heard a great deal of that.
Likewise the Dual Nature of Christ. The person and nature of Jesus has been and still is intensely debated. The classic description of what Scripture says took four centuries and four church councils to iron out, again using nonbiblical terms. The problem is that there is only one Jesus, but He is described both as God and as man. Controversies roared, some denying or minimizing His divinity, others making Him less than fully human. Ultimately the definition looked like this: Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, is one single “person”, who exists in two “natures”, the divine nature, and the human nature. Note that nothing has really been explained. It remains mystery as much as does the Trinity, but the vocabulary makes it possible to approach all of Scripture with clarity and without confusion. The mystery was further guarded by a surprising vocabulary choice, one Protestants tend to dislike, but one that seems to do a marvelous job of identifying Jesus. This is the identification of Mary as theotokos, bearer of God (sometimes translated as “Mother of God”). The word did not intend to say anything about the virgin mother herself, but rather to defend against those who would deny His full divinity from His very conception. Their opponents’ use of christotokos, bearer of Christ, on the other hand, tended to lessen emphasis on His divine nature.
In both of these cases, Scripture indeed is the truth, but tradition has devised ways of approaching that truth with clarity and disposing of the many inadequate and unhelpful theories. Tradition keeps us from reinventing the wheel—and that was hard enough the first time around.
The Bible in the church. The Bible for the church. The Bible interpreted by the church. The Bible, judge of the church. But never the Bible alone.
From the droppings of sacred cattle, Good Lord deliver us. Amen.