One of the pillars of the Great Reformation is the doctrine of “Sola scriptura”, meaning “The Bible Alone”). In this (according to the wikipedia definition) the Bible is held to be self-authenticating, clear (perspicuous) to reason, self-interpreting, and the final doctrinal authority. To those who have grown up in Protestantism, especially of an Evangelical flavor, these points might seem so self-evident and beyond reproach that it might seem strange, even heretical, to question them.

But in the light of the types of questions being raised in the Emergent Conversation, and especially in the wake of focusing events like the recent Great Emergence conference, “Sola scriptura” is coming under scrutiny. I want to offer some thoughts on this, some my own and many from others more studied.

As we engage the notion of Sola scriptura, many shades of meaning emerge. To some, it is a welcome justification of their deeply held love of scripture. To others, it helps to define a “high view of scripture” in the face of liberalizing relativism. And to yet others it is a doctrine at the very core of faith, an assurance of life itself.

While I love scripture, and see myself to hold a high view of it, I question the doctrine’s modern application. In essence, I see it as excluding and reducing truth, as reactionary, and ironically, as unscriptural. But before we detail these objections, we need to look at a few background assumptions: what we understand as the “word of God”, the canon, the scriptures as “law” not narrative, and the taints in this view of enlightenment rationalism.

  • While today we see the “Word of God” as synonymous with the “book” called the Bible (it’s more of a library of books between 2 covers), in the vast majority of cases in scripture itself, it refers to a breathed, and spoken word. If scripture is made to mean the written or printed word of God, then it represents only a subset of Gods greater expression.
  • Regarding that library, we have received by tradition what is known as the canon. For Protestants this means 66 books in total. This was “finalized” between 393 and 419 CE at the synod of Hippo, under the aegis of St Augustine. 
  • Despite the canon being considered “closed”, Martin Luther in his reforms rejected the apocryphal books, still part of the canon for much of the church.  While Luther emphasized scriptural authority, he rejected scriptures then current. And while he rejected Church authority, he accepted the rest of the canon which had been ratified by the church and passed on by that authority.
  • In the wake of rationalism and scientism, we tend to view scripture as a book of law, a textbook, or a set of logical propositions, rather than a book of story. Our post enlightenment view has caused us to require scripture to be “perspicuous to reason”, and non-contradictory.

A closed canon, a rejection (or fear) of contradiction, a literate culture where the oral and non-written is set against and over what is printed, and the static and deterministic  worldview of modernism has caused us to close down and defend the bible. When Jesus said “You have heard it written… but I say to you…” (Mt 5:39) he might have been addressing us. We still fail to see revelation as evolving, despite the fact that Jesus and his ministry was founded upon a progressive revelation of God.

Sola scriptura is a reaction

One of the key features of the Reformation was the rejection of the papacy and the refocusing on scripture as the final source of authority. As radical as these changes were, many aspects of reform did not deconstruct the prevailing Orthodoxy, but rather switched it wholesale. So the notion of infallibility which had attended the Pope, we transferred onto the Bible. No longer was a man, or a position, the final word on revelation, but a book.

We would honor history to bear in mind the extent to which the Catholic Church moved away from basic biblical values; indulgences, inquisitions and the corruption by total power as brief examples. It is not surprising then that the reformers veered to opposite extremes, the extent to which most now appreciate.  And we need to bear in mind that what Luther meant by “sola scriptura” is almost certainly not what we have come to see it as meaning after our 500 year journey though modernity.

In hindsight then, Sola Scriptura was and is an over-reaction. Nonetheless, the pendulum is swinging, and we must do our informed utmost to be true to the fullest possible revelation as we forge a new age of Gods rule.

Sola scriptura is excluding and too simple

Perhaps the most fundamental problem with Sola scriptura is the first half: “Sola”. In context, there were 5 solas (also Sola fide, Sola gratia, Solus Christus, and Soli Deo gloria) representing the Reformations pillars or fundamental beliefs. Sola scriptura, however, seems to have taken on a life of its own in the minds of those pondering the question of ultimate authority in an age of Biblism.

Anyway, in essence, the problem is that a closed starting point will result in a limited system. By declaring any source of truth with the proviso “alone” we automatically exclude whatever else might reveal it.

John Wesley expanded this view in what has come to be known as his “quadrilateral”, in which truth is found in Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. However, he also maintains that Scripture is primary. At least his system is wider and more generous than the early reformers. (It might be suggested that we add 3 more sources, Creation, intuition and imagination, despite the potential and inevitable problems such an idea might introduce regarding authority).

