Sola Scriptura: Distinguishing Between Humans and God
Sola Scriptura affirms that Scripture alone is the supreme and final authority for human thinking and living. Since God created by his Word and Spirit, all the various kinds of authority within creation are subordinate to or dependent upon God’s word. God does not depend on that which he created to give him his authority. Still, the historical process of any sinner coming to know this truth belongs to what some call the category of knowing or doing. That God and his authority are, and always have been and always will be, belong to the category of being. The category of knowing or doing (knowing is something humans do) and the category of being are unavoidably related but they are not identical for humans, although they are for God. It is vital to recognize and maintain this distinction in our thinking. Given our historical moment in the West, this distinction is likely too little known and kept, even by those who claim to do so.
The Triune God is. He has always been and always will be. Humans have to learn this truth and they learn it through an historical process created, governed, interpreted and perfected by God. God is present in creation and thereby its history, but he is not dependent on it for his being. While it may seem obvious to state, we must nonetheless state it: Humans as creatures created in God’s image have their being joined to an historical process and learn through that process. Among other things, this means humans learn about God in, through and by created realities, even as God by his Spirit must grant them a right understanding of them.
One area in which these truths are often misunderstood and misapplied is in the area of apologetics. Those who embrace what has come to be called presuppositional apologetics, while rightly making much of sola Scriptura, are perhaps prone to diminish the necessary historical process by which people come to know of Scripture’s authority. It does precious little good to harp on the need to interpret all things by God’s word while failing to provide people reasons for the truthfulness of Scripture so that they can engage in the historical process of learning of Scripture’s authority. One is not abandoning sola Scriptura or diminishing an emphasis upon it by giving proper weight to people needing to work through the historical process of learning. It is not any truer that God’s word has supreme and final authority than it is that God by his Word and Spirit created an historical process through which humans learn and grow. God by his Word and Spirit has given this historical process its own kind of authority. To fail to understand and respond properly to the authority that God has given to creations historical process is to fail to live submissively to God’s authority. In other words, in the name of emphasizing sola Scriptura one can over-emphasize it and actually contradict and violate it.
Another area in which these truths are perhaps often misunderstood is with respects to the relationship between doctrine and living. Creation is polluted by the presence and power of sin so that to varying degrees and in various ways humans do not rightly understand or respond obediently to God. But understanding intellectually and acting obediently are not identical matters. Put another way, sin mars our knowing and thinking, as well as our actions, and in turn it mars the organic union between them. Among other things, this means some people’s intellectual understanding of what they ought to believe is better than their actual living in accord with such beliefs. Conversely, some Christian ability in obeying God exceeds their ability to verbally express the actual beliefs they demonstrate with their lives.
God is authoritative in all that he is. He interprets and judges but he also redeems or rescues from sin. His authority in redemption is manifested in and experienced by us not merely in that he corrects the Christian’s thinking but their other acts. Notice what I just affirmed. Our thinking is one of the things we do, but it is not all that we do. Yet, all that we do is unavoidably related to what we think. Do we have to recognize all the ways in which all our actions are related to our thinking in order for them to be related? No.
Consider what often marks the lives of children (if not even many adults) when they are asked by an adult: “Why did you do that?! What were you thinking?!” And bewildered they answer: “I don’t know.” And perhaps all too often the adult (or the one who should be) in that scenario thinks that the child is lying or intellectually deficient. But the truth is that we humans are often confused or unaware of how what we think is related to what we do or fail to do. Indeed, we can also think we know what is true about what we believe in relation to what we do and we can be wrong. This is why it is not accurate to affirm that orthodox doctrine always does and must precede orthodox practices in the Christian faith. There are things we rightly come to believe and think as the result of something we did. All this is so because humans belong to God’s created orders of being and doing simultaneously through God’s authoritative word.
Sola scriptura not only addresses our ultimate standard in knowing, but also alerts us to the power God’s word exercises in creating, governing and perfecting an historical process through which we come to know about knowing.
David P. Smith (Ph.D.) is the author of B. B. Warfield's Scientifically Constructive Theological Scholarship (Wipf & Stock) and co author with Ronald Hoch of Old School, New Clothes: The Cultural Blindness of Christian Education Wipf & Stock). David is Pastor of Covenant Fellowship A.R.P. Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.