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Does Sola Scriptura Work?

I wonder if some day someone will write a complete history of all the ways in which Protestantism has defined Sola Scriptura.  If so, I imagine it would be quite a thick book, if not a multivolume set. 

It seems to me that coming up with a theologically viable definition of Sola Scriptura is pretty high on a lot of Protestant theologians’ priority list.  Kevin Vanhoozer’s excellent work, The Drama of Doctrine is a good example of the ongoing “quest for a viable version of the Scripture principle.”  The question to my mind is whether or not such quests are nothing more than a sort of conservative evangelical attempt at damage control.  A desperate need to make something particularly Protestant theologically interesting.  (Sola Scriptura is one of about three theological ideas unique to Protestantism.  I forget the other two.)  In other words I often wonder if Sola Scriptura is simply being used as some sort of scalpel with which evangelicals are trying desperately to carve out some sort of distinctive identity that is theologically interesting and recognizably consistent with historic Christianity.  For the most part I think these attempts are failing, probably due to the fact that Sola Scriptura was never designed to do the heavy lifting that evangelicals wish it could do.

All of this is beside the point.  And that point is simply this, as far as evangelicals as a whole are concerned, Sola Scriptura has become little more than a cipher for a reactive mentality which says “If it isn’t in the Bible, it can’t be true.”  Put more eloquently, some would state this by saying that all theological doctrines must be derived from what is taught in the Bible.  Of course, one doctrine that clearly is not taught in the Bible is that the Bible alone should be the source of theological doctrines.  Which a great many pop Catholic apologists like to shout at their fundamentalist alter-egos only to be shouted down in return.  All in all the conversation isn’t interesting.

But the point remains, the idea that all doctrine must be derived only from the Bible is not a biblical doctrine at all.  The problem as I see it is that modern evangelicals, desperate for some sort of epistemological certitude, and terrified of any sort of actual embodied authority like the Catholic Magisterium ascribe to Sola Scriptura the status of a theory of authority in the church.  However, Sola Scriptura, if it is to avoid being self-referentially false must be understood, not a formalistic theory of authority, but rather as a way of specifying the authoritative hermenutical core of the tradition as a whole.  The only viable understanding of Sola Scriptura that I can envision is one in which Scripture is rightly seen as situated in the fullness of the apostolic and patristic tradition of the church.  Only within that context can it be viewed as Scripture and as an authority to which we must answer.  If any version of Sola Scriptura is to have any theological integrity whatsoever, it must acknowledge that Scripture is one witness to God among others that needs the communal context of the church to be interpreted.  The other side of this is that while Scripture is but one voice in the chorus of witnesses to God, it’s voice has been recognized by the church as having final authority in our attempts to follow Christ.

Of course, many will be quick to point out that this isn’t a coherent theory of authority.  If Scripture is as vulnerable as this account makes it out to be, how can we have certitude that our claims of faith are true and accurate?  The simple answer is that we can’t.  The quest for the kind of theory of authority that so many evangelicals seek through their tired, parenetic rhapsodies  about Sola Scriptura (and, ironically enough, often end up thinking they’ll find in Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy) is a Quixotic quest for a Holy Grail we shouldn’t even care to own.  Faith is inherently risky and vulnerable or it is no faith worthy of the name of Jesus.  A formalized book of allegedly inerrant truths or an allegedly infallible Magisterium both tend to function as an attempt to avoid having to make the distinctively foolish claims of faith.  They embody the longings for security, control, and that great smarmy sense of just knowing you’re right that we all want so desperately.  However, Jesus does not allow us such contrived (and fictional!) certitudes.  He allows us only himself.  And he stays beyond us, eluding our attempts to domesticate and control him and his Gospel.  He as left his reliable witnesses, in whom we can have proper confidence.  But to confuse the assurance of faith with the pathological need for epistemic certitude is to make a great theological mistake.  I hope the evangelical church can learn to un-make this mistake.


  1. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Halden said:

    . . . The simple answer is that we can’t. . . .

    Are you sure? Or better, certain of that?

