Defending Sola Scriptura

Dr. James White:

This quotation was posted on the CRI Bible Answer Man FB page today. I’d like to respond to it.

“No one believes literally in sola scriptura.”

Yes, actually, we do—we just define it properly, which is not done by Frederica Mathewes-Green, an Eastern Orthodox writer. What is more, I have, repeatedly, accurately defined sola scriptura while a guest on the Bible Answer Man broadcast. In any case, I believe, “literally,” that the θεόπνευστος revelation of God known as the Scriptures (the ONLY example of what we KNOW to be θεόπνευστος) is the sole infallible rule of faith for the church. I believe as Gregory of Nyssa, long ago:

“..we make the Holy Scriptures the canon and the rule of every dogma; we of necessity look upon that, and receive alone that which may be made conformable to the intention of those writings.” (On the Soul and Resurrection).

But as we will see, Frederica Mathewes-Green, and Mr. Hanegraaff, confuses the issue.

“Everyone believes that the bible (sic) has to be responsibly interpreted. Everyone believes that some interpretations of the bible (sic) are better, more accurate, than others.”

Yes, everyone believes the Bible must be responsibly interpreted—that is, when you seek to understand the intention of the original author, in the original language, original context, etc., and seek to then harmonize that with the Scriptures as a whole, you are clearly seeking to avoid turning the Bible into your own personal playground from which you can derive any meaning you wish. Yes, there are proper rules to hermeneutics and exegesis. But what Frederica Mathewes-Green does not understand is that this is in no way detrimental to a strong and full belief in sola scriptura.

Instead, the EO position is that rather than honoring the Word by exegeting it consistently and harmoniously with both the near and far contexts, we must avoid the danger of the Bible and place it under a higher authority, specifically, the Tradition defined by the Church. In the Orthodox context, this is the tradition as codified as it existed about seven or eight centuries after the death of Christ. Whether that Tradition itself was accurate at that time we cannot say, for the Orthodox system has no means of self-correction once it subjects that which is θεόπνευστος to that which is plainly not.

Just as Rome’s claim to infallibility results in sola ecclesia, the church in monologue and hence fundamentally unreformable on the deepest level, so too the Orthodox commitment to the Tradition that has become entrenched from just over a thousand years ago leads to sola traditio, sola musterio. Neither system can fundamentally be corrected by the voice of the Shepherd, muted under the thick cloth of Tradition.

“And everyone believes that leaving a wholly untaught person free to invent his own interpretation of the bible (sic) is dangerous.”

Hundreds of years ago the framers of the Westminster Confession of Faith wrote,

1.6. The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

1.7. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

The problem with Frederica Mathewes-Green’s words is that she is conflating what are necessarily distinct categories. The “unlearned and unstable” distort the Scriptures to their own destruction, this is quite true (2 Peter 3:16). But the problem here is not with the inspired Word, but with the “unlearned and unstable” interpreter.

It is not the Bible that is dangerous, it is the rebel sinner who dares to handle it improperly. The answer to this problem is not to safeguard the Bible by subjecting it to a traditional coffin of fossilized ritual and belief! It is to contrast its misuse and abuse with careful, God-honoring exegesis and proclamation. It would be like someone pointing out that guns can be dangerous, therefore, we should only have paintings of guns done by a particular group of artists who can properly “interpret” the gun for us.

No, the problem is with the user, not the object that is used. The answer is the proper training of the user, not the fundamental redefinition of the object being used. Further, a painted gun cannot function as the real thing. When evil men are breaking into your home, the painting will be of no benefit to you. And when the Scriptures are subjected to the stifling strictures of an aged tradition (note I do not for a moment accept the claim that it is an *apostolic* tradition), it likewise loses its usefulness.

