Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Reading the Bible V: "No Such Thing as Sola Scriptura"

1 Lent
8 Hilary

Alan has written an article on what to do with Tradition in a practical way: "discernment and tradition > 2" (see also Part I).

As I've said before, the notion "sola scriptura" as most contemporary Christians describe it is a false and hurtful teaching, though propagated by devout and faithful people. It usually means that one should not see "tradition" (whatever that might be) as a source of authority, and that only Scripture itself should be authoritative. Unfortunately, the notion that I can stand as an "objective" reader who does not bring any presuppositions to the text, and have the intellectual wherewithal to discern the mind of God from it all by myself is one born of post-Enlightenment, modernist arrogance. We have been deceived. We must realize that the Canon of Scripture does not exist in a vacuum, and cannot be read as if it did. The fact of the Canon itself is a development of Tradition.

As one of Alan's commentators put the matter,
There is no such thing as sola scriptura. That's right, not even for those who trumpet it all the time, it doesn't exist. In my experience, what really exists instead is always some version of "only scripture as I or my group interprets it." And that is unavoidable. You see there is no meaning or teaching without interpretation no matter who you are. As if the scripture existed in some interpretation free pure vacuum. Of course it does not. So the minute you begin interpretation, and then codify that interpretation as doctrine, then you have a sacred tradition. In fact, everyone has a sacred tradition in addition to scripture. At least the Catholics are honest about it from the get go.
I agree completely.

Along those lines, Jared directed me to an article by Travis Stanley, who writes out of the Campbellite tradition:
As a young boy, I was taught to “search the scriptures,” like the Bereans did [context: Acts 17:9-11]. I remember being told in VBS: Be a Berean! ... I was taught to distrust the “traditions of men.” Christ was the true authority, and anything “man” would say must accord with the teachings of Christ. I actually took these teachings to heart, though some may doubt my sincerity. I still deeply desire to be a Berean. I don’t simply trust the traditions which are handed down to me, but desire to put everything to the test. I am doing my best to live out these truth-seeking virtues instilled in me as a youth. Though it is easy and safe to accept the traditions and beliefs that are handed down to me, for me, I have to place everything on the table.

Why, then, is my desire to “question authority” viewed harshly by many of the very people that desire to instill in me the discipline of “searching the scriptures” to see if the things I am taught are true? Am I only allowed to “search the scriptures” so long as I come down on the “right side” of the issue at hand?
I think what many of my contemporaries need is the grace to question, to doubt, to hope, to pray and to listen. There is a serious tyrannical edge to tradition that masquerades as "no tradition" at all. It hides behind such rhetoric because it's purpose is to control others' lives. To call a tradition a tradition is to open it up to questioning, to dialogue, and the possibility of a healthy and informed submission to Scripture, and indeed to Tradition.

Tom Mohan did well to remind us of C.S. Lewis' assertion that "the devil always overplays his hand."

I welcome comments and rebuttals. I will delete ad hominem attacks. That means you, seminarians.

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Anonymous said...

Haha! I have been waiting for the sola scriptura post for a while now. I am so glad that I am not alone in my un-happiness with this idea that never seems to work out...

Anonymous said...

You've taken my comment and Travis Stanley's words and bulit a really great post around them. Oh how I wish so many people would get this. I mean GET it.

Jared Cramer said...

If it were a Church of Christ I'd come as you stand and sing. Nicely done.

Anonymous said...

Growing I was taught that if we all just read scripture, tossing aside our presumptions, traditions, and personal opinions, we would all come down to the same truth, which, ironically, looked just like what we already believed and taught. As I saw sincere people try to "search the scriptures", I found them all coming up with different opinions. I met Catholics, Baptists, Pentecostals, and Presbyterians who all desired to "follow scripture", just as I did, but came to vastly different conclusions as to what scripture meant. It was then that my experience taught me that the sola scriptura method was not exactly what we were all doing.

I know believe that no one is able to divorce one's own circumstances and culture from the text--and why should they! The beauty of the incarnation is that the divine can be united with the humanity, the creator untied with the creation. God unites God's story with our story, and a new story is created. The study of scripture, for me, now is not so much about finding the right answers for belief and practice, but allowing the heart and soul of scripture to change me into Christ-likeness. I read scripture to be transformed, not to form opinions. Scripture is still a resource for forming doctrine, but it is not the only resource, and such a task of doctrinal formation is not the primary task of scripture.

naak said...

I agree that tradition is something that will happen, no matter how hard you try to keep it from happening. But I don't think that you are approaching the idea of tradition from the right side. It isn't tradition that people like myself attack, it is the traditions of men that aren't found in Scripture. I am constantly chalanging myself to do away with traditions established by man within myself, even ones that I have established. But Scripture demands a tradition of itself. So the difficulty is trying to find traditions in Scripture that arent swayed by our own culture. Scripture has one truth to it, there are not many interpertations. So the difficulty comes is finding that truth apart from your own ideas. But let us not think that there are many truths.

