Saturday, May 07, 2005

The Plight of Sola Scriptura

This is a reply I made to a comment from a person on the Third Day message board. It's somewhat interesting. There are some typos that I don't feel like editing right now because my movie still awaits.

thats fine. if closed minded means embracing sola scriptura, then i'll
be closed minded and rightly so

I will embrace sola scriptura only to the extent that Scripture contains all of the essential beliefs for salvation (although one may argue if one feels that Trinitarian belief is essential to salvation). I may also consider embracing sola scriptura to the extent implicit in your statements if you actually embrace it yourself. Which leaves me in the clear because you can never actually embrace it to the extent which you seem to desire.

A common objection is the simple fact that sola scriptura is never purported by the Holy Scriptures themselves (a bit ironic; if we define our beliefs using the principle of sola scriptura then the belief in sola scriptura itself is inevitably self-contradicting).

Equally important is the reality that the Early Church never proclaimed such a thing. In fact, it would have been ridiculous for them to do so considering there was no established New Testament Canon until A.D. 397 at the Council of Carthage. Certainly the Canon with which we possess was circulating and already being held (fairly early) as Scriptural authority, but the Early Church never would have been as pompous to declare that the only means by which doctrine could be understood was through the means of Scripture alone.

But can I truly say that this reality is equally important as the first?

Let me be extremely clear. Scripture is primary and is the final authority on all matters. If we do not hold Scripture up to be the primary source by which we ascertain doctrine and dogma we quickly find ourselves in a heretical situation. Yet until you pick up Scripture and begin to read it (or hear it proclaimed) it really does not do much for you. Once you begin to either read or listen to the Word you begin to interpret what you hear. This is inescapable. We all interpret Scripture when we read it. As Vincent of Lerins said, "for as many interpreters of Scripture there are interpretations."

So what did the Church use to determine what is correct doctrine from its inception? The Church has alwasy understood heresy to be one of the most gravest sins because, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer states, heresy has the potential to steal the Gospel message of its sin cleansing nature. When orthodoxy is distorted the Gospel message is skewed.

So again, what has the Church always used to determine what is correct doctrine? As unfriendly as it sounds to the often myopic Protestant ear, the Church has used Tradition to determine what is orthodoxy (cue the Bibles being thrown my way and shouts of "No! Sola Scriptura!").

Let me be clear. There is a difference between Tradition and traditions. The big "T" Tradition is the tool by which the Church has determined correct Christian teaching. Tradition is determined by three things: 1) antiquity (what has been believed from the very beginning); 2) universality (what has been believed by all Christians everywhere); 3) consensus (what has been agreed to be orthodoxy, especially by the Church Councils and great Church Doctors). The big "T" Tradition is quite different from tradition. Small "t" traditions are what we all have grown up in. These include the Baptist tradition, the Presbyterian tradition, the Roman Catholic tradition, the Lutheran tradition, the Wesleyan tradition, the Methodist tradition, the Quaker tradition, the Eastern Orthodox tradition, etc. Most of these small "t" traditions find themselves comfortable within the big "T" Tradition (often there may be a certain range in which a belief may be considered orthodox). When a person approaches the biblical text they do so with a certain interprative paradigm. Lutherans approach with a Lutheran paradigm. Eastern Orthodox approach with an Eastern Orthodox paradigm. Reformed approach with a Reformed paradigm. Our paradigm determines our interpretation. We always bring some sort of means of interpretation to the text, we never truly use Scripture alone. The question is not who's system of doctrine is more biblical but rather who's doctrinal system is the orthodox interpretation of Scripture.

Unfortunately, the myopic view of Scripture that many Protestants retain, disallows them from testing their interpretation of certain passages against what has been considered (since the inception of the Church) to be the authoritative interpretation of Scripture: big "T" Tradition. Arius made a completely biblical argument as he argued that Jesus was a created being. His argument was not flawed due to lack of Scripture but rather due to an erroneous interpretation of Scripture.

How can Scripture mean something that it never meant? How can we claim that Scripture means something which the apostles and early Church never proclaimed? One of my major qualms with Calvinism is not that it is unbiblical. It is completely biblical! Yet it is based on an interpretation of Scripture which is simply not found as orthodox in Church history. The apostles and the Early Church never interpreted Scripture this way.

Martin Luther himself could not bring himself to embrace sola scriptura. When Luther translated his first Bible into German, he was afraid of putting it into the hands of the uneducated populus. Therefore he created a safety net, a hedge for orthodoxy. Luther included his commentaries in the margins, creating the first ever study Bible. The King James Bible, printed in 1611, was the first afterwards that did not contain marginal notes. It was when the Puritans took hold of the King James (which lacked any sort of damage control) that they began to dabble in heresy.

You can choose to embrace sola scriptura to the extent which you seem to desire to, but if you do, I suggest you abandon your belief in the Trinity (that is assuming you share the belief professed in the early Christian Creeds). While the Trinity is implicit in Scripture, Trinitarian doctrine in Scripture is by no means developed to the point which we now possess it. If you want to debate this point please refrain for now. I suggest reading Christology in the Making by James Dunn.

It should not surprise us that doctrine as we hold it today may be underdeveloped in Scripture. It is clear that there is development of understanding throughout the Scriptures. This is certainly clear in the Old Testament, where God is refining His people and their beliefs. This continues in the New Testament. While the christology in the early New Testament writings is certainly not developed to the extent with which we affirm, there is development even within the New Testament to where by the time we reach the latest Gospel (John), christology has developed and become much more poignant and powerful for the strict monotheism of the Jews. This need not scare us if we believe that God continues to develop His people even after the inspiration of the New Testament Canon. The developments which occured were a result of the leading of the Holy Spirit. If it were not true, they would not exist today.

I fully affirm the Christian Creeds, as do all Christian churches. Yet none of us could affirm them were it not for the development that occured within the first few centuries of Christianity. Sola scriptura sounds nice, but it is both self-contradicting and a denial of the reality that we all bring interprative paradigms to the text. Scripture contains the essentials by which we are saved (yet there are still disagreement on what these essentials are due to differing interpretations). There really are not any questions we ask today that have not already been asked. I suggest perhaps looking into the Patristics and seeing how much they have to offer us. Scripture must be interpreted and the Church, under the guiding of the Holy Spirit, has always used Tradition to do so.

In Christ,

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