Skip to comments.A critique of the evangelical doctrine of solo scriptura
Posted on 01/06/2003 8:09:14 AM PST by lockeliberty
In the 1980s and early 1990s, a controversy erupted among dispensationalists which came to be referred to as the Lordship Salvation controversy. On one side of the debate were men such as Zane Hodges1 and Charles Ryrie2 who taught a reductionistic doctrine of solafide which absolutized the word alone in the phrase justification by faith alone and removed it from its overall theological context. Faith was reduced to little more than assent to the truthfulness of certain biblical propositions. Repentance, sanctification, submission to Christs Lordship, love, and perseverance were all said to be unnecessary for salvation. Advocates of this position claimed that it was the classical Reformation position taught by Martin Luther and John Calvin. On the other side of the debate was John MacArthur who argued that these men were clearly abandoning the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone.3 In addition to the books written by the primary dispensationalist participants, numerous Reformed theologians wrote books and articles criticizing this alteration of the doctrine of solafide.4 A heated theological controversy began which continues in some circles even to this day.
Ironically, a similar drastic alteration of the classical Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura has occurred over the last 150 years, yet this has caused hardly a stir among the theological heirs of the Reformation, who have usually been quick to notice any threatening move against the Reformed doctrine of justification. So much time and effort has been spent guarding the doctrine of sola fide against any perversion or change that many do not seem to have noticed that the classical and foundational Reformed doctrine of sola scriptura has been so altered that is virtually unrecognizable. In its place Evangelicals have substituted an entirely different doctrine. Douglas Jones has coined the term solo scriptura to refer to this aberrant Evangelical version of sola scriptura.5
Modern Evangelicalism has done the same thing to sola scriptura that Hodges and Ryrie did to solafide. But unfortunately so little attention is paid to the doctrine of sola scriptura today that even among trained theologians there is confusion and ambiguity when the topic is raised. Contradictory and insufficient definitions of sola scriptura are commonplace not only among broadly Evangelical authors but among Reformed authors as well. In this chapter we shall examine this aberrant modern Evangelical concept of solo scriptura and explain why it is imperative that the Evangelical church recognize it to be as dangerous as the distorted concepts of solafide that are prevalent in the Church today.
The modern Evangelical version of solo scriptura is nothing more than a new version of Tradition 0. Instead of being defined as the sole infallible authority, the Bible is said to be the sole basis of authority6 Tradition is not allowed in any sense; the ecumenical creeds are virtually dismissed; and the Church is denied any real authority. On the surface it would seem that this modern Evangelical doctrine would have nothing in common with the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox doctrines of authority. But despite the very real differences, the modern Evangelical position shares one major flaw with both the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox positions. Each results in autonomy. Each results in final authority being placed somewhere other than God and His Word. Unlike the Roman Catholic position and the Eastern Orthodox position, however, which invariably result in the autonomy of the Church, the modern Evangelical position inevitably results in the autonomy of the individual believer.
We have already seen that there is a major difference between the concept of Scripture and tradition taught by the classical Reformers and the concept taught by the Anabaptists and their heirs. The Anabaptist concept, here referred to as Tradition 0, attempted to deny the authority of tradition in any real sense. The Scriptures were considered not only the sole final and infallible authority, but the only authority whatsoever. The Enlightenment added the philosophical framework in which to comprehend this individualism. The individual reason was elevated to the position of final authority. Appeals to antiquity and tradition of any kind were ridiculed. In the early years of the United States, democratic populism swept the people along in its fervor.7 The result is a modern American Evangelicalism which has redefined sola scriptura in terms of secular Enlightenment rationalism and rugged democratic individualism.
