“Sola Scriptura is the teaching and belief that there is only one special revelation from God that man possesses today, the written Scriptures or the Bible, and that consequently the Scriptures are materially sufficient and are by their very nature as being inspired by God the ultimate authority for the Church.” (William Webster). 1.
Before I begin, please do not freak out or freakus outus at my use of Latin words and phrases. I am not here to impress you with my knowledge about anything. In fact, I am constantly humbled and in the place of humility when it comes to theology. I will be student of the scriptures as long as I live, never a master. My favorite saying is, “The more you learn, the less you know.” Being a Reformed means I am constantly reforming. I believe I am beginning to understand some things about God’s Word and his truth. I agree with Eric Rauch who says,
“One of the enduring Latin phrases of the Protestant Reformation is the impressive sounding ecclesia semper reformans, semper reformanda. In plain English, this means “the church is always reformed and always reforming.” 2.
So, I am there with a long way to go, but I will not have to go solo but sola! I have studied a few articles and checked out men who actually teach classical Christianity and this is for the present some of my conclusions on the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. The first lesson I learned is that I had sadly misunderstood this doctrine most of my Christian life and ministry. So I was compelled to reform my views. I adhered to more of a form of solo scriptura or a “zero tradition” view of scripture. I never would have imagined that the letter “o” and the letter “a” at the end of some Latin phrase making all that much difference. I always realized that we are to test everything we hear taught or written by the Word of God. I knew that the scripture was God breathed, but for the issue became I learned that it was a matter of biblically responsible interpretation (McMahon).
This may be an oversimplification, but Roman Catholic scholars believe in the obscurity of scripture and Protestants believe in the clarity or perpiscuity of scripture. This goes back to the Reformers that protested that the Roman Catholic teaching office or Magisterium interpreting the scriptures through their traditions (which they made equal to the Bible) because the Bible was too mysterious and difficult to understand.
The Reformers taught that for anyone who can read, the gospel is clear enough to understand for their salvation. The Bible was written in such a way that anyone could read and understand it’s basic message and that people did not need the decision of the Roman Church to decide its meaning for them. The Reformers were not saying there was no need for scholarship, and they were not saying that the Scriptures had no mysterious parts to it that should be responsibly interpreted. In fact, understanding the scriptures was primarily a heart condition not a matter of scholarship (2 Cor 4:3-4; 2 Pet 3:15-16). I like what Francis Turretin says,
“And just as the heavens are dotted with many stars, some greater and some less, so Scripture does not shine everywhere with equal brightness, but is variegated with clearer and more obscure passages like stars of greater or less magnitude.”3
Protestants teach that the rule of faith is the Bible alone and it is the ultimate authority and standard of the Christian faith. But from that point, many evangelicals fall into reinventing what the scripture says, in the name of experience and relevance instead of discovering what the scripture already teaches as seen by what the church confessed in the ecumenical creeds and the teachings of the Protestant Reformation.
In fact, not one person believes in the authority of scripture actually embraces solo scriptura in practice. What is unusual about this whole thing is that if you actually believed in solo scriptura you only have two choices: you could either only read the Bible with no comment or you would be left to your own to figure it out on your own. People do not seem to mind that so much, since the written scriptures seem to be less the Word of God or God speaking to them, it has become a religious board game. People love religious games.
The whole idea that your relationship to scripture is just “you and the Lord” and that you do not need any teacher cannot coexist with the responsible interpretation of scripture. Especially those truths hammered out by the Reformation confessions and creeds. People will say, “No Creed but Christ!” and “My teacher is the Holy Spirit!” and it sounds good except for the fact, it defies scripture (see Eph 4:10-14) and you end up being neither taught by Christ nor the Spirit of God.
That does not mean we do not need the Spirit of God to understand or illuminate the scriptures leaving us to just rely on man (Eph 1:17; James 1:5-6). It does mean that the scripture is plain enough for us to understand basic truth about salvation and understanding it is the gift of God.
“The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word.” (Westminster Confession 1:6).
