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“Sola Scriptura” Meaningless

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Those who believe in sola scriptura (“Scripture alone”) cannot agree amongst themselves what this concept actually means.

For some the Bible does not just point to God’s revelation, or tell the story of God’s revelation – the Bible is God’s revelation. “Tradition” for these people is nothing more than the history of interpreting the Bible.

For others only that which the Bible enjoins is allowed in faith and practice. For others still, the Bible is the final arbiter of faith and practice. For yet others, the Bible contains all that is required for salvation.

Then there are those who interpret Scripture apart from its historical and theological context.

All these claim the term sola scriptura, a term, of course, not found in the Bible.

Yet others make the term so broad that all fall under its aegis. For them sola scriptura is merely the term used for Christians using the Bible. For them Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholics have all always adhered to sola scriptura.

The Bible, of course, does not list what is in the Bible and what is not – a point lost on many who use the term sola scriptura. The Bible alone is not enough to determine the question, are the Books of Maccabees in the Bible or not?

The fact is well known that using the Bible alone leads to ever-multiplying divisions within Christianity, divisions of people often strongly (and sometimes violently) opposed to each other. Fundamental basic Christian doctrines such as who to baptise and how one joins the church are disputed (not to even mention the nature of God or Jesus…).

Furthermore, the Bible has been used to justify apartheid, slavery, sexism, and other inhumane practices. The regular response is that the Bible is perfect, but it is we sinful, imperfect humans who misinterpret its clear message. Such a Bibliodicy seems to believe in a rather second-rate god. Anyone running a website knows that one needs to design it from the user’s perspective – if the purpose of the Bible is to be the sole source for faith and practice of sinful, imperfect humans, then, in order to be fit for that purpose, it should be produced in such a way as to be usable.

Martin Luther is not as sola scriptura as some:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony from scripture or by evident reason—for I confide neither in the Pope nor in a Council alone, since it is certain they have often erred and contradicted themselves—I am held fast by the scriptures adduced by me, and my conscience is held captive by God’s Word, and I neither can nor will revoke anything, seeing it is not safe or right to act against conscience. God help me. Amen.

Luther did confide in Popes and councils – but not alone. “Evident reason” is an authority for Luther. Conscience holds authority, “it is not safe or right to act against conscience”.

So many holders of sola scriptura would differ from Luther’s.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

An important final point: Those who proclaim loud and strong that they hold to sola scriptura do not necessarily read more of the Bible, nor uphold more Biblical teaching, or live more Biblically. Many who do not use “sola scriptura” to describe their approach to the Bible, or who even oppose using the term, read more of the scriptures, alone and aloud in the Christian assembly, treat it with the greatest devotion as the inspired Word of God, and live reverently according to what they understand it teaches.

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64 thoughts on ““Sola Scriptura” Meaningless”

  1. I am not clear at all what the point of your post is, Bosco.

    Is it that a term of theology is more flexible if not confusing than many users of it realise? SolaS would not be the only such term …

    Surely you are not browbeating against fellow Christians for some kind of perceived fault, are you? That would be a bit ‘ad hominem’; and also raises the question for me of why you are picking on us SolaS types. After all, many other Christians have faults. For instance, Sola Scriptura appears here to carry blame for disunity. Why not pick on the Trinity or the nature of Christ, for these have been much controverted and led to division (some pretty big ones at that!)? For that matter, liturgy itself is hugely divisive. And let’s not get started on understanding the eucharist as a cause for division 🙂

    In the end, I guess my biggest question is why the antagonism towards those who revere Scripture and seek with all their hearts and minds to read God’s Word in it?

    Highlight the differences of view among SolaS Christians, by all means. But how about reckoning with what unites us, a simple desire to hear the voice of God when we open the pages of God’s Word? (And I am NOT saying that desire is not shared by those who do not subscribe to SolaS).

    1. Your “biggest question”, Peter, pretty much points to my point, and your next paragraph answers it. I am encouraging of all who revere Scripture and seek with all their hearts and minds to read God’s Word in it. “Sola scriptura” then becomes a redundant, confusing term – a bit like “Bible-believing Christian”. Blessings.

  2. I’m writing my master’s dissertation on Spinoza’s Biblical Criticism in the Theological-Political Treatise. He insists that one should use scripture alone to interpret Scripture. His end result is very unlike those of his Calvinist targets, who, of course, claimed the sole authority of Scripture. There is always a hermeneutic.

  3. Put positively like that, Bosco, who could object!

    Sola Scriptura still has its uses, e.g. as a guard against those who would claim something else is ‘God’s Word’ (e.g. claiming the Spirit is speaking when the Spirit contradicts Scripture).

    1. I struggle to see, Peter, why “sola” is useful as such a guard. If one source of truth contradicts another source of truth that is an issue in any field. It seems too often that people can make the scriptures say many different things depending on what assumptions one brings to the texts. Blessings.

