Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sola Scriptura Redux

Kevin deYoung, a blogger over at that American megaplex T4G wrote recently about Sola Scriptura.  I wanted to blog on the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, both to aid my own thinking, remark on an important distinction and remind my readers, in a sort of sequel to the last post about the role of 'bias'.

Sadly as deYoung reminds us and as Keith Mathison has pointed out previously, Sola Scriptura does not mean Solo Scriptura as many evangelicals mistakenly think.  No-one's neutral, so the question is what shape should our bias take?  Sola Scriptura rightly suggests the history of church tradition correctly shapes our bias.  DeYoung doesn't explain this, but as Mathison observed the Reformers were not arguing against church shaped bias but giving the church equal authority with Scripture.  The Modern Roman Catholic church seems to have merged the authority of Scripture with the authority of the church, which is neither the position of the Medieval Catholic church or the early church.

Importantly the Sufficiency of Scripture is about the content of Scripture, is the Bible enough for faith and godly living? The doctrine of Sola Scriptura is about the interpretation and authority of the Bible. Of course both doctrines are related but it's important to note the distinction.  In practical terms the doctrine of Sola Scriptura is a cycle, you can jump in at any point but you need to be aware it's a cycle.  We interpret the Bible based on bias --> We acknowledge the Bible has authority over church tradition --> We allow church tradition to shape our bias. 
This means that the hermeneutical debates should take place on different three fronts: 1. What does Church History say or not say about a given portion of Scripture?  2. What topics does Scripture speak to (Sufficiency of Scripture)? 3. Have we been clear about the entirety and scope of our biases?

6 comments:

Chilly Guess said...

Yes. :) Thanks for clarifying.

regiaecclesia said...

I think one of the key things is to be open to the data. As long as one is committed to being consistently objective, one can be open to the truth, and therefore to Christ who is the Truth.

As a believer, I would be asking if all tradition is 'bias', or can it be more? As a Catholic, but also as a believer open to the objective data, I would say this is not the case. Let me outline a few reasons and data which seems to me to indicate this.

First is Scripture. Upon examining the case of Bereans (Acts 17:11, as cited in the diagram), one sees that these Jews are examining the Apostolic teachings with the Jewish scriptures. Is this consistent with the statement, which the verse is cited as backing, that "the Bible has authority over church tradition"? It would seem to me to be an overly generalized statement, for a few reasons. Firstly, the Apostles were teaching new doctrines that went above and beyond the Old Testament, of the Christ who authoritatively fulfilled and also superceded the Law of Moses. The Bereans, in this sense, were checking for consistency with the prospect of Messianic doctrine that would supersede the limitation of their scriptures. Secondly, the Apostolic teaching as superceding the Old Testament is explicitly acknowledged and, in fact, proclaimed, as coming in two modes: "So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter" (II Thess 2:15). Indeed, this Apostolic word of mouth is considered to be divine revelation: "And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers" (I Thess 2:13). If one is to go by the scriptural practice of the Bereans, then, it would stand to sense to allow authoritative Apostolic teaching to properly guide scriptural interpretation.

[continued...]

regiaecclesia said...

[...continuing from previous post]

Now, this is not some isolated theory, but, again, found in historical data in the early Church:

Papias:

"Whenever anyone came my way, who had been a follower of my seniors, I would ask for the accounts of our seniors: What did Andrew or Peter say? Or Phillip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew, or any of the Lord’s disciples? I also asked: What did Aristion and John the Presbyter, disciples of the Lord say. For, as I see it, it is not so much from books as from the living and permanent voice that I must draw profit" (The Sayings of the Lord [between A.D. 115 and 140] as recorded by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3:39 [A.D. 325]).

Irenaeus:

"For even creation reveals Him who formed it, and the very work made suggests Him who made it, and the world manifests Him who ordered it. The Universal [Catholic] Church, moreover, through the whole world, has received this tradition from the Apostles" (Against Heresies 2:9 [A.D. 189]).

