Monday, April 14, 2008

The Great Sola Scriptura Debate

I hate having to start an article like this, but I want to preface my comments by suggesting that I am feeling rather exhausted this evening. That said, I wished to share a few of my thoughts on the subject, so hopefully what I write will come into some sort of coherent order ...

Perhaps one of the things that remains difficult about the whole doctrine of Sola Scriptura is the notorious ambiguity concerning its definition. To be perfectly honest, I'm not entirely sure where Sola Scriptura stops and the three-pronged emphasis on "Scripture, Tradition, Reason" starts. I think the least I could say is that the conception of Sola Scriptura where the Bible is interpreted in a vacuum simply does not exist in any kind of historical context. If one goes to the famous Diet of Worms, Martin Luther is recorded as saying:

Unless I am convicted by the testimony of Scripture or by evident reason - for I trust neither in popes nor in councils alone, since it is obvious that they have often erred and contradicted themselves - I am convicted by the Scripture which I have mentioned and my conscience is captive by the Word of God.

This certainly places Scripture in a high position, but what kind of Sola Scriptura is it really? Certainly Luther seems to have rejected the infallibility of tradition, but he clearly sees reason as an important element in the interpretive process. Importantly, Luther sees that a correct understanding of Scripture is not always self-evident and thus that the interpretation of the Scriptures does not occur in a vacuum. Indeed, shortly thereafter Luther and Melanchthon are responsible for the creation of the Augsburg Confession, a statement that extensively quotes the Church Fathers. I can't imagine any reason for doing this if Luther did not see the importance and authority of tradition.

Perhaps the question I'd like to know is whether Scripture is truly the definitive authority when tradition and reason are used in the interpretive process? Of course, the common appeal is that tradition and reason are merely aids to understanding the authoritative text and so in this way it is said that the doctrine of Sola Scriptura is preserved. But once any text (for example, Calvin's "Institutes") is understood to be a reliable exposition of Scripture, doesn't this become the authority in the place of the Bible? And perhaps even beyond this, is it not the individual making the determination about what tradition correctly understands Scripture and what type of reason (think different approaches to systematic theology) achieves this purpose? What then can be said to the Catholic accusation that Protestants have merely replaced the authority of the Church and the magisterium with the convictions of the individual? That is quite literally, that each and every Protestant is a pope of his or her own? I would tend to suggest that some 30,000 protestant denomination attest to this fact, rather than to the proposition that it is Scripture alone that is regarded as authoritative in the Protestant worldview.


John H said...

Well, as Michael Spencer once put it, I'd rather have 10,000 "Protestant popes" who make no claims to infallibility than one Roman Catholic pope who does.

Also, I'd avoid quoting the "30,000 protestant denominations" line so uncritically. Professional Catholic Apologists™ love citing that figure, but it greatly exaggerates the position. Many of the distinctions between the various Protestant denominations are no greater than between various schools of thought within the Roman Catholic Church. And if you look at the church along sacramental lines - that is, in terms of shared fellowship at the altar rather than in organisational/legal terms - then the intercommunion among most Protestant denominations greatly reduces the actual level of division.

And it should also be borne in mind that most of the mushrooming of denominations is not down to the Reformation or "sola scriptura", but due to the rise of individual religious freedom since the 18th century, which even Rome has now come to accept is a good thing.

As for sola scriptura itself: Luther and the other reformers never held to sola scriptura in the sense of excluding tradition or reason. Their understanding of sola scriptura was profoundly church-oriented: in other words, it was principally concerned with the basis on which the church confesses certain doctrines as true.

The term was coined in opposition to the late medieval Catholic Church, which had defined a number of doctrines and practices as necessary for salvation despite the lack of any scriptural support (and, indeed, despite scriptural evidence to the contrary - such as in relation to communion "in both kinds"). The point was to say that the church cannot insist on any doctrine or practice as necessary for salvation unless it can be shown to come from Scripture.

That is not the same thing as saying that every individual Christian is to interpret Scripture for themselves in a vacuum, without reference to the church's confessions or to tradition and reason.

David Castor said...

Hi John,

Thanks for the background information. I was actually wondering where the term "sola scriptura" originated from, since I didn't recall Luther making use of the term himself. I would have liked to do some research on the issue myself, but was feeling exhausted last night.

I'd definitely agree with you with respect to making belief in a doctrine without scriptural support a prerequisite to salvation. As I recall reading, Luther spoke of the Immaculate Conception of Mary (a doctrine only infallibly declared in 1870, mind you!) as a "sweet and pious belief", or something to that effect. However, Luther objected strongly to the idea that this should be enforced belief, since he believed that there was no explicit support for the position in Scripture.

I should point out that I also have issues with making belief in many doctrines with (alleged) scriptural support a prerequisite to salvation, but I shall talk about this in tonight's blog entry.