Monday, February 08, 2010

Sola Scriptura: use and abuse of a slogan

The Reformation slogan of sola scriptura (Latin for "the scriptures alone") is often invoked during intra-Protestant debates to rule certain claims out of court as "unbiblical". However, it is worth noting that this is often a misuse of the phrase.

Sola scriptura was one of a number of Reformation slogans beginning with the Latin term sola ("alone" or "only"). Others included "grace alone", "faith alone", "Christ alone" and the "to the glory of God alone".* These phrases were used polemically and pedagogically by Protestants to distinguish themselves theologically from Roman Catholics, whom they believed had illegitimately added to each of these crucial doctrines and thereby obscured or effaced the truth of divine salvation in Christ.
*I'd include all the Latin phrases, but then you might get the false impression that I can read Latin.

Thus sola scriptura was historically a claim about the sufficiency of the holy scriptures in teaching us all that is necessary for salvation in Christ, and was generally intended as a critique of Roman Catholic reliance on extra-biblical traditions. However, notice what is not included by this claim. While the holy scriptures contain all that is necessary for salvation in Christ, they do not necessarily contain all that is necessary for, say, conducting open heart surgery, writing a good poem, determining the age of the sun, understanding the culture of first century Palestine or accurately measuring and accounting for long term climate trends.

Christian theologians can and should expound the meaning and significance of the holy scriptures, and in so doing, help to create space for disciplines other than theology, affirming the goodness of knowledge gained in other ways. This is not a denial of sola scriptura, but part of its true meaning.

UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention that Michael Jensen posted some thoughts along similar lines a couple of months ago (though watch out for the ensuing discussion, which gets a little lengthy and somewhat off topic...).


Lionel Windsor said...

Hi Byron, greetings from a frostbitten Aussie living slightly further south!

I'd be interested to hear examples of the times when you've heard or read sola scriptura invoked to rule out the goodness or usefulness of non-theological disciplines?

Aric Clark said...

The problem with "Sola Scriptura" is that it is a slogan. Slogans are crude weapons used to beat down opposition, not meaningful or effective ways of engaging in dialogue. It is understandable in its original context in which the reformers felt themselves an endangered minority and were compelled to harsh rhetoric, but it doesn't add much to theological discourse in our context.

Part and parcel with its crude nature is the fact that it is not and never was actually true. The reformers themselves relied on a long history of interpretation and tradition as well as reason, knowledge of nature, law, and political considerations and many other things in their use of scripture even for the supposedly limited subject of salvation. Who would deny that Calvin's depiction of salvation as a judicial dispute wasn't influenced by his background in law?

No one ever has or ever will rely on "sola scriptura" for their knowledge of anything.

michael jensen said...

Lionel - creation 'science' is the obvious example. But I hear it implicitly in our circles all the time. When I raised this point on my AMS blog it caused controversy even amongst fellow travellers. (your former boss supported me though! :-) )

Aric: I think you are too harsh on slogans! And then your dismissal of the slogan relies on the frequent caricature of the slogan that Byron is trying to clarify. It was ever thus.

Anonymous said...

Byron. Love the photo. Where was it taken?

Aric Clark said...

Perhaps I'm overly harsh on slogans Michael. I have a bit of a personal bias against them since during the process of my ordination, due to controversy in my denomination I was expected by both sides to spout certain slogans in order to prove my fidelity. I became resistant to stock formulations of almost any kind.

That being said I do not think I caricature Sola Scriptura the way Byron writes. I am talking about specifically "knowledge of salvation" which is what Sola Scriptura refers to. That is, Sola Scriptura means that scripture alone is sufficient for knowledge of salvation. But that isn't true. It wasn't true for the reformers and isn't for us, because scripture doesn't stand by itself. It doesn't interpret itself, and even in the simplest and most universal interpretations (if such a thing can be said to exist) the scripture requires outside referents to come to any conclusions about what "salvation" is.

byron smith said...

Lionel - good to hear from you! There are trivial examples, like books asking What would Jesus eat?, through to more serious ones such as young earth creationism (as Michael mentioned), but also method in biblical studies and some forms of climate change denial.

Jason - I'd though about offering points for it, but I'm still on a lull from doing that, so I'll gladly tell you it's a window in John Knox's house on the Royal Mile here in sunny Edinburgh. Somewhat ironic that the iconoclast gets his own stained glass window! (And there's even one of him preaching in his beloved St Giles'!).

Aric and Michael - perhaps it could help to see how the slogan was expressed in some classic formulations, such as the XXXIX Articles:

VI. Of the sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation.
HOLY Scriptures containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.
(see also the relevant homilies, as mentioned in Article XXXV)

Or the Westminster Confession:
VII. 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.

