Monday, May 10, 2010

why not sola scriptura?

None of the Protestant Reformers ever used the phrase "sola scriptura"--which is Latin, by the way, and it usually means 'only the Bible is our authority'. None of the Reformers used this phrase, but it's an idea that's usually credited to them. I don't think that's fair, as you know if you saw my recent post on sola scriptura, but that's the popular perception. In the church environment I grew up in, this was the real legacy of the Reformation. We were sola scriptura people to the core.

And now I'm not.

So why not? Why don't I affirm this idea that 'only the Bible is our authority'?
Well, beyond the obvious point that scripture itself doesn't teach any such doctrine, I have several reasons, really, but I think that here I'm only going to go into two of them that have proven pretty central to me as I've given all of this thought over the last few years.

First, let's look at the Bible itself.

"What's the most important page in the Bible?"
My brother likes to ask it this way, and I think it's a pretty good approach. We'll scratch our heads over the question for a while. 'Well, John 3:16 is on page 760 in mine...' 'Oh, the Resurrection is on 712.' For some people, maybe it's page 1. That one gets a lot of press. Page 895 has the final "Amen", which is probably pretty important.
I find myself leaning another direction: I think the most important page in my Bible is page vii, the Table of Contents. After all, there are 66 different books in our Bibles--and how do we know which books? How do we know what is and what is not the canonical Word of God, affirmed by God's people for centuries? The simple fact is, there's nothing in the Bible that can answer that for us. Instead, to answer this all-important question, we have to look at the Table of Contents.

Why is this so important? Because if scripture is the only authority, then we finally don't know what we can even label as scripture.

Here's the natural question to ask next, which for many of us has never even crossed our minds before: well who the heck did decide what's in the Bible? Was it Jesus? Paul? Peter?

Well... no. It wasn't any of them.
In reality, for 300 years, the Table of Contents hadn't been written yet. The first list recording the 66-book canon that Protestants use today that has been preserved was written by St. Athanasius, around 367, more than 300 years after the Church was born.
There was certainly a kind of consensus in the Church before this over which books were to be treated as authoritative and which were not. Nevertheless, the formation of the canon--the clearly defined set of books that is the Bible--that we have today has a long backstory. Books like Revelation and James were in question for a few hundred years. Other gospels, like the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Judas, tried to gain authority. Some early heretics even tried to throw out the whole Old Testament! The Table of Contents we have today wouldn't read the same if not for the efforts and influence of men like Irenaeus of Lyons, Origen, or Athanasius.

Thus, every appeal to the authority of scripture is necessarily an appeal to the authority of the Church.
This suggestion will bother a lot of modern Protestants, especially those of the Baptist or Non-denom varieties. It shouldn't. The New Testament speaks very powerfully of the authority of the Church: 1 Timothy 3:15 calls the "church of the living God" "the pillar and foundation of the truth." There are actually no statements in the Bible that strong concerning the authority of scripture itself.

But I'm not simply appealing to the Church as my authority. The Church can only speak truth because of God the Holy Spirit. Here is my second reason: ultimately the Spirit must be the foundation of any claims to authority.
My trust in the Church's decisions regarding what is to be considered canonical scripture is a trust in the guidance of the Spirit. This is the Spirit of truth whom Christ promised to his disciples: "he will guide you into all truth" (John 16:13). This is a promise that I take seriously, and indeed we all must take it seriously if we are to trust in any Christian message. It is this Spirit who inspired the authors of the New Testament (as well as the Old--2 Peter 1:20-21). It is the same Spirit who guided the Church Fathers as they battled heresy and gradually affirmed the Table of Contents of our Bibles.

Now, I believe that scripture, as canonized by the Church, is the most perfect source of inspiration available to Christians in any and all times. But I also believe that the Spirit has spoken throughout history, and we ought to be vigilant for the voice of the Spirit. Returning to the Reformers for a minute, I think Calvin's understanding of the relation of scripture and the Holy Spirit is useful here: "the Spirit goes before the Church, to enlighten her in understanding the Word, while the Word itself... tests all doctrines." The scriptures cannot be read without the Spirit, nor can we make claims about the Spirit without reference to the scriptures.
In keeping with this, whereas the authority of the Church Councils and the Fathers had always been assumed up until Calvin's time, he grants to them a qualified authority: "although... Fathers and Councils are of authority only in so far as they accord with the rule of the Word, we still give to Councils and Fathers such rank and honor as it is [right] for them to hold under Christ."
I think this is the appropriate Christian stance towards the Church Tradition. To say that it has no authority at all is to confine the work of the Spirit to a couple of decades after the ascension of Christ and to ignore the realities of the formation of the Biblical canon. Yet the work of the Spirit in the Tradition must be in harmony with the inspiration of the scripture--so scripture can serve as a litmus test for the authority or inspiration of any teaching of the Fathers of the Church.

Now, frankly, I'm not really hoping to force the Tradition on all the good Christians I know who are living faithfully by earnestly and expectantly poring over the scriptures, applying themselves to the texts and applying the texts to themselves.
What bothers me is the disdain often poured on the Tradition in churches that I have come from. We aren't all going to read the Fathers, but we must all be ready to listen to them. The readiness to dismiss anything at all that is not the Bible as worthless, merely the thoughts of men, is to forget the the Holy Spirit was given to lead men into all truth, that the Church is indeed the pillar and foundation of the truth. When we refuse to listen to the wisdom and faith of the Church, we refuse to listen to the Spirit of God who has been at work through the Church. That is why I am not a sola scriptura person. That attitude forces us to ignore God-given counsel--given for the edification of the Body and for the establishment of right doctrine. It forces us to extinguish a light given for all of us as we read and hope to grasp and realize the truths of our faith that are found in the scriptures.

We are already trusting the Spirit and listening to the Church every time we acknowledge the canon of scripture in our Table of Contents. Why aren't we willing to do more?


Rev. Daniel McLain Hixon said...

That is a wonderful articulation of "prima scriptura" and I could hardly have said it so well myself.

I wonder if you have ever (and it might be a good exercise considering your upcoming summer of service) read the theological section of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church? (basically pages 41-86, or paragraphs 101-104). It articulates a similar approach to the relation between Scripture and Tradition.

Nance said...

Thanks for that Daniel: I meant to make clear in the post that this is what I understand to be a prima scriptura view, but apparently I just... never did. That scripture is primary and that scripture is not alone are both key to me.

I've actually not really spent any time in the Book of Discipline, to be honest. I hope none of the parishioners out me on that one this summer.