Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Problem of Autonomy with Solo Scriptura

In a few recent posts, I've been trying to show how the idea of sola scriptura, "Scripture alone," has become twisted somewhat into solo scriptura, "Scripture only," that is, abandoning the church's confessions and creeds in interpreting the Bible. It may seem like solo scriptura is the ultimately commitment to the authority of the Bible. It sounds good to say, "I believe the Bible" or "I have no creed but Christ," rather than saying, "I believe the Nicene Creed" or "I believe the Augsburg Confession." However, this has had profound affects on how we determine doctrinal "truth."

One person can study the Scriptures and become a Calvinist who believes that the Bible teaches one people of God united throughout history by a single, overarching covenant of grace. At the same time, his neighbor can study his Bible and become a dispensationalist who believes that the Jews and Gentiles have separate ways to God (obedience to the Mosaic Law vs. faith in Christ, respectively) and are not direct heirs of the same promises of redemption. Both people study the Bible. Both may even have exegetical skill, and both may live obedient, prayerful lives. How does this happen? (I could make some joke that the dispensationalist's exegetical abilities are a bit lacking, but I'll hold off.) The same could be said for people who believe in the Trinity and the complete deity-and-humanity of Jesus Christ and for those people who, conversely, are modalists, unitarians, or Arians. Everyone is studying the same Bible and backing their beliefs with biblical proof-texts. So there are clearly some flaws to this solo scriptura approach.

First off, if the Church (whether its collective councils or the preaching of your pastor) is denied any authority at all, then the only place left to find what Scripture "really" says is in my own individual study of the Bible. Only what I find to be true is binding upon me, and no one else can tell me that the Bible might actually teach something other than what I actually perceive in its texts. After all, since we have "Scripture only," no one else's interpretations are any more binding than my own understandings--and they certainly can't hold a match to the very words which I am reading on the page right now.

But if the Christian next door reads those same texts and comes up with a different, even contradictory, interpretation, how can this be reconciled? After all, each of us, "just me and my Bible and the Holy Spirit" came up with totally different conclusions about its meaning. If all of Scripture is breathed out by the same God of truth who never changes, lies, or deceives (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21), how can these contradictions be reconciled if both of us are right?

The logical outcome of this way of viewing the Bible is that final interpretive authority lies with me and no one outside of me. I measure the validity of all other interpretations against the standard of my own interpretation. Now, it is well and good that, to parrot Luther's words, our consciences be captive to the Word of God as we are addressed by it, for to betray one's conscience is indeed sin (Romans 14:23). But do we really believe that all of a sudden, my own autonomous declaration on the Bible's meaning is elevated beyond the collective understanding of Spirit-guided saints throughout two millenia of Christian history? Didn't Jesus actually promise that he would be with his church by his Spirit through all ages (Matthew 28:20)?

Does anyone really believe that what others say and teach has no real importance, as long as we're not convinced of it ourselves? Are historic, widespread understandings such as the virgin birth of the Messiah really of no account or authority, since all they are is someone else's opinion, anyway?

Now, I'm aware that I'm perhaps pressing this beyond what people consciously think as they interpret the Bible. I don't think many Christians at all would ever knowingly say, "Yes, my own interpretations and judgments are, in fact, the standard, because traditions and the teachings of others carry no authority; there is only Scripture's very words." I'm just taking this to its logical extent for the sake of illustration.


Ted M. Gossard said...

Good post, and I agree.

Don't you think the problem in part is the individualism which is part of the western Christian psyche, and is pretty strong in Protestant and evangelical circles?

We're never to read Scripture just, or only on our own, but together with the entire church- past and present. Of course when doing that, while building on what God has given to others like Calvin, we also critique from Scripture what they say, so that perhaps we can say it better, as well as pointing out what we may believe to be their errors.

Andrew said...

Ted, I think you're right on in that.

Doug P. Baker said...

You are both right. Christianity is a living in the community of the saints. Past, present and future saints. And Christian thought and theology are a conversation into which we may enter. Theology is not an individual pursuit but a community conversation. To enter this conversation we must be more willing to listen than to speak, as James mentions.

Christianity is decidedly non-American!