      1. Assumptions brought to the text/Spirit/church canons will affect all such claims to the truth. Sola Scriptura’s claim is fairly modest: the scriptures received by the church have a higher claim to authority in determining a truth claim than (say) my conviction that the Spirit has spoken to me or the church’s conviction that some decision or another is true (one could go through a list of beliefs where Protestants disagree with Catholics).

        When we do not appeal to Scripture in this way, then some other authority is normally invoked by Christians. DO you have a non-controversial alternative to put forward?

        1. The lack of acknowledgement of the personal bias that one brings to reading the scriptures, the lenses with which one approaches the plethora of its texts, and the fantasy that there is an “appeal to Scripture” that is neat/pure ie. “sola”, Peter, is precisely that: a fantasy. What seems to be more at work is people hiding their differing personal convictions behind nicely chosen biblical quotes, all served up prettily with a good coating of calling what they are doing “sola scriptura” and be they Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christadelphians, or NT Wright, they tell others they have been reading the scriptures wrong, and this reading of the texts is the correct one. Blessings.

          1. I remain, Bosco, at a loss to understand where you yourself find authority for theological decision-making. Given your arguments about the bias of Scripture readers, what is the authority you recommend?

          2. When you say, Peter, that you “remain” at this loss – I had not realised that this was what you were asking for. I am not sure that acknowledging the problems with an approach necessitates presenting a viable alternative. I think honesty about problems with the sola scriptura approach is of value as a post in itself. Are you now acknowledging agreement with my point(s), or are you continuing to hold to sola scriptura? If the former, then I can understand your desire to join me on a journey towards a better alternative; if the latter, I would be interested to know how you justify continuing to uphold sola scriptura and which of the many alternative versions of it you are upholding. Blessings.

    2. Did you have something specific in mind Peter? Is someone claiming that the Spirit has lead them to believe something to be good, which scripture says is bad or wrong?

      1. Hi David,
        On the specific matter of claiming the Spirit’s leading there have been/are ‘big issues’ so current debates about homosexuality see some invoke the Spirit with the counter of ‘but Scripture says’ [I mention this to describe an aspect of the debate, not to enter debate]; further back in history one might cite the enthusiastic and somewhat violent supporters of Muntzer in the Peasant Rebellion (Revolution?) in Reformation Germany.

        But smaller, more personal issues could be an individual claiming the Spirit’s leading to walk out on a marriage or to usurp leadership in a local church.

        1. It interests me, Peter, that walking out on a marriage would be seen in the sola scriptura context as being a “smaller, more personal issue”. Can you explain how the sola scriptura approach leads to this being such when the Bible seems to me pretty clear on marriage and divorce without ever explicitly mentioning homosexuality – which you see as a ‘big issue’ in the sola scriptura world. Blessings.

          1. Hi Bosco
            The larger issue is the potential (partially being realised around the globe) of whole church schisms taking place as disputes occurs as to what the Spirit is saying to the church. The smaller issue is also numerical around one or two or a small community being affected by one person’s Spirit-led decision-making.

            The larger/smaller distinction is not about what God views as more or less important.

          2. I would think it unfair, Peter, to paint your “larger issue” as being a conflict between “the Spirit’s leading” and “but Scripture says”. The Bible and its teachings informs various sides of the discussion, and, to stay on the track of this thread, highlights once again that sola scriptura will not resolve this “larger issue”. Blessings.

  4. Kia ora Bosco,

    Terms of exclusivity are usually required when there is a perceived threat. The question when looking at a theological term like “Sola Scriptura” is who is threatened by what.

    1. Hi Mike
      Typically the threat (or ‘threat’) is that which either adds to or subtracts from the message of salvation proclaimed through Scripture.

  5. Your excellent post would do a better job of provoking the constructive discussion you hope for if you would just change the opening sentence. It would be better to say “do not agree” than “cannot agree”. The former is obviously true but – given the surprising power of the Holy Spirit – the latter is not. I do not agree with those for whom sola scriptura means a narrow, Bible-belt adherence to proof texts, but is it impossible that they and I should ever move closer together in our understanding? Of course, I anticipate that will mean them moving towards me  , but I hold open the possibility that I might move closer to them if provided with sufficiently strong, Bible-informed arguments.

    The great Protestant theologians clearly did give weight to testimony from outside the scriptures – to Nicaea and Chalcedon, for instance, but to them, sola scriptura meant that each generation of the Church had the right and duty to re-evaluate those teachings in the light of the scriptures.

    Nevertheless, their doctrine of sola scriptura had a clear respect for tradition, too. (1) Paradoxically but not irrationally, they gave due weight to the Jewish and Church traditions that had defined what was and was not to be considered part of the canon. (2) Augustine, Athanasius and all the Church fathers had a rightful seat at the table in each new generation’s councils (whether literal councils or seminary classes or just “councils” of the mind). Thus, the eternal Church was to have a voice in each council, not just its members currently alive on earth.

    Sola scriptura provides a way for the Church to correct wrong turnings taken by earlier generations (including wrong-turnings that may have been taken by some in Protestantism) and also a way to retire traditions that were useful in their time but have passed their use-by date. By sola scriptura, I am convinced that slavery is wrong and that the ordination of women is right, just as I am still convinced that salvation is by grace alone and that works play just an evidentiary and not an instrumental role.

