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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

What is Sola Scriptura? Is the protestant interpretation a monolith?

Solo vs Sola:

Sola Scriptura seems to have 2 different interpretations. One was developed by the magisterial Reformers like Luther & Calvin, while the other was developed by the Anabaptists.

The Reformed Protestant Keith A. Mathison calls the Magisterial protestant position "Tradition I", and the Anabaptist view "Tradition 0".

In his view:

tradition 0 = Solo scriptura


tradition 1 = Sola scriptura

It was hard for me to skim the book to see how he defined tradition 1, but this is what I found:

Tradition 1
"Scripture is the authority, but it must be interpreted according to the apostolic regula fidei. As noted by G.L. Prestige, "The voice of the Bible could be plainly heard only if its text were interpreted broadly and rationally, in accordance with the apostolic creed and the evidence of the historical practice of Christendom." In a number of historical studies, the church historian Heiko Oberman describes the characteristics of this early patristic position. As he explains, this one source concept of "tradition" has two primary qualities:

1. The immediate divine origin of tradition togther with the insistence on a clearly circumscribed series of historical acts of God in the rule of faith or the rule of truth.

2. The rejection of extra-scriptural tradition.

For the sake of clarity, Oberman terms this "single exegetical tradition of interpreted scripture 'Tradition I'."
page 32 [1]

and this from pages 237-238

" In the 1980s and early 1990s, a controversy erupted among dispensationalists which came to be referred to as the Lordship Salvation controversy. On one side of the debate were men such as Zane Hodges and Charles Ryrie who taught a reductionistic phrase justification by faith alone and removed it from its overall theological context. Faith was reduced to little more than assent to the truthfulness of certain biblical propositions. Repentance, sanctification, submission to Christ's Lordship, Love, and perseverance were all said to be unnecessary for salvation. Advocates of this position claimed that it was the classical Reformation position taught by Martin Luther and John Calvin. On the other side of the debate was John MacArthur who argued that these men were clearly abandoning the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone. In addition to the books written by the primary dispensationalist participants, numerous Reformed theologians wrote books and articles criticizing this alteration of the doctrine of sola fide. A heated theological controversy began which continues in some circles even to this day.

Ironically, a similar drastic alteration of the classical Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura has occured over the last 150 years, yet this has caused hardly a stir among the theological heirs of the Reformation, who have usually been quick to notice any threatening move against the Reformed doctrine of justification. So much time and effort has been spent guarding the doctrine of sola fide against any perversion or change that many do not seem to have noticed that the classical and foundational Reformed doctrine of sola scriptura has been so altered that is virtually unrecognizable. In its place Evangelicals have substituted an entirely different doctrine. Douglas Jones has coined the term solo scriptura to refer to this aberrant Evangelical version of sola scriptura."
[2] pages 237-238

If there was anything I left out by Keith in regards to tradition 1.....please feel free to correct me or fill in the gaps.

This is what he says about Tradition 0:
page 123

"These Radical Reformers insisted that not only was Scripture the sole infallible authority, but that it was the sole authority altogether. Secondary authorities such as the Church, the regula fidei, and the fathers were considered irrelevant at best. All that was necessary, according to these men, was the individual and his Bible. Each individual had the right to interpret the Scripture by himself and for himself."
[3] page 123


pages 125-126
"Finally a word must be said about the rationalist wing of the Radical Reformation. there were a number of men at this time who so elevated the role of reason and the right of the individual to interpret Scripture apart from the communion of saints and the ancient rule of faith that they rejected several aspects of traditional orthodox theology. Faustus Socinus, for example, rejected the doctrines of the diety of Christ, the Trinity, the atonement, original sin, predestination, and the resurrection of the body.
It would certainly be an oversimplification to argue that all of these various men and movements shared a common understanding of scriptural authority. It wouldbe grossly unfair, for example, to suggest that either Conrad Grebel or Menno Simons shared the theological views of Socinus or Servetus. Not all of these men were anti-Trinitarians. And not all of these men were apocalyptic revolutionaries. What they did have in common, although to varying degrees, was a radicalization of the principle of sola scriptura and a rejection of tradition in any form. As Mcgrath explains:

the magisterial Reformers adopted a positive approach to tradition, particularly the testimonia patrum, whereas the radicals, the fathers were an irrelevance in whatever manner seemed right to him or her.

