Understanding Sola Scriptura Aright

Wednesday, 01 Jul 2020

The executive editor of Modern Reformation, Joshua Schendel, recently talked with Dr. Michael Allen, who is the John Dyer Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Dr. Allen is the author of many articles and books, including Reformed Theology (T & T Clark, 2010) and, with his colleague Scott Swain, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Baker Academic, 2015).

JS: Perhaps the best place to start is with a definition. In your coauthored book with Dr. Scott Swain, you write that “the doctrine of sola Scriptura must be one of the most frequently misinterpreted tracts of Christian teaching” (50). So, what does sola scriptura mean?

MA: Sola scriptura, “Scripture alone,” defines the ultimate principle for Christian faith and practice. When all is said and done and all other factors are taken into account, what’s the final canon for making judgment and exercising authority? Classics may say something. Pastors may intuit something. Reason may suggest certain implications. But Scripture—and Scripture alone—serves as the final arbiter for determining fidelity and wisdom, truthfulness and goodness.

The very point of affirming “Scripture alone” makes sense only in a wider matrix wherein other authorities have their say. If the Bible’s all you’ve got, then it’s rather beside the point to specify “Scripture alone” as a final authority. The Reformers had all sorts about wrongly exercised authority, whether by living pastors or by long-worn traditions. They removed some false rhythms and reformed some mangled ones, but they never imagined a church apart from a whole array of authorities: parents, pastors, doctors of the faith, confessions by which one generation commends the works of God to another, and so forth.

And why is “Scripture alone” the final norming norm and the only un-normed norm? Well, “Scripture alone” is the voice of God. Pastors are sent by God. Parents are given authority from God. But “Scripture alone” is inspired and identified as “Thus says the Lord.” Scripture’s finality testifies profoundly to God’s ultimate reign. Other authorities are from God and ruled providentially by his wisdom. Scripture uniquely signals that divine warrant.

JS: That strikes me as a profoundly theological account of “Scripture alone.” Could you say a little more about its theological significance?

MA: The various reformational solas are all ultimately expressions of solus Christus. In other words, sola scriptura in no way flows from a general bookishness or a sense that literary culture rates more highly than visual or musical culture. It does not stand in for a general preference for the antique either. No, there is nothing general at all about sola scriptura. This particular book holds a unique place precisely because it is the word of the prophets and apostles of Jesus Christ. His word—its inspiration and its effectiveness such that it does not return void—is “living and active” because he is alive and in no way aloof or disengaged. Jesus speaks, and he speaks the words of his prophets and apostles. They all—each and every one—testify to him and of him.

Jesus chose to speak and rule through his word. Because we trust him and live by faith in the risen king, we turn dependently to his inspired word as a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. Ephesians 4:7–11 tells of how he rules from on high as a victorious king who now gives the gift of his word to equip the saints. His victory did not end his ministry. He gives gifts to us from his exalted throne and from apostles, prophets, and other teachers of his word. These gifts all circle around the notion that Jesus longs to rule and provide for his saints by his word being spoken to them. Sola scriptura serves as a reminder, then, that knowledge and rule are always rooted, normed, and limited by God and God alone.

JS: Does the teaching of sola scriptura stand in opposition to tradition?

MA: Tradition can seem to be a remarkably formal and obvious affair. Fair enough. High church liturgies and ornate religious rites can very well be depicted as traditional. Well-honed patterns of governance, as found in an ornate book of church order or of canon law, can also be called traditional.

Tradition can also express itself in rather informal and ordinary ways. The insistent move to open and spontaneous, spoken prayer may feel less scripted, but that doesn’t mean that it’s any less traditional. Patterns of Christian fellowship that take place in coffee shops or at a child’s bedside may feel less elevated and formal, but that doesn’t mean they are any less rhythmic and traditioned.

When God tells the Israelites that his singularity calls for their wholehearted devotion (Deut. 6:4–5), he then tells them that remembering these truths and this summons will require certain rhythms that mark their days and ways:

“You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deut. 6:7–9)

Evangelicals and others shaped by pietism of various sorts may tend to think that such rhythms sound formulaic. Perhaps. But the immediate context of Deuteronomy suggests otherwise. Just prior to those practices being commanded, God names the goal of such habits: “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart” (6:6). The well-worn habits and symbols of time, clothing, and interior design are turned to implant “these words” of God upon the hearts of his own people.

Now the danger is that rhythms will morph and habits will turn, such that the imagination is ingrained in things other than “these words” of God. The Reformers spoke of “human traditions” that could not be derived from God’s own word and that had no greater warrant than the judgment of mere humans. Such traditions may be discerning. They may also be foolish. But they can never be perfect or infallible. God’s word alone can be trusted inviolably and employed consistently as a sieve by which other traditions are adjudicated.

JS: In your book, you state that “for Christians, reading is an inherently communal enterprise” (99). It may be tempting for many to take “Scripture alone” as warrant for a kind of “me and my Bible” approach to both Bible reading and the Christian life. Why is it important that sola scriptura should not be understood in opposition to the church?

MA: Christians are to meditate on God’s law. We should hide it in our hearts. We should chew on it like good food. We should ruminate on it again and again. There are obvious dangers and temptations, however, if this reading happens alone. Even a good summons can be distorted and mangled by sin, perhaps most especially when it’s not undertaken with mutual accountability.

