Thursday, April 29, 2010

"Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the Bible"

Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the Bible is a book that I'm glad I read, but at the same time have mixed emotions about.

First for the positive. This book is a solid biblical defense of the great Reformation doctrine sola scriptura. In particular, the contributors look to what the bible says of itself regarding how it should be viewed by the church. In contending for sola scriptura, the authors repeatedly illustrate why the Roman Catholic position of scripture + tradition is faulty.

My favorite chapter of the entire book is James White's discussion of sola scriptura and the early church. White, of AOM, shows that, as opposed to the claims of Rome, the early church fathers did in fact hold to the doctrine of sola scriptura. They may not have used these two Latin words to describe their position on the bible, but they believed it nonetheless.

The primary negative aspect of this book is that sola scriptura is not applied by the authors to all areas of life in the same manner. For example, while they unashamedly hold to sola scriptura as it relates to salvation, they seem to hold back when it comes to applying it to the life of the church. This is no surprise since this is what we see in almost all churches in the West today.

Let me provide just one example of what I am talking about regarding the church. In chapter 4 (page 62), Derek Thomas writes on the authority of scripture. This is what he says,

"The Bible's authority must be maintained within sound hermeneutical principles. For example, there must be a clear appreciation of the difference between the descriptive and prescriptive. Although members of the post-Pentecost church in Jerusalem sold all their goods and relinquished their rights to private ownership, I am not obligated to follow their example (Acts 2:44-45). The bible accurately and inerrantly describes these actions of the early church for our edification, but it nowhere prescribes that these things be done by all churches at all times."

The fascinating thing about Dr. Thomas' argument is that while he states that the above account is descriptive rather than prescriptive, he does not provide evidence for WHY he writes this. As is typical of evangelicalism today, narrative accounts in scripture that do not conform to our current church practices are automatically labeled as descriptive. This keeps us from having to think about why we do what we do.

Overall, this book is worthwhile reading. In particular, it will be helpful to you if you have Roman Catholic friends who rely on tradition as much as scripture in their belief and practice.

However, do not expect this book to deal helpfully with what I believe is the most difficult aspect of scripture interpretation: descriptive vs. prescriptive issues and how we apply these.

22 comments:

Alan Knox said...

Sola Scriptura Aliquando... Only Scripture Sometimes

-Alan

Eric said...

Alan,

That would be much more honest and accurate!

Ironically, the Catholics follow their belief in scripture + tradition much more closely than we follow sola scriptura.

Nick said...

Does the book deal with the fact that 2 Timothy 3:16 in Greek is 'pasa graphe', more accurately meaning 'every individual Scripture' rather than the popular 'all Scripture'? If not, that's a serious flaw in the book.

Eric said...

Nick,

Thanks for your comment.

The book takes the position that II Tim. 3:16 means "all scripture." I believe it means the same. The remainder of the verse also shows that is all comes from God and is profitable for use in the Christian life.

This is, obviously, a disputed and important verse. I agree with you that the meaning is crucial.

Nicholas said...

Eric,

He is making the distinction because there is no command for the church/believers to follow the example. What happens in the Acts 2 church is beautiful and right and we should seek to apply the principles laid out, but an outright replication of things that are not specifically commanded is in many ways the equivalent of an argument from silence and therefore must be looked at with a proper hermeneutic (cultural/historical context), with an eye on contextualization. When you start avoiding the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive, you begin to walk into some waters that will quickly lead to legalism or licentiousness - rarely will the removal of such distinctions lead down the middle of the narrow road. Black and white is always easier than gray, but the majority of the Christian life is spent figuring out the gray. Thank God for wisdom and discernment.

Eric said...

Nicholas,

(I'm assuming this is Nick Kennicott.)

This was odd. First a "Nick" commented and I thought it was you. However, once I looked at his comment, I knew it wasn't. Now I'm assuming "Nicholas" is you.

Anyway, I appreciate your comment. I agree that we need to look at the narrative passages and ask whether or not they are prescriptive or descriptive. If we assume that they are all automatically descriptive, we can run into the legalism you talk about.

My concern is that in our churches we tend to look to tradition over scripture when it comes to descriptive/prescriptive issues. The usual practice is to pick and choose without a consistent method of interpretation.

I wish someone as knowledgeable as Dr. Thomas (who I really like by the way) would have dealt more thoroughly with that particular issue.

Aussie John said...

Eric,

The arbitrary way the decision between prescriptive and descriptive is usually made has been a great frustration during my lifetime, especially in later years, especially when those doing so NEVER give good, sound reasons.

