[To understand what this blog is, read this first. After my first letter, on icons, I came to the conclusion that I needed to back up and tackle some more foundational issues, such as the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. I emailed back and forth with my mom asking if she wanted me to go in depth on such topics, with the fear that it could cause hurt feelings, or go with very shallow treatments that would be less “convincing” but easier on relationships. She said to go for it in whatever way made the most sense to me, so I did.
If you prefer to listen rather than read about this topic, skip to the end for some audio links.]
I started tackling the issues we listed in a rather haphazard fashion. I just took the first item on the list, icons, and started writing. After some reflection I thought it would be best to back up, and take a run at the core issues. I think if I can convey my understanding on the core issues first, it will help in dealing with the derivative issues of saints and icons and such.
So first I want to talk about what I believe is the fundamental distinctive of Protestantism, Sola Scriptura. I think the principal of Sola Scriptura is how many Protestants differentiate between types of Christianity, and how they understand their own religious practice. This was also the first issue I had to tackle before moving on to other items, so it seems to make a sort of chronological sense to talk about it first.
My experience has been that if I start to discuss any other issue with others, or when I was first looking into the issues myself, the first question to come up will be what scriptural basis is there for that doctrine or practice in Orthodoxy. Icons in church? Where is it in the Bible? It’s not an unfair request. We should be in accordance with Scripture at every point. But what does it mean to be in accordance with Scripture? I recognized a very deep bias in my own Protestant thinking about the position of Scripture in relation to Christianity that serves as the basis for everything else I do. I had to look at that in depth first in order to properly understand both Protestantism and Orthodoxy. It seemed to me that if Sola Scriptura remained a viable way of determining truth for me, then much of the rest of the examination of Orthodoxy was unnecessary. If not….well, more on that later.
Before I get going let me first tell you what I’m not going to say. I’m going to be taking some swipes at Sola Scriptura, but I am NOT attacking Scripture. Orthodoxy completely affirms the Scriptures as inspired by God. They hold an extremely high view of Scripture, and use it extensively in their worship. In fact, Scripture is used more in Orthodox liturgy on a consistent basis than I’ve seen in any protestant church I’ve ever attended. They don’t equate any writings of early church fathers with Scripture, or allow anything else to trump Scripture’s place as the pinnacle of the apostolic teachings. I just want to reassure you on this point before I discuss Sola Scriptura so that you can be completely sure that I am not discounting Scripture’s absolutely pivotal role in my life and in the life of the Orthodox Church.
Here’s another thing that I’m not going to say. I’m not going to say that because in the end I’ve come to reject Sola Scriptura that I therefore reject all the theological beliefs of Protestantism and our understanding of the Bible. In other words, it is entirely possible that through the grace of God we have correctly understood the Bible and come to correct conclusions about what God is saying to the Church (or some portion of those conclusions are correct), and yet Sola Scriptura still be wrong. The reason that it still matters to me even if the end conclusions are correct (and that may be up for grabs, but we hold that for later) is that Sola Scriptura is a foundational principle of Protestantism. If it is wrong then it indicates that the foundations are shaky and there probably is a different principle on which I should be basing my life and finding out what that is may change my outlook on many issues. But to be clear, rejecting Sola Scriptura is not the same thing as saying that all of our understanding of Christianity is therefore wrong. I hope that makes sense.
This email goes long, but there’s a lot to cover. It might be something you need to print out and take with you to read when you have time and privacy. I apologize for the length. Take your time reading it.
What is Sola Scriptura?
The Sola Scriptura principle has many different definitions, depending on who you are talking to. Protestantism covers a wide array of beliefs, so it’s impossible to narrow it down to one specific definition. Apologists try to narrow it down to as little an “attack surface” as possible, so that it is easier to defend, but I look at how it is used in practice by myself and other Protestants for a working definition. Sola means “only” or “alone”, so Sola Scriptura says that everything you need for faith and practice is found in scripture alone (apologists and some theologians would say only what is necessary for salvation is found there, to hedge their bet) and can be clearly understood by using the normal means available to us. Another way of putting it is that the Bible is the only rule for faith and doctrine, or the only trustworthy rule. Historical church understanding and tradition may be useful, but is not inspired and is subject to corruption and therefore should be treated very carefully if at all. In any case it is unnecessary. Typically tradition is considered to be extraneous or even harmful. This philosophy, to me, suffers from many difficulties.
Some might complain that this is too broad of a statement, and is a “straw man” that I can beat down. I don’t think this is the case. In thinking back to the many sermons I’ve heard or Bible studies I’ve attended or courses I’ve taken, I think the operating principle has been what I wrote above. Church history is rarely if ever referred to. Writings of the early church are completely absent. Major christian theological development is missing. We study books that are all written within the last century; often times within the last decade. Nothing outside of Scripture is considered to be worth expounding on. I think this all points to the fact that what I’ve described above is actually the way Evangelical Protestants view Scripture and church history.
Part of this discussion of Sola Scriptura will revolve around the idea of tradition, and what I think it means to the church after examining church history and reading early Christian writings. This is a large topic, and might not be fully addressed in this email. However, the concept of Sola Scriptura does bear strongly on the role that tradition plays. The common Protestant view is that tradition is separate from and largely opposed to Scripture. Some would even say that only Scripture is pure but tradition always goes off the rails, and needs to be ejected for proper Chrisitan practice. At best it is unnecessary. They view much of tradition like barnacles on a ship that if not removed will eventually slow the ship or even cause it to sink. I found that the issue wasn’t nearly so clear cut though.
Ironically, I’m going to spend the rest of this letter addressing a belief that in reality, no one actually holds. While many Protestants will hang on the “Bible alone” battle cry not a single one of them actually understands Christianity that way. The “Bible alone” position has been accurately labeled as “Solo Scriptura” (note the “o”), and in fact that’s what I’m going to be actually addressing. Since this is how people in our persuasion typically think of Sola Scriptura, that’s what I’m going to talk about. Solo Scriptura would be rejecting any outside tradition or understanding of Scripture as authoritative. Sola Scriptura does allow for using traditional interpretations, but removes their authority. In truth everyone has a tradition; a system by which they read the Bible and understand the Christian life. They don’t usually want to recognize that, since it raises uncomfortable questions of WHERE that tradition came from, and how they might validate it, but it is there nonetheless. I reject both positions as insufficient and unhistorical, though a TRUE, traditional Sola Scriptura position is more palatable than the Solo Scriptura position that is professed.
Since the battle line is mostly on this illusory “Bible alone” system that’s what I’ll be addressing, and what I’ll be calling Sola Scriptura, but my aim is to demonstrate the shakiness of the face of this sort of Sola Scriptura so that we can all get at the actual tradition underneath by which we understand Scripture and examine that.