Perhaps the best way to explain the fundamental problem with the modern Evangelical version of solo scriptura would be through the use of an illustration to which many believers may be able to relate. Almost every Christian who has wrestled with theological questions has encountered the problem of competing interpretations of Scripture. If one asks a dispensationalist pastor, for example, why he teaches premillennialism, the answer will be, Because the Bible teaches premillennialism. If one asks the conservative Presbyterian pastor across the street why he teaches amillennialism (or postmillennialism), the answer will likely be, Because that is what the Bible teaches. Each man will claim that the other is in error, but by what ultimate authority do they typically make such a judgment? Each man will claim that he bases his judgment on the authority of the Bible, but since each mans interpretation is mutually exclusive of the others, both interpretations cannot be correct. How then do we discern which interpretation is correct?
The typical modern Evangelical solution to this problem is to tell the inquirer to examine the arguments on both sides and decide which of them is closest to the teaching of Scripture. He is told that this is what sola scriptura means to individually evaluate all doctrines according to the only authority, the Scripture. Yet in reality, all that occurs is that one Christian measures the scriptural interpretations of other Christians against the standard of his own scriptural interpretation. Rather than placing the final authority in Scripture as it intends to do, this concept of Scripture places the final authority in the reason and judgment of each individual believer. The result is the relativism, subjectivism, and theological chaos that we see in modern Evangelicalism today.
A fundamental and self-evident truth that seems to be unconsciously overlooked by proponents of the modern Evangelical version of solo scriptura is that no one is infallible in his interpretation of Scripture. Each of us comes to the Scripture with different presuppositions, blind spots, ignorance of important facts, and, most importantly, sinfulness. Because of this we each read things into Scripture that are not there and miss things in Scripture that are there. Unfortunately, a large number of modern Evangelicals have followed in the footsteps of Alexander Campbell (1788-1866), founder of the Disciples of Christ, who naively believed he could come to Scripture with absolutely no preconceived notions or biases. We have already mentioned Campbells naive statement, I have endeavored to read the Scriptures as though no one had read them before me, and I am as much on my guard against reading them today, through the medium of my own views yesterday, or a week ago, as I am against being influenced by any foreign name, authority, or system whatever.8
The same ideas were expressed by Lewis Sperry Chafer, the extremely influential founder and first president of Dallas Theological Seminary. Chafer believed that his lack of any theological training gave him the ability to approach scriptural interpretation without bias. He said, the very fact that I did not study a prescribed course in theology made it possible for me to approach the subject with an unprejudiced mind and to be concerned only with what the Bible actually teaches.9 This, however, is simply impossible. Unless one can escape the effects of sin, ignorance, and all previous learning, one cannot read the Scriptures without some bias and blind spots. This is a given of the post-Fall human condition.
This naive belief in the ability to escape ones own noetic and spiritual limitations led Campbell and his modern Evangelical heirs to discount any use of secondary authorities. The Church, the creeds, and the teachings of the early fathers were all considered quaint at best. The discarding of the creeds is a common feature of the modern Evangelical notion of solo scriptura. It is so pervasive that one may find it even in the writings of prominent Reformed theologians. For example, in a recently published and well-received Reformed systematic theology text, Robert Reymond laments the fact that most Reformed Christians adhere to the Trinitarian orthodoxy expressed in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.10 He openly calls for an abandonment of the Nicene Trinitarian concept in favor of a different Trinitarian concept. One cannot help but wonder how this is any different than the Unitarians rejection of creedal orthodoxy. They call for the rejection of one aspect of Nicene Trinitarianism while Reymond calls for the rejection of another. Why is one considered heretical and the other published by a major Evangelical publishing house?
An important point that must be kept in mind is observed by the great nineteenth-century Princeton theologian Samuel Miller. He noted that the most zealous opponents of creeds have been those who held corrupt opinions?11 This is still the case today. The one common feature found in many published defenses of heretical doctrines aimed at Evangelical readers is the staunch advocacy of the modern Evangelical notion of solo scriptura with its concomitant rejection of the subordinate authority of the ecumenical creeds. The first goal of these authors is to convince the reader that sola scriptura means solo scriptura. In other words, their first goal is to convince readers that there are no binding doctrinal boundaries within Christianity.
