Saturday, February 16, 2013

Examining Sola Scriptura

Yes, you read the title right. An analysis of sola scriptura, one of the five "sola" pillars of Protestantism, and more generally the conservative/evangelical/Reformed perspective on scripture in American Christianity as I have known it, will be the subject of this post.

Where did it come from?

First, some background: the doctrine of sola scriptura ("by scripture alone") was firmly established by Martin Luther and the Protestant reformers who followed him, in response to what they saw as an overreaching of ecclesial authority by the Catholic church, placing interpretative tradition and the word of the Pope on equal or higher footing than the Bible. The Catholics had a doctrine of "prima scriptura" and saw scripture as merely the most important source of authoritative divine revelation along with, among others, church tradition; the church had, after all, selected the Biblical canon, so why should its authority be limited to this one act? This had led to abuses like the sale of indulgences that prompted Luther to act.

Luther asserted that "a simple layman armed with Scripture is greater than the mightiest pope without it". In other words, that the Bible should be the highest (not necessarily only) authority over a believer's doctrine and life to which all others are subordinate. This means that scripture contains everything necessary for salvation and Christian practice, and extrabiblical sources like church tradition or claims of supernatural experiences can never "trump" its authority.  Later reformers like John Calvin took this a little further, saying that scripture was self-authenticating (it proved itself to be God's word to the reader), perspicuous (self-interpreting or clear to the rational reader without any recourse to external aids), and totally sufficient for matters of faith and practice. Calvin explains his high view of scripture thus:
For it is wonderful how much we are confirmed in our belief when we attentively consider  how admirably the divine wisdom contained in [Scripture] is arranged--how perfectly free the doctrine is from every thing that savors of earth--how beautifully it harmonizes in all its parts--and how rich it is in all the other qualities which give an air of majesty to composition...For the truth is vindicated in opposition to every doubt, when, unsupported by foreign aid, it has its sole sufficiency in itself. - Institutes 1.8.1
Today, this stronger form of sola scriptura is the dominant one in American evangelical and reformed Christianity, particularly in more conservative or fundamentalist churches, and my argument below applies most strongly to it. It is at the very heart of Protestant doctrine and theology; the idea of preaching or teaching a doctrine derived from some source other than the Bible and declaring it to be "God's word" is (I would hope!) unthinkable to most Protestants. Wayne Grudem, one of the most prominent conservative evangelical theologians, bases his view of the authority and sufficiency of scripture on its being God's very words: "all the words in Scripture are God's words in such a way that to disbelieve of disobey any word of Scripture is to disbelieve or disobey God."

Sola scriptura has had other implications for how scripture is viewed. One example is the concept of Biblical infallibility/inerrancy. I'm still somewhat fuzzy on the distinction, but infallibility says that the Bible is completely trustworthy and unable to lie as a guide to faith and salvation, while inerrancy makes the stronger claim that the Bible is unable to be wrong (err) on any point of anything it speaks about. Grudem explains that "Scripture in the original manuscripts  does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact." Based on 2 Timothy 3:16, scripture is considered to be "inspired" by God; some churches explain this as meaning it is "God's voice in human words", others hold the stronger theory of "divine dictation", that the specific words in the Bible are also inspired. To quote Calvin again:
But since no daily responses are given from heaven, and the Scriptures are the only records  in which God has been pleased to consign his truth to perpetual remembrance, the full authority which they ought to possess with the faithful is not recognized, unless they are believed to come from heaven, as directly as if God has been heard giving utterance to them. -  Institutes 1.7.1
At any rate, the Bible is given a central place in Protestant theology; every claim must confirm to the teaching of scripture, and Christians are similarly called to live "by the book".

I wouldn't argue for a second that the Reformation or sola scriptura was a bad idea. The abuses of spiritual authority Luther was protesting were real, and making spiritual authority reliant on the (relatively) unchanging Bible has indeed helped prevent some of the more flagrant departures from the gospel as seen in the very early church (the Gnostics, Judaizers and other false teachers that many of the epistles warn against) or the pre-Reformation Catholic church. God can and does speak to people through the Bible, and putting it front and center maximizes this.

Nonetheless, I think sola scriptura has been seriously misused by much of the Protestant church. My criticism is not really on sola scriptura as originally laid out by Luther, but on the (I think) uniquely Protestant way of approaching the Bible it represents and what has become of it today.

Solo scriptura, literalism, and inerrancy

True, Luther didn't think Christians should disregard all other sources of spiritual authority, merely subordinate them to the Bible. But when your idea is called "by scripture alone" it's easy to see how this qualification could be dropped and people would start viewing the Bible alone as totally sufficient for the Christian--not just for guidance to salvation, but for all doctrine, preaching, and teaching. Again, Grudem: "[Scripture] now contains all the words of God we need for salvation, for trusting him perfectly, and for obeying him perfectly." This idea of scripture being all you need is implicit in the modern practice of "inductive Bible study". This is the distortion known as solo scriptura.