    Halden said:

    . . . Faith is inherently risky and vulnerable or it is no faith worthy of the name of Jesus. . . .

    Which magisterium are you appealing to for your definition of faith?

    Sunday, March 16, 2008 at 11:59 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    “Are you sure? Or better, certain of that?”

    Cute. I suppose I’m not infalibly certain of it. But I’ve found no better explanation for the dynamics of human knowing. Until someone provides and answer that gives me good reason to think my statement false, I don’t see a reason to change my mind.

    Which magisterium are you appealing to for your definition of faith?

    Also cute. But aside from the tongue-in-cheek comments, I would have hoped it would be clear that I am not appealing to any sort of imagined “foundation” for my knowledge of God. I know God because he has broken into history in Jesus and the stammering, stuttering, failing church has preserved a message about him that I find more persuasive than anything else out there.

    Or, to put it simply, I think tradition and Scripture bears out (i.e. Heb. 11) that this way of describing faith is more appropriate than one that thinks we can somehow have epistemic certitude about our beliefs.

    Monday, March 17, 2008 at 12:13 am | Permalink
  3. Hill wrote:

    Very well said, Halden. I’ve never seen the point of the solas, in general (and I grew up a Lutheran). They are at best reactionary (if somewhat helpful) and at worst, simply bad theology. Sola gratia, properly understood, I can live with. Sola fide is derived from a mistranslation of the Bible and is typically coupled with a bankrupt notion of faith. There is an entire chunk of the New Testament devoted to explaining why faith alone is a dangerous thing (or more accurately, not faith at all). Sola scriptura, as Halden has pointed out, doesn’t really make sense as it is typically deployed. I’m really not trying to engage in polemics. I thought all of these things long before I became a Catholic. If I’m being overly reductionistic, I’d love to hear some other thoughts.

    Monday, March 17, 2008 at 12:28 am | Permalink
  4. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Luther, certainly wasn’t some sort of proto-Cartesian when he spoke of sola scriptura. It seems like you’re implying that holding to sola scriptura is synonymous with holding to “foundationalism” . . . which then would be anachronistic relative to its original framing in the medieval period.

    And what do you think of the “Priesthood of All Believers”? Is this just another sloppy sham invented by Protestant Reformers?


    you’re Catholic, right? How do you respond to this:

    . . . A formalized book of allegedly inerrant truths or an allegedly infallible Magisterium both tend to function as an attempt to avoid having to make the distinctively foolish claims of faith. . . .

    Don’t you hold to papal infallibility?

    Monday, March 17, 2008 at 1:14 am | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    That’s kind of exactly my point. I don’t think that sola scriptura functioned for Luther the same way it does for evangelicals today (i.e. as a formalized theory of authority). For Luther, it served to specify a hermeneutical core within the tradition that was the “final court of appeal” if you will (that’s why early on Luther kept calling for a church council – for more on this reading of the solas, see Ola Tjorhom, Visible Church – Visible Unity). I’m actually quite on board with that kind of idea. I think the term “prima scriptura” is just a lot more clear and less freighted with unnecessary baggage. (By the way it was actually Ray Lubeck that proposed the use of that term to me.)

    And I love the preisthood of all believers. A great gift of the reformers to an over-clericalized church.

    Monday, March 17, 2008 at 1:20 am | Permalink
  6. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Up late too.

    Sometimes, Halden, I think we talk right past each-other, either it’s because I’m so dense (probable) . . . or that we come at things from such different approaches (and informing streams)–that we end up “debating” things–we actually agree upon, more or less (although I still don’t hold to the “Barthian” idea that scripture is an “earthen vessel”–but lets not debate that at the moment ;-).

    Interestingly, prima scriptura has been assimilated by both Catholics and Wesleyans. That is interesting about Ray proposing that term to you . . . I still like sola scriptura, but framed with its original intent vs. any kind of foundationalism.

    When you say “communal context of the church”, do you mean simply in a general sense? In other words taking into account the Patristic, Eastern, Roman, Prot. contexts?