In his defense of annihilationism, for example, Edward Fudge states that Scripture is the only unquestionable or binding source of doctrine on this or any subject?12 He adds that the individual should weigh the scriptural interpretations of other uninspired and fallible Christians against Scripture.13 He does not explain how the Christian is to escape his own uninspired fallibility. The doctrinal boundaries of Christian orthodoxy are cast aside as being historically conditioned and relative.14 Of course, Fudge fails to note that his interpretation is as historically conditioned and relative as any that he criticizes.15
Another heresy that has been widely promoted with the assistance of the modern Evangelical version of solo scriptura is hyper-preterism or pantelism.16 While there are numerous internal squabbles over details, in general advocates of this doctrine insist that Jesus Christ returned in AD. 70 at the destruction of Jerusalem and that at that time sin and death were destroyed, the Adamic curse was lifted, Satan was cast into the lake of fire, the rapture and general resurrection occurred, the final judgment occurred, mourning and crying and pain were done away with, and the eternal state began. The proponents of pantelism are even more vocal in their rejection of orthodox Christian doctrinal boundaries than Fudge. Ed Stevens, for example, writes,
Even if the creeds were to clearly and definitively stand against the preterist view (which they dont), it would not be an over-whelming problem since they have no real authority anyway. They are no more authoritative than our best opinions today, but they are valued because of their antiquity.17
This is a hallmark of the doctrine of solo scriptura, and it is a position that the classical Reformers adamantly rejected. Stevens continues elsewhere,
We must not take the creeds any more seriously than we do the writings and opinions of men like Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, the Westminster Assembly, Campbell, Rushdoony, or C.S. Lewis.18
Here we see the clear rejection of scripturally based structures of authority. The authority of those who rule in the Church is rejected by placing the decisions of an ecumenical council of ministers on the same level as the words of any individual. This is certainly the democratic way of doing things, and it is as American as apple pie, but it is not Christian. If what Mr. Stevens writes is true, then Christians should not take the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity any more seriously than we take some idiosyncratic doctrine of Alexander Campbell or C.S. Lewis. If this doctrine of solo scriptura and all that it entails is true, then the Church has no more right or authority to declare Arianism a heresy than Cornelius Van Til would have to authoritatively declare classical apologetics a heresy. Orthodoxy and heresy would necessarily be an individualistic and subjective determination.
Another pantelist, John Noe, claims that this rejection of the authority of the ecumenical creeds is what the doctrine of sola scriptura is all about.19 As we have demonstrated, this is manifestly untrue of the classical Reformed doctrine of sola scriptura. The doctrine of Scripture being espoused by these men is a doctrine of Scripture that is based upon anabaptistic individualism, Enlightenment rationalism, and democratic populism. It is a doctrine of Scripture divorced from its Christian context. It is no different than the doctrine of Scripture and tradition advocated by the Jehovahs Witnesses in numerous publications such as Should You Believe in the Trinity? in which individuals are urged to reject the ecumenical Christian creeds in favor of a new hermeneutical context.20 Yet the false idea that this doctrine is the Reformation doctrine pervades the thinking of the modern American Evangelical church. Unfortunately the widespread ignorance of the true Reformation doctrine makes it that much easier for purveyors of false doctrine to sway those who have been either unable or unwilling to check the historical facts.
(Please go to the link for the rest of the Authors arguements.)
Proponents of solo scriptura have deceived themselves into thinking that they honor the unique authority of Scripture. But unfortunately, by divorcing the Spirit-inspired Word of God from the Spirit-indwelt people of God, they have made it into a plaything and the source of endless speculation. If a proponent of solo scriptura is honest, he recognizes that it is not the infallible Scripture to which he ultimately appeals. His appeal is always to his on fallible interpretation of that Scripture. With solo scriptura it cannot be any other way, and this necessary relativistic autonomy is the fatal flaw of solo scriptura that proves it to be an unChristian tradition of men.
(Excerpt) Read more at the-highway.com ...
We can pray for wisdom and discernment but we are still fallible.
It is the rejection of the early creeds that marks cults..
So what are these "Scripturally based structures of authority" that the "solo" scripturists are supposedly rejecting?