"True knowledge is the doctrine of the Apostles, and the ancient constitution of the Church throughout all the world, and the distinctive manifestation of the body of Christ according to the successions of the bishops, by which they have handed down that Church which exists in every place, and has come even unto us, being guarded and preserved, without any forging of Scriptures, by a very complete system of doctrine, and neither addition nor curtailment [in truths which she believes]; and [it consists in] reading [the Word of God] without falsification, and a lawful and diligent exposition in harmony with the Scriptures, both without danger and without blasphemy…" (ibid. 4:33 [A.D. 189]).

Origen:

"Seeing there are many who think they hold the opinions of Christ, and yet some of these think differently from their predecessors, yet as the teaching of the Church, transmitted in orderly succession from the Apostles, and remaining in the churches to the present day, is still preserved, that alone is to be accepted as truth which differs in no respect from ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition" (On First Principles Bk. 1 Preface 2 [circa A.D. 225]).

So, historically, Apostolic tradition was not seen as merely a basis for 'bias'. Church has faithfully obeyed the Apostolic exhortation to "stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us", since they recognized the Apostolic teaching as "what it really is, the word of God".

Luke Isham said...

Thanks for the comments regiaecclesia. A couple of points,

I agree that church tradition has it's origins in the teaching of the Apostles, and it develops as the Apostles taught other church leaders who taught other church leaders and so on.
However we need to be careful in our use of the word "Apostle". While we there was many disciples of Jesus and Christians today are to be his disciples, the specifically chosen twelve, with the Judas' replacement and "the one abnormally born" would seem to be a very specific and unique classification in Scripture. Also I'm not sure what you mean by the teaching of the Apostles "superseding" the Old Testament?

regiaecclesia said...

I had to post the previous post a couple of times, since it didn't seem to show up the first time. Hopefully it won't be double-posted!

> "However we need to be careful in our use of the word "Apostle". While we there was many disciples of Jesus and Christians today are to be his disciples, the specifically chosen twelve, with the Judas' replacement and "the one abnormally born" would seem to be a very specific and unique classification in Scripture."

Luke, thank you for your response. Yes, I would agree that there is a very specific sense. Those are the Apostles I would refer to, in fact - the twelve (eleven, plus Judas' office which was taken by another) specifically chosen by Jesus and sent forth with the authority of Christ:

Matt 28:
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.
17 And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted.
18 And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age."

I understand the Early Church was conscientious to make sure they were in harmony with the various Apostolic Sees which traced back their lineage to these twelve. We see this in the apologetical works of Irenaeus against the Gnostics, for example; the claim was that, against the supposedly secret Christian 'knowledge' of the Gnostics, he appealed to Polycarp, the successor of St. John the Apostle, and the fact that all the Sees tracing their lineage to the Apostles, taught by Christ, teach very publicly the faith universal (catholic) to the Church.

> "Also I'm not sure what you mean by the teaching of the Apostles "superseding" the Old Testament?"

Here, I mean (apart from the spelling mistake :-) that they taught new revelation beyond the confines of the Jewish scriptures, including the doctrines of Christ who reformed Mosaic Law in saying "you have heard... but I say to you" (Matt 5:38-39). I don't mean to imply that they in any way contradict the Old Testament; I'm only pointing out (though with all its implications) that revelation and the mode of fulfillment preached by the Apostles were more complete than the written Word possessed by the Bereans.

Jon said...

Thanks for this Luke, that's a very clear explanation. Having been recently reviewing some "lives of Jesus" I was really struck by this issue in relation to Robert Funk, chair of the Jesus Seminar. He talks about how he want to "rescue" Jesus from the theology of the Apostles and the church councils. In the process, just makes Jesus captive to his (Funk's) own world view, and much poorer for it.

What occurs to me (and perhaps I learnt this from Funk so it might be a little suspect :)) is that there is not really a clear dividing line between the New Testament and church tradition - the NT is simply the beginning point of this tradition. One of the things that makes this clear is that we don't actually follow your stipulation about the Apostles - we also accept writings by Luke, Mark, Jude, James and the anonymous writer of Hebrews. Some critics also argue we have accpeted some books which flasely claim apostolic authorship, although this is more controversial. As I understand it, the criteria for acceptance in these cases is consistency with the known and established apostolic teaching - se we already have the idea of a tradition right at the beginning.