Sola scriptura is not a piece of epistemology. It is not a modernist quest for certainty and unquestionable foundations. It doesn’t pretend to bypass interpretation or the church or people with all their foibles and fallibility. It’s not a claim that Scripture is easy. It’s not a claim that the Bible is a transparent window to absolute truth. It’s not a rejection of tradition.
Sola scriptura is a theological claim. It is Christological: It says that Jesus is Husband of His Bride, and still speaks to her. As Barth understood, sola scriptura is about the Lordship of the Lord of the church. All Christology is also ecclesiology, and so is sola scriptura: It says that because Christ is Head of the Body, He directs the Body, as and by Word. It is also, as my colleague Toby Sumpter pointed out recently to me, pneumatology: It means that the Spirit speaks to the church not merely through her.
It means that tradition is not the church talking to herself, but God talking to the church and the church talking back. To affirm sola scriptura is to acknowledge that tradition is prayer. To affirm sola scriptura is to say that tradition is liturgy. To affirm sola scriptura is to affirm the primacy of dialog over monologue.
Sola scriptura, despite the apparent import of the word “sola,” doesn’t claim that Scripture is the only authority. Scripture itself affirms the validity and real authority of other authorities: Obey your leaders (Hebrews 13), and the brother who refuses to listen to the church is treated as a tax collector (Matthew 18). But the Reformers followed the example of Jesus, who challenged Jewish tradition with an appeal to the written text (Matthew 15:1-6; Mark 7:1-13). Jesus argued that the Pharisaical tradition (or some thread of that tradition) taught that it was legitimate for children to give money to God rather than caring for aging parents. Jesus refuted them by saying that their tradition nullifies Scripture. Scripture is Jesus’ trump card. He doesn’t point to alternative threads of Pharisaical tradition (though he doubtless could have). One might say, for Jesus Scripture has final authority to judge the legitimacy of tradition. One might say, sola Scriptura.
Paul taught the same in 2 Timothy 3:14-17. Paul reminds Timothy of the people who taught him Scripture. But Paul speaks of Scripture as a “God-breathed” text, which, one might assume, makes it quite different from other texts. In the final clause of the passage, Paul tells Timothy that the Scripture is useful to equip the man of God “for every good work.” Is there a good work that Scripture fails to equip us for? Paul says No. Is there a good work that is not in some fashion an application of Scripture? Paul says No. That’s the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture in a nutshell. That’s sola scriptura.
As Christian Smith has written, the Scriptures speak of the “social basis of the inter-generational passing on of the faith,” which implies that what-is-handed, “tradition,” bears authority. Honor your father and mother is a scriptural requirement. True; but that’s not the issue. The issue is whether Scripture has final authority to test traditions, beliefs, practices and customs. Traditions can become moribund or corrupt. Not everything the church has done and taught is worthy of imitation. Not everything the church has done and taught ought to be passed along. The question is, what basis do we have for challenging tradition? Protestants say that Scripture is that final authority. If a tradition encourages X, and Scripture teaches not-X, which one do we follow? Protestants say Scripture, because it is the God-breathed word of God, and tradition, whatever we say about it, is not.
Converts from Protestantism often despair that Scripture is a wax nose that can be made to mean anything at all. It is so ambiguous that we need another authority to limit the scope of interpretation, whether it is a Confession or a magisterium. Of course, Scripture, being a piece of human language, is subject to the slippage and ambiguity that characterizes all human language. But if ambiguity is characteristic of human language, then it’s also characteristic of the human language of Confessions and magisterial decisions. Nicaea didn’t resolve the Christological disputes; it just started a bunch of new ones, and once those were out of the way, Nestorius provided a new flashpoint. Even today, people still debate over the exact force of homoousios and whether or not Chalcedon is Cyrillian. Catholics are still debating the import of Vatican II. No criticism of Catholicism there; it’s simply the human condition. We are historical beings; we speak in time, and what we say is interpreted later, sometimes centuries later; later interpreters interpret from a different historical and cultural moment. There is no way to jump this process – not sola scriptura, not Confessionalism, not magisterial decrees. But then again we come back to the question of theology proper: Is God locked out? Can He not speak in the midst of this process?
Is the claim that Scripture is more ambiguous than creeds, confessions, and Papal encyclicals? Is the claim that Scripture’s narrative and poetry and proverbial and epistolary forms need to be translated into more precise systematic or philosophical categories? But if Scripture – the written text, the graphai – is the precipitate of God’s breath, then we might assume God knew what He was doing. He knew that narrative and poetry and proverbs and all the rest were the perfect vehicles of His self-expression to His people. Useful and necessary as such translations are, we are left with only one text that comes from the Spirit who searches the depths of God. And it’s the test and touchstone of all other texts, all other talk of God.
