Friday, May 6, 2011

Fixing Sola Scriptura

Why are there are so many disagreements about the bible? Why should I listen to your interpretations and not someone else's? These are common questions for protestants. One answer they give is that there is some way of interpreting the bible that they use and others do not. Either they say they let scripture interpret scripture or they say they consider the context more fully or they say keep in mind certain overarching biblical themes. What ever it is. They identify some exegetical principle, call it principle A, that they follow and others fail to follow. Often there is some truth in it. Often it is a good principle and there are some people who have not followed it that well.

What they are trying to do is fix Sola Scriptura. They are saying that if we understand principle A then Sola Scriptura works. The fact that it is obviously not working now flows from the fact that we have neglected A. The trouble is that it works much better as a rhetorical device than as a consistent principle. Can you think of protestants who either follow A or claim to follow A and still disagree with you? Most of the time you can. So the principle makes scripture more clear but not clear enough to unite Sola Scriptura believers around one faith.

Then there is the problem that adding A to Sola Scriptura violates the Sola part. For example, if I take my exegetical principle to be that biblical interpretations cannot contradict the infallible teaching of the Catholic church That would fix Sola Scriptura. Sort of. It just would not be Sola Scriptura anymore. I would have added something to scripture. In fact, I would have added precisely the thing Sola Scriptura was invented to remove. Namely the Catholic church. So saying scripture needs to be interpreted in a certain way adds to scripture and thus violates Sola Scriptura.

Protestants don't see this. They will add just about anything to scripture other than the Catholic church and still call it Sola Scriptura.If fact, many of the differences between protestant groups can be explained by the things they add. Exegetical frameworks that they say flow from scripture but many just don't see it. Calvinism is one but there are many others. The trouble is they don't see it as an extra the same way they see the Catholic exegetical framework as an extra.

When you reduce the question to a choice between one set of interpretive principles and another then it makes sense to ask if there are reasons why one set might be objectively more trustworthy than the other. For example, there are reasons why a Calvinist church is a better interpreter of scripture than the Jehovah's Witnesses. Even before you evaluate the arguments you can look at their relative relationships with Christendom as a whole and see a difference. It is not just a verse by verse thing. There are over-arching principles of reading scripture that are different and objective ways of saying the Calvinist way is better.

What happens is that is becomes very hard to find an objective criterion that does not yield Catholicism as the most trustworthy guide for interpreting scripture. Older guides are more trustworthy. Catholicism is the oldest one out there. Guides that have some scriptural basis are preferred. The church is mentioned in the bible as the pillar and foundation of truth. Some guy from the 16 century is not mentioned at all. Which one is the biggest? Which has the widest variety of beautiful Christians? Which has the most remarkable continuity? Which connects best with the biblical images like the body of Christ, the family of God, the Kingdom of heaven? You keep getting the same answer. Which is great. Except when you WANT another answer.


  1. "Even before you evaluate the arguments you can look at their relative relationships with Christendom as a whole and see a difference. It is not just a verse by verse thing. There are over-arching principles of reading scripture that are different and objective ways of saying the Calvinist way is better."

    My forthcoming book is comprised largely of these over-arching principles rather than verse-by-verse analysis.

    Your post makes sense but as you say, most Protestants cannot see this. To them they are just reading the Scriptures "the way that they should be read"--they have a hard time seeing that they are bringing an interpretive paradigm and other ideas to the table.

  2. They see it and they don't. Often preachers will reflect on why so many Christians don't agree with what they preach. Not questioning whether they are right or wrong. Just trying to understand the mind of their fellow believers. Sometimes they share a theory as to exactly where the other guys are going off the rails. These are the kinds of comments that I was referring to in the introduction.

    Most don't take it to the next level and question not only other people's theology but their own as well. That is a scary step to take. It doesn't feel like it can lead to anything but extreme skepticism. Like you are being unfair to God by asking such hard questions. So most don't go there. But the amazing thing is God does have answers.

  3. Martin Luther saw it himself: “There are almost as many sects and beliefs as there are heads; this one will not admit Baptism; that one rejects the Sacrament of the altar; another places another world between this one and the day of judgment; some teach that Jesus Christ is not God. There is not an individual, however clownish he may be, who does not claim to be inspired by the Holy Ghost, and who does not put forth as prophecies his ravings and dreams." He just didn't want to connect it to sola scriptura ... either that or he was willing to accept it as the price for maintaining his own anti-papacy.

    I've posted extensively on the various problems with sola scriptura. It can't be fixed; its most basic assumptions are flawed.

  4. Has anyone critiqued the Protestant belief in an inanimate object (the bible) infallibly interpreting itself?

    I know everyone bangs on about Sola Scriptura not being biblical. But what cartoon character came up with the idea that an inanimate object could actually perform such a feat?
    It must have been so hard for the inventor of such a comical concept to keep a straight face when people started believing him.

    If you ask an everday joe if he believes that inanimate objects can interpret themselves, they would think that you were nuts. But the truth of the matter is that Protestantism is built on this crackpottery.

  5. Thanks for commenting Jim. Glad to have you visit.

    Protestants believe the bible is clear on all important matters. That is problematic when there is so much disagreement. So they go a bunch of directions.

    First, they say some people deny the plain truth of scripture because they don't want to accept it. In other words they accuse certain interpreters of being dishonest. What this does is essentially promote these doctrines to a quasi-infallible status without admitting it. If you claim any preacher who defends gay marriage is deliberately misrepresenting the word of God then you can't really leave open the possibility they might be right.

    Second, they say some questions are of secondary importance so the lack of clarity does not matter. But this includes some doctrines that scripture seems to indicate are matters of salvation. The other problem is there is no clear list in the bible of doctrines that are of secondary importance.

    So there are problems. It is not such a comical concept because much agreement can be reached inside one tradition. So, in practice, you just ignore the vast majority of the disagreement and only deal with those in you denomination.