From The Archives: Sola Scriptura?

Although I am a Protestant, I must confess that the idea of ‘sola Scriptura’, of ‘Scripture alone’, doesn’t work. It could perhaps theoretically work in Islam, where one can (assuming one doesn’t take a critical approach to the text) assume the unity of the book as a given. In the case of the Bible, such assumptions are impossible. In order to speak of ‘Scripture’, one has to accept the authority not only of those Jews and Christians who made the decisions about what books would be included in the canon, but also the authority of those who produced the critical editions of the Hebrew and Greek texts and the judgment of the translators.

In order to treat the Bible as ‘inerrant’ one has to attribute inerrancy to not only those who made these judgments, but also to the authors (at least while they were writing). But of course, Protestants have a certain aversion to the idea of church leaders who can make infallible pronouncements but the rest of the time are fallible human beings, so this view shouldn’t appeal to as many Protestants as it apparently does.

Ultimately, one has to attribute inerrancy to someone or something other than God in order to take this sort of view of Scripture. But the real aim is not to connect ourselves with the inerrancy of God, but to be able to claim the inerrancy of our own views about God, claiming that they are just the teachings of the inerrant Scriptures. Any doctrine that ultimately serves the interests of individuals claiming their own certainty must be criticially evaluated.

“Sola Scriptura” still has a certain potentially valid meaning – one can still value these writings as our earliest Christian sources. But not studying them critically, or pretending they dropped down from heaven in a single package, is not an option. The time has come for us to stop speaking nonsense in the name of God, and to stop quietly tolerating others who do the same. Those whose views are expressed in the public sphere are open to rational discussion and evaluation – whether they are about science, the environment, the Bible, religion or anything else.
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  • Angie Van De Merwe

    Religion is a social construct about God. So, it is really immoral to impose religion on anyone else. I believe that there probably is a God, but do not think that promoting God is the 'ideal in life. Those who impose their view are doing so, perhaps, honestly but can be dangerous to others in imposing thier view of "law".As Bertrand Russell said, "Ethics is what we want another to do to get along with ourselves"! I think this is so. But, there is some truth that we must live in an "agreeable way", under a social contract, where we can be civilized to one another. Thei si what our laws are about.

  • Aaron Rathburn

    Excellent insight, specifically in regard to Protestantism's disdain for "papal infallibility," and yet insistence on church fathers'/biblical authors' inerrancy. I'll definitely be making a permanent mental note of that.

  • J. K. Gayle

    Ha! Great post!! (Even Luther had to add German to his scripture alone – he called it translating, which is different from the high Islamic view of the Arabic Koran – "theoretically" as you point out.)

  • Chris

    James,I would add that the argument the Catholics always make to defend the infallibility of the Church and Tradition is identical to the argument Protestants make for the infallibility of the Bible. Namely, "would God allow his Church/Scripture to be corrupted?" Arguments about what God "would" do have of course always proven horribly wrong. God allows terrible suffering to occur in this world every day, even though this is terribly counter-intuitive. You can chalk such evils up to human free will, but of course human free will was also involved in the writing, transmission, and canonization of Scripture. I see no reason to accept the blatant inconsistencies in the classical Protestant position. God behaves predictably with respect to scripture but not with respect to suffering? God infallibly protects the scriptures but not the Church? We can go to great lengths to explain away contradictions in scripture, but not in Tradition? This makes no sense to me.And to add one more point, sola scriptura didn't even make sense as a practical principle until the 16th century. Even if there had been widespread literacy in Europe– which there was NOT– the scriptures simply were not available to most people. And the scriptures that were available to the priests were typically available only in bad, corrupted Latin versions that the priests themselves frequently didn't even understand. Sola scriptura and private judgment would not have made any kind of sense to Christians before Gutenberg.

  • Jay

    Chris -I want to make one pedantic point -the official Catholic position on Papal infallibility is not as rigidly held by Catholics in general as many non-Catholics believe. The Pope's recent (and frankly bone-headed) statement regarding the use of condoms as a way to reduce the spread of AIDS in Africa is an excellent example – a lot of Catholics, myself included, are scratching our heads over that one. That said, the overall point of your comments is spot on. James – I haven't commented on your archive re-posts, but I'm very glad you've been making them. It's clear you've got a lot of thought and study behind them. Thanks!

  • Daniel

    Very interesting post. I am becoming an avid reader mate…. Do you think it is possible that the concepts of Papal infallibility and sola scriptura (Biblical inerrancy) are simptoms of a human trait of meta-generalization. For example, do you think we are seeing the same thing when people only accept the "inerrancy" of the scientific method as the only valid proof of knowledge? without considering the research process?

  • James F. McGrath

    I certainly think that the "Grand Inquisitor effect" is in the background, if I can put it that way. Most of us, whether religious believers or not, find the responsibility that comes with our human freedom overwhelming, and prefer to find an authority that will take this burden from our shoulders, whether that be a pope, the Bible, or Richard Dawkins. :)I would say that, when scientists are using scientific methods, they do indeed provide us with some of the most reliable information we human beings have managed to obtain. But that sometimes leads people to assume that a scientist speaking about religion, theology, or philosophy must be speaking with a similar sort of certainty, authority and trustworthiness.