Once you believe that the Bible is God's all-sufficient word, spoken to the "priesthood of all believers" (i.e. laymen) for all to understand and live by, and that it is the only book needed (see Calvin above, "unsupported by foreign aid"), the logical consequence is that the Bible should be read the way an uneducated layman with no sources of information outside the Bible would read it: that is, literally. As I've argued, a strictly literal reading of scripture is self-contradicting to the point of impossibility and absurdity.


I had a related argument for why external sources like commentary and church tradition were unnecessary for understanding the Bible: the early, first-century church of course had none of these things, and of course they understood it (the NT authors certainly did, at least), so we need none of these aids either. What I forgot in this statement is that I am not a first-century Jewish/Palestinian/Greek Christian. I think possibly the biggest mistake people today (Christians, atheists, and everyone in between) make in understanding the Bible is "cultural imperialism"; reading it from a modern, western perspective and not realizing that though it was, in a sense, written for them, it was not written to them but to readers in the ancient or classical Near East with a radically different culture and worldview from our own. By imposing our modern, scientific expectations and frameworks of thought on such an ancient document, we can unknowingly twist its meaning, sometimes beyond recognition. (I am working on another post that goes much more into this) But if the Bible is all Christians need for faith and practice, who needs cultural-historical context? If it's the word of an eternal God spoken to us, shouldn't it be just as familiar and relevant to modern, western readers as it was to early middle-eastern Christians?

No. By emphasizing the Bible as "God's timeless word" and minimizing the role of  the human authors (or explaining inerrancy and divine dictation by saying that the books were inspired by the Spirit), we abandon the need to read the Bible as the ancient document that it is. We pull the Bible out of its ancient context and plant it in our modern one where all narrative-like texts are implicitly literal and historical, truth must fit into a clear, concise, logical system, and where attributes of God that don't fit with present-day mores are explained away or discreetly swept under the rug. This ancient-to-modern recontextualization is made easier by the attractive, modern packaging of the Bible in a single volume with a uniform style and language, which masks the fact that it began as dozens of ancient books from different authors, cultures, and languages written over thousands of years. Again, I'll get to this more in an upcoming post addressing evolution, but for now I'll say that the Bible was not written with the modern, scientific description of the cosmos in mind but an ancient, deity-infused one with a disc-like earth and celestial waters above the solid dome of the sky that is incompatible with ours at almost every turn. This is a bitter pill for believers in Biblical inerrancy to swallow.

Hermeneutical arrogance

Another danger with representing scripture as the clear, perfect, "word of God" spoken directly from His mouth is that it becomes very easy to believe that you pretty much have it "figured out". After all, if the Bible is God's communication to humans in words we can understand and the only book we need for Christian faith and practice, why should any part of it be confusing or hidden to a reader who goes into it earnestly seeking the truth of God? So comes the idea of Christian "doctrine", the set of spiritual truths that theologians through the centuries have agreed on from scripture, which are undeniably supported by the scripture. Anything that disagrees with doctrine is "heresy", treated as a threat, whether by vigorous debate or underlying suspicion and dismissive words. The essentials of faith are known and the non-essentials are, well non-essential; the frontier for theological truth is then vanishingly small and focused largely on refining and clarifying already-known truths. This idea of having set doctrine to which all expression within the church must conform is little different, in practice, from the church tradition that prompted Luther to speak against the church 500 years ago.

I see this manifested all the time in evangelical subculture, where very little focus is put into exploring and expanding knowledge of the Bible relative to learning for yourself what is already "known" (similar to getting students up to speed on basic mathematics), defending these truths from doubters and naysayers (apologetics), and especially on applying and proclaiming them to the world. The message to be proclaimed is already set in stone, and the job of Christians, then, is to act on it. Though in the teaching I've been a part of questioning of doctrine isn't actively discouraged, it's implicit that if something in Christian teaching doesn't make sense or is hard to believe, the problem is on your end and you should look for help understanding and humbly ask God to open your mind to what He has to say, or perhaps not be so presumptuous as to question God. On the most fundamental level of doctrine, there is little if any questioning or self-reflection going on.

Contradictions go under the rug

If scripture is the inerrant, directly-spoken word of God, then of course it should all fit together without any contradiction--as Calvin says, "beautifully harmonize in all its parts". No evidence, objection, or argument should be able to stand on any point against the truth of scripture, and any apparent contradiction contained therein should only be a product of our fallen perspective, or perhaps the translation. As a last resort, the motives of the questioner are questioned (Romans 9:20) or the unutterable mystery of God is invoked (Isaiah 40:28, 55:8). These apparent inconsistencies and quandaries are viewed as the unexplored frontier of our knowledge of the Bible, instead of indications that a wrong assumption has been made somewhere along the way.

