The following is a response to a loved one regarding scripture.
Cousin, thank you so much for taking the time to write this essay! I appreciate your thoughtfulness and I sense that you’ve wrestled and ached with these questions for a long time. I’ve struggled with these issues myself, even to the point of completely abandoning the Christian faith and throwing myself into I agnosticism and Islam. As Doug mentioned, we all come to these discussions with baggage. The church itself has tons of baggage and is usually reactionary. We’re all reacting to something. I also sensed years ago after some discussion with you that this is where you’d end up theologically.
I haven’t condemned you to the fires of hell. First, that’s not my job. Second, I see no warrant in scripture to pronounce the anathema on anyone because of their view of scripture or the atonement. Scripture is pretty clear – do we completely trust in the right Jesus? If so, then we are his disciples and co-laborers in the Kingdom of God. From what I can tell reading your post, you still believe in Jesus as the eternal Son of God who took on human flesh and died for the sins of the world (though we might differ on how his death did that, how it is applied, or who/what is “the world”). My concern for you is, given your understanding of scripture, that you may one day abandon your faith. Cousin, you are in my prayers.
I completely agree with you that our discussion must account for our presuppositions. After all, a house built upon sand will wash away. Yet, a house built on rock will not fall. The house built on the rock is the house built upon the words of Christ and those who follow those words.
There are a few problems with your take on sola scripture. First, you seem to think it’s lead to a proliferation of denominations. But, let’s look at that claim. Let’s look at the different “genres” of Christianity and their view of scripture.
The most quoted source on the number of Christian denominations is the World Christian Encyclopedia (WCE), which states there are 33,000+ denominations. Certainly, if all these denominations held to sola scriptura, and they all had drastically different theology, then sola scriptura is a nice theory that it doesn’t hold water in real life. However, they break the 33,000 down into the following genres.
- Independents (22,000 “denominations”) – these are small churches not affiliated with larger denominations. Perhaps because of a theological problem with the idea of denominations, geography, political, or socio-economic reasons. I think it’s important to note that the existence of these churches does not imply that they all have different statements of faith. In fact, since they are not lumped with the “Marginals” category, the are mostly Trinitarian, and believe in salvation by the grace of God alone through the blood of Christ. Inside this group, we find several denominations that do not hold to sola scriptura, like the Quakers, Independent Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Catholics who split from Rome after Vatican II.
- Marginals (1,600 “denominations”) – this includes non-Trinitarian groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses, LDS, Unitarian, etc. The groups do not hold to sola scriptura, and thus have no bearing upon the veracity of sola scriptura.
- Orthodox (781 “denominations”) – I honestly don’t know how they broke the orthodox down into this many denominations. However, we know that the Orthodox do not hold to sola scriptura, yet by the same methodology as the rest of these so-called denominations, still have 781.
- Roman Catholic (242 denominations) – again, I don’t know how these denominations are broken down, yet by the same methodology this non-sola scriptura group has 242 denominations.
- Anglicans (168) – Anglicanism, though historically holding the idea of sola scriptura, has also been largely influenced by the government of England. Do most Anglicans today hold to sola scriptura? Probably not.
- Protestant (9,000) – even among this group, the WCE includes groups like Adventists and different types of Quakers, who do not hold to sola scriptura.
Now, let’s look at those churches who do hold to sola scriptura. As you know, I’m a pastor in the CRC. Our confessions, which we believe accurately reflect the teaching of scripture, are the The Forms of Unity. While we are a different denomination from the OPC and have different confessions, our theology is not appreciably different. The denominations were formed using different standards because the people who formed them came from different geographical regions and spoke different languages.
Should we expect all of God’s people to worship in the same way? Is Christianity a mono-culture, or are God’s people made up of every tribe, nation, and tongue? How many of these denominations exist because they meet the specific needs of specific communities within Christendom? Should we expect the Chinese or Mexican immigrant to worship in the same church as a third-generation Dutch American? I don’t think so. Bottom line, sometimes different denominations exist for very good reasons- historical, cultural, linguistic, etc., that have absolutely nothing to do with theological differences stemming from sola scriptura.
Even non-Reformed churches that hold to sola scriptura will profess that God exists as Trinity, Jesus is the eternal Son of God who came in the flesh, born of the virgin Mary, died for this sins of the world, and will one day come again. That’s a tremendous amount of unity within the diverse church. On the essentials, sola scriptura is a home run. It does exactly what it’s supposed to do, which is, “…teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
I know you’ve read lots of Ehrman. However, even Ehrman has stated that essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the NT manuscript tradition.
