Friday, May 14, 2004

SOLA Scriptura vs. SOLO Scriptura, or, "Why History is Important For All Christians"

This was originally an explanation as to why I was writing about Luther's Mariology, when many Protestants today would say it was irrelevant, that they go by the Bible, etc. I have expanded the initial reply and added the quotations and subsequent remarks:


Yes, of course many Protestants think like that, but they are not representing the best of their own tradition. Sola Scriptura, rightly-understood, does not entail an "a-historicism" or denial of any role for tradition and
non-biblical authority whatsoever (that view is the distortion of SOLO Scriptura). The legitimate position of sola Scriptura simply claims that Scripture is the sole infallible authority (they deny that attribute to the Church and Tradition and councils). It is not:

"No Tradition or Church authority whatsoever."

It is, rather:

"No INFALLIBLE authorities other than Scripture."

A thoughtful, reflective Christian outlook (whether Catholic or Protestant) is interested in the history of doctrine. Protestants who care about history think it is highly relevant to hearken back to their "Reformation heritage" by studying Luther, Calvin, and other leading figures. They believe that these men were "Reformers," who were instrumental in bringing the Church back to its early state (I deny that, but I am describing Protestant views, not my own). This is all the more important in light of charges from within Protestantism that much of that heritage has been lost or distorted after the Enlightenment and liberal theology.

I would also point out as a Catholic that it is relevant to study their views because if they were the exemplars and teachers of sola Scriptura and were applying that rule in their lives, it is interesting to see where they come down on the various Catholic-Protestant differences, to see if there is more common ground than is often supposed.

So there are all sorts of reasons justifying such analyses. For me it is, first and foremost, an important historical question, because I am very interested in development of doctrine, history of doctrine and theology, and the 16th century and all that went on then. For those who think Christian history is of no importance or relevance, then I would say, "ignore my historical writings." They have serious problems that have to be dealt with on other grounds.

The "a-historical" solo Scriptura types will never understand what it is I am trying to achieve by these papers (establishment of historical fact and analyzing the relationship between history and dogma, and principles and behavior -- also finding common ground wherever possible).

I've cited the following five Protestant scholars many times, in an effort to highlight the
differences between historic sola Scriptura, as held by the mainstream Protestant Founders (who are sometimes referred to as the "magisterial Reformers"), and an extreme "Bible Only" mentality (which is a distortion and cardboard caricature of legitimate sola Scriptura), but it will be worthwhile to do so again (especially since I am still being absurdly accused of not comprehending these major differences to this day):

How do we know that what the church says is true? The Roman Catholic answer to this question is the clearest answer that has ever been formulated . . .

Since the Christian faith is an historical faith, and since Christians are rooted in history, . . . the gospel must be "handed down" from generation to generation. Protestants who refuse to concede the fact for fear that it may have Roman Catholic consequences are living in a dream world.

The "Roman Catholic consequences" begin to emerge with the assertion that the Church, through its bishops, is the guardian of tradition. The task of the church is to see that the gospel is handed down without being corrupted. Since not all the nuances of the faith are explicitly developed in the Bible, it is the contribution of tradition to take what
is only implicit in Scripture, and make it explicit in the church. Thus tradition is creative and dynamic, and the church sees to it that tradition neither contradicts itself nor becomes inconsistent with the Biblical witness. This means that Scripture and tradition are two sources of truth and must not be separated. If they are, so the view maintains, disaster follows. The Reformers asserted that tradition had distorted the Biblical witness . . .

Roman Catholics believe, more fervently than Protestants imagine, that Scripture and tradition are complementary rather than antithetical sources of truth.

(Robert McAfee Brown, The Spirit of Protestantism, Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1961, 172-173, 214)

A Bible-only mentality virtually equates spiritual reality with the text of Scripture itself, whereas the Scripture is a pointer to or a witness to that reality . . . There is a difference between being biblical and biblicistic (i.e., employing the Bible-only mentality). There is a difference between honoring sola scriptura and bibliolatry (the excess veneration of Scripture). . . . On more than one occasion it has been pointed out that the Bible-only view of Scripture is very much like the Muslim view of Scripture . . . Muslims believe that the earthly Qu'ran is a perfect copy of an actual Qu'ran in Paradise . . . The Christian view of Scripture is that there is a human and historical dimension to Scripture . . .

