I don’t have much trouble signing most Evangelical doctrinal statements. Normally, the shorter they are, the better. That is what it means to be Evangelical (at least in the 20th-century understanding of the term). When they get too long, I start to smell a little bit of magisterial institutionalization creeping back into the church. However, every organization has the right to spell out their doctrinal requirements according to their purpose of existence. The Credo House doctrinal statement (to which all employees must adhere) is pretty short. It is definitely Protestant, but we have tried to keep it as broadly Evangelical as we could. I did not even put anything in it about Calvinism! Why? Because it is the purpose of this doctrinal statement to represent the mission of Credo House, not the particular beliefs of Michael Patton.
This week Together for the Gospel (T4G) is holding is annual conference with lots of great stuff and lots of great speakers. I wish I could have been there. Now, I must confess that I don’t really know much about T4G or its exact purpose, but the name seems to suggest that they are purposed to bring a general community back “together” to the centrality of the Gospel message. Who could argue with that? The speakers they have placed on their list this year include C. J. Mahaney, Albert Mohler, John Piper, and Matt Chandler. When you have the likes of Carl Trueman relegated to doing a breakout session, then your list of main speakers must be out of this world! The list is definitely Reformed, so I don’t think T4G is trying to be too broad. Again, this is okay, depending on your purpose.
Many bloggers have been giving updates on the conference and I appreciate it. However, when I looked at Justin Taylor’s blog today, I found myself a bit confused. He posted a link to T4G’s doctrinal statement. I did not get past the first line before I realized that I could not sign it. I am not too particular on many things and I can manipulate some wording so that I am comfortable signing some things. I just don’t ask too many questions. However, the first line in this statement, if I am understanding it correctly, is a disqualifier for me. In fact, I am a bit confused that those who signed it could do so in good conscience as Evangelicals.
Here are the signers:
Here is the doctrinal statement in the form of affirmation and denials.
So, with what in the statement did I disagree, since I agreed with most of it? There are a few things here and there which give me some problems, but I don’t care to discuss those right now. The primary thing that I want to talk about is the first line in the first affirmation:
“We affirm that the sole authority for the Church is the Bible, verbally inspired, inerrant, infallible, and totally sufficient and trustworthy.”
I am not sure if you caught it, but it is something very important. I disagree that the Bible is the “sole authority for the Church.” No, I am not denying sola Scriptura. I believe very deeply in the authority of the Scripture. In fact, I think it is a key issue in Christianity. However, sola Scriptura does not and has never meant that the Scripture is the “sole” authority for the church. Sola Scriptura means that the Scripture is the final and only infallible authority for the individual and the church in matters of faith and practice. But it is not the only authority. There are many other authorities. Protestant Christians believe that tradition, reason, and (many times) experience are lesser authorities to which individual Christians must submit. Are they fallible authorities? Yes, but they are authorities nonetheless.
Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, spoke of three of these while defending himself at Worms in his great “Here I Stand” speech:
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason-for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves-I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture.”
Notice that Scripture and reason (“or by evident reason”) are authorities in his life. As well, though he understands that traditions (“popes and councils”) have “contradicted themselves,” he does still respect these as authorities (as evidence from the word “alone” after “pope and councils”). From statements such as these we construct what we call “Luther’s Trilateral.” Luther believed in three sources of authority for the church: Scripture, reason, and tradition. Of these, the Scripture is the final and only infallible source. We often express it in this way: the Scripture is the norma normans sed non normata (“norm that norms which is not normed”). Another way to put it is that the Scripture is the source that judges all other sources and is not judged by them.
John Wesley, the great Arminian evangelist, held to four sources, often called the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” Like Luther, he believed that the Bible is the final and only infallible source, but he also believed in the authority of reason and tradition. To these he added one more: experience. I am not sure Luther would have necessarily disagreed with this, but my point is not to enter into that debate. My point is to show that the phrase “the sole authority for the Church is the Bible” is not within the best traditions of Reformed Protestantism. In fact, it would be more associated with the “radical reformation” which has been, for the most part, repudiated by traditional Protestants for, among other things, their outright rejection of tradition as an authority.
Think of it another way: Without tradition being an authority we would not even have the Scriptures themselves, as it is only through tradition that we know what Scripture is actually Scripture. The Scriptures have no place where there is an inspired list telling us which books belong in the Scripture (we call this the “canon” of Scripture). It is through the traditions of the church that we know which books are the final authority. Therefore, tradition must be an authority to some degree.
Now, much of Fundamentalism has been known to mistakenly define sola Scriptura in a way that appears as if Scripture is the sole authority. I get that. Have you ever heard someone say “If it ain’t in the Bible, then I don’t believe it”? But this is not Evangelical. Even R.C. Sproul says the belief that the Scripture is the “sole authority” is not sola Scriptura, but nuda Scriptura (nothing but the Scripture). (See this work for a good history of sola Scriptura.) In fact, this is one of the main distinctions between the Puritans and the Anglicans. The Puritans were more inclined to believe that Scripture was the only authority for the Church. The Anglicans were not. This is where I really appreciate the historic Anglican church. I think they were on the right side of the debate here. (See this work for a more definitive distinction between Puritans and Anglicans on this issue.)
If you are still not convinced, think of all the places where the Scriptures themselves speak of other authorities for the Christian. Parents are in authority over their children (Eph. 6:1). Husbands are in authority over their wives (Eph. 5:22). People are to submit to the authority of the government, since there is “no authority which is not from God” (Rom. 13:1). And the Scripture even talks about the church (elders) being in authority over its members: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they watch over your souls” (Heb. 13:17). If elders/pastors were not an authority in the church, how could we ever hope to practice church discipline? Of course all of these other authorities (parents, husbands, government, elders) are fallible, as are reason and experience. But this does not mean that they are irrelevant. One does not have to be infallible to be in authority.
It is for this reason that I don’t think I could sign the T4G doctrinal statement. Of course, these are all smart chaps (much more so than me!) and must know this. Therefore, I think I may be misunderstanding what they mean when they say, “We affirm that the sole authority for the Church is the Bible.” I just wish it was worded differently. But, as it stands, I could not sign the T4G doctrinal statement in good conscience.