I can still remember the struggles, I had as a young pastor, over Scripture was saying, and what the tradition said. Much of the church is still affirming tradition over Scripture despite its fine sounding slogans.

If we are really serious about Sola Scriptura, we would never be satisfied with what we have always understood, but want to KNOW why we understand it that way.

Nick said...

That's cause for concern then, because what's happened is he's assumed his understanding and projected it onto the verse. If 2 Timothy 3:16 in Greek is saying "every individual book or passage of Scripture is sufficient," then that rules out Sola Scriptura.

Eric said...

John,

I agree completely. It is interesting that we have experienced the same things from half a world away. I guess the church is the church wherever it is.

In defense of Dr. Thomas, his particular chapter was fairly short and didn't really focus on this issue. The big problem in writing about this issue is that NO ONE seems to want to write about it. Alan Knox has told me that he cannot find much on the descriptive/prescriptive issue. I think the simple reason for this is that when we begin talking about it, it makes traditionalists uncomfortable. They would rather that the whole discussion go away. Thus, no writing about it.

Eric said...

Nick,

The Protestant understanding of II Tim. 3:16 has always been that it means "all scripture". This is my understanding of it as well.

I'm serious in this question and I'm not trying to prove any kind of point - what do you think the best translation is and why? I'd really like to know. Thanks.

Nick said...

Well, not all translations render it "all Scripture," in fact there are some noteworthy translations that do render it "every Scripture."

This link shows various Bible translations of this verse:
http://bible.cc/2_timothy/3-16.htm

Many of them render it "every Scripture." This also should include the RSV and NASB (alternate reading) which also say "every Scripture."

Further, scholarly commentaries like A.T. Robertson's Word Pictures say the following:

"Every scripture inspired of God is also profitable (pasa graph qeopneusto kai wpelimo). There are two matters of doubt in this clause. One is the absence of the article h before graph, whether that makes it mean "every scripture" or "all scripture" as of necessity if present. Unfortunately, there are examples both ways with both pa and graph. Twice we find graph in the singular without the article and yet definite ( 1 Peter 2:6 ; 2 Peter 1:20 ). We have pa Israhl (Romans 11:26 ) for all Israel (Robertson, Grammar, p. 772). So far as the grammatical usage goes, one can render here either "all scripture" or "every scripture.""

http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/robertsons-word-pictures/2-timothy/2-timothy-3-16.html

You asked me what I think the best translation is and why. My reasoning is that the Greek takes precedence over any English translation, and according to scholars and many English translations, the text literally reads "every scripture" in the singular. I'm not saying that's the definitive rendering, but clearly it's perfectly acceptable grammatically and even preferable based on the Greek.

The point is, one cannot approach this text assuming it means "all Scripture" in the plural, collective sense. One can say that might be a possible rendering, but when it comes to establishing major/critical doctrines like Sola Scriptura, one cannot build on assumptions.

Eric said...

Nick,

Thanks for your response. I appreciate it.

Let me ask you another question. Let's suppose that the correct rendering is "every scripture." This would still be all-encompassing. It would mean that every writing was breathed out by God. So what is the problem with sola scriptura? Whether it's all or every, it is still all inspired.

Alan Knox said...

Eric, et. al.,

The Greek term "graphe" is singular, so "every" is technically correct. The question is whether "graphe" is a singularity or a collective.

However, as Eric pointed out, whether "pasa" is translated "all" or "every" the meaning is the same.

There is another question of translation/interpretation is is more difficult. Either of the following is valid from the Greek text:

All/every Scripture is inspired and useful...

All/every inspired Scripture is also useful...

Of course, since either of these is correct linguistically, the decision as to which Paul meant would have to be a theological decision.

But, even more importantly, regardless of which of the above is taken as Paul's intention, it is clear that Paul said that inspired writings are useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness for a specific purpose. What purpose is that? So that we can know alot? No, but so that every person of God can be prepared to do good works.

-Alan

Eric said...

Alan,

Thanks for the explanation. It is good to remember the end point and purpose of scripture.

It is interesting that knowledge in and of itself is never the goal in the bible. However, we often act as if it is.

Nick said...

Eric,

You asked: "Let's suppose that the correct rendering is "every scripture." This would still be all-encompassing. It would mean that every writing was breathed out by God. So what is the problem with sola scriptura? Whether it's all or every, it is still all inspired."