Expax said...

But Naak is not the Scriptures the formation of theological dialogue or witness in the community of the apostolic church? As so it is directly affected by and is the very fruit of tradition which we hail too We as a community of believers recognize the whispers of divinity left in these writings and upon these we have (or God has through us) shaped this as an instrument we can be measured by and reflect into as we seek and our becoming indwelt in Him.

Let me put this another way. The church and the scriptures serve in the same purpose. We come and dwell with both to experience the presence of God that is ever being whispered/channeled through them. They serve as the windows into which we soar to Him whom is glorious.

Anonymous said...

Ben F et al,

What proof do you offer that the Scriptures are the formation of theological dialogue or witness in the community of the apostolic church? True, some of the Scriptures (NT epistles) arise from occasions, but even Paul claims to have had no contact for many years with anyone, ensuring that his gospel was none other's than Christ's. So although his letters are occasional, he has a standard, namely the Gospel of Christ, to measure orthodoxy and heresy by.
The Gospel of Luke-Acts seems to be written out of desire to record the objective happenings in Christ's "doings" and "teachings" (Acts 1:1). Luke may have asked sources and learned from witnesses in the community, but one could hardly call his writing a product of the community, but rather a product of his own record of the objective truth about Christ, with his own emphases (Luke 1:1-4).
The question of tradition and Scripture is so tricky. Which one came first? I think this is still a legitimate question to ask (rather than resorting to some simultaneous, amalgum), given Christ's teaching to the Apostles and his exposition of the OT to them. I guess I do not see the Apostles going out into the world without a teaching (i.e.tradition, Matthew 28:19-20). I think they had the teaching to begin with, and then comes the "tradition" established in the early church,which the NT documents teach us. So I think the "tradition" comes first because the Apostles were faithful to the one "tradition" of Christ.

If this is true, then sola scriptura should still be respected because what we have in the NT is truely the teachings of Christ should be viewed as our only authority. Not to mention the various philosophical difficulties which come with the whole idea of multiple authorities. Will the community and Scripture both decide how to live? Will the community and Scripture both decide what story (doctrine) to teach? How is one not the authority over the other, at least at different times (so maybe one trumps the other on one issue, but the other on another issue)? Unfortunately, multiple authorities becomes competing authorities pretty quickly.
Just a thought.

JHearne said...

Since I'm a Div-School-Student and not a seminarian, I don't feel obligated to post, but...

I tend to agree with you Kyle but I find myself constantly maintaining the power of the scripture to form tradition as it is, in itself, formed and interpreted.

Scripture is important. It must be expressed that those who criticize sola scriptura are not, necessarily, criticizing the power and efficacy of the scripture.

Perhaps they're just resisting a desire to make sacred cows.

Stephen Lawson said...

Great post, and I agree. However, don't fail to mention that sola scriptura, like most of the askewed views of Protestants, started out as a vaild reaction to the opposite extreme. What we are seeing now, with a rise in semi-authoratitive interpretation is just the swinging of the pendulum back in the other direction. Luther threw the baby out with the bathwater, and I recongnize the need to respond to that with more of an emphasis on tradition, but I fear that we can only choose extreames.

Kyle said...


I really appreciate this respectful conversation.

To start, I think Josh makes a great point here: taking a step back from the notion of "sola scriptura" as often expressed is not a way of stepping back from the Scriptures or downgrading them in any way. (Oh, and Josh, I was directing the warning to seminarians, not the entire post)

Naak, Ben and John, as I see that's where it's going, it might be helpful to talk about what tradition itself is and is not. I like to talk about tradition as being "the history of the Church's Bible reading." The canonical scriptures themselves are the collected, authoritative Apostolic Tradition. Particular traditions and teachings are never meant to be set up as authorities next to (and certainly not over against) the Bible, but are rather the way we read the Bible.

To criticize a tradition isn't really a matter of saying, "hey, you're doing things that aren't anywhere in scripture" so much as saying "you're reading scripture the wrong way, and we need to return to it and look at it again."

It would be inaccurate to suppose that when we start talking about a "tradition," we have ceased to do business with Scripture. Again, tradition is the long, broad history of how we have done business with Scripture and do so in the present.

The God who continually creates the Church is the author both of Scripture and the Tradition. As I've said, the triune God works in both - not in the same ways, and not in the sense of equal authorities or even "conversation partners," but God is writing those stories. Travis voiced this well in his comment.

I also don't understand the language of "truths" versus "truth." Jesus is the truth. Our propositions about Jesus are merely that, and they all pale next to the Reality of who he is. When we start finding ways to give our propositions about Jesus (i.e., those which are not explicit in Scripture) the status of Truth, then we start substituting our traditions for the Word of God.

Stephen, may God give us the grace and the wisdom to let go of the pendulum in order to engage with the Scriptures and the history of our reading both critically and prayerfully, with humble and listening hearts.