We need to be honest that bad things have happened in the name of sola scriptura. It’s been used to justify many a tragic message, all sorts of immoral behavior, and (sadly) frequent authoritarianism. Protestants have no monopoly on those screw-ups, but we do have a real fair share of them. Those occurrences are truly tragic in and of themselves; they dishonor God and disrespect our fellow humans. And errors can be much less scandalous: they can take the form of limiting our functional canon and refusing to receive the whole Bible or of mishearing its teaching in an errant way.

Thankfully, God promises his provision in ways that more than meet those difficulties. The tragic is not our fate, and sola scriptura need not topple over into excessive individualism on the one hand or pastoral authoritarianism on the other hand. In Colossians 3:16–17, Paul writes,

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Three things are mentioned here: teaching, singing, and expressing thanks. Each of them is defined by God. Teaching must render “all wisdom,” which can come only from the God who is himself wisdom. We should sing what he has given us and then likewise sing our own words of response. Thanks to God through God should occur in all circumstances—every one of which is viewed in light of God.

Again, sola scriptura matters because Christ matters in all faith and practice. Because our attention to Scripture follows our faith in Christ, it must also be shaped and tempered by the full range of his provisions for us: not merely a word but also a body; not merely a covenant but also a temple; not merely a law but also a people.

JS: How would you advise church members, then, to read their Bibles and engage in their churches so that sola scriptura is not simply a statement they agree with but a reality in which they participate?

MA: Congregants should listen not only for wise words but also for warranted words. Don’t look to pastors as gurus or sages who can answer things for you on their own wisdom, but listen to them always to hear God’s word. Also, listen to them to show you and equip you to listen to God’s word.

Pastors should not merely preach truth but also proclaim those beautiful and good realities from the text of Holy Scripture. They ought to be accurate and faithful, to be sure, but they should also move people to action by rooting and manifesting their dependence on God’s word. They should not speak their own opinions or preferences, but only what is warranted by God’s word, and they should make that dependence plain in their rhetoric. Helping the laity see that a persuasive truth comes from and finds its force in God’s word is necessary. It helps laypeople become better Bible readers, and it helps them avoid an unhealthy dependence on their pastor (where the temptation is always to treat religious leaders as gurus or experts).

Congregants should look for ways in which congregational worship draws them into the full range of biblical postures before God. Perhaps one posture is more natural—say, sorrow in confessing sin. It’s appropriate to pray and sing and, yes, to feel that sorrow and contrition deeply. But the Bible calls us also to peace and assurance, and congregants ought to lean prayerfully into the liturgical leadership that calls them to know freedom and experience the cleansing work of Christ and the empowering grace of the Spirit.

Pastors should lean against their preferences and familiar places and search out all that the Bible says should be taught from God or prayed and sung to God. In this respect, pastors need to avoid making worship or sermons about what fits their own story—say, as a prodigal come home to God’s people. They need to let the whole counsel of God set the diet for their people’s worship and their edification through teaching. Anything less will be anemic.

JS: So, Scripture is God’s word to his Spirit-gathered people. I can imagine someone thinking, what else do I need then? Does sola scriptura mean that Christians should not, or cannot, learn anything from other “secular” sources—classical authors, other religious writings, scientific studies, and so on?

MA: The Bible alone is our final authority for faith and practice. Two things do not follow from this claim. First, this does not mean that the Bible is the only authority for that which relates to our faith and practice. Confessions and hymns, sermons and lessons, recitations and liturgies all play a role in passing on the “faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).

Second, this doesn’t mean that the Bible is the only source for all human knowledge. The Bible is “about everything,” as John Webster would regularly say, but it isn’t “about everything about everything.” The Bible speaks of how all things relate to God “for from him, through him, and to him are all things” (Rom. 11:36).

There is no nook or cranny of human existence—neither the cosmos nor the self—that isn’t addressed by this living word. But there’s plenty of all sorts of things that aren’t addressed as such in this word. The Bible does not offer a medical account of human biology. The Bible does not offer a political philosophy or an account of phlegmatics. To learn various disciplines and to glean all sorts of other facts or wisdom, we need to turn to other sources. To glean the relation of all of them to the living and true God, however, we turn to the Bible.

Take psychology as an example. The Bible speaks authoritatively about how every aspect of the human is created by God, depraved in sin, and in need of the redemptive work of Christ. The Bible even speaks to some of the particularities of each of those truths. But the Bible does not describe the way in which neuropathology plays out, and we’re wise to glean from brain science to better understand aspects of human life and experience.

We probe the science on its own grounds as well as to see how it comports with Christian doctrine, but we really do learn from that kind of empirical study certain truths about the human being that the prophets and apostles do not purport to address. That Christian engagement of science can go badly in no way disproves its importance; in fact, Christian exegesis of Scripture can go awry, but we rightly keep reading the Bible.

We need the fear of the Lord as the foundation of any wisdom we’ll pursue, but we are then called to seek out knowledge related to all the Lord’s doings—not just redemption, but also creation and providence. The Bible helps orient and recalibrate us so we can engage faithfully in such studies of other disciplines. In this way, tending to the Book of Scripture helps shape us to attend fruitfully to the Book of Nature.

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