According to that great spiritual authority, Wikipedia,
"the phrase 'due use of the ordinary means' includes appeals to pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4:11-14). As such, Sola Scriptura reflects a careful tension between the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture necessary for its role as final authority, and the occasional need for its meaning to be revealed by exposition (Hebrews 5:12)."

Aric - I agree that as a slogan, it says (or can easily imply) too much. But I am happier with these slighter fuller summaries of what is intended by it, especially with Cranmer's homily, which is a gem.

byron smith said...

Aric - (let me make another attempt) I agree that The reformers themselves relied on a long history of interpretation and tradition as well as reason, knowledge of nature, law, and political considerations and many other things in their use of scripture even for the supposedly limited subject of salvation. But they saw this as included within the principle of sola scriptura, rather than opposed to it. That is why the slogan alone is insufficient (I reject sola "sola's" for understanding doctrine!) but needs to be explained. I acknowledge that the point you make is slightly different to one I made in my post. I was distinguishing between knowledge of salvation and other kinds of knowledge; you were talking about method of understanding scripture. But the point is that the reformers used many tools to understand scripture, but it was scripture that they wanted to understand. Sola scriptura is not about method, but about authority. And you are right that even with reference to authority, the reformers did not strictly use scripture alone (hence the slogan can be misleading), but used scripture as primary source, with other authorities as secondary sources to help shed light on parts of the primary source.

Bruce Yabsley said...

Peace be with you, Byron.

About slogans: I don't like them, as just about everyone knows by now, but I accept that there's taste and temperament in that statement ...

Taking a broader view, the whole point about a slogan is that it is a polemical and a pedagogical tool, as you state. So it should be assessed by its use: In polemic against what? As teaching which substantial things?

To the extent that it's meaningful to speak of a slogan as being "abused" — as opposed to having "become a bad slogan" — one is appealing to a proper use: to a tradition of practice. It implies that present practice has become bent out of shape, and needs to be reformed.

I take it that the current discussion is an essay in reform. More power to it.

byron smith said...

Thanks Bruce. I do believe that there is a proper use even for slogans. All communication is fallible, being perpetually vulnerable to accidental or deliberate misunderstanding. The shorter and simpler the piece of communication, the more liable to ambiguity; the longer and more complex, the more liable to mistaken emphasis or confusion. All kinds of communication have their place (I am no Twitter-snob, though I don't use or read it), as long as we are ready to keep communicating and we don't assume that we're perfect at either speaking or listening. Indeed, this is what really stood out for me upon reading the Cranmer homily I mentioned earlier: the cruciality of humility in listening to and reading the holy scriptures. I would add that it is always necessary in listening and reading, as well as in speaking and writing too. Easier said than done. May God have mercy on us all.

Anonymous said...

I thought it looked familiar. Thanks for confirming that Byron. Love that wee house.

byron smith said...

Lionel - although I'm still exploring exactly what he meant by it, a prima facie case could be made that Tony Payne's decision to say nuttin' is an example.

If all he means is that Christian ministers should be wary of endorsing a particular political or economic strategy in such a way as to lay agreement with it on the consciences of Christians, then fair enough, I agree with him. But he seems to go further than this in the article and say that Christian ministers ought to say nothing at all about this pressing pastoral issue lest they stray into legalism. He justifies this with an appeal to sola scriptura.

Perhaps I have misunderstood him and taken his title line (which he repeated a few times in the post) too seriously.

Lionel Windsor said...

Hi Byron (and Michael), thanks for your provision of examples of what you're talking about. I think it's helpful to ground the discussion.

As for Tony's article, I'm afraid I'm still trying to get my head around it as well! You've certainly prompted me to push Tony further on the matter.

From Tony's posts and comments, I don't think he is advocating a position that would be against your statement:

Christian theologians can and should expound the meaning and significance of the holy scriptures, and in so doing, help to create space for disciplines other than theology, affirming the goodness of knowledge gained in other ways.

I think Tony is indeed trying to "create space" for other disciplines, but is also trying to avoid filling that space himself, and leaving the space-filling in the hands of individual Christians.

That is, he is using Sola Scriptura, not to rule out other disciplines, but to put them in their "proper place" - i.e. amongst the free prerogative of Christian citizens, not in the pulpit (or influential Christian blog, or, I assume, Christian book).

Now - as to whether he's right about this - I might end up disagreeing with him here, but I look forward to his reply.

byron smith said...

Brad has a pair of excellent (though not brief) posts that summarise his thesis and relate to the use of sola scriptura in the public square. Highly recommended.

byron smith said...

Peter Leithart: Sola scriptura.