    That is my understanding of what sola scriptura actually meant and should still mean. If I understand the last paragraph of your post correctly, it approximates your own stance towards the rightful place of the scriptures. I believe that framework of understanding needs a convenient rubric and, unlike you, I don’t think it is right to abandon sola scriptura as fitting that need, thinking it redundant. Ceding the term to those on the extremes of Protestantism would reinforce their wrong-headed convictions and leave them free to trumpet, contrary to fact, that you and I have a low view of scripture.

    1. Thanks, Trevor, that is all very helpful, thoughtful, and thought-provoking. I wonder why the need for the “sola” in your wish to preserve the phrase? It seems to me that all you state is covered by the “scriptura”. Certainly I want to reinforce your final point – I cannot imagine a day going by without my studying, praying with, and from the scriptures – and it is my duty and my joy to share this discipline with others. Blessings.

      1. I think there remains a need for a term that neatly encapsulates the kind of view of scripture that we seem more or less to share, as a tool for concise and effective communication of that view. I don’t think that “scriptura” by itself sufficiently meets that need, though I agree that “sola scriptura” isn’t entirely apt, either.

        Picking up an idea from mike greenslade’s comment, the perceived threat in early Reformation days was from those who believed that tradition trumped scripture, hence the use of “sola scriptura” as an emphatic counter-statement. The error which “sola scriptura” opposed is less of an immediate threat now, but I still want a summary term that guards against that error.

        Ideally, though, I would also like the term to indicate rejection of the opposite error, the one that fails to give tradition its proper place at the council table. “Sola scriptura” only does half the job, but until some bright mind comes up with a replacement, I think it better to stick with “sola scriptura.”

      2. A further thought: how about “By scripture as supreme”? This would acknowledge the special place of scripture while implicitly acknowledging the place of other voices?

        1. Yes, Trevor, prima scriptura may better express what the Reformers intended to do in their use of scripture in their context. Our context is different (including their influence) and I’m not sure of the value of a catch cry like this. Blessings.

    2. Yours seem to be a word play. You want to interpret Father B’s use of cannot agree to mean will never agree. And when I read the phrase I thought that it meant do not agree.

      1. I initially read it as an absolute “cannot” and that coloured my reaction to the posting, until I had re-read it several times. “Do not” would have got me on the right track sooner.

  6. Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny? Not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s permission.

    I look around the world today


  7. Hmm… there is a term for blog-posts like this. It starts with ‘click’, and rhymes with ‘roaring’.

    “All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas
    or the world
    or life or death
    or the present or the future-
    all are yours,
    and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.”

        1. Wow, that’s just plain rude. The most popular religious website in NZ doesn’t have to resort to anything of the sort.

          Your mother should have taught you a few manners, knocked down your arrogance a peg or two, as well as, washed your mother out with soap.

  8. Ok, I’ll chime in.

    To me the focus on “sola scriptura” (whatever that concept may or may not mean) comes from a deep-seated need for certainty. Whether that be certainty in terms of making a decision or how to live one’s life (from moment to moment) or what God wants (or not) or any other type of certainty when it comes to facing the problems and quandries life constantly places in our path.

    And I write here to say that certainty is not something which God seems to think we should actually have. God gave us a brain, free will, yes, the Scriptures, the prophets, his Son, the Church, people around us, modern science, technologies, arts, crafts and so on. And God calls each one of us (“Come to me… all you…”). But, like Abraham, that call does not come with certainty. It really asks each of us to set out on an unexpected journey – in faith, in trust. But without an infallible guidebook, no matter how useful or comforting or goading is the Bible (in all its paradoxical complexity).

    I think what we have in the Bible is a huge amount of collected wisdom – written down over centuries, reworked in various ways, translated in terms of words, of images, and of inherited stories. Commented on. Meditated upon. Prayed over. Read. Heard. Attended to or ignored in equal proportions. (All of that written down too.)

    When we make use of scripture, we must also make use of our heads. Of commentaries. Of holy friends of God, over the centuries, who have imbibed its waters and lived lives in an effort to embody the truths found there. There is no saint, no one single truth that will ever provide absolute certainty based on “sola scriptura” (however you want to define it). It’s up to us to sift, to consider, to consult,to pray – and ultimately to act. Without complete certainty – other than, perhaps, a deep sense of peace that we are taking a leap of faith and trust in a good God, who loves us and will never leave us.

    Of that I am CERTAIN.

    1. I think Mary Ann has suggested something very pertinent, in bringing into the discussion our illicit demand for a certainty which, in much of our Christian walk, our Lord does not guarantee. However, I think that her insight might well be used to critique modern abuses of “sola scriptura” but not the use of that term in the Reformation itself.

