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In Defense of Sola Scriptura – Part Four – What Did John Believe?

In the last post of this series, I made an argument for the “Dual-Source Theory” of authority (shared by both Catholics and many Eastern Orthodox). Naturally, since I don’t hold to this theory, I have responses to each point of argument that was made. Please understand that while I am persuaded that the doctrine of sola Scriptura, understood correctly, presents the most viable and accurate view of Christian authority, I by no means mean to dismiss any Dual-Source Theory as ignorant or completely out in left field. Let my responses be seen in light of such a perspective.

I will restate each argument for the Dual-Source Theory and then provide what I believe to be a representative response for the sola Scriptura position. I may give each one their own blog post so as not to overwhelm you with a long reading.

Dual-Source Theory argument #1

The Scriptures clearly say that there were many other things that Christ did that were not written down.

Jn. 21:25
“And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.”

The idea is that the body of revelation given by Christ was not exhausted by the writings of the Apostles. This, at least, evidences that there could have been oral teachings that were passed on and just as important and authoritative.

Response

It is self-evident that the Bible did not record everything that Jesus said and did. John’s purpose in telling his readers this is not because he wants them to seek out “unwritten Tradition” or some second source of authority other than his letter to learn of these “other” things, but because he wants them to know that what he has recorded contains sufficient information to bring one to salvation.

Notice the rest of the passage. This provides a good argument that the Gospel of John alone, from the view of the Apostle, provides sufficient information about Christ to, if believed, bring on to salvation. This ends up providing an argument for one aspect of sola Scriptura rather than against it.

Jn. 20:30–31
“Now Jesus performed many other miraculous signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (emphasis added).

There is no reason to think that people need exhaustive knowledge of all that Christ said or did. The Bible is not exhaustive history, it is theological history. If John felt that there was another necessary source that people needed to understand in addition to what he wrote then his assumption about the sufficiency of his record seems either misleading or erroneous.

But let me not overstate my case here. Catholics who deny sola Scriptura will respond by siting the difference between the “material sufficiency” and the “formal sufficiency” of Scripture. Catholics can—and often do—believe that the Scripture contains all the information necessary for Salvation (material sufficiency), but they also believe it lacks the ability to interpret itself. Therefore, an absolute and authoritative interpreter is necessary to understand the Scripture. In this way, the Scripture lacks “formal sufficiency.”

Protestants, such as myself, would respond, at least with regard to the current argument about the Gospel of John, that to suppose John assumed his readers, whomever they may be, would need an infallible interpreter in order to understand his letter is a bit presumptuous. There is no indication that John felt that his letter lacked either material or formal sufficiency. From my point of view, to say that the Gospel of John is formally insufficient to accomplish its proposed purpose (i.e. it cannot be understood without an infallible interpreter and, hence, people cannot have “life in his name” because of this lack), is to force a foreign notion into the mind of John that is in no sense taught, evident, or justified beyond one’s presupposed theology. In other words, most advocates of the Dual-Source Theory must see John in such a way, not because of the evidence, but because their presupposed Dual-Source paradigm demands such.

I believe that this is unjustified.

Again, this one response does not destroy the Dual-Source Theory of authority, it simply evidences, in my opinion, the weakness of this proposed argument for the theory. I will continue to deal with the other arguments in subsequent blog posts.

4 Responses to “In Defense of Sola Scriptura – Part Four – What Did John Believe?”

  1. Hello Mr. Patton, thank you for the interesting posts. I just wanted to make some counter points to your counter points:

    You say:
    “If John felt that there was another necessary source that people needed to understand in addition to what he wrote then his assumption about the sufficiency of his record seems either misleading or erroneous.”

    It seems to my like you are saying that the book of John is all anybody needs to be saved to eternal life. After all, John says, “…these are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Do you think that John means that Christians are not in need of other clarifying books like Romans, Galatians, James, or even Matthew to stay on the right road to salvation and rightly understand Christ’s teachings?

  2. Another thought:

    You said:
    “…to suppose John assumed his readers, whomever they may be, would need an infallible interpreter in order to understand his letter is a bit presumptuous.”

    This may be true of the particular readers John was writting to. But church history is littered with heretics. Many, many people have misinterpreted the text of Scripture throughtout history – so much so that gigantic councils involving huge debates over fundamental issues needed to be convened…i.e., the ecumenical councils. And heresies abound even today. So I don’t think it’s presumptuous at all to think that people reading the Bible (even great scholars in Biblical Greek and Hebrew) today could very easily misinterpret the Bible and end up on the road to Hell.

  3. I think John is indeed saying that you only need to believe in what he wrote about Jesus for eternal life. This doesn’t mean there is no significance for the other books of the Bible – explaining this same gospel message and its implications for different areas of life.

    If John did not assume his original readers needed an infallible interpreter, then there is no need to assume people today do. John’s readers were also capable of sin and misinterpretation, even if less likely.

    While the apostle’s writing is quite clear on so many things, this doesn’t stop people from misinterpretation. But as with John’s readers, the solution is not an infallible interpreter. For this only pushes the problem back a step. We still have to interpret the infallible interpreter. And why presume that an infallible interpreter would be clearer than God’s Word?

    Besides, there are only a handful of passages this supposed “infallible interpreter” has infallibly interpreted!

    The best solution to the problem of misinterpretation is to admit that we need to be more careful of our presuppositions and biases, be ever humble, diligent and learn from others.

    The attraction of an infallible interpreter is the longing for certainty. But we will never eradicate misinterpretation because no matter what we do, it will always come down to our fallible minds trying to make sense of something, whether it be the infallible Scriptures, or a supposed infallible interpreter of Scripture.

    Being at least more sure with an infallible interpreter, is not good enough. For the argument to work, I need’s to be infallibly certain that my interpretation of the infallible interpreter is infallible.

  4. Simon, I really like your points. Especially this one:
    “The attraction of an infallible interpreter is the longing for certainty.” I know that I really long for that, and that is largely why the Protestant answer doesn’t appeal to me that much. But it can lead one in a never-ending spiral! How can we be certain of anything, really? The infallible interpreter still needs to be interpreted. Good point.

    I guess I just don’t feel that Scripture is as clear as you make it out to be even on essential issues. Again, history is littered with heretics – however humble, diligent and willing to learn from others they were. For example, reading the book of John (and Romans), I find that he places heavy emphasis on belief in Jesus and not on works so much. Well, Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount says that if I don’t forgive others, God won’t forgive me (right after He talks about the Lord’s prayer). So which is it? Is it simple belief that frees me from the guilt of my sin or is it my ability to forgive others that in turn leads God to forgive me? In other words, am I saved by faith or by works? The larger context of Scripture doesn’t really help me much on that because a large number of passages can be marshalled to prove either point or any mix of both.

    Having a larger tradition and authoritative body or person to turn to to interpret the Bible does make a lot of what it says more clear. There are still gray areas, as with Protestantism, but they are fewer. An ancient Christian can’t say that communion is only symbolic. He/she is “certain” that it really is the body and blood or Christ. The ancient Christian is certain about the infallibility of the church, the significance of baptism, the nuances of the salvation issue, etc. In other words, you can keep going back to an infallible interpreter (like a Pope or a church council) to answer the pressing questions of the day. But who will finally decide among Protestants what the nature of communion is? Or the validity of infant baptism? Or free will vs. predestination? Or even the Trinity? How can sola scriptura do that for you or anybody?

    Thanks for the discussion.

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