Sola Scriptura Redux–What Does it Really Mean?

(This is a reposting of a blog post I wrote some years ago for Beliefnet).

One of the battle cries of the Reformation, responding to, among other things, all sorts of Catholic traditions which are not seen as Scriptural in character, was ‘sola Scriptura’— Scripture alone. It was often coupled with sola gratia and sola fide— only by grace, and only by faith. The latter two are separate issues from Sola Scriptura however, and this post is only about the latter.

Let us start by noting the historical point that there was no New Testament as a collection before the 4th century A.D. The New Testament did not exist as a canonical collection in the so-called NT era. Indeed, some would dispute that even in the fourth or fifth century A.D. the canon of the NT was completely closed. I think it was, for all intents and purposes, but that is a discussion for another day.

When the Reformers cried out ‘sola Scriptura’ of course they were including the 27 books of the NT under this rubric. The irony of this was of course that Christians in the second and third century A.D. could not have joined them in this battle cry if the term included all 27 NT books. And indeed, if one presses the historical issue even further, one will realize that texts like 2 Tim. 3.16 refer only to the OT as the ‘all Scripture which is God-breathed’. We do have in 2 Pet. 3.16 a reference to some sort of collection of Pauline letters which are said to stand alongside of ‘the other Scriptures’ (presumably the OT is meant). This means that in the NT era there had already begun to be collections of sacred writings by and for Christians, but the process had only begun in that period. It was completed only considerably later. My point in belaboring this is that earliest Christianity could not and did not live by a dictum ‘sola Scriptura’ if by that one included the NT in the ‘sola’ list.

Then there are other historical points of importance. For example, some of the most key and fundamental ideas of early Christianity only begin to be discussed and their implications teased out in the NT books themselves. A classic example of this is the Trinity. I am on record as saying that the raw data for a Trinitarian theology is definitely there in the NT— the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are all viewed as God (the one God) in one text or another. What we do not have in the NT is the following: 1) the term ‘Trinity’ (Tertullian may have been the first to use it); 2) the term ‘God’ used in a single phrase to refer to all three members of the Trinity. Instead the term ‘theos’ is used overwhelmingly of God the Father in the NT, and in seven cases of God the Son. What the singular Greek word ‘theos’ is not used for in the NT is a moniker for the tri-personed God. This too was a post NT development; 3) nor do we have an explanation in detail in the NT of how the humanity and divinity of the Son should be viewed in relationship to one another. This explication would have to wait for the ecumenical council at Chalcedon in the fifth century A.D. What all of this makes clear is that in earliest Christianity it was always a matter of Scripture plus sacred tradition, including Christian tradition. It was never a matter of ‘sola Scriptura’.

This of course raises the question of what ‘sola Scriptura’ could profitably mean in view of the actual early history of the Scriptures and Christological doctrines and orthodoxy. Here the answer must be that the Scriptures, including the 27 books of the NT came to be seen as the final authority, or final litmus test of all sacred traditions. Scripture became the ‘canon’ which in its original Greek sense means the measuring rod, the rod by which all other traditions must be measured in regard to truthfulness and usefulness as well. If this more limited use of the term ‘sola Scriptura’ is accepted, it then allows that Christian traditions outside the canon certainly can and should be given the status of viable, valuable, truthful, and perhaps even sacred traditions.

And here is where I say that if this historically more accurate use of the term sola Scriptura is accepted then perhaps Protestants and Catholics and the Orthodox can once more have fruitful conversations on the relationship of Scripture and tradition. Scripture after all is a privileging of some traditions over others, reckoning them as having more authority because they are inspired, infallible, truthful and trustworthy. Doubtless Protestants will wish to stress the final authority of Scripture on all matters of faith and practice. And indeed, Protestants will want to say that all non-canonical traditions must comport with Scripture, and must be measured and critiqued by Scripture. But even this claim falls short of a narrow reading of the meaning of the phrase ‘sola Scriptura’. Perhaps it is time to say that just as faith never exists alone in splendid isolation, nor does grace, so also Scripture as well never did exist in such isolation either. It’s worth considering. For more on a high view of Scripture see my The Living Word of God, (Baylor).

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  • Derek DeVries

    This is a creative and interesting way to re-package the central claim of the Protestant Reformers concerning Sola Scriptura, since it incorporates a historic notion of canon which is common ground to other Christian traditions.

    There is still, I think, a serious “meta” problem afoot regarding *authority* in this reappropriation of Sola Scriptura. You said that:

    “Scripture became the ‘canon’ which in its original Greek sense means the measuring rod, the rod by which all other traditions must be measured in regard to truthfulness and usefulness as well. If this more limited use of the term ‘Sola Scriptura’ is accepted, it then allows that Christian traditions outside the canon certainly can and should be given the status of viable, valuable, truthful, and perhaps even sacred traditions.”

    You said that “Scripture became canon.” This implies, I think, that Scripture was canonized, and, more specifically, it was canonized by the early Church. Scripture does not in itself canonize itself. The problem is this: The same early Church that canonized Scripture canonized a whole slew of other aspects of the Church, including saints, worship practices, and even declaring iconography to be canonical. I’m thinking, in particular, the conclusions of the various Ecumenical Councils in which canons where specified.

