My friend Chris has raised some really interesting questions on his blog about the doctrine of sola scriptura. “When we proclaim the notion of sola scriptura,” he writes, “we neglect the original authority of Church leaders that put together that Scripture. In other words, sola scriptura is simply impossible. The very texts of Scripture were canonized by the authority of the Church."
I couldn’t agree more. God didn’t drop the Bible out of the sky. The Council of Trent put it together. So anyone who has faith in the authority of Scripture ultimately places his or her faith in the authority of the Council of Trent, trusting that the Holy Spirit was present among church leaders as they chose which writings would be canonized.
The assertion that the Bible is self-authenticating doesn’t hold much water under close examination. When the Apostle Paul wrote that “all Scripture is inspired by God,” he was referring to the Hebrew Scripture, not the letter to Timothy he was in the process of writing. Paul’s letters were included in the Bible because the Church decided to include them in the Bible, not because the Bible itself called for it.
My hope is that as evangelicals move beyond the modern paradigm of individual autonomy (particularly as it applies to biblical interpretation), we will begin to appreciate church tradition as an undeniable foundation for our faith. Too often we forget that for centuries, Christians relied on the Church for the communication and interpretation of the Bible, and that the presence of two or three versions of the Bible stacked together on our bookshelves for us to interpret as we will is a relatively new phenomenon. Perhaps respect for our Roman Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters will increase as a result.
I suppose, at the end of the day, I’m a bit wary of declaring sola anything.
Shout “by Scripture alone!” and I imply that the Bible exists in a vacuum, that it does not rely on tradition for its compilation and preservation, and that it is not subjected to reason or experience for its interpretation. Plus, I am confronted with uncomfortable question of “whose interpretation of Scripture is the right one?” Shout “by Church authority alone!” and I place all my faith in a group of fallible human beings who (as history shows) are not immune to the seduction of power and greed. Shout “by the prompting of the Holy Spirit alone!” and I have no framework for distinguishing between my personal feelings and the will of God. Shout “by reason alone!” and I’m in the uncomfortable position of trying to explain why I believe in a God whose presence cannot be proven empirically.
This is one of the reasons why I find myself being more and more drawn to Anglicanism. The Anglican church stands squarely in the Reformed tradition, yet embraces Church tradition as that which connects all generations of believers together and gives us a starting point for our interpretation of Scripture. Anglicans do not recognize a single authority, like the Pope or the Bible, but instead recognize the complimentary roles of Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience.
I certainly understand why it is important for Christians to perhaps recognize a primary authority in their lives, (for Roman Catholics, it is the Church; for evangelicals, it is the Bible), but it seems to me that if the ULTIMATE authority is God Himself, and God uses all of these things (Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience) to communicate to us, the least we could do is acknowledge our dependency on all of them.
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