Scripture is not the totality of all God has said and done in this world. Scripture is that part of revelation and history specially chosen for the life of the people of God through centuries. Sola scriptura means that the canon of Scripture is the final authority in the church; it does not claim to be the record of all God has said and done . . .

Patient research in the matter of tradition has brought to the surface the good side of the concept. Paul himself uses the language of tradition in a good sense (1 Cor. 11:23, 15:3). Both Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars have been coming closer and closer in a newer and better notion of tradition on both sides. For example, they agree that much of the revelation given in the period of time contained in the Book of Genesis must have been carried on as tradition . . . In the Christian period the bridge between Christ and the written documents of the New Testament was certainly tradition.

The sola scriptura of the Reformers did not mean a total rejection of tradition. It meant that only Scripture had the final word on a subject . . . If we reject church tradition we have no idea what the New Testament is attempting to communicate. There is no question that the great majority of American evangelicals are not happy to have such a large weight given to tradition. Even so . . . might we not be heirs of tradition in such a manner that we are not aware of it? However we vote on this issue, it remains true that scholars no longer can talk about Scripture and totally ignore tradition . . .

If a Christian could not have his own Scripture until the time of printing and its translation into modern languages, then the kind of Christianity the Bible-only mentality accepts could not have existed until the sixteenth century . . . If copies of the Holy Scripture were rare because of the expensive cost of reproduction by hand-copying then there must have been other valid sources through which the laymen could know the contents of the Christian faith. Such may be: the preaching of the bishop in the early church . . . ; the sacraments and the liturgy which used biblical themes, biblical personalities, and quotations from Scripture so that solid biblical truth could be learned indirectly . . . ; church architecture, decorations within a church, and other forms of Christian art which reflected biblical themes and materials.

This is not an exhaustive list but it does show how the millions of Christians . . . could have had a substantial understanding of the Christian faith prior to the invention of printing. And if one has such a perspective on the whole history of the church he need not be caught in the logical box to which the Bible-only mentality leads . . . I strongly believe that the current effort to make a certain doctrine of Scripture the Wesen ["essence"] of Christianity represents a Bible-Only mentality which cannot be supported because it is so narrow that it becomes self-defeating.

. . . We have tried to show that there is a difference between a Bible-Only mentality which is limited and limiting and a healthy, strong, theological stance on sola scriptura. The latter is in total accord with the theology of the Reformers and is compatible with a genuinely contemporary evangelical theological scholarship.

(Bernard Ramm, in Jack B. Rogers, editor, Biblical Authority, Waco, TX: Word
Books, 1977, "Is 'Scripture Alone' the Essence of Christianity?," 116-117, 119, 121-123)

The sola scriptura principle does not exclude a respectful listening to the wisdom of the past. For we stand in a community of faith and cannot leap over two thousand years of Christian history in disregard of the prodigious labors already done . . . Biblicism is an antitraditional preoccupation with the Bible. It limits its interests to the Bible alone and does not seek nor accept the guidance and correction which the history of exegesis affords. There is something audacious about such a leap from the twentieth century back into the first century without even a glance at the ways in which Scripture has hitherto been understood. Indeed, in such a case there is the real danger that the interpreter will bring the Bible under his own control. Every explicit denial of tradition involves a hidden commitment to a personal brand of tradition.

(Clark Pinnock, Biblical Revelation, Chicago: Moody Press, 1971, 118-119)

The Reformers did not in the least mean to say that Scripture was of no value to Rome. As they saw it, however, the teaching and practice of the Roman Catholic Church did not seem to consider Scripture "sufficient." It could be demonstrated, so the Reformers thought, that certain "truths" and "values" had been adopted that appeared to have no essential relationship to the gospel of Scripture . . .