    With this in mind, we would have to tweak your version of Sola Scriptura, by calling it Sola Regula Scriptura.

    A monumental task would be, I think, to provide a non-question-begging justification for the view that only Sola Scriptura is canonical. On what authority?

  • Lee Ann

    All who agree can now start on a path toward Eastern Orthodoxy.

  • Roger Penney

    The assumption behind this argument is that the ‘Scripture’ is a collection of human documents that were gradually accepted as ‘inspired’. I may be wrong here that this is the assumption but it seems very much to be so. If the books of the Old Testament were ‘God-breathed’ and if also God intended to complete the Revelation of Himself then many of us accept that certain writings were also ‘God breathed’. Apparently there was prophetic gift in the Apostolic age but the works and teachings of the Apostles and Prophets were brought together by God, as the Prophets and Apostles were inspired by God.
    So were the churches in doubt until some ‘church’ council decided what was and what was not ‘Scripture’?
    These were written as inspired by God that people might know and believe and so pass from death to life as John showed. The whole matters of salvation was then in doubt until it was decided what was and what was not? Is that the case argued here? There was no cannon, no measure of what was ‘God-breathed’.
    Do you really think that God would leave such a matter so long in doubt? The Lord Jesus said, “I am come that they might have life”. Does that mean that there could be no real faith, therefore no real salvation until the churches were sure about what was inspired and wha twas not? The obvious conclusion is that each church, under the leading of the Holy Spirit, the Third person of the Godhead, decided for itself. Of course with a sacerdotal system this is not allowed, men, self-styled priests have to be in charge since, like politicians. they do not beleive that ordinary people can organise themselves.
    On top of that there is a real problem about the sources for this argument. It is on no certain ground to take the words of the, so called, ‘church Fathers’. They were but men and we find over those four centuries a movement of institutionalisation going on where, what were at first independant churches answerable only to God, were gradually taken over by people like Diotrephes, “who loved to have the preeminence”. This movement grew rapidly into the rule by ‘bishops’, no longer elders who oversaw the church but clerical overlords. It finally became ‘the Church’. A sect or denomination which changed everything back to a religion with a hierarchical structure.
    We know little about the churches after the Apostolic age. Already strange and false teachings were making havoc as the messages by the Lord Jesus to the seven churches in Revelation chapters two and three show us. From people conquerors to a neo-Jezebel we see the cancerous growth of churchianity. I doubt that the church fathers had much time for other writings since they reflect this growing power of religion with its inevitable centralisation. Priest, not Scripture, was the rule and still is in the large sects of Christendom. I do not doubt that other writings by the true Christians were ruthlessly destroyed or burned.
    Wyckliffe of course put the cat among the priestly pigeons. This was the true Reformation where individual groups of Lollards met together to read the Bible in the vernacular. As they did before the dead hand of religion smothered the new awakening even at the end of the Apostolic age.

  • Ben Witherington

    Derek this is not necessarily the case. I agree with Metzger that the church under the guidance of the Spirit recognized the canon, not that the church chose the canon. The final authority lies with God of course and then Scripture as God’s word, not with the church. BW3

  • Roger Penney

    I find above that respondents use the term ‘the church’. The only body that this can apply to is the body of which the Lord Jesus is the head. (Col.1:24. 2:19) We who are truly born again belong to this body which will not be complete until the Lord Jesus returns to take it to Himself. (1Thess.4:13-18) The term used, ‘the church’ may mean ‘my denomination’ or a vague conglomeration of all the sects and systems which might be better called Christendom.
    So what we have at this time is only a mass of individual congregations. These are those who meet to the Name of the Lord Jesus and not to the Name of a sect. When the Lord promised to be with the two or three gathered to His Name he demonstrated that the local conregation was the equivalent of the temple, the house of God, in Jerusalem, the Place where Yehovah had place His Name. That in this age there are not sacred buildings was made clear to the Woman of Samaria when she questioned the Lord Jesus. (Matthew 18:20. Jn4:21,22)
    So no church council could have decided on what was isnpried Scripture and what was not. Nor ‘the church’ since this word has no meaning in the context in which it is commonly used. However there grew up, quite rapidly I imagine a consensus among the churches but each one being being separately convinced as each of its members were so convinced. The injunction to be “all of one mind, of one accord,” strongly suggests that the early Christians being mental Bereans, they all gave earnest prayer, much thought and meditation to the matter. (Philip.2:1,2. See also 1:27. 2Cor.13:11. 1Pe.3:8) To argue, as some do, that this is idealism, I answer that God’s Spirit is able to “lead us into all truth,” providing we are willing to be so lead. “Howbeit, when He, the Spirit of truth is come. He will guide yo into all truth.” (Jn.16:13)
    I have used some speculation here but it seems to me legitimate in this instance to do so since these following verses I have quoted tell us that, first all members of a church can be united in teaching, secondly that the idea seen in Psalm 1 that people of God should cogitate, that is to think about things in their own minds, the word meditate had been high-jacked by buddhism and by mysticism in our own day but that is what it means in the Bible. Thirdly, as John 7:17 shows us, any one who is willing to do God’s will is able to learn from Him the teaching concening that matter. If in those early churches inside and outside the Roman empire contained members who were once Jews and, maybe, rabbis; then the study of the Bible would have been taken far more seriously than is undertaken amont ourselves today.