In a previous post I covered reasons why the doctrine of sola Scriptura was anachronistic – i.e. a belief that couldn’t fit within a chronological history of the Church prior to the time of the Reformation. In this post, I would like to look briefly at why I also feel that the doctrine is logically flawed.
There are many orthodox Christian doctrines which are not explicitly taught in Scripture and must instead be arrived at through careful interpretation or exegesis of the bible. For instance the word “trinity” while never used in the Scriptures, is nevertheless a doctrine which accurately reflects the triune nature of God when the Scriptures are properly interpreted. Similarly, many Christological doctrines require proper interpretation of the Scriptures in order to arrive at orthodox Christian positions. When we study Christ’s divinity, his hypostatic union – i.e. that He was both fully God and fully man, his two natures which are maintained in one person; we begin to realize just how necessary careful exegesis is.
When we look at how many of the early Christian heresies revolved around misconceptions regarding foundational Christian doctrines such as the trinity or the person and nature of Christ, it becomes obvious that it is not enough to merely read the Scriptures – proper interpretation is crucial. In some cases these wrong interpretations (heresies) even became the predominant view within the early Church – as was the case with Arianism.
Similarly, the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura, or Scripture alone, is nowhere explicitly taught in the bible. This may come as a surprise to some, but nowhere in the Scriptures do we read the phrase, “Scripture alone” or, “the Bible alone.” Nowhere are we instructed to turn to the bible as our sole guide for matters of faith and morals. The doctrine of Scripture alone is arrived at not by reading the, “plain words of Scripture,” as is often advocated by Protestants, but rather by interpreting the Scriptures in a very particular way. As I have already admitted, many orthodox Christian doctrines are arrived at by careful exegesis, and in spite of not being explicitly taught by the Scriptures they are nevertheless true.
So why does this need for interpretation pose a problem for advocates of the doctrine of “Scripture alone?” Just because the doctrine is not explicitly taught by Scripture, couldn’t it (like the doctrine of the trinity) still be true? Here is the problem from a logical standpoint. Sola Scriptura rejects all claims of authority outside of the Scriptures themselves. Any human interpretation of Scripture is at best merely a good opinion. Because of this, there can be no authoritative human interpretations. Since the interpretation of Scripture is by definition an external act, and since this interpretation is necessary to arrive at a doctrine of “Scripture alone”
You have now departed from the Scriptures alone in order to arrive at a doctrine of Scripture alone.
You are now relying on the authority of a fallible interpreter – not on the authority of Scripture alone. In other words the doctrine of Scripture alone is logically self-refuting. Pastor and founder of Ligonier Ministries R.C. Sproul makes a similar point when he notes, “The historic Protestant position shared by Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and so on, has been that the canon of Scripture is a fallible collection of infallible books. This is the reasoning: At the time of the Reformation, one of the most important issues in the sixteenth century was the issue of authority, …and the principle that emerged among Protestants was that of sola scriptura, which means that Scripture alone has the authority to bind our conscience. Scripture alone is infallible because God is infallible. The church receives the Scripture as God’s Word, and the church is not infallible. That is the view of all Protestant churches.”1 It may come as a surprise to some Protestants that R.C. Sproul claims that this is the view of all Protestant churches. They may say, “Not my church! We believe that both the canon and the bible is infallible!” But they claim this in spite of the doctrine of Scripture alone, not because of it. They want to have their cake and eat it too. Let me demonstrate why Sproul is logically correct and why, as he asserts, this has been the historic Protestant position.
- All Protestants claim that Scripture alone is infallible.
- Scripture does not contain a divinely inspired table of contents listing which books should and should not be included.
- Historically, the canon of Scripture was decided on by fallible men in the Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church.
- Therefore the canon of Scripture is a fallible collection of infallible books.