Historians on Sola Scriptura
Here are some Protestant historians writing on the subject of Sola Scriptura:
“In the Ante-Nicene Church [first three centuries] … there was no notion of sola Scriptura, but neither was there a doctrine of traditio sola.” (Albert Outler, “The Sense of Tradition in the Ante-Nicene Church”, pg 8-30)
“As a matter of historical fact (and therefore of theological accuracy), the Christian Scriptura has never been sola. When the Christian movement began, it had the Tanakh (in most cases the Septuagint) as its Scriptura and, alongside it, the primitive proclamation had itself been written down and fleshed out in to the New Testament Scriptura, the church also had the creeds and the liturgy, on the basis of which it decided what the New Testament, and behind it the Tanakh, meant for Christian faith and life. The very conflict over the biblical canon between the Protestant Reformers and the Council of Trent made it clear that even in a doctrine of sola Scriptura the authority of the Bible did not authenticate itself automatically (which would have required some kind of doctrine of repeated inspiration in each generation of the history of the Church) but depended on its recognition by tradition and by the church for acceptance. Another aspect of the divine irony that we have seen repeatedly in the history of the use of the Bible within both Judaism and Christianity is that the Bible being used as a weapon against church and tradition had itself come from the arsenal of the church and had been preserved and protected by the tradition.” (Jaroslav Pelikan, “Whose Bible Is It?”, pg 180)
Biblical Objections to Sola Scriptura
Where is Sola Scriptura in Scripture? Now, like anyone raised in the Protestant mind set I had to think, if Sola Scriptura was such an important rule in Christian life it is certainly Biblically based. So where was it in the Bible? Can we find Sola Scriptura defined or approved in Scripture? How can we know the truth of a principle that says that the Bible is preeminent in determining Christian truth if we can’t actually find the Bible saying this? That’s a tough question to answer. This was a big deal for me. I can’t say as a Protestant that I am basing my beliefs on the Bible alone, but then have no Biblical basis for doing so.
Looking to various Protestant sources I found different attempts at locating Sola Scriptura in Scripture. Some people saw it in the ending of Revelation, where God warns against adding to or taking away from those writings, but I dismissed that immediately. Not only is that clearly referring to changing Revelation itself, not the entirety of Scripture, but you can find similar injunctions in Deuteronomy 4, and clearly much accepted revelation from God came after that point. Even if Rev. 22 did mean not to change the entirety of Scripture (a principle everyone would agree with), that says nothing about how to handle the Tradition of the church or how to understand the Scripture we have. Some reference Psalm 119:160 as proving sufficiency. That’s quite a stretch. Some referenced 2 Peter 1:20,21, but that one is actually suggesting the opposite of the practice of Sola Scriptura to me. Many people suggested scriptures pertaining to the truth of God’s Word, confusing Jesus with the Bible. And on and on…
The nuclear bomb of Sola Scriptura verses has to be 2 Tim 3:16,17. If there’s one passage that will be quoted in a discussion of Sola Scriptura by theologians or apologists it’s this one.
All scripture is given by inspiration, and profitable for doctrine, for reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished for all good works. (KJV)
Slam dunk huh? Not really for me.
“All scripture” does sort of beg the question of how we know what is and is not Scripture. I’ll discuss this later in the email, though, under philosophical objections to Sola Scriptura, so for now I’ll just leave it that already we have to have another source outside of Scripture to even tell us what the bounds of Scripture are. What Scripture is Paul referring to. Just the Old Testament would be a valid understanding, since the New Testament canon was still hundreds of years from begin accepted.
But what if we could somehow grant that all existing NT Scripture is also included in Paul’s statements here? Still, using this passage to argue for Sola Scriptura is disastrous. Surely you agree that the book of 2 Timothy was inerrant from the very moment Paul wrote it. The same day Paul wrote 2 Timothy, the book of 2 Timothy was 100% true. Yet, at the moment Paul finished writing 2 Timothy, the book of Revelation (and possibly Titus and 2 Peter) had not even been written yet! So if Paul taught that “all currently existing Scripture is utterly sufficient for all the Church’s needs“, then you must believe that the Church has absolutely no need whatsoever to read the book of Revelation! After all, if the pre-Revelation/Titus/2 Peter inspired Scriptures are 100% sufficient for the Church, then what need does the Church have of those additional books?
Also, note that nowhere in this verse does it talk about sufficiency. While many protestants said over and over again that 2 Tim 3:16,17 demonstrates the absolute sufficiency of Scripture, it nowhere actually says anything about sufficiency. It says “profitable”, or “useful”, not “sufficient” or “complete”. Why does that matter? You might wonder if it really is necessary that it talks about sufficiency in relationship to Scripture. Since that is a key component to any definition of Sola Scriptura it is very important. Perhaps an analogy might help to make the point.
If I said that gasoline was useful or profitable for making your car work, that would be true. I might even say it’s the MOST important thing for making your car work. Would I then be justified in saying that gasoline was sufficient for making your car work? What about the battery? What about the head lights? What about a trained driver? All of these things are necessary for a properly operating car (among many other things), and yet none of them can be said to be sufficient for that purpose. Do you need gasoline? Yes. Without it the car absolutely will not work, but you need many other things working with the gasoline to get that car rolling. Applying that to the church show that Scripture being a necessary part of Church teachings does not mean it is sufficient to pass on those teachings. It raises the question of what other things besides Scripture are necessary?
Saying that Scripture is useful for perfecting a Christian is quite true, and we would all agree with that, but it cannot be said that from that you can just move directly to saying that it is sufficient on its own, and certainly not to the further thought that Paul is indicating that you can have Scripture standing all by itself. It doesn’t follow that you can apply “sola” to “scriptura” using this verse. It’s important to notice that not one single translation of the Bible into English puts the word “sufficient” into verse 16, because it’s not there, even by implication.
Another interesting thing is that if you take the same argument applied to 2 Tim 3:16,17, saying the Scripture makes a Christian perfect and that indicates sufficiency, and apply it to James 1:4, which uses even stronger wording in regards to perseverance making a Christian perfect, you’d have to say that perseverance was what it took to make a Christian perfect. So perseverance is sufficient on its own. Sola Perseverance? You can look and see a similar application issue in 2 Tim 2:21. There cleansing yourself makes you prepared for every good work. So, I guess confession is sufficient, perhaps? Sola Confession! This demonstrates the bad application of “sufficiency” to 2 Tim 3:16,17.
Some apologists for Sola Scriptura also read the word “perfect” that is present in some translations of 2 Tim 3:16 as supporting the Sola Scriptura doctrine of just how effective Scripture is at its work, but in addition to the objections in the previous paragraph about misapplication, that word “perfect” in verse 17 is in doubt as well. Many translations use much less certain phraseology, such as “adequate” (such as the NASB). Even if you keep the translation to “perfect” to verse 17, it merely tells you that Scripture is useful as part of the effort in making a Christian perfect. The “perfect” refers to the Christian, not the Scripture. No one contests that Scripture is useful for the purpose of perfecting the Christian.