Two Planks of Sola Scriptura

hortonThis excerpt is taken from Michael Horton’s contribution in much of today’s mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic biblical and theological scholarship would have been regarded by the medieval church as apostate with regard to its view of Scripture. The Scriptures, both sides held, are inerrant. The Council of Trent (condemning the Reformation positions) went so far as to say that the Spirit “dictated” the very words to the Apostles.

The real question had to do with the relation of inspired Scripture to tradition. In other words, is Scripture alone God’s inspired and inerrant Word, the source and norm for faith and practice? Could the pope say truly that his words are equal to those of Peter and Paul as we find them in Scripture? Are councils infallible in the same way as Scripture? The Council of Trent argued that Scripture and tradition are two streams that form the one river of God’s Word. This Word consists not only of “the written books” but also of “the unwritten traditions” that, of course, the Roman pontiff has the privilege of determining. Thus, both Scripture and these traditions the church “receives and venerates with an equal affection of piety and reverence,” as both have been “preserved in the Catholic Church by a continuous succession.”

Therefore, whatever the pope teaches or commands ex cathedra (from the chair)—even if it is not based on Scripture—is to be believed by all Christians everywhere as necessary for salvation. Ironically, Luther’s defense of sola Scriptura was condemned as schismatic, but the ancient fathers, both in the East and the West, would have regarded the pretensions of the Roman bishop as an act of separation (schism) from the Apostolic faith. Long before the Reformation, highly esteemed theologians argued that Scripture alone is normative and that councils simply interpret Scripture, and these interpretations (which may be wrong and amended by further reflection) are to be submitted to by the pope himself. Until the Council of Trent’s condemnations of the Reformation teaching, this was an open question. Luther was not the first to argue for Scripture’s unique authority even over the pope. After Trent, though, the door was slammed shut on sola Scriptura within the Roman Catholic faith.

Luther’s problem with the papal church was its corruptions of scriptural faith by the addition of myriad doctrines, practices, rituals, sacraments, and ceremonies. Medieval popes increasingly held that they alone were endowed with the Holy Spirit in such a way as to be preserved from error in their judgments. Of course, this idea was not found in Scripture or in the teaching of the ancient fathers. It was an innovation that opened the floodgate to a torrent of novelties, Luther argued:

“When the teaching of the pope is distinguished from that of the Holy Scriptures, or is compared with them, it becomes apparent that, at its best, the teaching of the pope has been taken from the imperial, pagan laws and is a teaching concerning secular transactions and judgments, as the papal decretals show. In keeping with such teaching, instructions are given concerning the ceremonies of the churches, vestments, food, personnel, and countless other puerilities, fantasies, and follies without so much as a mention of Christ, faith, and God’s commandments.”

How do you adjudicate between truth and error? What if a pope errs, as some medieval councils had in fact declared? Indeed, the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries saw the schism between two and eventually three rival popes, each claiming St. Peter’s throne and excommunicating the others along with their followers. The Council of Constance ended this tragicomedy by electing a fourth pope to replace the other three. Philip Melanchthon’s Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope built on Luther’s views by drawing together a battery of refutations from Scripture and also from church history to demonstrate the foundation of sand on which the papacy is built.

For Luther, the first plank of sola Scriptura is Scripture’s nature. As the Holy Spirit’s direct revelation through prophets and Apostles, Scripture is in a class by itself. The character of God is at stake in the character of Scripture. Why is Scripture inerrant? “Because we know that God does not lie. My neighbor and I—in short, all men—may err and deceive, but God’s Word cannot err.” We respect the church fathers and ancient councils as guides, but only God can establish articles of faith: “It will not do to make articles of faith out of the holy Fathers’ words or works. Otherwise what they ate, how they dressed, and what kind of houses they lived in would have to become articles of faith—as has happened in the case of relics. This means that the Word of God shall establish articles of faith and no one else, not even an angel.” Continue reading

Sola Scriptura – Five Part Series

Part 1: Dr. James White – “Went 135 minutes today (hence the “uber-mega” designation) covering two primary topics: sola scriptura defined and defended against a recent attack upon it by Karlo Broussard of Catholic Answers (first 90 minutes), and then a “live” review of a new video against the deity of Christ from a Muslim perspective (link). A lot of foundational, basic teaching today that we think is very, very important for all believers!”