I don’t know what you’re referring to when you say “the early church.” From my reading, the early church had a high view of scripture and would reject your take on it. If you’re referring to the period of inscripturation, then of course sola scriptura has a different flavor. God was in the process of inspiring new scripture. The fullness of God’s scriptural revelation came in time. It wasn’t dropped out of heaven on day one, or even over the period of one lifetime as Muslims suppose it should. God chose to reveal himself progressively, in scripture, through people, in time, and with consistency. Adam didn’t know in Genesis 3 that the heal that would crush the serpent’s head would be nailed to a cross, because he didn’t have the fullness of God’s revelation. Again, salvation doesn’t come through our theory on scripture, or even how much scripture we have. The consistent message of scripture is that God makes and keeps his promises – faith in those promises, which is his gift, is how we live in his presence and establish his kingdom.
One of the earliest testimonies on the sufficiency of scripture is Irenaeus who said, “We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith.”
Even Origen, who had questions hermeneutics, said, “No man ought, for the confirmation of doctrines, to use books which are not canonized Scriptures.”
So, what about hermeneutics? Is the historical-grammatical hermeneutic of the Protestant church an a priori imposition upon scripture? Is our hermeneutic our idol? Why can’t we use Origen’s allegorical hermeneutic to determine what scripture really means?
I think this answer comes down to consistency. Does any particular hermeneutic provide any consistent interpretation of scripture? If a hermeneutical method provides inconsistent interpretations, then we must conclude that God’s Word is saying everything, and nothing, at the same time. Is he a God of confusion, or a God who brings order? Those who use the historical-grammatical hermeneutic have, in my mind, provided a consistent understanding of scripture. You may disagree, but I think the evidence is overwhelming (see above discussion on denominations).
But what about the Gnostic gospels? What about the very diverse Christianity that developed in the early years after the death and resurrection of Christ? Surely, the diverse opinions at the time imply that Christianity could be many different things. The orthodox just won the argument because they got on Constintine’s good side!
I think your presuppositions are showing if you accept this argument. You presupposition is that God did not clearly reveal himself, and this diversity/confusion in the “early church” is evidence of that. But, let’s think about it for a moment.
If I make up my own phone book, with inaccurate phone numbers and names, that have no bearing in reality, does that mean that the legitimate phone book is false? What if 500 people made up 500 different phone books, all of them with false information? Would any of them discredit the true phone book? A diversity of opinions does not speak one way or another to the veracity of any single truth claim.
Likewise, a diversity of interpretations doesn’t imply the lack of a proper interpretation of scripture. You could present me the recipe for bread. I could look at it and tell you it makes candy canes. If you follow the recipe, will you make bread? Yes. Will you make candy canes? No. Some interpretations are much better than others, and it’s ok for the church to discuss different ways of viewing a text. I think it’s one of the ways God has given the church to grow in love for one another, to bring us together over his word, and wrestle with it. In the meantime, the LORD has made the text perfectly clear on the essentials of the Christian faith.
Does sola scriptura do injustice to the role of the Holy Spirit? I think you’d be hard pressed to find any person who hold to sola scriptura who would say the Holy Spirit is hands-off when it comes to our view of scripture.
The Belgic Confession is clear that the Holy Spirit is intimately involved in illuminating scripture for God’s people. “We receive all these books and these only as holy and canonical, for the regulating, founding, and establishing of our faith. And we believe without a doubt all things contained in them— not so much because the church receives and approves them as such but above all because the Holy Spirit testifies in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they prove themselves to be from God. For even the blind themselves are able to see that the things predicted in them do happen.” – Belgic Confession, Article 5.
This also deals with the issue of canonization. The church does not declare the canon. Rather, God has created the canon and the Holy Spirit moves us to recognize it. Does God move some and not others? Yes. Does that mean we have the wrong canon? Maybe. Do even churches with slightly different canons believe the essentials of the faith? Of course. I’ve heard of Christians in North Korea who only had a book of Matthew, yet the LORD saved them in spite of the full canon of scripture.
Jesus does say, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” You seem to be of the opinion that Jesus is indicting scripture. Jesus is not testifying to the failure of the scriptures, but the wickedness of the human heart.
Sola scriptura, as I mentioned earlier, does not remove the Holy Spirit from the equation. Those who solely rely upon the scriptures, without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, will not find Christ. The Holy Spirit is essential. Yet, he works through the scripture as a means.
Certainly, I agree that the scriptures are not an end in themselves. Rather, they exist so that people may know Christ. John said as much. “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” John 20:31.
We cannot deny that God uses this instrument, scripture, to bring people to faith by the power of the Holy Spirit. I don’t know if you’re creating an intentional straw man, or if you’ve actually encountered people who would claim scripture is more important than Jesus. I’ve never personally met a Christian who would claim such a thing.
I have some other things to get to today. Thanks again for your response. I do love you and pray for you and your family. Please feel free to respond if you have the time.