It was never emphasized to me that there was a common interpretation and we needed to test our personal interpretations by them. American Churchianity has developed and reinvented their statements of faith in light of culture, one too many times. It is diluted by syncretism. Some would even say they have restored real biblical truth, but the doctrines already established hundreds of years before they find unnecessary. They see no need nor relevance for Creeds and Confessions. It is hard to swallow for many of us because the whole, “I feel led” and “the Lord showed me” as I studied or prayed mindset has resulted in a free-for-all of Bible interpretations and unnecessary division. It is crazy really. We tell people to study their Bible in order to support conclusions that favor our interpretations rather than what the scripture actually teaches. Keith Mathison illustrates this problem:
“If one asks a dispensationalist pastor, for example, why he teaches premillennialism, the answer will be, “Because the Bible teaches premillennialism.” If one asks the conservative Presbyterian pastor across the street why he teaches amillennialism (or postmillennialism), the answer will likely be, “Because that is what the Bible teaches.” Each man will claim that the other is in error, but by what ultimate authority do they typically make such a judgment..?”
How true is this? Name the peripheral doctrine and we justify that way. He goes on to say…
The typical modern Evangelical solution to this problem is to tell the inquirer to examine the arguments on both sides and decide which of them is closest to the teaching of Scripture. He is told that this is what sola scriptura means — to individually evaluate all doctrines according to the only authority, the Scripture. Yet in reality, all that occurs is that one Christian measures the scriptural interpretations of other Christians against the standard of his own scriptural interpretation. Rather than placing the final authority in Scripture as it intends to do, this concept of Scripture places the final authority in the reason and judgment of each individual believer. The result is the relativism, subjectivism, and theological chaos that we see in modern Evangelicalism today.” 4
I wish I would have said that, but at least I can quote it. In my studies of 2 Timothy 2:15 and 2 Timothy 3:16-17 scriptures that testify to the message of the Bible, I began to study the idea of, “rightly dividing the Word of Truth” or recte tractare. I also found that the Vulgate’s Latin translation said, “recte tractantem verbum veritatis” and wondered what that phrase meant. Oh boy, another Latin word and then another. I discovered that they were rich theological terms. Vincent’s Word studies states that it means:
To cut straight, as paths; to hold a straight course; generally, to make straight; to handle rightly. Vulg. recte tractare…to present the truth rightly, not abridging it… treating it honestly and fully, in a straightforward manner. 5
I discovered recte tractare to mean not only to correctly handle the word of truth but do it in such a way that summarizes and teaches the orthodox position of the Bible. That is where the word canon comes into play. It is the straight edge of scripture or the rule by which we measure the church and its traditions (Zech 2:1-5; Rev. 11:1; 21:15). In 2 Timothy 2:15 it says, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” The man who works hard and exerts himself in rightly dividing the Word will simply not be confused in his teaching the truth of the scriptures and God will make his paths straight. (Prov. 3:6).
I began to wonder, what is the Orthodox position of the Bible? Good question and difficult to answer just be looking at institutionalized Christianity today. Christianity confesses what it believes (Acts 24:14; Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor 12:3; 1 Tim 6:13)! Creeds and confessions teach what the church has accepted as those things that represent the vital and fundamental teachings of the scriptures.
That led me into the concept of regula fidei “rule of faith” or analogia fidei or the “analogy of faith.” Michael Ryan Walker explains his website and defines regula fidei as:
“The tradition of classical Christian teaching, based upon the Scriptures, that guided the early church’s faith and life, and which developed into the Nicene Creed and Apostles’ Creed.”6
The regula fidei was seen as the faith which was held “always, everywhere, and by all.” (Wikipedia). It is actually a very fancy (and I like fancy) way of saying tradition. Tradition is the handing down from one to another must align with the Word of God. That is what it means “the authority of scripture alone.” Scripture will interpret itself. Doctrinal truth comes only from the text of the Bible. The tradition that came about in the second century became necessary to express what the beliefs of the Christian community.