Looking around in 2 Timothy 3 we come up with more issues. Reading back into verse 15 we see that the context of what Paul is talking about isn’t what we would hope. “From childhood” Timothy knew the sacred writings that are so useful in v 16,17. Well, that clearly refers to the Old Testament writings since the New Testament wasn’t written yet and certainly wouldn’t be what Timothy learned as a child. So the Scriptures Paul says are inspired and useful for perfecting us are the Old Testament writings. If we are going to hold to a literal reading we have to affirm that all a person should need would be the Old Testament. That’s highly problematic. Of course it is certainly valid to extend the principle on to the New Testament, but at the time Paul was writing he was referring to the Old Testament only. Something’s amiss with the argument.
What else? Well, reading verse 14 you see Paul tell Timothy to continue in the things he has learned. What things? The New Testament hadn’t been written yet. Paul is instructing him to maintain the oral teaching given Him by Paul containing the new revelation of Jesus. And why should he continue in them? Paul says it’s because Timothy knows who taught him. So, the authority for the teachings rests on the relationship of Timothy and Paul, not on an appeal to an external authority of Scripture that doesn’t yet exist.
What else? Well, another interesting little issue comes up back in verse 8. Paul throws off this little reference to the Jannes and Jambres who opposed Moses. An interesting question arises. Where did Paul get those names? It turns out they aren’t in the Old Testament account of Pharoah’s magicians. Here we have an interesting demonstration that Paul himself drew from extra Scriptural Jewish oral tradition for his understanding of Christianity.
What else? Well, backing up in 2 Timothy even more if we go back to chapter 2:2 we have the reference where Paul expressly and clearly commands Timothy to hold to the teachings Paul gave him, and to pass them on to other trustworthy men? Why does Timothy need to pass them on? Why do the men need to be trustworthy? Shouldn’t the all-sufficient Scripture of 3:16,17 be enough to maintain the apostolic teachings by themselves, regardless of the character of the men Timothy teaches?
2 Tim 3:15 in the whole context of the letter should not be stretched beyond what it actually says. Scripture is useful. We should stop there. Taken in context, and with the rest of Scripture speaking to the issue I think that 2 Tim 3:15 is certainly not defining the principle of Sola Scriptura.
There are other passages that are used to more or less effect. The temptation passage in Matthew 4 is sometimes used in defense of Sola Scriptura. It is written! Not, it is spoken! Except that sometimes God’s words come to us in oral fashion, not written. Gal. 1:11-12 comes to mind as an interesting example. The entirety of Acts is a good example! 🙂 There are other instances were oral tradition or extra-Biblical writings are used by the Apostles. There are also plenty of references to the oral preaching of the Gospel, which predates any written Scripture, also being called the word of God. Beyond that I found it interesting that in Matthew 4 when Jesus quotes from the Old Testament, so does Satan. What an interesting thing to talk about how Matthew 4 is demonstrating the clarity of written Scripture alone to teach the faith in the very passage where Satan is quoting Scripture to try and convince Jesus to sin. Surely the passage is demonstrating instead the great ease of misusing Scripture. For me this seems to directly contradict the philosophy of Sola Scriptura. It has shades of 2 Peter 3:16.
Another common passage cited for Sola Scriptura is 1 Cor 4:6, where Paul says not to go beyond what is written. A full treatment of this verse would take quite a bit of space. If you find this Scripture pivotal to the Sola Scriptura debate and you’d like for me to address it I will do so on your request. Otherwise, besides some apologists, just know that even Protestant commentators don’t take the verse to mean Sola Scriptura. I looked through various commentaries I had access to online or here at my house. Most of them were completely silent on this verse. The few that did address it didn’t relate it to Sola Scriptura at all.
The final passage I want to look at is the famous passage on the Bereans in Acts 17:10-15, also frequently cited in Sola Scriptura apologetics. The Bereans are praised for examining the Scriptures for the truth, and even referred to as MORE noble minded than those others in Thessalonica that Paul had just left. Surely we should want to be like them and rely just on Scripture, right? It’s an argument by analogy, but surely it holds some weight. I see a few problems with using these verses in that manner.
First I note that both the Thessalonians (in the prior verses) and Bereans read the Scripture/O.T. The reason why the Bereans were counted as “noble” by Paul was because they thoroughly examined Paul’s teachings of Jesus, that were at that time extra-Scriptural, against the Jewish Scripture, and found the message of Jesus Christ to be compatible. It wasn’t because they were the only ones that looked at the Scriptures. The Thessalonians also read the Scripture, but did not accept the new teachings.
I noted as well that the Scriptures they were reviewing for confirmation were the Old Testament writings. This prompts the question, do we only need only the Old Testament to be approved by Paul? Is the Old Testament sufficient for our purposes? It was enough for the noble Bereans. If not, doesn’t that indicate that proof texting is going on? Also, what the Bereans were comparing to Scripture (the O.T.) was the new and novel teachings of Christianity. They were confirming these new, oral teachings with Scripture, which is completely the right thing to do, but what they were receiving and believing were the new truths of Christianity (the message of Jesus). In other words, they weren’t studying their Scriptures alone (as in Sola Scriptura), but rather were using them to confirm new revelation and then accepting the new oral teachings of Paul as authoritative. Therefore, I find this to be a counter-example to Sola Scriptura.
Those are the passages typically used to “prove” Sola Scriptura. After looking around at all the proof texts I saw for Sola Scriptura I had to say that I just can’t find the principle in the Bible. For such a central principle of Protestantism it is remarkably absent from any Scripture. Is Sola Scriptura Biblical? There’s no definitive Sola Scriptura verse in the Bible, but there ARE plenty of positive references to oral tradition. You might be able to say that the teachings of Jesus all end up in Scripture, but there’s no way to prove it from Scripture alone. And it neglects the fact that the only Biblical record of how Christian teaching was to be passed on explicitly says to obey written and oral tradition both (more on this below), not written only, and that having a written record of the entirety of the apostolic tradition does not do a thing for maintaining a consistent understanding of those writings (more on this below as well).
Personally, I had to give the “win” to a balanced view of Scripture existing in Tradition (written/oral + worship + bishops as overseers), not Scripture only or Tradition only. Since Sola Scriptura is intrinsically bound up in the understanding that the important stuff of Christianity derives directly from Scripture alone, not being able to find Sola Scriptura itself in Scripture is fairly damning to the whole philosophy.
Doesn’t scripture say that tradition is bad? The Orthodox understanding of Tradition is not the same as the Catholic understanding, so don’t assume that the two views are identical. A full treatment of tradition would be much too long for this already crazy long email, so I’ll just emphasize that in Orthodox understanding Tradition isn’t something that is separate from Scripture, but rather is something that encompasses Scripture, is supported by Scripture, and has Scripture as its chief component. Simply, Tradition is what the apostles passed on to all Christians as the truth that was taught to them by Jesus, including proper worship, understanding of sacraments, and Church structure. Therefore the Church is founded on Scripture, but Scripture cannot be divorced from the Church. It is equally wrong to see Scripture in a separate position over the Church, because it separates Scripture from its proper context. When that happens people take Scripture and just generate their own idea of what Church should be.
