Sola Scriptura vs Opinion
One of the most important doctrines of the Reformation is the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. It means that the ultimate and final authority for all things is the Bible, which is the Word of God. As Protestants, we stand on the Bible. This does not mean we ignore creeds or church history but it does mean that in disputes on these issues the final authority, the highest court of appeals, is the Scriptures.
One common critique of the Protestant view of Sola Scriptura is that it so elevates the individual that anyone can arrive at any interpretation and justify it. In leveling this critique, Roman Catholics appeal to church tradition and teaching as the safeguard against this sort of “me-and-my-Bible-alone” sort of approach. The idea is that we need a safeguard from individualistic interpretations.
There are several problems with this critique and the approach that flows from it. First, it creates a straw man of what Sola Scriptura affirms and denies. Second, the critique denies that the Scriptures are sufficiently clear. If we take the argument to its logical conclusion, we can ask: if God cannot be clear in giving us the Scriptures why can we be assured that God will be clear in church tradition? In other words, you take the hermeneutical issue from Scripture (“how do I interpret Scripture?”) and shift it to church teaching (“how do I interpret church tradition/teaching?”).
When it comes to the Bible being the final authority in matters of faith and conduct, in our twenty first century context with the rise of postmodernism and hermeneutics of suspicion, the question that arises against Sola Scriptura is “whose understanding of Scripture?” In fact, in debates where someone says “the Scriptures say…” one can find responses ranging from “that’s your interpretation” to “interpreters disagree.” It is often assumed that if one can find sufficient disagreement of interpretation then a particular view must be valid, acceptable, or in an appropriate range of meanings.
Let me suggest that the issue of Sola Scriptura contains its own antibodies to protect us from the virus of hermeneutical folly, which is present in our postmodern context. First, those who hold to Sola Scriptura have always held that the core doctrines of Scripture are basically clear. When God speaks, he does not veil himself or hide behind smoke and mirrors. He gives revelation in basic and understandable language. The clarity of Scripture presupposes that God is a communicating God and has the power to make himself understood. Both the authority of the text since it is God-breathed and the inward working of the Holy Spirit in the believer assure us that there is clarity in God’s Word and one can arrive at a clear interpretation.
Second, part of Sola Scriptura is also affirming the basic principle that Scripture, as God’s Word, does not contradict itself and we must let Scripture interpret Scripture. Unclear passages must be interpreted by clear passages. Those who hold to Sola Scriptura understand that certain passages are difficult to understand and interpret. However, we recognize that unclear passages have the boundaries of a clear passage so that a proper interpretation of any passage cannot bring it into conflict with other passages that are clear.
Third, God upholds His Word. We also recognize that ultimately God is the giver of language and the sustainer of all his creation. The gift of language presupposes that genuine communication is possible, even if at times difficult. However, because God is God over all we are not left with an endless hermeneutical spiral that is like a death spin never arriving at the meaning of the Word of God.
Fourth, when any two interpreters disagree over Scripture, the authority over which one is correct resides not in the hermeneutics they use but in the text itself. In other words, when two interpreters disagree, the debate is not ultimately resolved by marshaling opinions to one’s corner (whether church tradition, new hermeneutical techniques, or experts), the debate is ultimately resolved by asking “what does Scripture say?” Traditions, hermeneutical techniques, and expertise are all useful tools but they can be wrong, and they themselves must be subject to the authority of Scripture.
We live in a day and age where we need to recover the foundations of Sola Scriptura. It is far too easy for those with a postmodern bent to appeal to all sorts of other authorities rather than the Scripture’s teaching. Particularly on moral issues plaguing evangelical Christians today, it is common to find a person appeal to new trends, new voices, or others who rally to the new cause rather than asking the hard questions: “do these things submit to Scripture?” and “what does Scripture say?”
It takes a level of Christian character, courage, and confidence in God to stand and say “the Bible says…” Our confidence is in God and not ourselves. Far from making us proud, it should make us humble. Nevertheless, it does not leave us wandering a hall of mirrors hearing the echoing refrain, “well that is your opinion.” My life is not my own but beholden to God and what He has said.
Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.