But it is not just the cannon of Scripture which is suspect. Again, the Protestant position is that, “Scripture alone is infallible.” and, “Scripture alone has the authority to bind our conscience.” This is why Charles Hodge a giant of nineteenth-century Reformed theology says, “It is admitted that theologians are not infallible in the interpretation of Scripture. It may, therefore, happen in the future, as it has in the past, that interpretations of the Bible, long confidently received, must be modified or abandoned, to bring revelation into harmony with what God teaches in his works. This change of view as to the true meaning of the Bible may be a painful trial to the Church, but it does not in the least impair the authority of the Scriptures. They remain infallible; we are merely convicted of having mistaken their meaning”2 Furthermore, Scripture alone is a doctrine which eviscerates the very concepts of “orthodox” and “heresy.” To declare a doctrine to be either orthodox or a heresy is to make a judgement on the interpretation of a particular aspect of the Scriptures. Essentially to declare that the interpretation conforms to the established teaching of the Church or that it doesn’t. It is an appeal to an authority which is outside of Scripture.
The doctrine of Scripture alone demolishes any concepts of orthodox or heretical and leaves us with mere opinions. [Tweet This]
Here’s the thing. Using Sproul’s own logic, and continuing down the same path that Hodge lays out, the best a Protestant could claim would be a potentially fallible doctrine of Scripture alone, since the doctrine of Scripture alone is itself based on Martin Luther’s potentially fallible interpretation of the infallible Scriptures. But this doctrine of Scripture alone has become the very bedrock for all authoritative claims within the Protestant tradition. So a potentially fallible doctrine has become the basis for every other potentially fallible doctrine that men propose. All Protestant theological positions (soteriology, eschatology, ecclesiology, etc.) are fundamentally based not on the authority of Scripture alone, but instead on the individual’s interpretation of Scripture. Unfortunately, the Protestant position is that any interpretation of Scripture by theologians is potentially fallible. This would include the interpretations which lead to the doctrine of sola Scriptura, and all other subsequent theologies proposed by the theologian who adheres to this doctrine. Often the theologian will claim that the Holy Spirit is leading and guiding him in his interpretation of the Scriptures – and I would agree that the Spirit does indeed lead and guide us. But – and it’s a big but – never do they claim that they are being led and guided infallibly. Pragmatically when we look at the empirical evidence, we see the utter fragmentation of the Protestant movement over the last 500 years as Spirit led men and women have come to wildly different conclusions as to what the Scriptures mean. And that is fundamentally the problem with following this doctrine to it’s logical conclusion. If Scripture alone is infallible, then nothing else is.
- If Scripture alone is infallible, then nothing else is – including the interpretation of Scripture which leads you to the doctrine of Scripture alone.
- If Scripture alone is infallible, then nothing else is – including (as R.C. Sproul points out) the cannon of Scripture – which means that any individual book contained in the bible may or may not be infallible. Don’t worry though – Scripture is still infallible, you just can’t know with certainty which parts of the bible are actually Scripture and which aren’t. 😉
- If Scripture alone is infallible, then nothing else is – and (as Hodge notes) any doctrine based on man’s fallible interpretation of Scripture may very well be wrong. Including the doctrine of the Trinity. And that Christ is fully God and fully man. And that Scripture alone is authoritative and infallible. And literally any other doctrine. Just opinions really.
So, what is the alternative? Namely the assertion that the Church which Christ established is also able to infallibly interpret Scripture in order to teach the truth and declare with authority which doctrines are orthodox and which are heretical. This belief asserts that both the canon of Scripture and the Scriptures themselves are infallible because the Church exercised her authority in compiling the canon. That the doctrines related to the trinity and the divinity of Christ are not the mere opinions of men, but rather are revealed truth and necessary to Christian belief because the Church exercised her teaching authority in declaring them to be dogmas of the Christian faith. In other words that it is not Scripture alone which has the ability to bind our conscience, but also the Church which Christ established. Not only has this been the historic and orthodox position of the Church for the last two thousand years, but it is also a doctrine supported by the Scriptures themselves. In my next post on the doctrine of sola Scriptura I plan to look at what the Scriptures have to say regarding the authority of the Church, and what they don’t say about the sufficiency of Scripture alone.
Part One: Sola Scriptura – An Anachronism
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