Saturday, April 14, 2012

sola scriptura

In regard to the TG4 doctrinal statement, Michael Patton took issue with a small but not insignificant point. I agree with Patton. And while one might say this issue is nit-picky, we should remember the liberal assault on the truth and authority of Scripture and how folks eagerly misrepresent this important principle in an effort to undermine Scripture. I think it is important that we speak precisely here. With that, Patton's issue is with the statement: “We affirm that the sole authority for the Church is the Bible, verbally inspired, inerrant, infallible, and totally sufficient and trustworthy.” Here's is most of his post

I am not sure if you caught it, but it is something very important. I disagree that the Bible is the “sole authority for the Church.” No, I am not denying sola Scriptura. I believe very deeply in the authority of the Scripture. In fact, I think it is a key issue in Christianity. However, sola Scriptura does not and has never meant that the Scripture is the “sole” authority for the church. Sola Scriptura means that the Scripture is the final and only infallible authority for the individual and the church in matters of faith and practice. But it is not the only authority. There are many other authorities. Protestant Christians believe that tradition, reason, and (many times) experience are lesser authorities to which individual Christians must submit. Are they fallible authorities? Yes, but they are authorities nonetheless.

Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, spoke of three of these while defending himself at Worms in his great “Here I Stand” speech:

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason-for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves-I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture.”

Notice that Scripture and reason (“or by evident reason”) are authorities in his life. As well, though he understands that traditions (“popes and councils”) have “contradicted themselves,” he does still respect these as authorities (as evidence from the word “alone” after “pope and councils”). From statements such as these we construct what we call “Luther’s Trilateral.” Luther believed in three sources of authority for the church: Scripture, reason, and tradition. Of these, the Scripture is the final and only infallible source. We often express it in this way: the Scripture is the norma normans sed non normata (“norm that norms which is not normed”). Another way to put it is that the Scripture is the source that judges all other sources and is not judged by them.

John Wesley, the great Arminian evangelist, held to four sources, often called the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” Like Luther, he believed that the Bible is the final and only infallible source, but he also believed in the authority of reason and tradition. To these he added one more: experience. I am not sure Luther would have necessarily disagreed with this, but my point is not to enter into that debate. My point is to show that the phrase “the sole authority for the Church is the Bible” is not within the best traditions of Reformed Protestantism. In fact, it would be more associated with the “radical reformation” which has been, for the most part, repudiated by traditional Protestants for, among other things, their outright rejection of tradition as an authority.

Think of it another way: Without tradition being an authority we would not even have the Scriptures themselves, as it is only through tradition that we know what Scripture is actually Scripture. The Scriptures have no place where there is an inspired list telling us which books belong in the Scripture (we call this the “canon” of Scripture). It is through the traditions of the church that we know which books are the final authority. Therefore, tradition must be an authority to some degree.

Now, much of Fundamentalism has been known to mistakenly define sola Scriptura in a way that appears as if Scripture is the sole authority. I get that. Have you ever heard someone say “If it ain’t in the Bible, then I don’t believe it”? But this is not Evangelical. Even R.C. Sproul says the belief that the Scripture is the “sole authority” is not sola Scriptura, but nuda Scriptura (nothing but the Scripture). (See this work for a good history of sola Scriptura.) In fact, this is one of the main distinctions between the Puritans and the Anglicans. The Puritans were more inclined to believe that Scripture was the only authority for the Church. The Anglicans were not. This is where I really appreciate the historic Anglican church. I think they were on the right side of the debate here. (See this work for a more definitive distinction between Puritans and Anglicans on this issue.)

If you are still not convinced, think of all the places where the Scriptures themselves speak of other authorities for the Christian. Parents are in authority over their children (Eph. 6:1). Husbands are in authority over their wives (Eph. 5:22). People are to submit to the authority of the government, since there is “no authority which is not from God” (Rom. 13:1). And the Scripture even talks about the church (elders) being in authority over its members: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they watch over your souls” (Heb. 13:17). If elders/pastors were not an authority in the church, how could we ever hope to practice church discipline? Of course all of these other authorities (parents, husbands, government, elders) are fallible, as are reason and experience. But this does not mean that they are irrelevant. One does not have to be infallible to be in authority.

It is for this reason that I don’t think I could sign the T4G doctrinal statement. Of course, these are all smart chaps (much more so than me!) and must know this. Therefore, I think I may be misunderstanding what they mean when they say, “We affirm that the sole authority for the Church is the Bible.” I just wish it was worded differently. But, as it stands, I could not sign the T4G doctrinal statement in good conscience.

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