After years of forcing myself to believe the "plain and obvious" truths I was taught and months of tying myself in theological knots for the sake of my belief in Biblical harmony (if the Bible does harmonize so perfectly, why did I have to spend months getting it to do so?), I have concluded that the Bible does have contradictions (or, more charitably, tensions) and does not "harmonize" like we expect it to.

For example, the evolution debate (again, building up to my next post). Christians with this high view of scripture who don't simply dismiss the scientific evidence to believe Genesis 1 literally have a lot of explaining to do. What does it mean that God created the world in six "days"? How long is a "day" (yom in Hebrew)? How could there be light (and days) before the sun and moon were created? What are the waters above the sky on day two? How were there trees before there were any sea animals? How is this text still meaningful in any way to the modern view of the cosmos? In their efforts to explain this text in a way that can be considered "true" to modern sensibilities, driven by the belief that scripture must be true to us on any point no matter how small, well-meaning interpreters twist the words of scripture in a way that seems almost violent. My unease over this "twisting" has been the driving force behind my journey to a new, better way of approaching scripture.

I played the game of trying to find answers or explanations for these kinds of Biblical quandaries for years, intensifying in the last six or so months. I was unwilling to admit that God could contradict Himself or affirm anything contrary to reality in His word. As more difficulties kept popping up, reading the Bible while trying to defend it from itself became a chore, then an unenjoyable burden that was crushing my faith. Then, finally, came the one that put me over the edge. After all I'd learned and studied in my church about how clear Paul is that no one could be justified by following the law, that "it" has always been about grace through faith, I read Deuteronomy 30:11-14 as if for the first time:
“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.
And I already knew and had tried to "explain away" Leviticus 18:5 ("You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD.") and Deuteronomy 6:25 ("And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us.") The contradiction here, not just in details but in a central pillar of the gospel, the role of the law, was inescapable. Paul wrote that no one could be saved by the law, that from time of Abraham righteousness has come only by faith, while Moses told the Israelites to seek an attainable righteousness and justification from the law. These passages could not coexist in the harmonious system of doctrine that was supposed to lie within the Bible's pages. My old view on Biblical contradictions, which was really little different from the standard tactic of harmonization, had proved to be insufficient. I finally admitted to a God I could barely believe in: "Your word has a contradiction in it. What do I do now?" I'm increasingly seeing this admission not as the end of my faith, but as a rebirth, but still letting Him work out the answer to that question. I see it as the next step of my continuing exploration of "healthy" doubt by which God is paring away everything I hold in competition with Him--including, apparently, my view and expectations of His word.

It was in this context that I decided to buy some books by the liberal evangelical theologian Peter Enns, who seemed to have some interesting and challenging things to say about how we handle the Bible. I read The Evolution of Adam and Incarnation and Inspiration in about a day each, though I think I'll need to read them both a few more times. Here, finally, was a theologian who gave every evidence of having been through the doubts I was having, who didn't ignore, minimalize, or unconvincingly explain away the increasingly dire questions I was having about the Bible but addressed them head-on, not in the way I was hoping for but in the way I needed. Enns takes the Bible more seriously than any other modern (possibly any) theologian I've read, without believing in inerrancy, divine dictation, or other such Biblical frameworks. Unlike other explanations I'd read, the books were challenging not because I felt obligated to believe wholeheartedly in something I wasn't convinced was true, but because it seemed to be true in a way that threatened to stretch and expand my very view of truth. I'm still working out the implications of this, but for now, let me say to anyone who struggles to believe in God and the Bible as presented by mainline evangelical theology, it is possible to have a "lower" view of scripture without lowering (and even enhancing) your view of God.

