Friday, December 17, 2010

Is Sola Scriptura Scriptural?

Sola scriptura is a doctrine introduced to the church via the Reformers in the 16th century. Simply, it the doctrine that the Scriptures are the only infallible or inerrant authority for Christian faith and all other forms of authority, such as Tradition are subject to it as the final authority. It was championed by the Reformers as an attack against the Catholic church. Their belief was that the church had added many man-made traditions that were against what was plainly taught in the Scriptures. Everything not mentioned in Scripture was not considered as doctrine binding on Christians. It would appear that the Reformers threw out the baby with the bath water.

The most commonly used verse to support the doctrine of Sola Scriptura is 2 Timothy 3:15-17:
And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works

The Reformers believed the Scriptures was the only tool we have to make the man of God perfect and the Scriptures are all Christians need for their guiding authority. But there are two initial problems with this assumption. In Ephesians 4 we are told that there are other things that God has given to perfect us:
And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ

Scripture is never even mentioned in this verse and these roles are not mentioned in previous verse from 2 Timothy. Both verses provide different ways to attain perfection and neither cancels each other out. The assumption that only Scripture can aid in perfection can not be honestly held to. It would also appear to be at odds with the common Christian life to put forth the idea that Scripture alone perfects. What of repentance and prayer? Surely the Scriptures are an aid as they point us to prayer and repentance, but the Scriptures do no perfect us alone.

The second issue is the context of the phrase, "holy scriptures" in 2 Timothy 3:15. There may have been some epistles and Gospel narratives that were considered scripture at the time Paul penned this epistle, though unlikely, but Paul here is referring to the Scriptures Timothy knew as a child. This verse can only be referring to the Old Testament, not the New, and nobody puts forth the notion that Old Testament alone can perfect a man.

Scripture itself points to Tradition as the source of Truth, not back at Scripture itself. When looking for the "pillar and ground of truth", in 1 Timothy 3:15 Paul says it is to be found in the Church, "I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."

Paul when writing both 2 Thessalonians 2:15 and 1 Corinthians 11:2 commands the brethren to "stand fast and hold to the traditions" and "keep the traditions" the Apostles have handed down. In 2 Thessalonians he uses the phrase, "whether by word or our epistle". Some parts of Apostolic doctrine were written down and some were not, but Paul requires that we are to hold fast to both.

Later Paul will instruct Timothy that ,"The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (2 Timothy 2:2)" This verse doesn't mention traditions being written down. Paul tells Timothy something and Timothy is expected to tell others the same, and they also will go on to teach others. We believe this tradition continues in the Orthodox Church today.

But isn't tradition a bad thing? To be sure, there are plenty of verses that speak of tradition in a negative light. Christ often lays into the Pharisees for teaching and following the traditions of men, such as, "For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men... making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. (Mark 7:8-13)"

Though Christ has nothing good to say about the tradition of men, we should not conclude that all tradition is a negative thing, but from the verses mentioned above, tradition is also a good thing, and even according to Paul necessary. Traditions of men like those of the Pharisees should not be confused with the Traditions of God that the Apostles command us to obey. Jesus and the Apostles seem to be able to tell the difference.

The National Association of Evangelicals did something interesting when the made the NIV translation. The Greek word used for tradition is paradosis. The same word is used in both the positive and negative perspectives mentioned above. The word for teaching is didaktos. In the verses that speak of tradition in a negative light the word paradosis was trasnlated as tradition, but in the positive perspective paradosis was translated as teaching. Rather than just translating, they went a step further, and interpreted the word to their own bias. Joe Heschmeyer, in his article, The NIV on Tradition and Teachings, sums up the situation:
The trouble is that the Christian Reformed Church and the National Association of Evangelicals have a long-standing tradition that tradition is bad, and were willing to warp Scripture to accord with their tradition. As Christ said in Matthew 15:6, "Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition."

Besides all this, if Sola Scriptura was a doctrine taught and believed by the early church, they would have had a very hard time living it out. The bible as we know it today did not fall out of the sky. It was a long 300 year period before we had a canon close to what we have now. There was no divine table of contents. By the 4th century we have three known bibles or codexes, but they don't agree. They have different books in them! Most churches wouldn't have been able to afford all the books we call the bible. The early church had to rely on faithful men who had been entrusted the teaching from other faithful men all the way back to the Apostles.

Tradition and the Scriptures are not separate sources of truth, but are two streams that flow from one common fountain: the dynamic life of the Holy Spirit within the Early Church.


  1. Also, it bears mentioning that "the man of God" always means a prophet or king in the Old Testament--never a layperson. And in the New Testament, "man of God" is only used of Timothy himself. Timothy is a hierarch; more specifically, he is what would later be called a monarchical bishop, though the pre-Ignatian terminology of the NT labels him "Apostle" (the office of bishop existed, but didn't have a technical name at this early point; arguably "bishop" in the NT refers to the second tier of ministry, what we now call priests).

    So if "the man of God (heirarchs) is made complete" by the Scriptures, then the most you could get out of 2 Tim 3:15-17 is the conclusion that Scripture is sufficient to equip ordained authorities to perpetuate the life of the Church through teaching and sacraments. That's not Sola Scriptura, but rather "Prima Scriptura". Sola Scriptura says that the Scriptures are the only rule of faith that is the source of Christian doctrine, *and* there are no ultimately-binding interpretations of Scripture by the Church. Prima Scriptura is the doctrine that the Scriptures are a complete deposit of faith (tradition is thus the right interpretation of Scripture, not something with separate content of its own as in Roman Catholic theology) that are authoritatively interpreted by the Church. So ironically, 2 Timothy 3:15-17 supports the Orthodox view: that the Scriptures are the authoritative rule that is applied and interpreted by a bishop who is an authority or judge.

  2. You do love the "man of God" bit! I didn't forget this time, but left it out for length. I wasn't sure about prima scriptura, though I know you have talked about it before. Is the link I give for sola scriptura an accurate description of the differences? Should I change the image from rule of faith to prima scriptura? I personally though rule of faith was more in line with orthodoxy and the two streams, one source notion

  3. Very interesting, Kenny. Thank you for writing this out. I'm definitely finding myself moving more and more away from much that the "Reformers" introduced, and reaching further and further beyond the Reformation. (Although, admittedly, I REALLY like Arminius, and unless I'm mistaken, classic Arminianism seems to echo the understanding of the Orthodox Church in regards to soteriology.) In my own journey and search for Authentic Christianity, what you write has become very valuable to me.

    Anyway, thank you for writing these posts.

  4. Kenny,

    lol yes I do like that point about the man of God.

    Sorry, I looked at the explanation of prima Scriptura that the guy gives, and its not what I meant by it. You chose the right picture (rule of faith). None of them really satisfy me as totally accurate pictures; but I'm a philosopher-in-training, so my standards of precision are unreasonably high. The only things that I would add to the picture you chose is that we consider the unwritten tradition that is a summary of the Gospel message and the main points of Scriptural teaching (the rule of faith) to be infallible; and we think that the Church's interpretive decisions are infallibly binding and authoritative. But those things aren't excluded by the picture, and it definitely gets right the fact that tradition is a summary (interpretation, reformulation) of Scripture, not a bunch of separate content not contained in the Scriptures.