The authority of those who rule in the Church is rejected by placing the decisions of an ecumenical council of ministers on the same level as the words of any individual.
Does any ecumenical council of ministers have this "authority" the author keeps referring to? If not, then how do you know which ones are ok to reject?
BTW to me is if it is not in scripture it can not be doctrinal . The historic creeds are scripitual..so I can adopt them easily...Now the Mormons have a negative test.. they say if you can not disprove it with the bible it is true..thus they have a heavenly mother making spirit babies because the bible does not say it is so..
The Reformed position takes neither the RCC position or the modern Evangelical position. The RCC adds tradition to the Apostolic tradition. The modern Evangelical removes all tradition including the Apostolic tradition and forms their own 'understanding' and makes that the tradition.
One has to understand that during the Patristic period most of the teachings on doctrine were through oral presentation. This did not preclude the Patristic writers from demanding a thorough scriptural foundation to the oral traditions passed down by the Apostles. The council of Trent added that special revelation of God was not contained within scripture alone. This is thoroughly repudiated by early Patristic writers. For example:
"We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith."
Church historian, Ellen Flessman-van Leer affirms this fact:
For Tertullian Scripture is the only means for refuting or validating a doctrine as regards its content...For Irenaeus, the church doctrine is certainly never purely traditional; on the contrary, the thought that there could be some truth, transmitted exclusively viva voce (orally), is a Gnostic line of thought...If Irenaeus wants to prove the truth of a doctrine materially, he turns to Scripture, because therein the teaching of the apostles is objectively accessible. Proof from tradition and Scripture serve one and the same end: to identify the teaching of the church as the original apostolic teaching. The first establishes that the teaching of the church is this apostolic teaching, and the second, what this apostolic teaching is.
The modern Evangelical independent Bible-believing only Christian, OTOH, wishes to divorce themselves from all tradition pretending to take a non-presuppositionalist approach to the Bible. This on its face is a silly proposition. How can one divorce themselves from their 21st century understandings and sinful nature? In their zeal to protect the Bible from 'man-made' traditions they fail to understand that tradition simply means teaching. In this way then they refute themselves by teaching a tradition of anti-tradition.
The Reformed position is that all scripture is to be interpreted based strictly on the Apostolic tradition. This necessitates a presuppositional approach that does not include the baggage of a 21st century understanding. The Reformed tradition does not refute any 'teaching' that supports the Apostolic tradition. If the 'teaching' supports the Apostolic tradition then that teaching is correct. Thus, we accept the creeds as the correct teachings of the Apostolic tradition. To say their is no Apostolic tradition is to be ignorant.
What would be included in Apostolic tradition?
Will wonders never cease?
Skimmed the article from the link and this jumped out at me. Thought it was worth posting.
The Apostolic tradition is the oral tradition handed down by the Apostles to the early church Fathers for the proper way to interpret scripture. The main emphasis of this hermeneutic is the rule of Faith. The rule of Faith, which was later reinstituted by Luther, is that scripture is to be interpreted as a continuity of Gods revelation throughout scripture. It necessarily takes an Christological presuppositional approach to scripture. That is, Gods revelation from the OT to the NT is a coherent testimony of his redemptive work through Jesus Christ.
It can be said then that the modern Dispensationalists no longer adheres to the rule of Faith because they fracture the word of God into different administrations breaking up the continuity of scripture. The result of this fractured exegetical process is that the Dispensationalist hyper-literalize portions of scripture outside of the general scope of the rule of Faith. The Apostolic tradition necessitates against the inductive form of hermeneutic and insists on the more positive deductive form of hermeneutics. As a Church, we agree on the general rules of Faith outlined in the creeds and interpret scripture based on our common beliefs. To reject the creeds is to reject the rule of Faith which rejects the Apostolic tradition.