Unlike the magisterial Reformers, who had sought to maintain a continuity with the ancient patristic Church, the radicals believed that they could do theology without reference to what the Church had confessed in the past. They believed that the magisterial Reformers had not gone far enough in their use of the sola scriptura principle. According to the radicals, the magisterial Reformers may have done away with many of the scholastic theological accretions, but they wrongly insisted on adhering to the creedal formulations of ancient Christianity.
Building on Oberman's terminology, Alister Mcgrath refers to the Anabaptist concept of Scripture and tradition as "Tradition - 0 a view which allows no role whatsoever to tradition. This is in contrast to "Tradition I", the position of the magisterial Reformers, a position which allowed for a traditional interpretation of Scripture."
[4] pages 125-126

So it seems to me that one embraces at least "some" of the early creeds and interpretations of the early church fathers, while the other does not. However in modern times, those who are accused of holding onto "solo scriptura" are open to looking at early creeds and the church fathers, but not when it comes to deciding doctrine nor authoritative when it comes to deciding "what is heresy" and "what is an essential" in modern times it seems as if there is a difference of "emphasis".

Those who hold to Sola scriptura will look to at least "some" of the ancient creeds and early fathers when it comes to "what is heresy" and "what is a christian essential".

The Anglican Dr. Alister Mcgrath, seems to come to a similar conclusion when it comes to the two different views of Sola Scriptura. In his book "Christianity's Dangerous Idea", he shows historically that when it came to the topic of the Arian heresy spreading among the Anabaptists, the magisterial protestants advocated at least some of the ancient creeds:

The Problem of Heresy for Protestantism

"Heresy" is one of the most ominous terms in the vocabulary of Christendom. The Christian usage of the word can be traced back to the New Testament itself, where it is used to designate a sect, faction, or grouping (see, for example, Acts 24:5; 28:22). Similarly, the great Jewish historian Josephus applies the term (airesis) to the three religious sects prevalent in Judea in his day: the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Esenes. At this stage, the term did not have the strongly negative associations that later developed; these, however, were not long in emerging.

By the second century, "orthodoxy" and "heresy" were emerging as significant ideas. The term "heresy" was used to designate deficient, and potentially vulnerable, understanding of the Christian faith that were to be rejected. The identification of heresy was seen as a corporate judgment by the church that rested on a consensus that such views were unsatisfactory, fallacious, and misleading. Yet it is essential to appreciate that heresies were ultimately unacceptable interpretations of the Bible.

This can be seen by considering the fourth-century movement known as Arianism, widely seen as the most important early Christian heresy. Arius and his followers held that Jesus of Nazerath could not be regarded as divine in any meaningful sense of the word. He was "supreme among God's creatures, "but a creature nonetheless. This doctrine was severely criticized by writers such as Athanasius of Alexandria for undermining the internal coherence of the Christian faith. Yet both Arius and Athanasius based their ideas on substantially the same biblical texts, which they interpreted in different ways.

The essence of heresy can therefore be located in flawed biblical interpretation. But who decided which biblical interpretations are flawed and which are orthodox? If all Christians have the right to interpret the Bible as they see fit, how can heresy be identified. let alone combated? If the Bible alone is the supreme rule of faith, how can any authority beyond that text be recognized as its authoritative interpreter? It is at this point that the distinctive approach of Protestantism encounters a seemingly formidabled obstacle, in that it seems to undermine the very idea of an authoritative interpretation of the Bible-in other words, the notion of orthodoxy.