Sola Scriptura relies on the idea that traditions (oral) are bad and/or unreliable, whereas written, inspired testimony is the only reliable means of passing on the truths of Christianity, but this is nowhere seen in the Bible itself. In fact the Biblical treatment of Tradition is exactly the opposite. Tradition is the trustworthy organic life of the Church passed on from person to person, and it tells you what truth is. I was surprised to find this myself, but once it was pointed out to me I kept seeing it all over. We’ll talk about this below.
Jesus does have harsh words for some traditions in Mark 7, but it is easy to take those words too far. He condemns the Pharisees when they teach their own ideas as God’s ideas, particularly because they set aside God’s commands in order to follow commands that did not originate from God. It’s easier to see how this is taken askew when you compare Mark 7 with Matthew 23. Here again Jesus is condemning the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, but note that he instructs his own disciples to follow the commands of the Pharisees in verse 3. He just says to do as they say, not as they do. When they passed on the teachings of God through Moses they were authoritative.
Many people have the mistaken view that Scripture universally sees “tradition” as bad, but this is not at all accurate. Many translations of the Bible demonstrate a Protestant bias by translating the same greek word (which means essentially “teachings”) as “tradition” when it is seen in a negative light, and “teachings” when seen in a positive light. The NIV is an example of a translation that does this. The word is the same, though, whether discussed positively or negatively. It’s traditions of men that Jesus denounced, not all traditions. The New Testament is FULL of references to tradition in a positive light, and commands that it be passed on. 2 Tim 2:2 has already been mentioned. You can also find very positive expressions of tradition in 1 Cor 15:1, Gal 1:8-9, Gal 1:11, Acts 2:42, 1 Thes 2:13, 1 Cor 11:1-2, Phil 3:17, Phil 4:9, 1 Cor 11:23-24, 1 Cor 11:34, 2 Tim 1:13-14, 2 Thes 3:6.
The traditions were comprised in written letters, but also in oral teaching and most importantly the lived out pattern of the apostles that breathed life into the teachings. Just as Jesus passed on His teachings to the apostles, the apostles passed on those teachings to others. In the following verse both the written and oral components of Tradition are held up side by side as equally important.
So, then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. (2 Thes 2:15)
This is also an indication that the written scripture did not contain everything necessary for Christian life. Christians should be able to look at the Bible with a fair mind and agree that it is not exhaustive. It is not a systematic theology text. It’s certainly not laid out as a straightforward guide to the faith. And yet, some people hold out that exact idea. They say that, of course early on the Church had to rely on oral teaching because the written teaching was not completed. Once the written was completed, though, the oral was no longer necessary. First, it’s obvious that the Bible does not completely cover all aspects of the life of the early Church, so it certainly did not contain everything in it. Second there’s no way to divorce the text from the meaning contained in the teaching of the church leaders, who were first the apostles and then their chosen successors. Third, nowhere does the Bible explicitly or implicitly support the idea that the oral teaching process was to be abandoned. It’s just not there. Fourth, it was multiple centuries before the Church even came to agreement on what was Scripture and what wasn’t.
The New Testament is largely composed of pastoral letters written to churches that had problems and were being corrected, but it nowhere lays out clearly what is essential for Christian practice, or how worship was to be conducted. It would seem that the very existence of the written letters correcting churches would provide support for Sola Scriptura. Obviously the churches were having difficulties in maintaining proper practice right from the get go. Doesn’t that undermine the idea of an oral teaching process? On reflection this is not providing support for Sola Scriptura at all. It merely points to the ongoing and important work of the Holy Spirit in maintaining proper worship and conduct in the churches by means of other members in the Body. It wasn’t the written letter that corrected the issues, but the underlying authority of the person writing the letter. Individual members and even entire local congregations can get off track, but the Body entire led by the Holy Spirit corrects the errant members and brings them back into communion. We have record of some of the corrections in written form, but also references to other corrections and instructions that were done verbally (here and here) without being recorded, or entire letters that are not contained in the Bible (note that Paul is referencing another letter before 1 Corinthians). The means are not as important as the correcting function of the Body.
The apostles saw Tradition as so important that they wrote:
In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the tradition you received from us (II Thessalonians 3:6).
What does the Bible say is the foundation of the truth? The quick reaction of any Protestant is surely to say, “the Bible!” It seems intuitively obvious that Scripture is the trustworthy witness and well spring of the truth, which when read by a person who is properly opened by the Holy Spirit should result in accurate understanding. Is that actually what Scripture says, though? Looking at 1 Timothy we find a different understanding entirely. (It’s astounding just how fruitful the books of 1 & 2 Timothy, and the Thessalonian epistles, are for Sola Scriptura understanding.)
In 1 Tim 3:15 Paul writes to Timothy and imparts instruction “…so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.” I don’t know if that hits you in the same way that it hits me. I’ll be dealing more fully with the idea of what Church is in a later email, but in terms of Sola Scriptura we can at least note that Paul doesn’t identify Scripture as the “pillar and support of the truth”, but rather sees the living community of Christians in that role. This doesn’t diminish the role of Scripture for Paul, but does show that he has a more complete view of truth than we might.
Before moving on to historical objections, a quick aside. Let me again state that the Orthodox view of Scripture is a very high one, and they do not equate any other writings with Scripture. Ok, moving on.
Historical Objections to Sola Scriptura
So, which came first, the Church or the Bible? This may seem like an unimportant question, but it does get at something important. Jesus came and founded the Church (not the Bible), and yet peculiarly He never wrote any of his teaching down. He never instructed that it be written down. He never insinuated that it would be written down. His great commission to the apostles talks directly to the process of handing on His teachings, but says nothing of it being written. This should be troubling for anyone who holds to Sola Scriptura. Where is the concern of Jesus for written Scripture? We can affirm the source of New Testament Scripture as truly being God, and hold it in highest esteem, and yet draw some interesting conclusions about the function of Tradition from these facts.
During the initial 50 years, at least, little to none of the New Testament was held in common among the churches. They would have had a few letters from the apostles, and eventually the four accepted gospels. A full consensus on what was and was not Scripture was still centuries away, and yet the church functioned just fine, and even thrived under the pressure of persecution. No one would have had a personal copy of the Scriptures, and yet the church had a strong sense of how the teaching given by Jesus was to be passed on. In 2 Timothy 2:2 Paul describes this process when telling Timothy:
And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.
Paul teaches Timothy (2nd generation), who entrusts that teaching to reliable men (3rd generation), who will be qualified to teach others (4th generation). Right in one verse you have a super clear picture of how Christianity was transmitted. Note that he says, what you “heard” me say entrust to other men, and that it was to be confirmed by many witnesses. The process did not rely on written testimony, but rather one-on-one discipleship from generation to generation of the consensus witness, with each Christian sharing in the responsibility of maintaining the truth. This is one spot of many where the New Testament holds up the importance of the Christian life and teaching passed on by the apostles orally. The continuity of teaching was important for maintaining the truth of Christian life.
What did the early Church believe about the role of Scripture? This was an important question for me when considering Sola Scriptura. I could see how the various positions in the Reformation arrived at their stances in regard to Sola Scriptura, but I wondered, did the early church lean one way or the other? Did they speak to the topic at all? Looking on the internet and reading apologetic books can quickly find all sides throwing out quotes from the early Christians showing conclusively how they were either complete adherents of Sola Scriptura, or denied it by completely by relying only on the Church to tell them what to believe.