      On one particular point we do have a right to God-given certainty – namely, in the matter of our own eternal salvation through the blood of Jesus. Many of the structures and practices of the pre-Reformation Church wrongly withheld that certainty from the faithful and its leaders would have continued to do so by claiming the authority of tradition to decide the matter rather than, Berean-fashion, searching the scriptures to see if the things claimed by Luther and others were so. “Sola scriptura” was therefore a rallying cry against a wrongful use of Church authority and tradition and not an illicit search for certainty. When used in that way, “sola scriptura” remains a valuable guard against any resurgence of the error.

      By the way, I am sure that many of the Anglo-Catholics who are following this discussion might want to correct me on the details of my admittedly broad-brush depiction of the pre-Reformation and Reformation states of affairs. However, I think we can all agree that the Reformers themselves saw the situation more or less as I have described it, so my point stands that they were not guilty of an illicit demand for certainty.

      1. Thanks, Trevor. I am trying to translate into the language and concepts you are using, but I am not at all convinced that the Bible teaches certainty of an individual’s eternal salvation – the once-saved-always-saved approach regularly touted. Phil 2:12 springs to mind. I find this video helpful. Its Orthodox approach sidesteps the Reformation debates. Blessings.

        1. I will be certain on your behalf, then, my brother! “I am confident that He who has begun a good work in your will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.” I think that I have seen enough of that good work in progress in you through what I have read in your blog, that it is reasonable for me to be sure that your faith is genuine and that the Holy Spirit is leading you forward in sanctification – you are indeed “being saved”. Therefore, it is also reasonable for me to be sure that at the Last Judgment you will also be among the saved, not those to whom the Lord says, “I never knew you.”

          I might be wrong about you, but only because my acquaintance with you is superficial. You know yourself acutely, however, and if you are aware in your prayers and your strivings and your confessions that this “being saved” is indeed afoot in your person and life, I believe you have a God-sanctioned right to certainty about your future estate.

          Now, let’s tie this back to the “sola scriptura” discussion. Of course, I know all the scriptures that might seem to say that we cannot be certain of our eternal salvation and of course I believe I know how they fit into the total doctrine of salvation. Obviously, you have a different view on at least some of those scriptures, but the important thing is that if we ever met to discuss them, we would both come with a commitment to “prima scriptura.” We would both want to bring the Church fathers to the table, and I would also like to invite John Calvin and John Owen, and we would listen respectfully to all of them, but in the end what we would hope for is a greater clarity of understanding of God’s revelation regarding these matters. If because of our human frailty we still disagreed at the end of the exercise, we would nonetheless be able to work fruitfully together in the Church because our commitment to “prima scriptura” means that neither of us will try to lord it over the other’s faith.

          The 16th century Church did not meet in that spirit the concerns raised by Luther and the later Reformers, so “sola scriptura” was a necessary and strategic battle-cry, to which you owe your present freedom to traverse the range of topics you do in your blog. Try time-travelling to the 16th century and post a selection of Liturgy blogs on the Wittenberg gate and see what happens to you! 🙂

      2. Trevor. This is not really a reply to your specific responses to my comment. But more a springboard that came to mind as I read your words.

        One of my favorite quotes about “scripture” comes from the Old Testament. It’s from Isaiah, Chapter 55. (I commend the entire chapter!)

        Here are the pertinent verses (from the Jewish Study Bible – let us not forget “our root” and those of Jesus):

        “For as the rain or snow drops from heaven
        And returns not there,
        But soaks the earth
        And makes it bring forth vegetation,
        Yielding seed for sowing and bread for eating,
        So is the word that issues from My mouth:
        It does not come back to me unfulfilled,
        But performs what I purpose,
        Achieves what I sent it to do.”

        Now this quote, I suggest, gives us a different perspective on “word” than the idea of “sola scriptura.” The quote is proceeded by a reminder that God’s ways are not our ways and His plans are not our plans. So we’re dealing with Mystery – in all of scripture. An active mystery. The word of God is active – like a two-edged sword. And the WORD “carries” its own “outcome”. So we could think of God’s word, I’m thinking this through as I write, in terms of not just spoken “to” us – for our minds to comprehend (since we’re really told (above) that such comprehension is way beyond what we can conceive. But that God’s word is truly spoken “in” us, “through” us (or “around us”) – also in ways we may never see until God’s word comes to its fulfillment (like that wonderful parable about the seed that grows unseen until its surprising harvest is ready).

        I think so often we need to be alert to that lively word – which is active. And so, maybe the best we can hope for is to fervently pray that for that word to become more and more active. And to trust in that. For the chapter ends with a comment that the “fulfillment of God’s purpose” (illustrated in terms of trees of the field clapping their hands and so on) “shall stand as a testimony to the Lord” – “an everlasting sign that shall not perish.”

        These are wonderful promises!

        1. Thanks, Mary-Ann: good words. I would add Isaiah 50:10 and 11, “Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the word of his servant? Let the one who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the Lord and rely on their God. But now, all you who light fires and provide yourselves with flaming torches, go, walk in the light of your fires and of the torches you have set ablaze. This is what you shall receive from my hand: You will lie down in torment.”

          Is not this dealing with the mystery of God and learning to adore him in it part of the “being saved” aspect of our salvation? However, I believe that in His mercy he gives us some foundational certainties that we can cling to while in the darkness: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29). It is no aid to sanctification to disbelieve the promises of God in one of those seasons when He has placed us, like Job, on an ash heap, in confusion and darkness. Yes, mystery; yes, His lively Word at work to hold and lead us (and He may choose to use some of the postings in your own beautiful blog as a catalyst sometimes for that); yes, a “being saved” progress in sanctification and adoration, but also some merciful basic certainties which I am grateful that the upholders of “sola scriptura” made clear to me. “Just as a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him. For He Himself knows our frame;
          He is mindful that we are but dust” (Psalm 103).

          1. I’m pretty much done with this, Trevor. However, having looked up the two verses, my translations suggest that the first verse speaks of persons or times when persons may be walking in darkness – and as such that suggests to me the 23rd Psalm and the Old Testament images of Darkness as one way God may manifest himself. So yes during such times we are never alone, we having nothing to fear.

            The next verse, however, suggests to me that there must have been some idolatrous practices of which God, through Isaiah, was warning. One could speculate that lighting ritual fires, for example, were akin to trying to control God’s presence. I’m thinking of the Burning Bush as such a wonderful image of God’s Presence. Yet attempts to create such a fire (that could burn but not consume) were like building a house for God, when God had not ordained that.

            If you’re “after” scripture speaking to the Mystery of God, I would instead refer you to the Book of Job (38:2-40:6) – near the end, where Job has railed against God and God comes in the whirlwind to ask him… in effect… “Who are you… to question Me?” And… following God’s appearance, questions, and statements Job is completely humbled, intellectually dumbstruck, and has no answer but to “repent in dust and ashes.”

            The Lord begins: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”

            And our response? Like Job: Humility, awe, a sense of our own nothingness in the face of such Holy Mystery mixed with wonder at the utter graciousness of a Loving God comes CLOSE.

  9. I agree, Bosco, that a post picking holes in a treasured church view has its own validity; but I think on the matter of treasured authority, it is worth asking what the alternative is. (One can pick holes in democracy to the point where it looks like the most stupid human invention; but no one seems to have a satisfactory alternative …).

    Yes, I am committed to sola scriptura (ss) in these ways (and this is just a sketch, if any one finds it inadequate):
    – as noted by Trevor here, it is the position viz a viz tradition (and the then malevolent authority of the church) which charted the course of Protestantism. I am Protestant and thus treasure this aspect of my heritage (notwithstanding some Protestant variations on sola scriptura which are questionable);
    – (incidentally, to not follow sola scriptura raises for me the question why I would not then become a Roman-aligned Catholic)
    – at heart, ss is about salvation and its proclamation: in Scripture alone is this message found
    – yet the message of salvation, proclaimed through Scripture, leads the church to receive (i.e. to have received and keep on receiving) Holy Scripture as God’s revelation with many other blessings re guidance for how we live as saved people, thus the church turns to Scripture to hear the voice of God. In our history as Christian people we have heard other claims to the voice of God, how are those claims to be assessed? ss is the position which places Holy Scripture, in the end, when our consultation with tradition and our conversation through reason is done, as the sole supreme authority over our life together;
    – I do not understand ss as a claim that on any given matter the Bible can be opened, searched and a verse here or a paragraph there cited arbitrarily, let alone triumphantly as ending the matter at hand. On the matter of understanding the Bible, even the Reformers sought to read the Bible in a reading community which included the past scholarship of respected teachers, notably the church fathers.

    1. Thanks, Peter.

      I am not sure if you have clarified which meaning of sola scriptura you are defending. I think you are pointing to your usage of this term in your penultimate point, but you continue to speak as if Holy Scripture is somehow objectively clear “when our consultation with tradition and our conversation through reason is done”, whereas I do not see this objective clarity of the scriptures, and the results of the sola scriptura position support my point and argue strongly against yours. To one side: I would have the scriptures informing all stages of “our consultation with tradition and our conversation through reason”.

      Yes, democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time, the same cannot be said about sola scriptura. This latter experiment has been tried and found sorely wanting.

      Mary Ann has started painting an alternative. Your suggestion that only Roman Catholicism is the alternative is about as logical as saying that because we know the earth is not flat it must be a cube. Eastern Orthodoxy, Old Catholicism, and Anglicanism does not adhere to sola scriptura, to name but three approaches.

      Your declaration that in Scripture alone is the message of salvation found is plainly false. The message of salvation was proclaimed before the New Testament documents were even written, and continued to be proclaimed alongside their texts, a tradition that continues to this day.


      1. Hi Bosco
        I was sketching out an approach! In the fuller coloured in sketch, yes, Scripture would be consulted at each step of the way.

        You make Sola Scriptura out to be a distinctly poor thing for being found wanting. But are the alternatives better? You have not yet argued that. How is Anglicanism, for instance, doing these days? It does seem rather divided. Roman Catholicism, pace Francis seems surprisingly open to changes in emphasis as popes come and go. Eastern Orthodoxy has its merits … though it is not beyond fracturing (cf. Oriental Orthodoxy), and it does seem a difficult way to engage the Bible in the 21st century.

        I am quite confused about your understanding of where the message of salvation lies today. Are you saying that there is an oral tradition re salvation which continues to this day? If so, I suggest it is an oral tradition that is under the authority of our written Scripture, not independent of it.

        1. I do not think in the binary options you provide, Peter: (i) oral tradition that is under the authority of our written Scripture or (ii) independent of it. I think the points in my post clearly show the inadequacy of “under the authority of our written Scripture”, and your repeated pointing to other problems elsewhere may be interesting and worth pursuing in other threads, but this has not responded to a single issue that I brought up.

          Tradition is not just oral, and it is not independent of our scriptures.


          1. Let me attempt to reply to some issues you raise:
            1. agreed, the phrase ss is not found in the Bible; the Bible does not contain a list of its own books; many ss adherents have divided and divided again; etc. You have made a number of incontrovertible criticisms.
            2. Disagreed: when you then conclude the phrase is meaningless. Above I have tried to show why it is a meaningful phrase, to my satisfaction, but, it would seem, not to yours.
            3. I stand by my adherence to the authority of Scripture: if you or I or the oral tradition or written tradition of the church or other claimant preach a gospel of salvation which is in discord with the gospel of salvation proclaimed in Scripture, then Scripture’s version is the true, abiding and authoritative one. (On which point I think, as an Anglican, I am in accord with the 39A).
            4. I wonder if the main problem with ss, woven through your critique, is the apparent inadequacy of Scripture to sort out when apparently Scripture disagrees with Scripture or one reader disagrees with another reader of Scripture? (The answer to which question is a bit long for this comment).
            5. I quite agree that ss advocates should not talk and act as though we are the only ones who reasd Scripture in some kind of serious manner. Clearly that is not the case: there are many serious readers of Scripture around the globe and throughout the churches.
            6. I am left wondering, however, why a serious reader of Scripture such as yourself is taking such pains to find all the faults known to man in the ss position and then conclude that it is meaningless? Might one not expect a more empathetic appreciation of the ss approach from a serious reader of Scripture?

          2. I do not think you have covered a concrete example of how sola scriptura works concretely from any example I gave in my post, but leave that to one side. Once again, Peter, it seems to me you constrain things into a binary possibility, as if those who do not hold to sola scriptura thereby deny scripture’s authority.

            An analogy: a builder of houses loves his hammer and uses it with agility. Along with his many other tools, and his trusty hammer, he builds quality houses. New builders arrive proclaiming loud and long that the other tools are not necessary – you can build houses with a hammer alone. The results, obviously, are a disaster. But they continue to proclaim – it’s not the fault of the hammer – we just have to work harder using the hammer alone better. Build houses by the hammer alone!!! And now you, as a hammer-alone person are left wondering why a serious lover of the hammer such as myself is taking such pains to find all the faults known to man in the hammer-alone position and then conclude that it is meaningless. Might one not expect a more empathetic appreciation of the hammer-alone approach from a serious lover of the hammer?


  10. “But smaller, more personal issues could be an individual claiming the Spirit’s leading to walk out on a marriage or to usurp leadership in a local church.” – Dr. Peter Carrell –

    You mean, Peter, like the gafcon tendency to plant its own leaders into the territory of TEC – over adiaphoral matters of gender and sexuality?

    I agree, that this is a strong case of ‘Sola Scriptura that proves the danger of such a code.

  11. Re the Spirit’s leading, Bosco:

    My original post said ‘some invoke the Spirit’.

    I am well aware that the debate is often, even mostly as people discuss Scripture. But there is a contribution to the debate which is along these lines (in my own summarising words): ‘despite what Scripture says, we now know that the Spirit is leading us in a new direction …’.

    1. I am not sure how this point of yours adds anything to this thread, Peter. Such an approach can be found in relation to infant baptism, slavery, charging interest, war, the death sentence, ordaining women, divorce and remarriage, etc. Blessings.

  12. Hi Bosco
    No, I am not trying to deny that non-ss do not invoke Scripture as authority; but am asserting ss look to Scripture as supreme authority.

    Concrete example remains the invoking of Scripture to challenge the accretion of a-gospel developments in the tradition/customary life of the church. Notably at Reformation. Still today the gospel is threatened by the church (e.g. prosperity gospel, modern versions of Pelagianism).

    Yr analogy re hammer applies to a version of ss which would ignore if not burn all other theological books. That is not version I am arguing for here. My related analogy would be of the building inspector as the church builds its life: is it the Pope and magisterium or synods/councils or popular opinion or … or Scripture.

    Obviously there is much more to be said. I am not sure that comments serve to develop the debate beyond the point we have reached!

    1. Thanks, Peter.

      I must say even after my morning cup of coffee I’m struggling to translate your “No, I am not trying to deny that non-ss do not invoke Scripture as authority”.

      Those advocating “the prosperity gospel and modern versions of Pelagianism” do so using the Scriptures, and regularly would proclaim themselves as sola scriptura as you are.

      Your creation of your own analogy continues in the mistaken illusion that Scripture is somehow objectively clear in its “building inspection” in the manner of a paper pope. It is not. The pope would be clear: “change the width of this door to 1 metre.” Those reading the scriptures end up arguing that it should be 850mm or 1015mm, and some that there shouldn’t even be a door here at all. All based on the same collection of scriptures.


      1. Whoops, Bosco, that should have been less one negative: “”No, I am not trying to deny that non-SS do invoke Scripture as authority.” Clearly my coffee wasn’t strong enough this morning 🙂

        Re the door and its width: there is actually a lot more agreement between ss proponents than you allow for; but perhaps I will make that a post on ADU sometime.

        Best wishes

        1. Thanks, Peter.

          I hope you deal with the couple that have come up here in the agreement of sola-scriptura proponents: the disagreement between sola-scriptura proponents about the prosperity gospel, the disagreement between sola-scriptura proponents about who can be baptised, how, and its connection with church membership. And also how sola-scriptura proponents proceed in such disagreement when they cannot accept that there is anything else but scripture to which they can make their reference in such decisions (or obviously it ceases being sola).


  13. Postscript, Bosco, to last comment above: I heartily endorse Trevor’s comment when he says, “Try time-travelling to the 16th century and post a selection of Liturgy blogs on the Wittenberg gate and see what happens to you! :)”.

    We free-thinking Anglicans in the Western tradition are in the position we are in because the Reformers advanced the solas to defy the theological destructive direction of the papal church. That is why I raised a question above about denying ss: why would I not then become a Roman Catholic? For that would be the form of church I as a Western Christian would be stuck in, without the Reformation. (However I stress the “I” – I ask the question of myself, not of others. Each to their own view on this …)

    1. Yes, Peter. We live in today’s world because of those yesterdays. But this does not mean that therefore yesterday’s approaches apply directly to today’s context. Blessings.

  14. It seems to me that some of the folks claiming to support SS are actually supporting Prima Scriptura (PS) instead, and then are simply equating their practiced version of PS with SS, retaining an inaccurate label.

    It strikes that SS is (1) impossible and (2) not a standard that the Bible, the NT in particular even meets.

    The very fact that SS has lead to over 30,000 variants of interpretation shows that scripture is not the only thing at play in any of the instances. Everyone reads scripture through their own lenses, produced by their experience, education, culture, and cognitive capabilities. The problem is compounded when one reads (as do I, to be frank) the scriptures in translation.

    All translation entails interpretation. Much more often than not there is not a specifically congruent word in the target language to represent the source language. The translator(s) read the original and based upon their linguistic, cultural, and religious background make a choice of word or phrase in which to document the original words. Do they use a technically literal approach (word for word) or a dynamically literal approach (attempt to take idiomatic expressions and make a similar point in the target language, that is not a literal translation of the words)?

    SS seems to not acknowledge the space that exists between the reader and the text nor the cognitive process that produces what the reader believes the Bible is saying. When someone says “Scripture says…” unless they are directly quoting the text, in the original language, they are actually mistaking what their inference is, based upon their reading (often based upon the inference of the translators). Inference is not scripture, it is an operation of the human mind. Don’t get me wrong, I think inference and logic are necessary when interacting with scripture, but to equate the operation of the mind of a particular person with scripture is disingenuous and dangerous.

    Taking the Gospels as an example, we have four separate narratives, all of which have different themes and details, sometimes subtle. You have two accounts of the Sermon on the Mount. In Luke the “poor” are blessed and in Matthew the “poor in spirit” are blessed. Poor is not the same as poor in spirit. If we run with a really SS hermeneutic, were there two separate speeches and the two derivative synoptics left the other one out? (In my admittedly limited experience, I’ve not seen this stance presented) Do we think that Luke left an important qualifier off the “poor” beatitude, thus denigrating Luke’s account? Do we think that Matthew added a qualifier to blunt the explicitly economic nature of Luke’s account, thus denigrating Matthew’s account?

    The synoptics put the cleansing of the temple at the end of Jesus’s ministry, and consequently a probable, at least in part, event that precipitated his execution. John puts it at the beginning (interestingly enough, just before Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus, which puts that convo in a context that is not typically acknowledged). Did the cleansing happen at the end, like in the synoptics, or the beginning like in John? Or, did it happen twice (an inference), which NONE of the gospels seem to indicate? Which is the SS interpretation?

    On the NT authors…. Paul quoted pagan philosophers in his epistles, and even quoted pagan religious texts when preaching on Mars Hill. He cited Jewish tradition as authoritative when he spoke of the rock that was Christ, as it followed the children of Israel. That’s a story that is not in scripture that he considered authoritative enough to cite to make his point. The epistle of Jude quotes the book of Enoch in a similar way, as an authoritative account of something that had happened, in order to make his point. These authors would fail to meet the descriptor of SS in their theological writing and preaching.