Had that which was "entrusted" (I Tim 6:20) to the church been preserved in the course of the centuries? Thus we face the problem of "tradition," . . . It became a central question whether the deposit of faith had been handed over from generation to generation in a pure and undefiled manner . . .

The "preservation," . . . is not in the least a concern peculiar to the Roman Catholic Church. Every church is concerned with it if it indeed wants to be the church; . . . Furthermore, it is a complex question, since the church is not and cannot be an exact replica of the church of the New Testament. It entered history and was naturally influenced by its own life through history in numerous new situations. Tradition plays a decisive role in this development. The gospel, heard and accepted, is not being carried along as a rigid and erratic block . . . It is a living thing with its own dynamic . . .

One must be on guard, therefore, not to approach the problem of "biblical tradition" in a reactionary manner, as if to claim that the gospel would be present in different periods and cultures without human mediation and without "tradition." . . .

The function of the sola Scriptura in the Reformation was to focus attention on God's Word as a principle of interpretation over against human arbitrariness.

(G.C. Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics: Holy Scripture, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975, translated from the Dutch edition of 1967 by Jack B. Rogers, 299-300, 306)

The Reformers did not despise the treasury of church tradition . . . But the difference is this: For the Reformers no church council, synod, classical theologian, or early church father is regarded as infallible. All are open to correction and critique . . .

The two primary thrusts of Sola Scriptura point to: 1) Scripture's uniqueness as normative authority, and 2) its uniqueness as the source of special revelation. Norm and source are the twin implicates of the Sola Scriptura principle.

(R.C. Sproul, in James Montgomery Boice, editor, The Foundation of Biblical Authority, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1978, ch. 4: "Sola Scriptura: Crucial to Evangelicalism," 109)

If there remains any doubt about my views on the matter, here is what I wrote about it in my first book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2003, 4), in Chapter One, "Bible and Tradition":

The concept of sola Scriptura, it must be noted, is not in principle opposed to the importance and validity of Church history, Tradition, ecumenical Councils, or the authority of Church Fathers and prominent theologians. The difference lies in the relative position of authority held by Scripture and Church institutions and proclamations. In theory, the Bible judges all of these, since, for the evangelical Protestant, it alone is infallible and the Church and popes and Councils are not.

This chapter was first written in 1991 and revised in 1994. The entire book in its revised form was completed in May 1996, so I have obviously believed these things for many years, and in fact, I did as a Protestant also, prior to 1990, as I had these books I cite in my personal library during the 1980s. In the footnotes for this section I mentioned all five of these sources, with full bibliographical information, in addition to some further sources:

1 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Bk. 4, ch. 10; . . . Martin Marty, A Short History of Christianity (New York: Meridian, 1959), 216.

2 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Bk. 1, chs. 6-9 . . .

3 Martin Luther, On the Councils and the Churches, 1539; . . .

This is the last time I will point this out. The next time someone foolishly "argues" (i.e., tells lies, corrected times without number) that I don't understand the difference between sola Scriptura and the corrupt cardboard caricature of solo Scriptura, I will simply direct them and their readers to this paper. If they wish to then continue lying and misrepresenting my views after having been thoroughly disabused and corrected, that is up to them. One tires of being lied about.

I have believed what I have written here, for some 23 years (that includes nine years as a Protestant). Of course, I now reject sola Scriptura, as a Catholic, but that doesn't mean that I don't (or didn't) know the definition of the term or the nature of the concept. I've held to the same definition and understanding all along; I simply no longer believe what I once did about it, as to its truth and implications and effect.

But I continue to believe that it is of the utmost importance to accurately describe our opponents' views when critiquing them (especially since Catholic views are so often distorted and molded into straw men with little resemblance to our actual dogmatic beliefs -- not doing the same to our Protestant brothers is a straightforward application of the Golden Rule, as well as good scholarship and dialogical method).


iwka said...

What would you say to this:
Is this pretty accurate description of different understandings of sola scriptura?


Dave Armstrong said...

He has the definition right. I answered him in a six-part reply: