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In Defense of Sola Scriptura – Part One – Authority Across the Spectrum

“If it ain’t in the Bible, I don’t believe it.” Have you ever heard said that? How about this one: “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” You might have that bumper sticker. Why not? Doesn’t this represent the glory of the Protestant Reformation’s elevation of Scripture to a position of the sole source of authority in the Christian’s life? Don’t these pithy statements represent the best of what it means to adhere to the doctrine of sola Scriptura?

No, they don’t. In fact they unfortunately represent a common misunderstanding of what sola Scriptura means.

Where does one go for authority? In whom do we place our trust? The Church? Tradition? Scripture? The Pope? These represent important questions that are normally not understood outside the perspective of individual traditions.

There are essentially five views that exist in the church today concerning the important issue of authority.

1. Dual-source theory

Belief that Tradition, represented by the magisterial authority of the Roman Catholic Church, is infallible and equal to Scripture as a basis for doctrine; the Church itself is the final authority in all matters of faith and practice since it must define and interpret Scripture and Tradition.

Adherents: Roman Catholics

Notice that there is one complete deposit of faith, given by Christ to the Apostles. This one deposit is transmitted by two sources, written tradition (Scripture) and unwritten tradition. Notice also the dotted line as Scripture moves from the “Age of the Apostles” to the “Age of the Church.” This represents that the Scriptures were not complete in canonized form (all the books were not decided upon) until the forth century. The Roman Catholic church believes itself responsible for the interpretation of both written and unwritten tradition. Because of their belief that the Holy Spirit protects the Roman Catholic church from error, they believe that they are the ultimate and final authority for the Christian. This is why this view is often referred to as sola ecclesia (”the church alone”).

2. Prima Scriptura

Belief that the Body of Christ has two separate sources of authority for faith and practice: 1) the Scriptures and 2) Tradition. Scripture is the primary source for authority, but by itself it is insufficient for all matters of faith and practice. Tradition also contains essential elements needed for the productive Christian life.

Adherents: Some Roman Catholics (an alternate view)

Like the previous, the prima Scriptura view has an abiding dual-source of authority. Notice how the dotted line representing Tradition continues on in this model. This is illustrative of Tradition’s continued subordinate influence within the Church. For the prima Scriptura model, Tradition must be continually “kept in check” by Scripture. If there is ever a conflict between Tradition and the Scriptures, the Scriptures are to correct and interpret Tradition. Scripture, according to this model, is the primary and final authority in all matters. According to this view, the Scriptures contain all that is necessary for salvation and is, therefore, “materially sufficient.” But it is not “formally sufficient,” since it must have an infallible interpreter, the Church.

3. Regula Fidei

Lit. “Rule of faith.” Belief that tradition is an infallible “summary” of Scripture passed on through apostolic succession. Ultimately, there is only one source of revelation, but two sources of authority. In other words, Tradition is Scripture.

Adherents: Eastern Orthodox, some Protestants

Notice how the dotted line representing Tradition continues on in this model. Like the previous, this is illustrative of Tradition’s continued subordinate influence within the Church. For the regula fidei model, however, tradition equals Scripture in an infallible summary form (example: Nicene creed). The Church carries the correct interpretation of Scripture but does not add anything new to it (unlike the previous two). Therefore, all interpretation of Scripture must agree with the interpretation that has been consistently held within the Church—the regula fidei or ”rule of faith.”

4. Sola Scriptura

Belief that Scripture is the final and only infallible authority for the Christian in all matters of faith and practice. While there are other authorities, they are always fallible and the must always be tested by and submit to the Scriptures.

Adherents: Reformed Protestants/Evangelicals

Notice that the only difference between the sola Scriptura view and the regula fide view is that in the sola Scriptura view tradition is not infallible. It is very important to realize that advocates of sola Scriptura would believe that there were two sources of authority for the first 300–400 years of the Church. Like the previous view, tradition would be understood as a summary of what was written in Scripture that had always been accepted by the universal Church. Unlike the previous view, this summary is not infallible.

At this time, Scripture was in the process of being recognized (canonized) and the teachings of the apostles which had been passed on through word of mouth (tradition) was only reliable for the first 100 years (or so) of Church history. The majority of Scripture (Gospels, Acts, and Pauline corpus which makes up at least 80 percent of the NT) was accepted as authoritative by A.D. 200, if not earlier. At the same time, the teachings of the apostles that were being passed on through word of mouth was becoming increasingly obscure and unreliable. Once the New Testament had been circulated throughout the Church, and once the canon had been recognized, the Church became totally reliant upon the Scriptures (both Old and New Testaments) for ultimate authority in all matters of faith and practice. Scripture is always to be interpreted according to the accepted, albeit fallible, regula fidei of the early church as represented in the early creeds and councils.

As an important and related sidenote, there has been much recent discussion among Protestants and Orthodox concerning the similarities in the two traditions’ view of authority. In fact, mutual consent has been attained and confessions of misunderstanding given from both sides. Notice here the agreed statement from The Dublin Agreed Statement 1984 involving Anglicans and Orthodox:

“Any disjunction between Scripture and Tradition such as would treat them as two separate ‘sources of revelation’ must be rejected. The two are correlative. We affirm (1) that Scripture is the main criterion whereby the church tests traditions to determine whether they are truly part of the Holy Tradition or not; (2) that Holy Tradition completes Holy Scriptures in the sense that it safeguards the integrity of the biblical message” (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985), 50–51.

As well, notice this agreement between Lutherans and Orthodox:

“Regarding the relation of Scripture and Tradition, for centuries there seemed to have been a deep difference between Orthodox and Lutheran teaching. Orthodox hear with satisfaction the affirmation of the Lutheran theologians that the formula sola Scriptura was always intended to point to God’s revelation, God’s saving act through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, and therefore to the holy Tradition of the Church . . . against human traditions that darken the authentic teaching in the Church.” —Lutheran-Orthodox Dialogue: The Agreed Statements 1985–1989. (Geneva: Lutheran World Federation, 1992), 11.

5. Solo Scriptura or Nuda Scriptura

Belief that Scripture is the sole basis and authority in the life of the Christian. Tradition is useless and misleading, and creeds and confessions are the result of man-made traditions.

Adherents: Radical Reformers, Fundamentalists, Restorationist Churches

This is not a formal position but a pejorative designation of a practical one. It represents the unfortunate position of many evangelical or fundamental Protestants who misunderstand sola Scriptura believing that it means that the ideal place for believers to find authority and interpret Scripture is to do so in a historical vacuum, disregarding any tradition that might influence and bind their thinking. Not only does this undermine the Holy Spirit’s role in the lives of believers of the past, but it is a position of arrogance, elevating individual reason to the position of final authority. It also disregards the fact that it is impossible to interpret in a vacuum.

Protestants have many authorities in their lives. Whether it be parents, government, the church, or traditions. The doctrine of sola Scriptura does not mean that we don’t have any other authorities or even sources of revelation, but that the Scripture alone is the final and only infallible source—it is the ultimate source.

Just for good measure so that I cannot be accused of not trying to get in trouble, here is how I would chart some traditions and denominations.

Next, I will begin to give a more formal defense of sola Scriptura.

11 Responses to “In Defense of Sola Scriptura – Part One – Authority Across the Spectrum”

  1. Thanks for the diagrams. They are helpful.

    On what base do you say that Catholic church holds sola ecclesia position?
    This is what Catholic Catechism says about the relationship between Tradition (God’s spoken words, not tradition) and the Scriptures (God’s written words):
    http://www.vatican.va/archive/catechism/p1s1c2a2.htm#II
    Especially this:
    “Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant”
    seems to contradict so called “sola ecclesia”.

