One caricature of Sola Scriptura often sketches the Protestant doctrine as problematic on the grounds that since many people read the Bible and come away with different interpretations, it is necessarily (even if unintentionally) an individualistic doctrine. When it comes down to it, Protestants submit to themselves and their personal interpretations and not to Christ or His Church.
Now, to be fair, there is a small, sliver of truth in the caricature — which is why the caricature can seem persuasive. But there’s a significant problem with this caricature as well which is a significant distortion of the actual doctrine and therefore it is, as they say, untrue.
And the center of the problem rests squarely on the question: What is Scripture? The Christian answer to that question is that it is the Word of God. Scripture is inspired by God, breathed out by the Spirit (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Now this doesn’t guarantee universal clarity and consensus, but it does set any differences of opinion in a particular framework and context. God chose to speak to His people through a written medium. Various parts of Scripture were originally preached, proclaimed, and announced out loud, but the law and testimony was over the centuries written down, such that even Jesus Himself came preaching and teaching not merely on His own authority, but rather on the basis of “It is written…” and in order to “fulfill the Scriptures.”
Frequently, the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic apologists seem to think that there is an inherent weakness in written Scripture. It’s unclear, it’s ambiguous, it’s insufficient, and many heretics claim their heresies on the basis of Scripture — therefore, it’s dangerous. But going all the way back to Moses (at least), God has been telling His people to write His words down. The written record of God’s word is a design feature and not an unfortunate defect. In other words, whatever may be unclear or ambiguous, God is not worried about it and otherwise assumes that what He says is sufficiently clear and intelligible.
And this is the point: it only makes sense to conclude that Sola Scriptura ultimately rests on the opinions of individual people if God is not actually speaking through His written word and if that word is not objective. But if God is actually speaking through His written word in the precise way He intended to, in a way that can be understood, and objectively known, with sufficient clarity, then Sola Scriptura does not rest on the opinions of individual men. Some men refuse to submit to the Word of God, and some parts of the Word of God are hard to understand, and some men twist Scripture to their own destruction (2 Pet. 3:16). But this is not a defect in the Word of God. It is a defect in the hearts of men. Note carefully: Peter doesn’t say that since some Scripture is hard to understand, you should not try to understand the Bible yourself but rather let the Church or Tradition tell you. No, rather, Peter exhorts Christians to be patient and careful and grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 3:14-18). In other words, Peter exhorts Christians to study harder, pray harder, love deeper, etc. And to be clear: of course that includes the Body of Christ, the Church, and the truth that the Spirit has already led us to understand and embrace.
The point is that Scripture is sufficient. Scripture is God’s Word and it speaks sufficiently clearly. Because Scripture is God’s word to man, the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:17). Even when it is difficult to understand, the Spirit invites us to patiently wrestle with it. But all the most necessary information is clearly set forth. It is not fuzzy. It is not unclear. If the Bible says that Jesus died and rose from the dead on the third day according to the Scriptures, there is nothing ambiguous about it. All men must stand before this Word and either submit and believe or else rebel and deny it. But submission to what the Scriptures clearly say is not a matter of individualistic interpretation. It’s a matter of objective meaning and truth.
As it turns out, the places where opinions diverge tend to be those places where traditions diverge, but these are not (for the most part) on matters central to the gospel. Otherwise, you accuse the apostles of messing up massively, and if you do that, you accuse Jesus of gross failure to train His men well enough for the job (Acts 1:2, 8). But this diversity of opinion of interpretation within the Church means that Jesus intended His holy, catholic, and apostolic Church to be a diverse place, a body of believers committed to the core tenets of the gospel as articulated in the Scriptures with a significant diversity of traditions beyond that. But again, this is not an unfortunate defect; this is a design feature. The God who wrestled with Jacob and sparred with Job and sent His Son into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil, is the same God who poured His Spirit out on the Church to lead her into all truth. Scribes and Pharisees are always nervous about the messiness of this process, and accuse the Spirit of relativism and individualism. But there is only One Lord Jesus Christ, one God and Father of us all, and One Holy Spirit who binds us all into One. There is one baptism, one cup, one loaf, and we all partake of that unity.
Sola Scriptura is not the camel’s nose of individualism or relativism under the side of the ecclesiastical tent, but the sliver of truth in that caricature is that God apparently does love the myriad of gifts and perspectives that individuals bring to His Body. This is not relativism, but this is Truth that relates, Truth that incarnates, Truth that got born in a barn and later grew a beard. This Truth is fixed and abides forever, and it is Truth that frees and liberates all men everywhere to grow up into the glorious unity and diversity inherent in His Word.
Pastor Sumpter, thanks for this post!
One of the questions I’m forced to wrestle through, is whether or not I am allowed and where I am allowed (based on the sufficiency of Scripture) to call a church a “false church”. Throughout the New Testament we are warned of false prophets. Of course, we have to be super careful what church we call a false church, but I’m wondering if there are traditions that depart far enough from the sufficiency of Scripture, that we can legitimately call them a “false church”?
Nathan, seems like we start where the Scriptures are clearest. So for example 1 John 4 says to test the spirits to see whether they are from God, and by this you know the Spirit of God: “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist…” (1 Jn. 4:1-3) So JWs and Mormons are “false churches” for sure. Paul tells the Galatians that some distort the gospel so badly that it becomes “another gospel” and that’s anathema. We ought to study carefully exactly what Paul is talking about and apply that carefully, but that is certainly a Scriptural ground for identifying a church that has left the authentic Christian tradition.
john mosher says
Nathan, for a short time my wife and I attended a church where there was no financial accountability and then one day he got up and said he had had a “vision.” Well the “vision” wasn’t biblical so we left. Just my 2 cents.
“But this diversity of opinion of interpretation within the Church means that Jesus intended His……holy, catholic, and apostolic Church to be a diverse place” – somethings missing here
Ha. Good catch… though in my defense, I’d like to think that “the Church” implies the “one.”
Thanks, Pastor Sumpter! I guess this gets into a bigger discussion and a little more “hot water”. But if I were to call the Roman Catholic Church a “false church,” that would really get me into hot water. Which I don’t mind too much, because as an institution they still haven’t fully revoked Trent. Of course, I understand that a lot of good authors come out of the Roman Catholic Church, and I know a lot of sincere Christians in the Roman Catholic Church, who I look up to and hold in esteem. But I don’t just think one way is better than the other, or even deny the diversity of the church, but I would say that the Roman Catholic Church (as an institution) is wrong because they haven’t fully revoked Trent, and they still have a Pope.