Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Why Sola Scriptura is Self-Refuting

Taken at face value, the idea of sola scriptura is self-refuting and even unbiblical. I realize that I am not offering anything original by making such a statement, but this idea has kind of been developing in my mind as of late (influenced, in part, by an article I happened to stumble across by Tim Crosby in Ministry magazine from October, 1987, available here).

Taken at face value, sola scriptura implies that the scriptures, and the scriptures alone, serve as our rule of faith. We live solely and only by the scriptures. We do not allow for anything outside the Bible to influence how we live or what we believe. But, as I said, the phrase sola scriptura is itself self-refuting because no such statement is ever made in the Bible, nor even hinted at. In fact, places like Psalm 19:1, which says, "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork," seem to imply something altogether different.

It was the Protestant reformers who made sola scriptura their foundational creed. Attempting to neutralize the Catholic practice of Apostolic tradition and a sort of sensus fidei (sense of faith), the reformers sought to return to the Bible alone to determine how they were to live. What they did not wish to imply is that science is therefore irrelevant, for example, or that history cannot teach us lessons.

The truth is, practically speaking, nobody that I know of practices sola scriptura, literally speaking. Just this morning, when I was interacting with a friend of mine who belongs to another community of faith, and I teased him about eating cheese, he said, "Which text tells us that we shouldn't eat cheese?" I responded, "The same text that tells us not to smoke." He conceded the point (though I doubt he feels convicted to give up cheese!) It is absurd to suppose that God does not continue to reveal truth to us that moves beyond what the Bible has already revealed. Very few of us would brush our teeth in the morning (or night, or whenever we do it) if we strictly adhered to sola scriptura.

Some may think it is kind of silly to even have this type of discussion. Of course we allow for outside witnesses beyond the Bible to determine how we live. But the discussion may not be all that silly. After all, such a "fundamentalist" attitude toward scripture and revelation can cause a somewhat condescending attitude towards nature and science, for example. Or it may close our minds towards the idea that, perhaps, God has revealed Himself explicitly to individuals after the Canon of scripture was closed (Ellen White, anyone?).

But there is caution, of course, and that is why we might be better off taking a prima scriptura approach. That is, we judge everything against the Bible, but allow for other avenues to determine how we should live. Yes, we take into account science, tradition, further revelations, but we do not accept anything that directly contradicts the Bible - and I emphasize "directly" because we may discover things in science, for example, that contradict behaviors that even Jesus engaged in, but that are not necessarily mandated in scripture. So, if we discover that eating lamb isn't the healthiest thing in the world to do, we can't necessarily go to Jesus' example at eating the passover lamb and say, "See, Jesus ate it, so we should too." Nowhere does Jesus give a command to do anything of the sort and so we are not to make it a rule to live by in our own experience. The Bible doesn't say that Jesus brushed His teeth, either, but this shouldn't lead us to believe that brushing our teeth is not important.

On the other hand, when it comes to something like practicing a homosexual lifestyle, for example, and modern psychology proposes that it is perfectly normal to practice such a lifestyle because a person's sexual orientation is "neutral," and therefore perfectly acceptable and even good to indulge, we have to reject such a notion because it directly contradicts normative and prescriptive statements in scripture (see 1 Cor 6:9, Lev 20:13, etc.).

Anyway, you get the idea, I hope.


Kyle Baldwin said...


I really enjoyed this post. I remember taking Revelation and Inspiration from Dr. Martin Hanna who broached some of these issues, but you have provided additional clarity. Often I have gotten into discussions with people of more liberal theological denominations that attack sola scriptura. These people usually have a low opinion of inspiration.

I think your comments maintain the primacy of scripture while allowing the very real avenues of truth such as human experience and the study of nature to inform our understanding of the bible. At the same time your description of prima scriptura provides scriptural authority for our lives.

Enjoyed your thoughts!

Shawn Brace said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Kyle! I wasn't sure if anyone would read this, let alone comment on it. I would highly recommend reading that article from Ministry that I linked to. It makes a lot of sense.

Hope all is well with you in Texas.

ant said...

Hi Shawn, here's my thoughts and interaction with your thoughtful post (hopefully this all will help clarify my own thinking as well):

Isn't Sola Scriptura about what should constitute authoritative 'Faith and Practice' (doctrine and morals) for the church. It is not to decide issues like brushing our teeth etc. These are important areas but are broader issues than what the scriptures explicit address. In these broader area's prima scriptura makes sense.

I agree that sola Scriptura defined too loosely and broadly becomes untenable and unworkable (and unfortunately, that is probably how most conservative protestants understand it).
But regarding the actual binding authoritative source of revelation about God, scripture stands alone. Tradition is not binding in addition to scripture, not even in a secondary sense (and is revisable).

Here is where prima scripture could prove inadequate. If tradition is a source of doctrine (and not merely a resource for reflection and formulation) then we can invent new binding doctrines and practices (which is what happen in Roman Catholicism). Rather I think tradition can help guide us in our practice but is revisible (i.e. when to celebrate communion, 4 times a year is good but we can do more). The church can institute a tradition [hence it has a real binding although limited authority] but the church can later revise that tradition. Scripture is not revisible.

Scripture alone (sola) has inherent binding, testing authority, all other sources used in the area of doctrine are to be tested by it and having done so have a secondary derivitive authority (EGW, tradition, science, experience).

This is saying more than just the primacy of scripture. It is recognising for scripture an unique uncontested position [a sola position]. From this sola position it can function as prima authority in the many areas that it fails to explicitly address and where other sources are helpful. But prima needs a justification and foundation for its role, this is found in the affirmation of sola.

I guess I believe prima needs sola.

What do you think?

dbonneville said...

Very interesting take on Sola Scriptura. Historically, it's Church Tradition and not experience that informs a proper interpretation, though. Sola Scripture plus "whatever I think about" it is no different, really, than Sola Scriptura plus "what my pastor says it says and nothing more". The biases are inescapable...

I posted a link to this on Bon Report.

Sara said...

Why is Sola Scriptura inadequate??? Because everyone interprets the Holy Scriptures in different ways. There are however many different denominations of Christianity and they all claim to preach the true teachings of the Bible but yet they are all so different. They can not all be right because there is only ONE TRUE CHURCH. Please take the time to read the following:

Michael said...

An excellent post and I'm glad I found your blog! I've linked to your post in a study I'm hosting on my Facebook notes page. Feel free friend me on FB and join in the conversation. I would love to have you involved!