That every verse of Scripture is inspired by God is not disputed nor the issue. The issue is whether Paul is speaking *here* of individual passages/books of Scripture or of Scripture as a whole.

Note the significant difference in meaning of these two sentences:

(A) "Every *individual* passage or book of the Bible is sufficient for all doctrinal issues, fully equipping the Christian."

Vs.

(B) "All 66 books of the Bible taken *together* are sufficient for all doctrinal issues, fully equipping the Christian."

See the difference? The first is saying the Christian can be fully equipped with any single book of Scripture while the latter says the Christian is only fully equipped if they have all the books of the Bible. Do you believe the former or the latter? Certainly not the former, else you'd be saying Obadiah or 3rd John - or even a single chapter of the bible - on their own is 'sufficient'.

Option "A" is perfectly acceptable grammatically, and in some ways preferred. But in order for Sola Scriptura to be true, Option "B" must be the true meaning. The problem is, one cannot assume one of two *acceptable* options and proceed to build major doctrines therefrom.

Eric said...

Nick,

Thanks for answering my question.

I see the difference you are talking about.

In light of the fact that the grammar is ambiguous, context should answer the question for us. In 3:15, Paul refers to the "Holy Scriptures which are able to make you wise to salvation." Paul is clearly not referring to individual verses, but to the full OT. Therefore, based on context, Paul must be referring in 3:16 to the full body of scripture being breathed out by God and useful as a whole for teaching, etc.

Nick said...

Hi,

Context in this case doesn't much help, and in can pretty much have a coherent meaning interpreted various ways. The only thing certain is that 3:15 spoke of "sacred writings" Timothy knew from his youth (which could only be the OT) which used a totally different word-phrase than 3:16. Thus there is no grammatical link between the two. The question of how v15 links to v16 is by no means certain, for in 3:16 Paul could: (1) be still referring to the whole OT, (2) speaking of any individual books or passages, or (3) the whole OT plus whole NT. The last option is the one that supports Sola Scriptura, yet one is in the same bind of assuming one option out of many, though I'd add the further difficulty of proving the whole NT was compiled by then (which is a whole new difficulty in itself). One's approach largely depends on how they decide to interpret "pasa graphe," which is the very issue under examination in the first place.

Eric said...

Nick,

This is clearly a situation where we are going to disagree. As I read the passage in English or Greek, Paul is saying that either all or every scripture is breathed out by God. Either way, it is God-inspired. Anything breathed out by God is true and therefore authoritative. The plain reading of the text suggests that at least all of the OT is useful for Timothy and the rest of the church.

Nick said...

Eric,

Thanks for your time to discuss this.

I'm not so sure this is a situation in which we are 'disagreeing' necessarily as much as simply misunderstanding each other. I can't think of anything more to add that I didn't already say, and I think my previous post pretty much summed up what I was getting at.

Eric said...

Nick,

Thank you as well. It is good for us to dialog even if we don't end up coming to the same conclusions. This way we understand each other better.

God bless!

Jonathan said...

Great discussion,

My concern with making Sola Scriptura an essential of the faith is this:

Did Timothy know which books would be included in the canon that came together over a few hundred years of the early church? From my understanding many of these books were not even written at the time 2 Timothy was penned.

The reality is that we are trusting more the authority of the early Catholic Church who authorized the canon, than the key verse of 2 Timothy 3:16.

What are we left to hold on to? I hold on to the reality that Scripture has lead me to a relationship with the living Word of God... Jesus is the Word, and He left the Holy Spirit with us to guide us... not just a book.

There's my 2 cents. God bless!

Eric said...

Jonathan,

Thanks for commenting on my blog.

Let me address your statements one at a time.

As for sola scriptura, I don't think it's an essential to the faith as far as salvation is concerned. In other words, you don't have to believe in sola scriptura in order to be saved. I do think it is important, however, for a completely accurate understanding of who God is and how we are to live in surrender to Him.

When Paul said what he did to Timothy, he was referring to the Hebrew Bible (the OT). This would have been set by the time of Timothy's life.

As for the canon, I don't believe the early Catholic Church authorized it. That may be the Catholic view, but I believe all that simply happened was that the early church recognized what writings were authorized and written by God (and therefore ended up in the NT).

I also believe that we must follow the leadership of the Holy Spirit. I am a follower of Christ. I worship Jesus, not the bible. That said, there are a lot of people making a lot of outrageous claims about who Jesus is and who the Holy Spirit is.

How do we know what is right and what is wrong about Jesus? about the Holy Spirit?

We know by looking in one place - the bible.