For instance, you would see St. Athanasius saying:
“The holy and inspired Scriptures are fully sufficient for the proclamation of the truth.”
And on the other hand see St. Augustine saying:
“I would not believe in the Gospel myself if the authority of the Catholic Church did not influence me to do so.”
Gasp. So St. Augustine didn’t think Scripture was inspired? And St. Athanasius was a Protestant? No. Neither is true. I found that the problem lies with cherry picking specific statements out of a context that was natural to the authors, anachronistically reading our understandings back into early writers, ignoring the entirety of what they wrote and lived, and trying to peg the fathers as either for or against Sola Scriptura when the principle just wasn’t on their radar.
Here’s another example. A favorite quote for Sola Scriptura from the great church father St. Basil says:
“Therefore, let God inspired Scripture decide between us; and on whichever side be found doctrines in harmony with the Word of God, in favor of that side will be cast the vote of truth.”
Sounds like the smoking gun right? Well, here’s another quote from the same guy, St. Basil:
“Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or enjoined which are preserved in the Church, some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have delivered to us in a mystery by the apostles by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force.”
Confused yet? The bottom line is you can take the writings of the early church and proof text them in the same way you can proof text Scripture to come up with whatever you want. Where’s the check and balance?
As I read the fathers and considered more and more what they were saying I began to see that their consistent understanding was not either-or in relation to Scripture and Tradition (as something separate from Scripture), but that Scripture was the primal piece of the living tradition of the Church and was properly understood only within the confines of the teaching of the Church. Within those confines, however, it reigns supreme!
I can see how that might sound like the position of the Roman Catholics. It’s not, though. Asserting that the Church is responsible for continuing to preserve the context of Scripture in the life of the Church as expressed in its worship and by the bishops does not give those bishops the right to change Scripture, add to it, or remove from it. The apostolic deposit does not change, and doctrine does not develop, because it is the result of revelation not cogitation. It is not added to by putting in the Roman Catholic innovations of papal supremacy and the immaculate conception of Mary, and neither is it reduced like Protestants do by removing the place of the Eucharist from the center of Christian life, making it and baptism symbolic acts only, and making every believer an authority to themselves. Scripture is only properly useful when it is contained in the unchanging tradition of Jesus given to the apostles. As He is unchanging truth, so is the apostolic tradition unchanging truth. I believe that this is the consistent understanding of the early church based on what I’ve read.
The early church prized Scripture very highly. They held it in just as much esteem as do Protestants (perhaps even more), but they also recognized that it was not a vehicle of teaching outside of the Church body. The fathers used Scripture as a guide and proof of doctrine and talked about it in ways that would feel very comfortable for a Protestant. But it doesn’t do any good for me or anyone else to quickly dash into the writings of the early church only long enough to grab quotes to defend Sola Scriptura, and then run out as quickly so that we don’t have to agree with those same Fathers on what they clearly say that Scripture meant, or the Christian practices that they lived and defended that we object to.
So were the fathers Sola Scriptura adherents? I don’t believe so. The historical anachronism of forcing a philosophy of 16th century Reformers of Catholicism onto 2nd – 4th century Orthodox church fathers doesn’t jive with what they say in their writings.
Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3,2-2 (inter A.D. 180/199):
“But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. For [they maintain] that the apostles intermingled the things of the law with the words of the Saviour; and that not the apostles alone, but even the Lord Himself, spoke as at one time from the Demiurge, at another from the intermediate place, and yet again from the Pleroma, but that they themselves, indubitably, unsulliedly, and purely, have knowledge of the hidden mystery: this is, indeed, to blaspheme their Creator after a most impudent manner! It comes to this, therefore, that these men do now consent neither to Scripture nor to tradition.”
Tertullian, Prescription against the Heretics, 37 (A.D. 200):
“Since this is the case, in order that the truth may be adjudged to belong to us, “as many as walk according to the rule,” which the church has handed down from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, and Christ from God, the reason of our position is clear, when it determines that heretics ought not to be allowed to challenge an appeal to the Scriptures, since we, without the Scriptures, prove that they have nothing to do with the Scriptures. For as they are heretics, they cannot be true Christians, because it is not from Christ that they get that which they pursue of their own mere choice, and from the pursuit incur and admit the name of heretics. Thus, not being Christians, they have acquired no right to the Christian Scriptures; and it may be very fairly said to them, “Who are you? When and whence did you come?”
Origen, First Principles, 4,1:9 (A.D. 230):
“Now the cause, in all the points previously enumerated, of the false opinions, and of the impious statements or ignorant assertions about God, appears to be nothing else than the not understanding the Scripture according to its spiritual meaning, but the interpretation of it agreeably to the mere letter. And therefore, to those who believe that the sacred books are not the compositions of men, but that they were composed by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, agreeably to the will of the Father of all things through Jesus Christ, and that they have come down to us, we must point out the ways (of interpreting them) which appear (correct) to us, who cling to the standard of the heavenly Church of Jesus Christ according to the succession of the apostles.”
Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 5:12 (A.D. 350):
“But in learning the Faith and in professing it, acquire and keep that only, which is now delivered to thee by the Church, and which has been built up strongly out of all the Scriptures….Take heed then, brethren, and hold fast the traditions which ye now receive, and write them and the table of your heart.”
Athanasius, Four Letters to Serapion of Thmuis, 1:28 (A.D. 360):
“But beyond these [Scriptural] sayings, let us look at the very tradition, teaching and faith of the Catholic Church from the beginning, which the Lord gave, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers kept.”
How did the early church deal with heresies? Those early church fathers held that there was a correct meaning of Scripture that was held in the life of the Church, and that was used as a determination in many debates about doctrine. Importantly there were many issues that clearly weren’t detailed in Scripture so that it couldn’t be used as an “umpire”, and so the fathers also relied on either the strength of the episcopacy or the liturgy used in the Church to construct their defenses. It’s instructive then to see how the church dealt with early heresies.
In all heresies both sides, Orthodox and heretical, had various Scripture that they quoted, all the way back to the first major heresy, Gnosticism. I once heard a reformed Protestant theology instructor (Michael Patton) say that all the best heresies come from the Bible. While Scripture was certainly used to present the true understanding by Orthodox defenders against heresy, that was not sufficient to settle the issue since the opposing side also fielded Scripture in their claims.
Irenaeus (a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the Apostle John whom Jesus loved!) was the major Christian apologist against the gnostics in the 2nd century. After detailing many ways in which Gnosticism was wrong, he appealed as his ultimate proof to the succession of bishops in place at that time. He asked the gnostics to prove their understanding of Christianity by demonstrating their pedigree. If they accurately transmitted the truth from Christ they should be able to provide the list of their bishops going back to Christ, from which they got their teachings. He then proceeded to supply his own list of Bishops going back to the Apostles (in particular for the church at Rome though he says that a list could be produced for any church), demonstrating both the importance of the understanding of Scripture passed on from person to person in the Church for determining truth, and also the antiquity of the role of bishops in the church. Both are interesting points. It’s too much to quote him here, but take a look at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103303.htm. At the end of section #3 he says:
“And [the unbroken succession of Bishops] is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.”
