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.