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The failure of sola scriptura

2012/04/07

As I touched on yesterday, sola scriptura is an important doctrine in most Protestant churches. There are a few formulations of this, but at its root, it’s the idea that the Bible contains all information necessary for salvation. As it plays out for Evangelicals and Baptists, it’s the claim the Bible is the only valid source of  doctrine. In fact, the use of extra-Biblical material is one of the main things a lot of protestants have against Catholics, Mormons and Seventh-Day Adventists. If you try to dig down, though, this idea makes no sense at all. I recommend reading this article from Christian Answers on the subject.

Richard Bennett, the author, quotes a number of biblical passages without realizing that they don’t support his argument. He does this by breaking up his essay into pieces. Note that he has to do this because no part of the Bible supports his whole argument. The bigger problem is that none of the stuff he cites in the Bible quite support his conclusions. For instance, he cites the following passage from Matthew 5 to support his claim that Jesus endorsed sola scriptura: “Think not that I came to destroy the law or the prophets: I am not come to destroy but to fulfill. For verily, I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law till all be fulfilled.” Jesus does not seem to be making nearly as broad a claim here as Bennett would like. He refers specifically to the Torah and the prophets, not even the whole Old Testament. Also, if we are to take his claims about jots and tittles at face-value, that would seem to mean that translations are not valid, which basically no Christians believe today. (Plus there’s the whole issue of Paul making huge changes to how the law was interpreted, but there are plenty of apologetics for that and I can’t get into it all here.) Jesus is just denying that he came to replace Judaism and reaffirming the mainstream belief of the canonical status of these sections. The rest of the Old testament hadn’t locked in official status yet.

The next section, about how other sources are invalid suffers from similarly weak biblical support. He cites Mark 7:13: “You are making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such things do ye.” Here, Jesus is telling the Pharisees that are behaving contrary to the teachings of Moses, which they allegedly revere. It is hardly a blanket condemnation of all other sources of religious practice. The other passages he cites aren’t even about extra-biblical tradition, just more claims that the Torah comes from God. For instance, Isaiah 8:20 says: “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” If you read the whole passage in a good translation, it sounds nothing like this and it’s clear Isaiah is specifically condemning the practice of speaking to the dead for guidance, which is good advice on its own. The funniest thing is quoting Proverbs 30:5-6 to support his view. It says “Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him. Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar.” Proverbs was written around 600 BC. Half a dozen or so Old Testament Books and the entire New Testament were written later, even by the traditional religious view, which boosts the ages of a lot of books. To be fair, this is clearly just a warning not to falsely attribute quotes to God, not that God was done talking forever, but seen that way, it doesn’t support sola scriptura at all. Bennett is asking us to take this to mean that more than eight-hundred years after it was written, this book will be placed in a compilation, and at that point we aren’t supposed to add anything else. What was the purpose of the passage in the meantime? Luckily, he has an answer to justify his interpretation.

The section on how scripture in to be accurately interpreted is the most contradictory in the whole article. None of the four passages he quotes say anything like the Bible being the only valid guide to how to interpret the Bible. (This is ignoring that the entire Christian Answers website is an extra-biblical guide to interpretation.) In fact, all of them are claiming that God and/or the Holy Spirit impart knowledge to people directly. The only one that addresses scripture at all is 2 Peter 1:20-21: “knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation. For prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” Again, I recommend reading the whole passage. This seems to be a claim that scripture is both written and read under the influence of God, so everyone should come up with the same interpretation. If that were true, there would be no need to write essays like this about doctrine and we wouldn’t have several thousand denominations unless all of them, with possibly one exception, were just ignoring God. This is besides the problem that he apparently sees no distinction between the witness of the Holy Spirit and reading other parts of the Bible.

The next part, on the idea that scripture is adequate by itself and does not need to be supplemented similarly fails to cite a single passage supporting its thesis. He instead cites more passages claiming divine inspiration of an unspecified body of scripture. Obviously, none of the writers could declare a complete, sufficient canon as it didn’t exist yet. It was still being written. He attempts to address this problem as follows:

Of course, there were many deeds and sayings of the Lord not recorded in Scripture. Nonetheless, Scripture is the authoritative record that Holy God has given His people. We do not have a single sentence that is authoritatively from the Lord, outside of what is in the written word. To appeal to a tradition for authority, when Holy God did not give it, is futile. The idea that somehow sayings and events from the Lord have been recorded in tradition is simply not true.

From the earliest days of Christianity, a substantial part of the New Testament was available. Under the inspiration of the Lord, the Apostle Paul commands his letters to be read in other churches besides those to which they were sent. This clearly shows that the written word of God was being circulated even as the Apostles lived. The Lord’s command to believe what is written has always been something that the believers could obey and did obey. In this matter we must have the humility commanded in the Scripture not to think above what is written. “…that ye might learn in us not to think of men above that which is written, that no one of you be puffed up for one against another” (1 Corinthians 4:6).

Unfortunately, this just demonstrates the self-defeating nature of sola scriptura. The exact make-up of our current Bible is itself an extra-biblical tradition. I’m going to be generous here and accept the Christian traditions about when books were written, which puts Revelation as the last one, finished around the year 90. He seems to be working off the idea that God was trying to establish a valid version of Christianity, so divinely guided the process of collecting the Bible as well as writing it. He wanted people to have a good Bible, so wouldn’t have let a bad one through. There are several problems with this. One is that his claims about the early church aren’t really good enough for his strong claims about the importance of the Bible. At best, several decades after Jesus’s death, people had a letter here and there. By the time it was finished, only a handful of people who had seen Jesus in his lifetime were still around. (I’ll be really generous here and leave out that it took another two-hundred years to be collected in the current form.) Even if the letters were being copied and circulated, the early church didn’t have anything like the full canon. If you think the Bible itself is the basis of the religion, rather than a record of the traditions that are the basis of the religion, saying a lot of people had part of it doesn’t solve your problem. Moreover, the protestant canon isn’t the only one. God seems to have been perfectly happy to let the Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox have a bunch of extra books in their Bibles that don’t belong and to leave most of the world without access to any version of the Bible until the last few hundred years. Clearly, God didn’t go to a lot of effort to make sure everyone had accurate scriptures, so any claim that God must have ensured we got the right Bible is absurd.

I would speculate this is why he uses the King James when far better translations are available in modern English. God wouldn’t have let them screw up the English-language version of the Bible, so it’s as locked-in as the canon itself. This is ultimately a very culture-bound view. It completely ignores that modern protestants disagree with the people who set the canon on lots of issues. ‘They were, after all, Catholics. If God inspired the Bible’s editors as well as its authors, it was a very narrow inspiration. Certainly none of them believed in sola scriptura. That’s the sort of idea you can only get after the idea of the Bible as a fixed quantity exists. Even on its own terms, sola scriptura makes no sense. It makes even less once you add in what we know about how the Bible was formed. When I was growing up protestant, biblical authority was so drilled into me that I couldn’t imagine any other way Christianity could even work, but I can see why Catholics are advised to only see it as part of a tradition.

Of course, even if sola scriptura were logically consistent, it would still be circular. This presents the anti-apologist with something of a dilemma: Is it worthwhile to nitpick the Bible as I have done here, or is that better left to internal doctrinal disputes? Instead of spending almost two-thousand words arguing that the Bible never really even endorses itself, I could have jumped straight to a demand for real-world reasons we should listen to the Bible at all? I think this approach is useful because it can make more thoughtful Christians question the basis of their beliefs on terms they will accept rather than trying to jump straight to turning their world upside down, which is a much harder sell. A nitpicker was actually one of my main reasons for deconversion.

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