    I’m not in any way attempting to open up a purely subjectivist hermeneutic. I do not believe that all interpretations are valid, but I do believe that truth is multivocal rather than univocal (which appears to be a necessary assumption for SS). There is a reason there are four gospels, and not just one. They all represent teaching traditions that vary on themes and details, but all follow Jesus. They are not representatives of infinite variation, but rather transfinite variation (eg. How many numbers exist between 1 and 2? If you move out one more decimal place you open up 10 more variants, and then you can move out one more place after that. That being said, the numbers between 1 and 2 will never be more than 2 or less than 1. The set it bounded, but it is infinite in variation).

    SS, if we actually take it at its face value, says there is only one voice to listen to. The problem is that there is not just one voice. Everyone listens to a multitude of voices, of which scripture is hopefully the primary, it’s just that some folks listen to those voices, synthesize them into one voice in their own head, and then call the one voice in their own head ss.

    Hopefully I’ve been respectful enough and avoided inflammatory rhetorical devices to the degree this conversation has demonstrated and deserves.

    1. Thanks, Patrick. I am reading a book at the moment (I may review it another time) looking at one chapter in the Bible. I have reasonable agility with the original languages, but it is clear(er) that I bring cultural biases to my understanding of the original words. Stripping off my lenses and trying to see the text again as the earlier readers heard it is difficult, and sometimes impossible, work. Blessings.

  15. I think we are making good and useful progress in this discussion, Patrick Boatman’s being the latest diamond. I think it may even be able to reach an agreement over which we may all extend the right hand of fellowship.

    1) Can we agree that “sola scriptura” was – as a matter of historical fact – used as a banner in the struggle to get a fair hearing for a doctrinal point of view that (if true) was vitally important, but which was treated with authoritarian dismissiveness by the 16th century Church?

    2) Can we agree, even if we think the Reformers were wrong in others of their views, that the struggle for that fair hearing – i.e., the willingness to take the debate back to the scriptures and not just to the Fathers – was important?

    3) Can we agree that we ourselves have benefited and continue to benefit from the outcome of that particular struggle, despite disagreement we may have with others of the points for which the Reformers were campaigning?

    4) I think that we already do agree that the Reformers themselves did not apply “sola scriptura” in the narrow way that some in modern Protestantism do, but in fact allowed other voices to be heard, albeit always in the context of the supremacy of scripture. See, for example, the first three sentences of the Epitome of the Formula of Concord, Summary, Rule and Norm, or Article 36 of the Thirty-Nine Articles, or the times that John Calvin approvingly quotes from the Fathers in his writings, or the Westminster Confession of Faith XXI:IV.

    5) I also think we agree that it is an abuse and harmful to the process of “being saved” to use “sola scriptura” to shut down discussion and obtain certainty in situations where our God has not actually given it, or to lock in some denominational interpretation of the scriptures and not be willing to test and retest it in the company of all the saints.

    6) I also think we agree with Patrick Boatman that the process of scriptural interpretation is actually a difficult one because of linguistic problems and our personal biases.

    If we do have substantial agreement on those points, can we also therefore agree:
    (1) We will honour the term “sola scriptura” for its historic value though not for its later abuses, but
    (2) We will among ourselves use the term “prima scriptura” and advocate for it as better describing the place of scripture within the wider dynamics of a full-orbed, Church-connected, living hermeneutical process? (Bosco argued earlier that “scriptura” alone should suffice, and his argument has merit, but I still strongly believe that we need the qualifier for the practical purpose of communicating effectively what we mean. Why raise an unnecessary barrier to being heard?)

    1. Excellent, thanks, Trevor. I’m with you all the way excepting (you will understand) I will abstain from advocating for your final point (2). Although I think it better describes how many people actually think sola scriptura works, I will continue to advocate for Christians to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the scriptures and try to live this in their lives – and in that context I find the qualifier unnecessary, superfluous, and confusing. But it would be great if others also responded to your good points. Blessings.

    2. Your idea of prima scriptura and Patrick’s assumption that scripture be the primary voice to which one would listen are pretty much the same. To me that’s a leap that does harm to what we call scripture today and I can’t see any reason why I would subscribe to that.

  16. After a deal of study among jewish as well as other commentators i cannot see scripture as other than a melange of history, mythology, fiction and deep ruminations on the nature of God. The Tanakh itself surely shows a long process towards monotheistic belief but much other besides. the account of Jesus is by no means direct and often confused. Many other works of humanity before and since what we call scripture also direct us to the basics of our existence in this universe. Even prima scriptura seems a step too far.i call myself a christian . perhaps it should be a Christian agnostic. ultimately I am left with Pascal and the heart has its reasons, of course i cannot expect those who have written not to reject my view out of hand, even with contempt.

    1. Brian, sometimes one can do no better than heed the advice of Pascal, which includes: Act as if you believe and you will come to believe. (Akin to Behavior Therapy actually. If you change your behavior, it affects how you think. Positive feedback loop!)

  17. Martin Luther was as well as being responsible for a reformation- an irascible racist.

    What he hoped to achieve with his Christianity is the same question we ask ourselves 450 years later: is it a specific dogmatic formula for eternal salvation or a quest for a decent way of living life?

    The two are often worlds apart.

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