Part 2: Dr. James White – “We continued our series on sola scriptura today, looking at what sola scriptura is and is not. Touched on the issues raised by charismatic claims of “thus says the Lord” a bit as well. We really believe this is an important series, and hope our listeners will find it foundationally edifying.”

Part 3: Dr. James White – “Three topics on the program today; for the first 15 minutes or so a quick rejoinder to Jory Micah and her ‘El Shaddai means ‘one with many breasts” tweet, then about half an hour in response to Spencer Toy’s article on, ‘An Open Question for Presuppositionalists.’ Then we got back for the last 45 minutes to our study of sola scriptura. We are now able, in the next program, to finally start working through Karlo Broussard’s comments on Catholic Answers Live.”

Part 4: Dr. James White – “Aside from a few brief comments at the start about a few current events we focused pretty much fully on the sola scriptura series, finally getting to the clip from the debate with Mitch Pacwa and listening to a number of segments from the Catholic Answers Live show with Karlo Broussard. Important information!”

Part 5: Dr. James White – “I managed to resist the temptation to do the ‘politics talk’ and finished up the introduction to sola scriptura today in a 90 minute program focusing upon the final sections of Karlo Broussard’s arguments on Catholic Answers Live, and then discussing two more important aspects, ‘Apostolic Tradition’ in the early fathers as well as the issue of the canon. Not easy material to cover, but so very important!”

Sola Scriptura – Why It Still Matters

MacArthurArticle: Why Does Sola Scriptura Still Matter? by John MacArthur (original source John Calvin, and John Knox are still well-known today, five centuries after they lived. Through their writings and sermons, these courageous Reformers—and others like them—left an enduring legacy for the generations of believers who have followed them.

But the true power behind the Reformation did not flow from any one man or group of men. To be sure, the Reformers took bold stands and offered themselves as sacrifices for the cause of the gospel. But, even so, the sweeping triumph of sixteenth-century revival cannot ultimately be credited to either their incredible acts of valor or their brilliant works of scholarship. No, the Reformation can only be explained by something far more profound: a force infinitely more potent than anything mere mortals can produce on their own.

Like any true revival, the Reformation was the inevitable and explosive consequence of the Word of God crashing like a massive tidal wave against the thin barricades of man-made tradition and hypocritical religion. As the common people of Europe gained access to the Scriptures in their own language, the Spirit of God used that timeless truth to convict their hearts and convert their souls. The result was utterly transformative, not only for the lives of individual sinners, but for the entire continent on which they resided.

The principle of sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) was the Reformers’ way of acknowledging that the unstoppable power behind the explosive advance of religious reform was the Spirit-empowered Word of God. Continue reading

The Church Fathers on Sola Scriptura

Nathan Busenitz – original source Arius was arguably the most notorious heretic of the early church.

Though Arius’s heretical views were soundly condemned by the Council of Nicaea (in A.D. 325), the controversy he sparked raged for another fifty years throughout the Roman Empire. During those tumultuous decades, the defenders of Trinitarian orthodoxy often found themselves outnumbered and out of favor with the imperial court. Yet they refused to compromise.

Among them, most famously, stood Athanasius of Alexandria—exiled on five different occasions for his unwavering commitment to the truth. He was joined by the Cappadocian Fathers: Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzas, and Gregory of Nyssa.

But how did these early Christian leaders know that the doctrine they were defending was, in fact, a truth worth fighting for? How did they know they were right and the Arians were wrong? Was it on the basis of oral tradition, a previous church council, or an edict from the bishop of Rome?

No. They ultimately defended the truth by appealing to the Scriptures. Continue reading