You see the same when you get to St. Athanasius and the threat of Arianism. He relied on Scripture + the consistent teaching of the bishops + the liturgy in responding to the extremely popular view (at that time) that in fact Jesus was not God but instead was a created being. Athanasius asked how the Arians could say that Jesus wasn’t truly God and yet worship Him in their liturgy. It’s easy to miss the importance of this if you aren’t looking for it, but I could see the implicit assumption that the truth of HOW the church worshiped in the liturgy was just as important in determining truth as were quotes from Scripture. He needed the additional support of the liturgy working in conjunction with Scripture to make his case. And he won! I can’t find an online reference to this at the moment. [See The Christian Tradition, vol 1, page 238-241 by Jaroslav Pelikan] The same thing, again, happened when dealing with the question of whether the Holy Spirit was divine. Liturgy to the rescue!
How did the early church deal with questions of practice (in Acts 15)? I saw this incident in a whole new light after thinking about the place of Sola Scriptura in the Bible. What does Acts 15 have to say about Sola Scriptura? Quite a lot I think. At that time the gentiles are being added to the church and the Christians faced their first major theological battle. Do the gentiles become Jews and follow the law or not? There were proponents on both sides, and so they all meet in council. I noticed two things that are interesting for the question of Sola Scriptura.
When the apostles and elders (bishops) meet together they start debating. Peter stands up and gives his two cents. Note that he doesn’t turn to Scripture. He relates his experience as important, but doesn’t start reeling out verses. Then Paul and Barnabas get up and talk. Again, there’s no scripture given in defense of their position, but only their own experience. Finally James gets up and gives the summation, and then we finally get some verses. But those verses say nothing about the controversy of whether gentiles must become Jews. The council sends out a judgment for the church saying that it seems right to the council and the Holy Spirit (interesting phrase) that Gentiles shouldn’t have to follow the law.
Now I have to ask myself, exactly what principle of understanding Scripture that protestants employ today would the council have used to come to the conclusion that they did? Certainly it doesn’t come out of the Scripture that is quoted there. Where else in the Old Testament can you think of that would lead these observant Jews to think God would not want gentiles to follow the law? I can think of nothing in Judaism that would give the council the authority to accept people into Christianity while dispensing entirely with the Jewish law. Where did that come from? Not from Scripture I think. There is no Scriptural basis from the Old Testament for their decision, nor do they give one. They set aside the entire Jewish system of moral living and worship for the gentile believers on nothing more than the absolute authority given them by Jesus to loose and bind. Quite heady stuff. And yet, nothing of Sola Scriptura is in sight here.
What about the Reformers? Where they actually without a tradition?
As far as I can tell, the answer is yes and no. They absolutely had a tradition. As historian Jaroslav Pelikan says in “In Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700):
…I am still more impressed with the importance of understanding the sixteenth centuring in the light of its continuity and discontinuity with the history of church doctrine since the second century. Despite their protestations of “sola Scriptura,” the Reformers showed that the “Scriptura” has never been “sola.” I would urge, moreover, that the readers of this volume take seriously its context as part of the history of the Christian tradition.
So the Reformers absolutely understood that the Church had a tradition of interpreting Scripture and were frequent users of that. You can read references to the early Church writings all throughout the works of the Reformers. I think more accurately you would say that the Reformers didn’t reject Tradition, but rather Authority. They rejected the authority of the Roman Catholic Church to determine that Tradition authoritatively. Over time, though, this rejection became a general rejection by Protestants of all authoritative traditions, including the early Church, and things became a free-for-all.
Philosophical Objections to Sola Scriptura
Finally, here’s some philosophical objections that I have with Sola Scriptura.
How do we know what is Scripture and what is not? In other words, how do we know that the 27 books of the New Testament are actually Scripture? Where is the inspired table of contents? This is such a simple question, but truly a meaningful one. If the Sola Scriptura principle can’t guide me to the absolutely critical knowledge of what texts are actually Scripture and which aren’t, then it is resting on something else and is truly non-viable for me. If Sola Scriptura can’t give me this information then automatically I have to say that there must be at least some other source of knowledge which is critical to my Christian life, and that makes the “sola” untenable. Scriptura, yes! Sola, no!
This question should not be quickly answered, as many Protestants do. Countless times I’ve seen apologists brush this question aside with the “answer” that of course the Holy Spirit guides believers to this knowledge, and that’s how we know. Really? Did they question the Holy Spirit about the canon of Scripture and get His guidance personally, or did they just accept it because their pastor and teachers accept it? Isn’t that a tradition of its own? Why do they accept that tradition of Protestantism, but not the Tradition of the early church where this actually originates? Did they get guidance from the Spirit? No, they accept it basically because Luther accepted it. Why did Luther accept it? On and on we go.
No thought is given to the historical process that actually occurred to bring the Bible into its current form (well, not exactly the Protestant current form, but close enough) and what it tells us about Sola Scriptura. Not all congregations of the early church agreed with the current 27. Many considered other books, such as the Shepherd of Hermas (Irenaeus and Clement referenced it as Scripture), Didache, Barnabas, and 1 Clement to be inspired Scripture, but these books were rejected in the end. Others rejected some of the 27, but later came into conformity with each other and accepted them all. How did this happen? Where was the guidance of the Holy Spirit making this canon self-evident for the first three or four centuries? The first extant list of the 27 books of the New Testament we have comes from St. Athanasius, who was a bishop, in a letter he wrote to his churches in the late 300s. And there wasn’t a general consensus in the Church on the full 27 books for quite some time after that.
The books were accepted or rejected based on their congruence with the tradition and practice ALREADY present in the churches. In other words, the Scripture was recognized as Scripture because it matched up with the worship and oral tradition being passed on. Those writings which didn’t fully support the traditions already in place were discarded.
If I could add a quick aside, the Church councils that discussed the canon (Rome, Hippo,Carthage) included books in the Old Testament that are now discarded by Protestants as not true Scripture (as does Athanasius in the above letter). I had to concede that if I were to follow the Protestant tradition of the shortened canon I would have to explain why I disregarded the Church’s original corpus of Scripture, and on what authority.
The Protestant church blindly relies on the work of the church of the first four centuries in determining the truth of what was and was not inspired Scripture, and yet simultaneously denies that the same church maintained a true and continuous apostolic witness and worship. The dichotomy there cannot be over stated. How can we affirm both statements? Either the early church maintained the truth through the end of the fourth century to be able to tell us what writings conformed to their understanding of the apostolic teachings and could therefore be considered Scripture (along with other essentials such as the Trinity, the nature of Christ and the divinity of the Holy Spirit) and yet they had many practices and structures that differ significantly from Protestant practices and structures, or we absolutely cannot trust the Bible. I don’t see any other viable option. Strangely many Protestant theologians and apologists try to straddle the fence. R. C. Sproul, a prominent Reformed theologian, calls the Bible a fallible collection of infallible books. Figure that one out. The mental gymnastics there are hard for me to understand or accept. Sproul in his comments indicates that he wants to have his cake and eat it to. He’d like to simultaneously give a big high-five to the church for doing such a good job at selecting the books of the Bible, but kick them to the curb when they try to tell him what it means.