    Catholics understand the relationship between teh Scriptures, Tradition and Magisterium as tripod, explained in “Dei Verbum”:
    http://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/library_article/747/Vatican_II_on_Tradition_and_Magisterium.html

    I would think that the explanation of “church” would be helpful here also, as Protestants understand church as invisible group of people, loosely bound by mostly Bible beliefs, but Catholics understand church as visible and hierarchical institution built upon the person of Peter (Matt 16, 18-19).

    Also, if the church will prevail against the powers of hell (which are supernatural), it means that sinful people leading the church will be protected from supernatural errors (teaching errors in faith or morals)

  2. While in line with the Catholic view, I believe we need to take a practical view of the beginning of Christianity. When Christ ascended into heave, he commissioned the Apostles to go forth to all nations preaching His Good News. He never throughout his earthly ministry as far as the scriptures tell us ever said “Take ye up a stylus and engrave upon these tablest all the words that I will speak and then wait ye 1500 years and you will mee a man called Gutenberg. Go to him and have him print it up and spread my word through biblical societies over the earth.”

    Christ never told anyone to record his acts or teachings. It appears from scripture that he gave the Paraclete as his guarrantee of authenticity and he gave the Paraclete to the Assembly, the Ecclesia. When he left this earth Christ did not leave a book but a group of Apostles and disciples on whom he promised the Paraclete as the seal of truth.

    It is very important to recognize the practicality of this especially as books as we know them were unknown in his time and were only available in say a library as at Alexandria. It would make little sense to expect Christians of the first 4 centuries to have to consult various scriptures of questionable authenticity to believe in Christ.

    Even after the codification of the canon in 394 there were no real copies of scripture in circulation. Even at the height of the Middle Ages, the monactic tradition supplied copies only to Bishops, cathedrals and select patrons. Books were not in wide circulation until the 1800s. Even after Gutenberg, copies were rare and I cannot see how Sola or Solo Scriptura can withstand this simple practical pronblem. Too few possessed the scriptures to make sola scriptura a practical method. It appears that Luther made it up out of whole cloth as he had to in order to have something to balance against the weight of the Church and Tradition which were diametrically opposed to his teachings.

    I am not writing this to argue but I have never seen a reply to this problem of availability of the scriptures virtually up until the 19th century and hos sola scripturists deal with it.

  3. Tom Zelaney:

    Christ’s two mistakes:

    1. Entrusting His Gospel to humans, who within decades (or less) after His ascension would begin to disagree on what He meant and/or how to compose or control or run the church so that within a short period of time various sects and heterodox groups would spring up and, despite the best efforts of church councils and secular “Christian” rulers to control and dictate the faith, would continue to disagree and refuse communion with each other over the centuries. This, even after they possessed and consulted and studied the written records of what Christ and His immediate followers said about these things.

    2. Delaying for nearly 2,000 years (and counting) His return whereby He could straighten out this mess and explain what He meant and what He meant the church to do and believe.

    Tradition + the assumed unerring power of the Holy Spirit in the Church to guide and guard it + Scripture does not eliminate the problem(s) claimed for Sola Scriptura.

  4. EricW,

    I don’t know how to take what you said–Jesus made mistakes??

  5. With a grain (or two) of salt. :D

  6. EricW,

    Okay! Maybe three or four grains even!?!

  7. Sola Scriptura= 40,000 different protestant denominations. Disunity, disunity , disunity. Sad but true.

  8. Alan – Do a little Googling and you’ll find that the “40,000 different Protestant denominations” figure is a great exaggeration and was based on a misreading/misgrouping of the data.

  9. This post helps immensely in explaining why I feel like a “fish out of water.” I would probably qualify as an “Anglo-Lutheran” evangelical catholic if that makes any sense. Save me a spot between the Anglicans, Lutherans, and Eastern Orthodox on the chart. I strongly believe that the personal piety and faith of the right side can be blended with the “high” view of the visible church and sacramental life.

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