Today is the feast of Richard Hooker – a good day to reflect on the concept that the Bible alone is sufficient to determine what ought to be believed – sola scriptura. As far as I can ascertain the term goes back to Martin Luther, a sixteenth century human construct, philosophically in the early modern period of human history. Luther’s own high degree of confidence in the sole sufficiency of individualised Biblical reading was soon shattered even in his own lifetime when others started reading the Bible quite differently and found teachings there significantly different to what Luther himself read there.
The concept of “scripture only” is nowhere found in the scriptures. The scriptures regularly point readers beyond the list of scrolls. The scriptures do not present the concept of a coherent whole or closed canon. Furthermore, parts of the Bible quote from documents as if they are to be regarded as scripture – whereas these documents do not form part of our current canon!
2 Timothy 2:2 “what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well.”
2 Thessalonians 2:15 “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.”
1 Timothy 3:15 “if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”
and so on…
The Early Church had no concept of sola scriptura, in fact could not have such a concept as there was no fixed canon. Hence, as sola scriptura is not part of “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3) how can it form part of orthodox Christianity?
It is the early, undivided church which recognises the work of God’s Spirit in certain scrolls and holds them as providing God’s word within the ongoing life of the church. Richard Hooker argues against the puritan position of sola scriptura bringing reason and the tradition of the church into the dialogue. The councils of the undivided church clearly hold a special place in the life of the church. (As an aside, the FOCA’s Jerusalem Declaration “uphold the four Ecumenical Councils”. They give no indication which four they refer to, nor why they stop at four?! Normal church historians recognise seven ecumenical councils of the undivided church.)
Even the most casual examination of Christianity will underscore the failure of the puritan experiment and the inherently illogical nature of the Bible-alone position. People who actually claim sola scriptura disagree with other people who also claim sola scriptura about what we should believe – to the most fundamental issues. There are hundreds, no thousands of different Christian groups all claiming they have the correct beliefs, and all claiming that their beliefs are based on the Bible alone. This demonstrates, in the five centuries of its existence, sola scriptura cannot be made to work in practice. You can just about think of any crazy belief, and you can probably find a Bible verse to support it – and if you cannot find a group that supports your crazy belief, you can easily start one up and I’m sure you will soon find other people joining your new Bible-only believing group.
One of the scandals, certainly of English-speaking Christianity, is the dissatisfaction by some Christians with excellent biblical translations, and their financing of new “translations” which are not honest in following their declared purpose and method, but rather produce “translations” of the Bible to support a certain personal opinion. Rather than having the scriptures determine their beliefs, these people have their beliefs determine their “translation” of the scriptures.
With the advent of post-modern philosophical understanding there has been the growing realisation and acknowledgement that where one stands determines what one sees. There is no such thing as one objective reading on scriptural material. This is not a bad thing nor need it be the source of any scandal. It is merely a fact. One that would have been plain in the early church and one that poses no problem when it is understood, acknowledged and we respond together accordingly – hopefully a little more knowingly, and certainly a little more humbly.