The problem of Inclusion vs. Exclusion is theologically speaking, the problem of our times. One might adopt either emphasis “based on scripture” with relative ease. Indeed as the writer of Ecclesiastes says, there is a time for everything under the sun: we all encounter times of exclusion and times of inclusion, personally as well as corporately.

However, in trying to read (dependant on your eschatology) the greater narrative underlying the message of the Kingdom of God, it appears that Inclusion is God’s ultimate aim. This cannot be achieved, however, without excluding (or destroying) certain things, for example sin and evil. But if we are to err, let us err on the side of Inclusion. A view of the bible as expressed in Sola scriptura ends up being at odds with things it ought not to, such as science.

One of the fundamental problems with an exclusion approach is that the level of exclusion or inclusion – where the “line is drawn” – is quite arbitrary. For example, leading up to the synod or Hippo, a book was investigated and declared canonical or uncanonical, but once canonical, no part of that book (i.e. a verse or verses) could then be subject to that same investigation. If you can do it to a library, why can’t you do it to a book, or a part of a book? What is it that makes the unit of acceptance of a text a “book”, especially since many of the books of the bible – Genesis for instance – had multiple authors?

Sola scriptura is unscriptural

There is no place I am aware of in the Bible which uses the words  “alone/only”, with (Gods) “Word” together such that a doctrine of “Scripture alone”, especially written scripture, might be derived.

I would like to reprint Steve Jones’ point-form analysis of the assumptions wrapped up in the concept, which may or may not apply to all who hold to Sola scriptura, but certainly illustrate the logic often apparent in the thought processes of its supporters. (The full article is highly recommended; at time of writing his blog seems to be offline).

  1. The Bible was written through supernatural means. God used men to pen these writings, but they are as much God’s own words as men’s.
  2. The canonical writings make up one divine book, a “manual” of Christian faith.
  3. The Bible is, accordingly, free of error.
  4. All questions of belief are to be brought to its pages. That which can be upheld by chapter and verse must be believed by all Christians. That which is contradicted there must be rejected.
  5. Its precepts are relevant and binding through all ages. The Bible addresses us in this century as much as it did the primitive church.

What Jones goes on to point out is that as reasonable as these axioms might sound, none of them is entirely without problems. Above all things, he makes the claim that none of these statements can actually be demonstrated in the bible itself.

Brian McLaren makes this same point, with an emphasis on the problems of Western Modernity:

“Interestingly, when Scripture talks about itself, it doesn’t use the language we often use in our explanations of its value. For Modern Western Christians, words like authority, inerrancy, infallibility, revelation, objective, absolute and literal are crucial … Hardly anyone notices the irony of resorting to the authority of extrabiblical words and concepts to justify ones belief in the Bible’s ultimate authority.” (A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren, Zondervan, 2004, p 182-3)

This idea of inerrancy, pointed out in Jones’ 3rd axiom, places an enormous and quite unnecessary burden on us. But McLaren artfully finds a way forward that does not undermine the value of scripture in any way:

“I would prefer to use the term inherency to describe my view of scripture: God’s inerrant word is inherent in the Bible, which makes it an irreplaceable, essential treasure for the church, deserving our wholehearted study and respect, so that we can be equipped to do God’s work.” (The Last Word and the Word After That, Brian McLaren, Jossey-Bass 2005, p 111)

Scripture is neither errant, nor inerrant: It is not errant, but rather inherent and inspired. And it is not inerrant, because this is asking the wrong question. It’s a Greek question for a Hebraic library: contradiction can be held in a narrative, but not in a set of logical propositions.

And Peter Rollins cheekily (though seriously) rebuts the idea that the “word of God” can ever be “made clear”:

“… if we were to do the impossible and render the text into the ultimate fantasy of the fundamentalist (a text at one with itself) then the Word of God would not be clearer; rather, the Word of God would be systematically eradicated”. (The Fidelity of Betrayal, Peter Rollins, Paraclete 2008, p 57)

In conclusion then, we should welcome challenges to the doctrine of Sola scriptura. What was a pillar of truth half a millennium ago, has become an untenable deadweight (one is tempted to say an idol) in the life of the church. Whereas it surely liberated and focused us during the tumult of the reformation, it is time to reevaluate – to re-value – where it is our faith actually lies.

We need to rediscover the meanings of the “Word of God”, question without fear, like Luther, what constitutes the canon, authority and truth, and reconnect to the exhilarating story inherent in the words and life of the Redeeming God, the God of All truth.