Perhaps instead of intentionally choosing to leave the Bible open to charges of fallibility we could reconsider whether those practices and structures that we find so objectionable are in fact legitimate and if the Church’s choice is infalliable. The alternative is unpalatable.
Did the Holy Spirit guide the process of canonization? Yes, absolutely, but it was through the Church and in the context of the Church that the inspiration became known. We would have to at least concede that the church of the 4th century was sufficiently open to the truth of the Holy Spirit to accept such guidance. Just like in Acts 15, “it seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us”, the process was a synergistic one. That should also indicate the status of their understanding of Scripture and Christian practice. I would add that the process is still a synergistic one between the Holy Spirit and the Church because the Bible still needs to be interpreted and understood by each Christian, but not privately. The ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, in the Church, allows for the proper use of Scripture. Outside that you cannot know that your understanding of Scripture is valid.
A similar question would be, how do we know who wrote the New Testament books? Many of them don’t have authorship even claimed in the text of the book, and even if they do, how can we trust that? Many books written at the time of the apostles or soon after claimed apostolic authorship, but many of them were rejected as fraudulent. The truth is that we have to rely on external sources to even determine that the book of Mark was actually written by Mark. If we don’t trust the external source of information, not only do we not know that Mark belongs in the collection of Scripture, but we don’t even know it was written by Mark. Apologists try so hard to reverse engineer the process into these legalistic check lists to somehow craft a process by which we can arrive at the same Canon as that chosen by the Church (but without relying on the authority of the Church). The check lists don’t work, and they certainly are nothing like the actual organic process that occurred. And, they go begging the question again of how we can trust the reliability of a checklist found nowhere in Scripture.
Why have Ecumenical Councils? Why have a universal Creed (Nicene)? Another puzzler that I had to wrestle with is, if Scripture is both sufficient and clear to pass on the entirety of the faith, why did the Church require so many councils to iron out issues. The first one we have record of occurs in Acts 15, but they don’t stop there. The Orthodox Church recognizes seven Ecumenical councils, but there were tens and hundreds of regional and local councils all told, dealing with matters practical and theological. Reading them is quite enlightening by themselves, but that’s a matter for other emails. But you have to ask yourself, how much theology do we as Protestants just assume, but that actually derives from the work of Councils held by a Church we repudiate? The deity of Christ, the humanity of Christ, the balance between the two natures, the shared nature of the God-head, the Nicene Creed that’s accepted by almost all Christians, the deity of the Holy Spirit, the canon of Scripture, and other substantial issues were all worked out by Councils. Scripture certainly played a part, but the final formulations and determination of what was right and wrong comes from the councils, not the Bible. I know that’s hard to swallow.
Does the Bible interpret the Bible? One common assertion is that Scripture interprets Scripture, meaning that of course certain parts of Scripture are complex and hard to understand, but by comparing that with other Scripture you can come out with a consistent picture to help explain everything that is confusing. The Calvinist Westminster Confession says:
“All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them”
Is this the case, though? The statement limits its target to only those things necessary for salvation, so that it is easier to accept, but how can that definitive list of things necessary for salvation be produced? Where is it in Scripture? Does this principle appear to be correct and operating in the Protestant churches? Well, one thing we can do is look at the current state of the Protestant churches. It seems that the current state speaks plainly against this idea.
Protestants strongly differentiate between tradition and scripture, and see the two as pitted against each other. Many protestants feel that anything that isn’t explicitly listed in Scripture is a tradition of men, and strongly condemned by Jesus. They will absolutely reject anything they feel is a tradition being used to re-interpret scripture, but hold their own interpretations (traditions) to be the plain teaching of the Bible. Of course, they fail to discern their own tradition by which they interpret the scriptures and that guides their worship practices, and they will strongly contend with other Protestants of different opinion on Scripture. Their theological ideas are automatically assumed to conform to the plain meaning of scripture, and their own practices, many of which are quite recent and innovative, are seen as consistent with early Christian practice despite being nowhere found in historical Christianity.
Other Protestant practices are condemned. Some Protestants hold that we have free will. Some are adamantly opposed. Some believe in the real presence of Jesus in communion. Others hold it to be symbolic. Some baptize infants. Some hold to believer’s baptism only. Can women be ordained? What about homosexuals? Can you reject your own salvation? You can go on and on, and that’s just inside the normal bounds of Protestantism. In the end about all you can hold for certain as common among Protestants are a rock solid belief in Sola Scriptura and certain theological truths deriving from the Ecumenical Councils. Not all of the truths of the councils, but some of them. There’s no uniformity in the various understandings of worship. There’s no unity of how the churches are administrated, and even the level of communion between the different branches differs widely.
The real problem is that no matter how much you compare Scripture to Scripture, it is the reader that makes the interpretation. The book doesn’t talk to you and say, “No no! That’s not right!” It cannot defend itself or know when you are misreading it or are ignorant of the full entirety of what it says on a subject. No one just reads the plain meaning of scripture, because frequently it isn’t plain and it doesn’t speak definitely to an issue. 2 Peter 3:16 tells us this plainly. I didn’t see this until I began to look at the history of the canonization of the Bible, and began reading the early Christian writings. Once I looked at those I began to see that the Protestant assumption of conformance to early Christianity doesn’t match what early Christians were describing. That made me realize that there’s a big gap between what Scripture is intended to mean, and what possible interpretations can be given to it.
St. Irenaeus gave a very apt analogy for this in his writings. Considering how early He wrote this is amazingly appropriate 1,800 years later. He said that Scripture is like a beautiful mosaic created by a skillful artist in the form of a king. Another man takes this mosaic image apart, and rearranges the individual pieces to create a new image of a dog. Then the second man claims that this was the original intended image of the master, since the gems he used to form the dog were authentic. Just so, this is what can easily happen when the writings of the Church can be handled by anyone in whatever manner they choose. What was the original picture? Looking at Protestantism I can only say, apparently no one knows.
Has Sola Scriptura created unity? One characteristic of the early church that is note worthy is the general unity shared by all the churches. There were theological differences that cropped up and questions to be answered, but for a millennium the church functioned as a unified whole in belief and worship, just as Christ prayed they would. Now my question is, if Sola Scriptura was the operating principle of the early Church (the assumption to be proven) and that Church enjoyed unity of belief and practice under it, then why doesn’t Sola Scriptura produce the same unity today?