I accept the early creeds and teachings only in so far as they reflect the bible...I consider myself Evangelical and Calvinist ..I do not see a contradiction in that)
"I" ... "I" ... "I"! The classic Protestant 'papacy of one"! When one is a so-called Bible Christian, it's all about what I accept, what I consider to be truth, what contradictions I recognize, not about shutting up and letting someone else teach me what's right and wrong! As a Papacy of One, each Protestant can infallibly decide for him/herself what is Truth and what isn't...
...just like Adam and Eve. "...And you will be like God, knowing good and evil." [Gen 3:5 RSV]
The bible is the standard to wich all teachings must be held..it is the measuring rod.
Where is that teaching found in the Bible?
And to what measuring rod was the canon of Scripture itself held?
I'm so glad I'm not a "bibChr". The Bible can't save me; only Christ can. Christianity based upon the Bible instead of upon the living Christ would be thin gruel indeed. Being a highly fallible "ChrChr" is good enough for me; I'll leave it to Christ's Most Precious Body (the Church he founded here on Earth) to do the interpreting, and His Most Precious Blood to do the saving.
The author of this article is wrong about some things, but when he says that sola leads inevitably to every man becoming his own Pope, he's right on the money. I'm not smart (or holy) enough to be my own Pope.
As a monarchist, and as a Catholic loyal to the Magisterium, I obviously agree. Christ is the King of the Universe, not its president, and His Holiness is the Prince of the Church, not its chairman. My fellow American Catholics need to realize that in matters of faith and morals vox populi is most definitely not vox dei; quite the opposite, in fact.
Democracy sucks -- and as a way to govern Christ's Church it's an evil failure as well. The mainstream Protestants have voted themselves into irrelevance; let's learn from their mistakes instead of repeating them.
Divine Hierarchy bump.
Simply, those teachers and theologians who strictly adhere to the rule of Faith. The RCC gave up that right when it added non-apostolic tradition to the rule of Faith.
Most 'Reformed thinkers' have never 'lapped up YOPIOS'. Luther just returned us to the original 'rule of Faith' when the RCC abandoned the Apostolic tradition for APATTAT. (A Popes addition to the Apostolic tradition.)
You are right, it is. And it should be rejected, just as RCC authority should be. The early church did not believe in the absolute authority of the apostles. The Bereans were commended, not for accepting the teachings of the apostles (or any other church authority) out of hand, but for checking their teachings against the written Holy Scriptures.
That sounds Romish. A Popes personal interpretation of scripture and rule of Faith. A Reformed thinker knows that the rule of Faith is an objective standard and not merely the whim of some Pope.
Luther was a good beginning, but accepted many errors due to his RCC upbringing.
True. I'm not suggesting that we accept any non-revelational source as the ultimate defining understanding of scripture and God. We are finite and due to our noetic structure there will never be complete agreement on interpretation. The Apostolic tradition gives us the framework in which we proceed. We neither add nor subtract from the rule of Faith.
Oxymoron? You mean like the "infallible teachings of the Pope"?
I disagree, but it matters not unless you believe that the "apostolic tradition" was different than the written Scriptures.
When Paul commands to Timothy to pass along Tradition (2 Timothy 2:2) was he referring to written Tradition only?
It includes both written and oral.
That is, what is written in the OT, and that which Paul and the other apostles taught, which was being written down in the NT at the time. It's very simple, you RC's just like to muddy up the waters to serve your own devices.
I agree, but the oral was only short term, until the written form of the very same oral teaching came.
Do you believe this "oral tradition" is different than the written NT?
That's crap and you know it. The early church fathers were taught directly by the Apostles. The objective evidence is the writings of the early church Fathers which delinate how to interpret scripture as taught to them by the Apostles. That the RCC abandoned the strict constructionism of the 'rule of Faith' is not under question, is it? It is not much different than Liberals who wish a 'living document' interpretation of the Constitution. The Apostles passed along these set of beliefs so that there would be unity in the Church against the heresy of Gnosticism. This gave us the objective a priori foundation against the 'special knowledge' of the Gnostics. But now the RCC would like us to believe that the Pope has some 'special knowledge'. Ironic, isn't it?
That's a great observation.
After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:6)