The Finality of Sola Scriptura PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Saturday, 15 October 2011 19:06

Christian Smith is on a roll. The Notre Dame sociologist came out earlier this year with a critique of “biblicism” (Bible Made Impossible, The: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture), about which I hope to write more later. He more recently has published a how-to guide for evangelicals heading toward the Roman Catholic church (How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps).

Step #47 is to “realize that the doctrine of sola Scriptura is itself not biblical but, ironically, is received and believed as a sacred (Protestant) church tradition.” A neat bit of jiu jitsu, but the next sentence makes one suspect that he’s played dirty: sola Scriptura is the belief that Christians have “the Bible alone and no other human tradition as authority.” Later, he challenges his readers to find biblical passages that teach that “Scripture or the written word of God is the sole and sufficient authority for Christian faith.”

Now, I imagine that there are people who believe sola Scriptura as Smith describes it, and Protestants have always insisted that Scripture is a sufficient revelation of God’s will for us (cf., e.g., WCF 1.6). But neither the Reformers nor their heirs concluded that Scripture is the “sole” authority, nor did they deny the relative authority of human teachers. (If Calvin believed the Bible was the “sole” authority, why so much effort and time devoted to reading Augustine and Chrysostom?) As Smith himself points out, the Scriptures themselves point to human teachers and leaders who are to be honored as authorities. Smith is also correct that the New Testament writers encourage Christians to honor apostolic traditions. No argument there, but that’s because Smith has missed the point.

The argument is not about “sole” authority but “final” authority.

Once the actual issue is clarified, some of Smith’s rebuttals to Protestant defenses of sola Scriptura become shaky. He dismisses Matthew 15:1-6 as a text supporting sola Scriptura. Jesus, he says, was not “making a general point about . . . the epistemic illegitimacy of tradition per se.” Quite so, but quite irrelevant. The point is that the Pharisaical tradition (or some thread of that tradition) taught that it was legitimate for children to give money to God rather than caring for aging parents. Jesus refuted them by saying that their tradition nullifies Scripture. Scripture is Jesus’ trump card. He doesn’t point to alternative threads of Pharisaical tradition (though he doubtless could have). One might say, for Jesus Scripture has final authority to judge the legitimacy of tradition. One might say, sola Scriptura.

He doesn’t think that there’s a “hint of sola Scriptura” in 2 Timothy 3:14-17. He rightly notes that Paul reminds Timothy of the people who taught him Scripture. Sure enough. But he doesn’t admit or recognize that Paul speaks of Scripture as a “God-breathed” text, which, one might assume, makes it quite different from other texts. He also ignores the final clause of the passage, where Paul tells Timothy that the Scripture is useful to equip the man of God “for every good work.” Is there a good work that Scripture fails to equip us for? Paul says No. That’s the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture in a nutshell.

Sure, the Scriptures speak of the “social basis of the inter-generational passing on of the faith,” which implies that what-is-handed, “tradition,” bears authority. Honor your father and mother is a scriptural requirement. But that’s not the issue. The issue is whether Scripture has final authority to test traditions, beliefs, practices and customs. Presumably, Smith would acknowledge that traditions can become moribund or corrupt. Not everything the church has done and taught is worthy of imitation. Not everything the church has done and taught ought to be passed along. The issue is, what basis do we have for challenging tradition? Protestants say that Scripture is that final authority. If a tradition encourages X, and Scripture teaches not-X, which one do we follow? Protestants say Scripture, because it is the God-breathed word of God, and tradition, whatever we say about it, is not.

Of course, of course, of course: When we talk about Scripture correcting the church, we are talking about people reading and studying Scripture and coming to the conclusion that a traditional belief or practice violates Scripture. Of course, that process is subject to all the dilemmas and pitfalls of any interpretation. But then the question finally becomes a question of theology proper, not simply of Scriptural authority. (Would that Smith has spent a bit more time with Barth on his way out of evangelicalism!) Suppose God wants to correct a corruption in His church. Is He able to speak to it? Can God’s voice break through to rebuke and correct and train in righteousness? Can our traditions muzzle the Lord of the church? Can He by His Spirit speak independently of, and against, the tradition?

Why not? It’s happened. It’s a contested, raucous process. It always is. But it happens. Golly, it happened in the Roman Catholic church in the past century as theologians cut through thickets of misleading quasi-Thomism to get back to Thomas, to the church fathers, to Scripture itself. Speaking as an outsider, and a Protestant to boot, ressourcesement looks a lot like God speaking against a powerful tradition to purify His church. Can anyone doubt that the Catholic Church has gotten better at talking Bible over the last century? Which might make the Roman Catholic Church one of today’s most compelling proofs of Protestant convictions concerning sola Scriptura.

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