Depending on the source, there are believed to be thousands of protestant denominations (estimates vary but go as high as 20-30 thousand). Each one has different ideas of what scripture means and how to live it out. What’s the source for all of this difference? Different interpretative traditions are a large part of the problem. And inside each of those traditions each individual is responsible for their own reading, and has different understanding of the scriptures. Again, what’s the source for the true apostolic faith for the Protestant? How do we know what’s right and wrong? The reality that we all know is that there isn’t a standard to hold to, except what we appropriate from the early Church. There isn’t a source to verify your thinking. There is no structure that can say definitively how to live and worship. At least, not for a Protestant. I don’t think this is how it is supposed to work.
It’s not hard to see how we end up with so many different groups, and so many different splits. I believe this is actually a systemic problem. It derives directly from the Sola Scriptura principle. I would say it is unavoidable, and the current state of Christendom is merely the flawed principle playing itself out. The Orthodox Church has maintained a shared understanding of Christianity for 2,000 years. Do you know how long it took the Reformation to split? 10 years. That fact just thumps down in my heart. Jesus prayed that we would have unity in the Body. The Reformation couldn’t make that happen for more than 10 years.
How can we know the Bible contains everything of import for the Christian life, if it nowhere claims that it does? One point of retreat that I saw from advocates of Sola Scriptura is that while not everything is clear in Scripture, the really important stuff was crystal clear, and that’s all that really matters. To that I’d say, “Says who?” On what basis can you determine that only the things you can find clearly in Scripture are important? Nowhere in Scripture is there a definitive list of what’s important, so any such list has to be extra-Biblical. In any case, is a minimal list of beliefs really Christianity? Saying that everything you can’t find laid out perfectly in Scripture is unimportant is like me saying that no where in my employee handbook does it say I have to pay taxes, so that’s unimportant. I don’t think the IRS will buy that logic. Part of being a mature, working American is knowing what April 15th means. It’s not in the employee handbook, though. What does it mean to be a mature, working Christian? I determined that I could not satisfactorily answer that question if I ignored the early Church and appealed only to Scripture.
So here’s all of that stuff put together in a quick summary. I don’t find either an explicit or implicit definition of Sola Scriptura in Scripture. I don’t find any Scriptural passages that would support the Sola Scriptura principle. I do find lots of positive references to tradition and explicit commands to follow oral tradition as well as written. In the writings of the early Church I can’t find the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, but I do find a high value placed on Scripture. I also find that the practice of Christianity looked very different than Protestant practice, particularly modern protestant practice. I see a consistent pattern of the church using extra-biblical sources of authority in dealing with heresies. I also see that they used extra-biblical sources of authority in dealing with questions of practice in the Church. Philosophically I’m left with no answer when I try to find how Sola Scriptura defines the boundaries of Scripture. It cannot tell me what is and is not Scripture, or why. I see the Church defining additional central Christian truths that are not defined in Scripture. I look at the current state of Protestant Christians and have to say that Scripture is not plain in meaning or self-interpreting. I also have to assert that Sola Scriptura does not produce unity in the Body as Jesus promised we would have. Finally, the Sola Scriptura assertion that the important things are clear is merely begging the question. How can we know that the clear things are the only important things?
So where did I go from there?
So, if Sola Scriptura fails for me (it does), then is the alternative church tradition ruling over scripture (ie Roman Catholicism)? I didn’t go that way because there are equally big issues in Catholicism that indicate to me that they also have a mistaken understanding of the Church and Scripture. I chose the third route of Eastern Orthodoxy because in the end it was the only option that seemed consistent both with Scripture and the historic witness of the early Church.
The reaction of the reformers against their Roman Catholic roots introduced the stark differentiation between tradition and scripture that cut them off from the historic Church. It’s unfortunate, because Orthodoxy offered a different understanding to them. The same excesses and faulty doctrine that they were fighting were and are rejected by Orthodoxy as well, as it was not part of the original teachings maintained by the Orthodox. Ignoring the Orthodox, the Reformers were somewhat pushed into the understanding that Jesus came, and his teaching were put into written Scripture, and from that Scripture all doctrine, church government, morals, and worship should have derived but the Church went quickly off the rails and had to be rebuilt.
The Orthodox paradigm is that Jesus deposited the faith into the Apostles, and from the Apostles we derive the liturgy (worship), Scripture, and the episcopacy of the Church. In that paradigm, Scripture isn’t separate from tradition, but rather is a large and necessary part of it. The same is true of the pattern of worship which is unchanging. The same is true of the bishops responsible for continuing to pass down The Way from person to person to person. This paradigm will become clearer through future emails, hopefully, but for now I would just like to stress that the Orthodox do not pit tradition, as something separate from Scripture, against that Scripture. The two can never be in conflict, and one does not rule the other. They are both a product of the Holy Spirit and part of the life of the Church. Correctly you shouldn’t even talk about them as two separate things.
You have the Protestant Sola Scriptura model, which has the single point of failure being the individual’s authority to interpret Scripture on their own (hopefully with help from the Holy Spirit) and the Roman Catholic single point of failure being the pope and magisterium dictating what Scripture means and adding doctrines as they see fit. It’s clear from looking at either system that both model breaks down. Sola Scriptura broke down completely and quickly (10 years is all it took). The Roman Catholic model proved to be more robust, but it is clearly breaking down as well and adding innovative doctrines. Innovation is not good.
In comparison the Orthodox model of Holy Spirit life working through the Church to pass on the teachings of the Apostles with the mutually supportive structures of Scripture, Liturgy, and Bishops looks downright rock solid. While there have undoubtedly been adjustments over time to changing cultures and conditions, the Scripture remains the center of worship, the worship remains the same as it was in centuries past, and the Bishops continue to maintain the unity of belief throughout the 300 million or so adherents. Over 2,000 years that is quite the feat.
And that’s what I was left with. I had a handy helper in making the transition in thinking from a Scripture Alone model to a Scripture in Context model, and that helper was … Scripture! There’s a really good Scriptural argument for being able to trust the Church setup. I’ll lay that out in another email.
I mentioned in my introduction that what I’m arguing against here is really an illusion. I am convinced that the reality of Sola Scriptura isn’t Scripture versus Tradition, but rather a question of which tradition? From the reformers on down to the present day all Protestants have partaken of a tradition. No one comes to Scripture as a blank slate, and would we really want to? The question is answered by looking at how we train and select pastors. Regardless of denomination we want a man who knows how to understand Scripture according to our tradition. We use commentaries and modern translations and read books by famous authors to explain Scripture and tell us about our tradition. Sola Scriptura is anything but Sola (which is actually more how the Reformers intended it to be, and how they acted).
The one thing I want is to make this more evident. Where does my tradition come from? Why am I Protestant instead of some other tradition?
I hope I’ve laid out the issues clearly. I don’t expect that you have to agree with my conclusions, but those conclusions will pave the way for much of the rest of my decisions, so it’s important that you at least see my reasoning.
Let me know when you’re ready for something more. I’d like to discuss more about tradition and church structure next I think. I’ll let you chew on this first and when it is clear in your mind then we can move to something else. Maybe if we have an opportunity we can discuss some of this face to face over this weekend. We’ll see.
For some Eastern Orthodox audio on this subject:
http://ancientfaith.com/specials/episodes/confronting_the_doctrine_of_sola_scriptura (6 mins of intro on baptism)