This already significant problem was made acute by the unusual social and intellectual conditions of the sixteenth century, catalyzed by the spirit of inguiry of the Renaissance. This era of science and intelectual restlessness was marked by a determination to explore new options and reevaluate old ones. Some of these were local heterodoxies, whose ideas had little impact at the time, even though they may have caused frissons of intellectual anxiety. Among those, we may include the Italian village miller Domenico Scandella from the mountain village of Montereale, who took the view that the world arose from chaos, just as "cheese is made out of milk, and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels." A surge of alternative viewpoints emerged, posing a powerful challenge to the religious and political stability of late Renaissance Europe. The authorities, political and religious, did what they could to limit their impact by branding such ideas as magic or heresy. Among these new movement, of course, was Protestantism itself-or perhaps we should say, many of the various tributaries that flowed into its vortex.
From its outerset, Protestantism was branded as a heresy by the Catholic church. Protestants responded with indignation, retorting that they had recovered orthodoxy from its medieval distortions. What was Protestantism if not the recovery of the orthodox faith of the early church? Yet Catholics had little difficulty in arguing that, while Protestantism might be perfectly capable of recovering earlier biblical interpretations, it lacked the means to determine whether it had retrieved was orthodox or heterodox. And lacking any such capacity to discriminate between such interpretations, Protestants were obligated to repeat the judgments of the Catholic church on these matters. In their turn, Protestants argued that, since they were committed to restoring the authentic teaching of the early church, this naturally extended to its views on orthodoxy and heresy. In the end, the arguments were not decisive. However, the debate highlighted the potential danger for Protestantism arising from competing biblical interpretations. Who had the right to decide which were orthodox and which heretical?
This led to a further difficulty as divisions emerged within Protestant constituencies. Itself partly a consequence of the intellectual ferment of the Renaissance, Protestantism found that it could not check this innovative and critical tendency within its own ranks. It had merely been relocated, not neutralized. One particular difficulty was the rise of anti-trinitarianism in Italian Protestant circles, a movement that rapidly gained a following in northern Europe. For Juan de Valdes and others, the doctrine of the Trinity was simply not to be found in the Bible, nor could it be defended on biblical grounds. Protestants who were faithful to the Bible not only were therefore under no obligation to accept this doctrine but had a responsibility to challenge it as a distortion of biblical truth. Forced out of Italy by the Inquisition, many anti-trinitarians settled in the independent republic of the Grisons in southeast Switzerland, where their influence upon Reformed Protestantism began to grow.
In this case, Protestantism was able to deal with such heterdox trends by appealing to the consensus of faith of the church, as set out in the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon. Christianity as a whole had declared such teachings to be heretical; Protestantism thus endorsed this pattern of traditional teaching and, in doing so, rejected anti-triniterianism as heretical. But what of other dissident voices within Protestantism that urged teachings that had never been declared heretical in the past by the church as a whole but were nevertheless regarded with intense animosity within certain sections of the movement?" [5] pages 227-229

Reformed protestantism isn't united when it comes to the views of Keith A. Mathison and his book "the shape of Sola Scriptura". Some feel it is too close to Rome.

And a Roman Catholic lay apologist friend of mine feels that the "sola Scripturist acknowledgment of the role of tradition in interpreting the Bible is really nothing more than lip service."

And that "if a Protestant is free to dissent from this or that element of tradition whenever he sees fit -- then ultimately, tradition is no rule of faith at all. In the end, it really is just him and his Bible and he is really no different from the solo scripturist at all. ........... the solo scripturist has simply taken sola scriptura to it's logical conclusion."

Eventhough the "rule of faith" version of sola Scriptura is alot closer to us than the Anabaptist one is. What my Roman Catholic friend said very well maybe the case for alot of protestants.......even for those that refuse to admit that Sola Scriptura has more than one interpretation. For the Anabaptists are protestants too, and so their interpretation is just as valid as the magisterial one.........when it comes to the issue of what is and isn't Sola Scriptura.

[1] page 32,[2] pages 237-238,[3] page 123 from the book,[4] pages 125-126 "The Shape of Sola Scriptura" by Keith A. Mathison

[5] pages 227-229 from the book "Christianity's Dangerous Idea" by Dr. Alister Mcgrath, HarperOne @ 2007

Related topic:

Differences in Sola Fide and Sola Scriptura


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