Call To Die

Then [Jesus] said to them all, "If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will save it. (Luke 9:23-24, HCSB)

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Follower of Christ, husband of Abby, member of Kosmosdale Baptist Church, and tutor/staff member at Sayers Classical Academy.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Sola Scriptura: 1. Clarification

Recently, a friend of mine issued the following challenge and assertion on Facebook:
Show me Sola Scriptura in Scripture and I will believe it... I reject the protestant tradition of Sola Scriptura because I think it is un-scriptural.
This week, in response to my friend's challenge, "Show me Sola Scriptura in Scripture and I will believe it," I will seek to provide a clarification of the definition of sola Scriptura, a proof-text for sola Scriptura, and an examination of how God's Word functioned as the final and sufficient authority from the very beginning of recorded history (what I will here refer to as the "primordial institution" of sola Scriptura). In posts next week, I hope to examine some consequences of rejecting sola Scriptura.

1. Clarification

Before a biblical defense can be given for the doctrine of sola Scriptura, it is important to note what sola Scriptura does NOT mean, as well as what this term DOES mean.

a. Scripture is NOT the Absolute Only Authority

The doctrine of sola Scriptura ("Scripture alone") does not teach that Scripture is the only authority. The idea of Scripture as the absolute only authority is not what sola Scriptura meant to the Protestant Reformers, and it is not what the term means to theologians today. Scripture is not the final and sufficient authority for how to perform heart surgery or fly an airplane. If you asked your surgeon or pilot how they acquired their skills, and they said, "Well, I just studied the Bible every day for 20 years," you would certainly have cause for concern.

b. Scripture is not the ONLY Authority in the Church

Nor does the doctrine of sola Scriptura teach that Scripture is the absolute only authority in the Church. The Bible itself acknowledges officers in the church (specifically: [1.] overseers, bishops, pastors, or elders, and [2.] deacons, Phil 1:1, etc.), and these officers are assumed to have some form of authority. Certainly, a brief review of the history of the Reformation would demonstrate that the Magisterial Reformers (Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, etc.) held positions of authority in their various provinces.

In my own study of Original Sin, I am looking to a number of authorities (Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Calvin, Edwards, etc.) on the subject of that doctrine. But notice how I am utilizing these authorities. Augustine et al. are authorities on the subject of Original Sin NOT in the sense that their statements on that doctrine are true merely because they said them, nor do I feel compelled to necessarily believe everything any particular "authority" on Original Sin has written. But I utilize these theological authorities in the same way that a news program looks to authoritative experts; these "experts" are authorities in their various fields because they have invested a great degree of time and energy in studying a limited area of knowledge, and so their opinions carry a certain amount of intellectual weight in public discourse. So, for example, when a nationally covered trial is taking place, a news agency will consult an authority on criminal law about the details of how the trial is unfolding; the "authority" being interviewed does not create the law about which he is being interviewed, nor must the viewers necessarily accept everything the authority has to say.

c. Sola Scriptura is NOT a Protestant Innovation

The doctrine of sola Scriptura began to be articulated in a precise form during the early 1500s as the Protestant Reformers argued against various beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. And so my friend mentioned "the protestant tradition of Sola Scriptura." And some people view sola Scriptura as an innovation of the Protestant Reformation. But just because the doctrine of sola Scriptura was not precisely articulated before the 1500s, this does not mean that earlier generations of the Church did not view Scripture in a way that was consistent with sola Scriptura. In a similar way, the language of Trinitarian doctrine developed slowly over the first four centuries of the Church in response to controversies with groups like the Adoptionists, Sabellians, and Arians, but just because Christians in the first century would not have used the exact language of the Nicene Creed to describe God, this does not mean that they would have thought of God in terms that were inconsistent with this Creed, nor does it mean that the doctrine of the Trinity was invented at Nicea (or Constantinople).

It is important to note that the Protestant Reformers themselves believed that they were returning to an older understanding of scriptural authority, one found in the Bible itself and corrupted slowly over time. So, to give one early Church example: during the fourth century controversies with the Arians, various bishops and councils condemned and deposed Athanasius, the defender of Trinitarian doctrine. With such "authorities" against him, how did Athanasius respond? As a reading of his On the Incarnation of the Word will show, while it is true that Athanasius strove to demonstrate that his views were consistent with the earlier church, he appealed to Scripture itself as the final arbiter.

d. The Definition of
sola Scriptura

In my own personal confession of faith (which is, I believe, in line with numerous historic Baptist confessions of faith- authorities in a sense consistent with the discussion above- such as the 1689 London Confession, the Abstract of Principles, the Baptist Faith & Message, etc.) I write:
All Scripture was given by inspiration of God, is infallible and inerrant, and is the sufficient, final arbiter of all disputes concerning matters of life and godliness (2 Tim 3:16-17).
Consistent with this statement, I would define sola Scriptura as the teaching that Scripture alone is the final and sufficient authority concerning matters of life and godliness for the individual believer and the church as a whole.

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