People have such an aversion to tradition, they want no part of it. They see it as a man with a fiddle on a roof, big collars, black robes, candles, incense and man made rules. People will yell, “that’s religion not a relationship to God!” But that is not the religion or tradition we speak of. I can understand people being concerned, afraid of being duped, especially those of us who used to part of liturgical sects of Christianity such as Roman, Eastern or Oriental Christianity. But those groups have made their traditions equal to scripture and some have even rejected councils that correctly define the identity of Christ. They teach that the Scriptures are not the only infallible source of Christian doctrine. That is sola ecclesia where the Roman Church infallibly defines the extent of Scripture and tradition, and according to the Second Vatican Council are, “so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others.” That is where we protest! You can see that the Roman Catholic church since the Second Vatican Council teaches that it interprets scripture by its tradition but we interpret tradition by the Scripture alone. That is a huge difference because tradition or regula fidei for us is the consensus of what the church confesses based on the teaching of scripture. If any tradition contradicts the scripture it is totally rejected.
What is a creed? R.C. Sproul explains,
“The Latin word credo means simply “I believe.” It represents the first word of the Apostles’ Creed. Throughout church history it has been necessary for the church to adopt and embrace creedal statements to clarify the Christian faith and to distinguish true content from error and false representations of the faith. Such creeds are distinguished from Scripture in that Scripture is norma normans (“the rule that rules”), while the creeds are norma normata (“a rule that is ruled”). Historically, Christian creeds have included everything from brief affirmations to comprehensive statements…Creedal statements are an attempt to show a coherent and unified understanding of the whole scope of Scripture. In that sense, they are brief statements of what we historically have called “systematic theology.” The idea of systematic theology assumes that everything that God says is coherent and not contradictory. So, though these creeds are not created out of pure rational speculation, nevertheless, they are written in such a way as to be intelligible and understood by the mind. Without such confessions, theological anarchy reigns in the church and in the world.” 7
Notice the purpose of creeds are “to clarify the Christian faith and to distinguish true content from error and false representations of the faith.” We especially need that today. Simply put we start with the Bible and then proceed to stating our confession of what the Bible teaches. Dr. C. Matthew McMahon says,
“The Christian Church, as a divine institution, takes the Word of God alone, and the whole Word of God, as her only rule of faith. However, she must also frame a statement of what she understands the Word of God to teach. This she does, not as arrogating any authority to suppress, change, or amend anything that Gods’ Word teaches, but in discharge of the various duties which she owes to God, to the world, and to those of her own communion. So a Confession of Faith is not the very voice of divine truth, but the echo of that voice from souls that have heard its utterance, felt its power, and are answering to its call. And, since she has been instituted for the purpose of teaching God’s truth to a world in error, her duty to the world requires that she should leave it in no doubt respecting the manner in which she understands the message that she has to deliver. Without doing so, the Church would be no teacher, and the world might remain untaught, so far as she was concerned.”8
I think that says it. The scriptures are God’s Word to us and the historical confessions and creeds echo that truth. There is no need to reinvent or reimage anything in Christianity. The Reformers constantly quoted from the church Fathers, it was like they were checking up on their interpretations. Like David Steinmetz of Duke Divinity School said, “They knew that innovation was another word for heresy.” We are content with this manna from heaven found in holy writ (another fancy word for the Bible and again, I like fancy) and our souls long for more of God’s Word taught to churches, no longer should we long for the flesh pots of Egypt. God’s Word is enough and he will do as he has promised because he is faithful. Let us echo his promises in our lives and doctrine.
“…Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His Church; and afterwards for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which makes the Holy Scripture to be most necessary…” (Westminster Confession 1:1).
Yes, the scripture is most necessary! Sola Scriptura, friend, don’t go solo….
2. http://www.americanvision.org/article/always-reformed-always-reforming/ © 2008 The American Vision, Inc. All rights reserved.
4. (A Critique of the Evangelical Doctrine of Sola Scriptura, Keith Mathison, Reformed Vol. 9, No. 15 4-8 to 4-14 2007 Perspectives Magazine). http://thirdmill.org/newfiles/kei_mathison/kei_mathison.critiquesolascriptura.html
5. When I looked up the phrase rightly dividing : 2 Tim 2:15 http://www.godrules.net/library/vincent/vincent2tim2.htm
6. Michael Ryan Walker, regula fidei http://www.regulafidei.com/about
7. (from Right Now Lasts Forever, From Ligonier Ministries and R.C. Sproul. ©2008 Tabletalk Magazine). http://www.ligonier.org/blog/2008/04/norma-normata-a-rule-that-is-r.html