Continuing tradition

Also, I mentioned earlier that the idea of having a set foundation of "doctrine" which effectively can't be questioned within the evangelical/reformed community is little different, effectively, from the Catholic idea of church tradition and "dogma", even if it is based entirely on interpreted scripture. But besides this, there are quite a few interpretive traditions in the protestant church with little or no Biblical support that people continue to believe, though not as strongly or centrally as doctrine. These are cases where a common interpretation becomes, mentally, almost indistinguishable from the text. A few examples:
  • Jesus' birth in a stable. The Luke account does not actually mention a stable; only that Jesus was laid in a manger "because there was no place for them in the inn". I've read an interesting theory revolving around the Greek word for "inn", which in its other two NT uses is translated as "guest room", which then theorizes that the manger was not in a stable but in the "mud room" of a house where the animals would come in to eat in the winter, because the guest room of the house was full. Certainly not a central doctrine issue, but worth noting with how big a deal Jesus being born in a stable becomes around Christmas. I'm guessing that most Christians, if told that the stable birth is not actually in the Bible, would be surprised.
  • The Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. It's commonly assumed, but surprisingly easy to disprove. I'm also covering this more in the evolution post, but for now note that Deuteronomy 34, besides documenting Moses' death (which is commonly explained by Joshua writing the ending and Moses writing the rest), also says that "to this day no one knows where his grave is" (v. 6). Could Joshua and the Israelites have forgotten so quickly where they buried Moses?
  • The usage of the third commandment. Lots of Christians think it means not to use expressions like "Oh my God" or "Good Lord", when really it means not to misrepresent God or do something contrary to His will "in the name of God" (basically a prohibition of divine identity theft).
  • The creation of different languages at the Tower of Babel. Genesis 11 is often used to explain the diversity of languages in the world today, but all the text says is that God "confused their language" and then scattered them over the world.
This is somewhat akin to interpretive traditions we see influencing the New Testament that are found nowhere in the Old, such as Melchizedek never dying (Hebrews 7:3) or Michael disputing with the devil over the body of Moses (Jude 9).

So, after that polemic, back to sola scriptura. I would be the first to say that the abuses of spiritual authority Luther spoke against were real, and his point of not elevating human wisdom and tradition above the Bible remains valid for the church. But his assertion of the supreme authority of scripture has led to many misconceptions when approaching it, some of which I have outlined above. Biblical scholars emphasize that context is everything when interpreting scripture, but consider the context of sola scriptura. Luther established it because he (rightly) felt that a truth central to the gospel, salvation in Christ, by faith, through grace alone (all three of them) was under threat.


But where sola scriptura was then used to defend this "fundamental" of the Christian faith, today descendant ideas like inerrancy, perspicuity, and "divine dictation" are often (mainly, even) used to defend the periphery of the faith from disagreement, deny doubt and shut down arguments. (Evolution, homosexuality, predestination, anyone?) Most concerningly, it has led to the creation of an unassailable body of doctrine that functions, effectively, like extrabiblical church tradition and ecclesial authority did for the Catholic church in Luther's time. Anyone who dared to question this body of doctrine as Luther did in 1517 by positing an alternative interpretation of the Bible that conflicted with one of the "essentials" of the faith would face the same kind of condemnation he did, though more in the form of damning book reviews/blog comments, the dreaded "heretic" label, and ostracization from "mainstream Evangelicalism" than excommunication and the Diet of Worms. (c.f. Rob Bell, who is now getting pre-emptive criticism of his new book--not that I agree with everything he says, but he's currently the poster boy for this kind of shunning)

So, one more time, my issue is not with the idea of sola scriptura as Luther introduced and used it, but in how his line of thinking has since influenced our view and expectations of the Bible. People say all the time that the Bible is no ordinary book, but this means more than just its being the record of God's written revelation to humanity. Relatively speaking, we barely have any documents from the ancient and classical ages, let alone any others that have been so well-preserved and often copied as the Bible. The result is that the Bible is by far the oldest book to be so widely read and discussed in America, let alone worldwide. (Possibly followed by the works of Shakespeare, but that's mostly because of high school English classes) This uniqueness may help explain why people forget to treat it as an ancient document. If sola scriptura means that God's authority through scripture trumps human authority in opposition to the basic message of the gospel, I agree. But I stand against using it to defend reading scripture "alone", apart from knowledge of basic hermeneutical truths like:
  • The active (and fallible) role of the interpreter. The existence of "pervasive interpretive pluralism", as Christian Smith puts it, demonstrates that the Bible is not "crystal clear" or self-interpreting. Conservatives who argue against interpretations using the "authority of scripture" forget that every reading of scripture, including the "plain-faced" literal one, is an interpretation.
  • The culture in which it was written. For instance, a literal reading of Genesis 1 by a modern Christian is completely different than how a 5th century B.C. Jew would read it literally (which I think they did), not only because of the difference in languages but also because of the difference in cultures, view of deity, view of the cosmos, etc. What was clear to an ancient reader may be obscure to or easily missed by a modern one.
One of my favorite parts of Enns' theology is his "incarnational" view of scripture that considered both its human and divine side, like with Christ. In our overzealous desire for a "high" view of the Bible, we often tend to neglect the human side, instead putting on it nonhuman expectations like freedom from earthly context, inerrancy, and communication of the exact words of God that the Bible steadfastly refuses to meet. By forcing scripture to stand alone, we rip it out of its ancient context and reject things that would help us understand and apply it better. Like Christ, the Bible is fully God's word, but also fully composed of human words, rooted in a particular human context--revelation passed through human lenses. I don't think God communicates to us in any other way.

1 comment:

  1. This article addresses the kind of treatment of the Bible I was getting at, calling it "solo scriptura":