Of course, of course, of course: When we talk about Scripture correcting the church, we are talking about people reading and studying Scripture and coming to the conclusion that a traditional belief or practice violates Scripture. Of course, that process is subject to all the dilemmas and pitfalls of any interpretation. But then the question again becomes a question of theology proper, not simply of Scriptural authority. Suppose God wants to correct a corruption in His church. Is He able to speak to it? Can God’s voice break through to rebuke and correct and train in righteousness? Can our traditions muzzle the Lord of the church? Can He by His Spirit speak independently of, and against, the tradition? Is tradition a conversation, a liturgy of antiphon and response, or is it the church’s monologue? Is Jesus Lord of His church? Or has the Head been absorbed into the body?
Today, I’ve been preparing Sunday’s sermon. In preparing my sermon, I studied a text of Scripture. I tried to figure out, with the knowledge I have and the tools at my disposal, what Isaiah wrote in chapter 41. Some is obscure, partly because it is an ancient text in an ancient language and partly because the syntax of Isaiah 41 is challenging. My goal in studying the text is to listen to it, confident that God has spoken and is speaking there, speaking so as to give me speech in the assembly of His people.
I may get some things wrong, but how will I know that? I will know that if someone (be it Jerome or the policeman who sits in the front row) shows me that I misread the text. I haven’t, but I could have read some classic commentators on the passage. I might be corrected by the tradition of interpretation, but what would be corrected would be my understanding of the Scriptural text. If I read the commentator, and conclude that he is wrong about the meaning of some details, I will preach what the text says rather than what the commentator tells me that the text says. Scripture itself will be the test of what I say, and testing my sermon by what the text says will determine whether what I say matches what God has committed to writing. I believe that the Spirit enables me to understand what the text says, with and sometimes against all the helps and commentary I use in my preparation. I haven’t this week, but I often do discuss the sermon text with my colleagues. They tell me where I’ve got the text wrong, or highlight details I’ve missed, or point out further implications that I hadn’t thought of. Out of that context of tradition and communal conversation I come up with a sermon. But the test of what I’m going to say is: Does it represent what God has said. That’s sola scriptura.
Once preached, my sermon will become a tiny part of the church’s tradition in the widest sense, a piece of the vibrant historical life of the people of God. It will be part of the tradition of this particular congregation, and will I hope leave some small legacy to those who hear. But if there is a match between what God has said and what I say on Sunday, then the God has spoken through me to the congregation. My sermon will be, in part, a return on the gift of the text, a speaking-back what God has spoken, an answer in a conversation; and in the context of worship, it will be part of the dialog between God and the congregation. I don’t intend to challenge any important practice of our congregation on Sunday, but if the text led me to believe the church’s practice didn’t match God’s word, I would challenge that practice and point to the text to justify it. I would say “God wants us to stop doing X and start doing Y. See, He said it right here.” That is sola scriptura in ecclesial action.
If Jesus is Lord of His church; if the text of Scripture is uniquely from God, such that God speaks in human language; if Christ’s Spirit can make His human words intelligible to human beings; if human beings can, under the guidance of the Spirit, speak God’s words accurately and intelligibly to the church – then sola scriptura follows. Denying sola scriptura entails denial of one or more of those conditionals: God can’t in fact speak without distortion in human language; or Scripture is not uniquely God’s Word in human words; or Jesus is a titular but not a living Lord of His church.
It works. God has in fact spoken against the tradition. It’s a contested, raucous process. It always is. But it happens. It happened in the Roman Catholic church in the past century as theologians cut through thickets of misleading quasi-Thomism to get back to Thomas, to the church fathers, to Scripture itself. Speaking as an outsider, and a Protestant to boot, ressourcesement looks a lot like God speaking against a powerful tradition to purify His church, often speaking through theologians interpreting Scripture. Can anyone doubt that the Catholic Church has gotten better at talking Bible over the last century? Which might make the Roman Catholic Church one of today’s most compelling proofs of Protestant convictions concerning sola scriptura.
(Much of this is a reposting of pieces of an earlier post responding to Christian Smith’s How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps, step #47, along with some additional thoughts.)
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Thursday, June 7, 2012 at 3:12 pm
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