    Monday, March 17, 2008 at 1:40 am | Permalink
  7. Hill wrote:

    I definitely want to continue this, but I’m a little confused on some of the points. First:

    -The Reformers didn’t invent “the priesthood of all believers.” If you aren’t clear on how this concept integrates with the sacramental priesthood in eastern orthodoxy and roman catholicism, then that is an inquiry worth undertaking. Comparing the theological novelty that is “sola scriptura” (novel at least in how it is commonly understood, which is precisely as biblical foundationalism) to the priesthood of all believers (which is plainly scriptural) is not helpful.

    -The Catholic position is not one of a foundational “allegedly infallible Magisterium” somehow parallel to that of an infallible scripture. What Halden described is actually the authentic Catholic position. It is far more tenuous and uncertain than most critics would have you believe. Halden is providing a bit of a straw man in his characterization of a “bad” appeal to authority, but this isn’t actually the authentic teaching of the Church. It is certainly something one might run into, however, but those people are wrong. As for papal infallibility, it functions in an entirely different way than you are suggesting.

    Have to run to work. Looking forward to picking this up later.

    Monday, March 17, 2008 at 8:42 am | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Hill, I wasn’t intending to provide a straw man of actual Catholic teaching. Rather, it was to show the dynamics of how certain things can become theories of authority for certain Christians. The operative word in the sentance above is that such doctrines “tend to function as an attempt to avoid having to make the distinctively foolish claims of faith.” And here I have in mind western Christians, Evangelical and Catholic who find the wrong kind of security in either the Bible or the Church.

    Monday, March 17, 2008 at 8:51 am | Permalink
  9. Hill wrote:

    Sorry Halden, I didn’t mean to imply that you were doing this disingenuously. I just mean that objectively speaking, the position you were describing constituted a straw man if it were understood as attributable to all Catholics (or Eastern Orthodox). I suppose what I should have said was that I didn’t understand you to be drawing parallels between Protestantism and Catholicism, properly understood.

    Monday, March 17, 2008 at 9:18 am | Permalink
  10. Sam C wrote:

    Hi Halden,

    “Put more eloquently, some would state this by saying that all theological doctrines must be derived from what is taught in the Bible. Of course, one doctrine that clearly is not taught in the Bible is that the Bible alone should be the source of theological doctrines.”

    Genuine question: What other tenable sources do you see for deriving doctrine, excepting Rome & her decrees?

    Monday, March 17, 2008 at 3:42 pm | Permalink
  11. Apolonio wrote:

    Well, this can be a long debate but let me try this approach. The question of whether faith is a certitude or knowledge seems to be the issue here: Catholics believe that faith is mediate knowledge. The question, then, seems to me, how do we attain faith? By grace. But grace is not an abstract thing. It is incarnational. Hence, faith is knowledge through testimony, by witnesses. Scripture itself is testimony (cf. Bauckham’s Jesus and Eyewitnesses). It is the testimony of the Church. By that, I mean not only that it was written by those who were acquainted with witnesses or witnesses themselves, but that the intention of the words of Scripture can only be understood by the living witnesses. To put it in another way, the way to interpret Scripture is not simply looking at the text, but its incarnational aspect, that is, of seeing the change in people’s lives, from sinners to saints.

    Having said that, what does it mean that Scripture is the final authority? Well, it is the final authority in that it can only be understood by people’s experiences, those who have involved themselves in the theo-drama. To separate Scripture from the believer, even if that believer submits to Scripture, makes Scripture into an abstract thing rather than a personal encounter with Christ. To separate Scripture and the understanding of Scripture (Tradition) is nonsense just as one can try to understand what I am saying without paying attention to the language I have spoken in. The Word has a Language.

    I don’t know. Sola Scriptura simply does not make sense to me. Yes, Scripture is the word of God. But that entails its meaning can only be understood by looking at the witness.

    Monday, March 17, 2008 at 11:42 pm | Permalink
  12. We have posted about this at The Black Cordelias… Most notably with “Sola Scriptura“…

    It isn’t that we who do NOT advocate Sola Scriptura are of the thinking that the Scriptures are failable or problematic. We are of the thinking that individual interpretations can be.

    Saturday, July 12, 2008 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

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