A., Mike, Jared, thanks for sticking with me as well!

Jared Cramer said...


The impetus to get rid of traditions of men and understand the single truth of Scripture is, itself, a tradition of man and a pretty recent one, at that.

Expax said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kyle said...

Dude! I just did.

Anonymous said...

Kyle - Thanks for the way you handle people's comments and questions. This blog is a great place for honest but respectful dialogue, thanks again.

If I understand your comment correctly then, Scripture is the source of authority for the church and tradition guides the reader to read Scripture correctly. To do business with tradition is to see how business has been done with Scripture in the past. I understand this point.

However, you lose me in the very next paragraph when you refer to "God who continually creates the church is the author both of Scripture and the Tradition . . . but God is writing those stories." Is divine inspiration involved when God writes the story of the Church (Tradition)? You may answer yes, but not in the same way as with Scripture because Tradition is supposed to guide us back to Scripture. If this is true (I am not trying to words in your mouth so correct me if I am wrong), I still struggle with what happens in the event where the tradition is not guiding one back to the correct interpretation of Scripture? If we say the Tradition is being written by God for the purpose of bringing us back to Scripture, what happens if tradition does not lead us back to Scripture? The divinely written tradition would be contrary to the Divinely written Scripture, because the tradition is not "equalling" Scripture nor fulfilling its proper function of guiding the reader to the correct reading of Scripture.

When I read the NT, the inspired apostolic tradition has already been laid (Eph. 2:20), and the church is being built on it (we could argue about when it was all canonized and all that but that is another discussion). Therefore, an objective tradition already exists for the reader to ascertain and align himself and subsequent tradition to. Where tradition helps in this process, Praise the Lord, but where it does not, we must discard tradition (tough to do if this is considered divinely inspired in any way). In my view, no one used tradition better than John Calvin (please do not judge Calvin on the basis of some present day "calvinists"). Calvin was a great student of the Patristics and tradition. Along side of his many biblical arguments against RCC, he would use tradition, and point out where the Church had departed from it. However, Calvin was only able to judge where the Church had remained or departed because of the standard of the inspired and authoritative Scriptures, because of his own business with Scripture.

To sum up: In what way is God writing the story of the Church (Tradition)? Does this involve divine inspiration or no? Thanks.


rawbbie said...

You quoted someone saying that the canon is a tradition, so is the idea of sola scriptura. That tradition comes from people who reacted against other people who took tradition to a level that was bogus and ignored scripture. Now Protestantism is at a point where it puts so much emphasis on scripture, that traditions are ignored, or might even be seen as heresy, because they are not it scripture.

Kyle said...

John, how is anyone necessarily going to know if "tradition" is or is not leading one to the "correct reading of Scripture?" I don't think that's something we can know for certainly, but rather take risks in seeking to be faithful.

I think you might still be using the word "tradition" in a way that I don't. I'm talking about learning fresh, new, learning-to-be-more-faithful ways of reading the bible, not some kind of "second canon."

And yes, I think the triune God does inspire us, challenge us, and call us to greater faithfulness as we grow into the New Creation. Our own apprehension of that guidance and "inspiration" is always suspect. I suppose the difference is, that we choose to trust the Scripture itself as not being suspect, though our readings of it are.

Noted, Robbie. One can't forget that tradition is about Scripture, in the same way that one can't read Scripture free of all traditions.

naak said...

Hey Kyle, add in a comment a little late. I understand that the cannon came out of tradition, however I feel that God guided it. My problem with tradition is not tradition itself, but tradition that comes out of something other then Scripture and conflicts with Scripture. Jews spoke on the traditions of men in dealing with Corban. Tradition is good when it helps us to understand truth, but never should tradition be placed as a equal to Scripture. When the Reform came about tradition wasn't what was attacked, it was the bad tradition that they attacked...the ones that conflicted with Scripture. So they established a tradition that they felt was from Scripture...Sola Scriptura...and tried to get rid of some of the traditions that weren't found in Scripture. So yes, we have tradition, but where our tradition originates is the important issue.

Kyle said...

And again, I think we're dealing with differing ideas of what "tradition" means. As I said, "I'm talking about learning fresh, new, learning-to-be-more-faithful ways of reading the bible, not some kind of 'second canon.'"

I also said, "Particular traditions and teachings are never meant to be set up as authorities next to (and certainly not over against) the Bible, but are rather the way we read the Bible."

And Jared said, "The impetus to get rid of traditions of men and understand the single truth of Scripture is, itself, a tradition of man and a pretty recent one, at that."

There is value in "sola scriptura" insofar as it means appealing to Scripture as the ultimate authority in terms of what must be believed for salvation, and what is the content of the apostolic and catholic faith.

I maintain my position that this other "sola scriptura" as is popular and that I have described in the original post, is not so scriptural at all.