What about Sola Scriptura? Is it a viable concept?

What about Sola Scriptura? Is it a viable concept? April 10, 2011

Over the past several years more Protestant theologians have been protesting what has traditionally been considered the formal principle of Protestantism–sola scriptura.

Insofar as I understand him correctly, Gerald McDermott criticizes me for upholding it in his article about evangelicals in First Things (about which I posted here recently).  Yesterday (April 9) I heard evangelical historian par excellence Mark Noll talk about it.

Noll is hardly the only evangelical Protestant raising questions about the viability of sola scriptura.  I’m only picking on him here because I heard him yesterday.  What he said resonates with others’ criticisms of that formal Protestant principle–at least as it has been interpreted and applied especially by Baptists and other free church evangelicals.  Tom Oden and D. H. Williams and many others have raised serious questions about it.

In his talk “The Place of the Bible in the Modern Christian University” (the culminating lecture of Baylor University’s conference celebrating of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible) Noll posited that sola scriptura, combined with right of private judgment (a la Luther’s declaration at the Diet of Worms), undermines a vigorous life of the mind and especially academic excellence in a university setting.  It leads to doctrinal chaos (he mentioned Dorothy Sayers without specifically naming her book Creed or Chaos?) and a distinct lack of intellectual vitality.

He especially blamed Baptists (in his inimitably nice way) for taking this Protestant principle to its logical conclusion and combining it with a radical notion of the priesthood of every believer called “soul competency.”  The result, he suggested, is a distinct lack of Baptist creativity in engagement with culture and especially the arts and sciences.

Noll argued before a largely (but not exclusively) Baptist audience that necessary for intellectual vitality in a Christian setting is some hermeneutical tradition that gives shape, color and depth to Christian thought and guides interpretation of the Bible so that it does not devolve into radical individualism.  He named numerous Baptist theologians and scholars who go off in all sorts of directions and have nothing in common other than adherence to Baptist principles which, apparently, are too shallow to give shape, color and depth to a faithful engagement with culture.

Apparently (and I admit I am interperting Noll here because his argument and explanation was not as clear and precise as I would have wanted it to be) Noll thinks sola scriptura means (at least to Baptists) “Bible alone”–to the exclusion of all other authorities.  And apparently he thinks soul competency means every man’s hat is his own church–that each individual can make up his or her own Christianity without consideration of any authority including the community of faith.

Admittedly, some Baptists (and others) interpret these principles in those ways.  But I don’t hold Noll and other Presbyterian intellectuals responsible for the folk beliefs of Presbyterians and I hope he won’t hold all Baptists responsible for the folk religion so prevalent among Baptists (and other free church Protestants).

What do I mean?  Well, I served as youth pastor of a Presbyterian congregation for three years.  It was a relatively liberal church, but very liturgical and steeped in tradition.  But it was a ritualistic liturgy and empty tradition–both shells of what may have once been living embodiments of a great Protestant tradition.  The Baptist church two blocks away was much more vibrant and engaged with the community.  Our Presbyterian church was no more intellectual or inclined towards that than the nearby Southern Baptist church.

My point is that sola scriptura has never meant “Bible alone” as the only authority in all matters to Baptist scholars.  That’s how it has been misinterpreted by many Baptist (and other) pastors and lay people.  Rather, sola scriptura means, in the Baptist tradition as in other Protestant traditions, “prima scriptura”–the Bible above all other authorities in matters of faith and practice.  What Baptist scholar or leader (other than of the lunatic fringe) has ever claimed the Bible is one’s best guide to choosing a refrigerator?  Or that it is any guide for landscape architecture (just to pick something out of the air)?

Sola scriptura simply means that, at the end of the day and the argument, we, as Christians, are not allowed to appeal to a higher source or authority for settling doctrinal disputes and for constructing (or reconstructing) doctrines.  (Here I’m using “doctrine” in a very broad sense as including right worship and right living.)  In other words, church councils and hierarchies cannot overrule Scripture in matters of faith and ethics. 

Also, soul competency has never meant (to Baptist scholars) that the individual works out his or her faith alone without reference to a community of believers or against any and every hermeneutical tradition.  What it means is that the individual believer, insofar as he or she is truly a Christian and a reasonable person, does not HAVE TO bow to the authority of civil or ecclesiastical authorities insofar as his or her conscience says otherwise.  There is no necessity of any human mediator between the soul and God in matters of religion; the seriously trained student of the Bible MAY (does not have to and will not always) contradict church authorities.

Admittedly, sola scriptura and soul competency have been bent and twisted all out of shape by fundamentalists and liberals.  But, overall and in general, Baptists have not interpreted them as ruling out all extra-biblical guides even in religious thought and life. 

Like other critics, Noll would have Baptists adopt (or create?) some hermeneutical tradition as guide to biblical interpretation and to engagement with culture.  The only example of such a hermeneutical tradition he mentioned is “Aristotelianism.”  I hope that’s not his recommendation to Baptists!  It doesn’t even work for all Catholics!  I think perhaps a better example might have been Scottish Common Sense Realism–which served the Princeton theologians Alexander, Hodge, Warfield and Machen very well for a time.  On the other hand, it became a heavy weight around that segment of the Presbyterian church’s neck once its mortal weaknesses were exposed.

I argue that IF some hermeneutical tradition is elevated to the same level of authority as Scripture, the prophetic power of the Word of God is lessened.  It is then tied to a human tradition and cannot correct it.  Then reformation is impossible.  A basic Reformed principle is reformed and always reforming.  A hermeneutical tradition can serve as a dead weight on the work of ongoing reformation UNLESS it is held more lightly than Scripture itself in which case we are back to sola scriptura.

As for soul competency–It seems to me that a certain individualism in religion is inescapable once the state stops interfering in religious matters.  Let’s not blame the Baptist principle of soul competency for what was inevitable once state and church were separated and churches no longer had any power to enforce their beliefs and practices. 

Also, soul competency, kept in check, balanced with the importance of community, is necessary for the prophetic office.  Insofar as a person is weighed down by the authority of a magisterium he or she is hardly able to speak a word of correction to his or her church.

Admittedly, Baptists have not been particularly strong when it comes to cultural and intellectual creativity.  There have been notable exceptions.  But I wouldn’t blame sola scriptura or soul competency, rightly understood, for this situation.  And I don’t think adopting a hermeneutical tradition, such as a particular philosophy, as a framework for Christian cultural and intellectual engagement is at all forbidden by Baptist principles SO LONG AS it does not become even functionally equivalent with Scripture in matters of doctrine, worship and ethics.

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