Following my recent thoughts on Lutheranism and the inherent problems of sola Scriptura, the events that have swept us all up here in America have overshadowed my desire to delve back into this too terribly deeply. There just is not enough time in the day for me to rant endlessly on the internet and repent, and tragedies like the one in Connecticut this past week serve as a good reminder that I do far too much of the former and far too little of the latter. Be that as it may, there are a couple of thoughts still sticking out from this discussion that I want to briefly address. My apologies in advance for not being as attentive and responsive as usual to the conversation in the com boxes.
Several people have suggested that I am perhaps not being fair to Lutherans by judging them based on my experience of this one set of people talking about this one particular passage. I am certainly no expert on Lutheranism, so it is entirely possible that I am in error in my understanding of it, but my argument is not based solely on one particular conversation about one particular set of verses. I have spent a good deal of time thinking about this in the past year, reading the Lutheran confessions and various Lutheran thinkers over the centuries to try to get a handle on it. The argument over Luke 7 simply serves as a convenient example with which to show what seems to me to be a problem so endemic to Protestantism as a whole that even its most “tradition-positive” tradition cannot help but succumb to it.
Likewise, a couple of people noted that differences of opinion over John the Baptist’s state of mind when he was in prison are not particularly consequential and certainly not something worth breaking fellowship over. I concur with that assessment, and I certainly was not trying to suggest that every single passage of Scripture has one and only one definite interpretation that has been locked down since the fourth century. My point was rather that this sort of disregard for the weight of the Church’s teaching about Scripture leads to all sorts of unforeseen consequences. I had a conversation recently with a Messianic Jew who tried to tell me that Jesus’ statement in John 14:6 – “I am the way, and the truth, and the life…” – was not actually Jesus affirming His own divinity by identifying Himself with the divine name I Am, but rather was just His way of saying to the rest of us that we should do like Him and look to Yahweh to be the way, the truth, and the life. When I tried to dissuade him of this notion by citing the way the Church has always read this passage, his response to me was fairly similar to that of my Lutheran friends. “Sure, that’s how some people have read it, but that doesn’t mean they’re right. Scripture alone!”
Here then is where the real parsing comes in, because inevitably at this point in the conversation someone will say, “Yes, but what you’re describing is solo Scriptura, not sola Scriptura.” The person who says this usually goes on to argue that what the average Protestant practices today in thinking that he or she can just go off with the Bible and know what it says is solo Scriptura, which is something foreign to the Reformation. Real Reformational Protestants understand that sola Scriptura is not about reading the Bible and interpreting it all by yourself but about reading the Bible within its context, informed by tradition and scholarship and the teaching of the Church, but recognizing that it is ultimately its own authority.
There are three ways in which I find this distinction problematic: It fails grammatically historically, and logically.
First, the grammatical problem. I realize that this is a bit nit-picky, but if you are going to try to come up with a way of describing how the other guy’s position differs from yours, it helps to use a term that is not a synonym of the one you are already using. “No, no, we believe in Scripture alone, but they believe in Scripture by itself!” Sola is from the Latin word solus which means alone. Solo is a modern English word that evolved from the same Latin word, meaning the exact same thing.
But of course, the very fact that a new term has to be invented is itself an indicator that this distinction is something of a novelty. This is the historical problem. There have always been divisions amongst Protestants about how to understand the Bible. Sixteenth century Lutherans strongly rejected the arguments of Calvinists, Zwinglians, and Anabaptists, all of whom laid claim to the purity of their own appeals to Holy Scripture. Yet, while the Lutherans said that these other groups were wrong because they misunderstood the Scripture, they never suggested that the problem was that these groups were mixed up about the self-authenticating power of Scripture. As far as I can tell, the coining of this term solo scriptura is a twenty-first century phenomenon. It seems rather strange at this late date to say that there has been a significant difference about this all along and nobody bothered to notice until, like, yesterday.
But of course, the real problem with this newly minted distinction between sola and solo scriptura is the logical problem. What so many serious Protestants decry as the solo scriptura attitude of their co-religionists is nothing more than the logical extension of sola scriptura in its purest form. Keith Mathison, who literally wrote the book on sola versus solo Scriptura, defines what he believes to be the pure Reformation doctrine this way:
To summarize the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura, or the Reformation doctrine of the relation between Scripture and tradition, we may say that Scripture is to be understood as the sole source of divine revelation; it is the only inspired, infallible, final, and authoritative norm of faith and practice. It is to be interpreted in and by the church; and it is to be interpreted within the hermeneutical context of the rule of faith.
The tension inherent in this statement comes from the idea that the revelation of God in Scripture can in any way be understood apart from the teaching of the Church. This is the opposite of what Mathison intends, of course. He is actively trying to make a place for the Church, but at the same time he is arguing that the locus of inspiration in Holy Scripture does not extend to the Church’s faithful reading of same. The words on the page are divine, but the Church’s reception of them is flawed and fallible. The Church is necessary, but entirely human.
This reasoning leads invariably to an impoverished understanding of the Church. If the Church is needed for the right reading of Scripture but the Church often errs at the same, it follows that there needs to be some other measure for discovering what a true reading of Scripture really entails. Having the tradition of the Church’s historical interpretation of Scripture on your side is nice, but it does not guarantee anything because the Church could have been wrong all along. So what is the Christian to do? How is he or she to avoid despair?
For some Protestants, the answer has been confessionalism, essentially creating a new church with a new tradition and imbuing the founding documents of that new tradition with an air of infallibility because they are just saying what Scripture says, man. But in a world of competing confessions, each claiming to be nothing more than the pure Word of God explicated, how can we know which voice rings true? The confessionalist can and often does try to make use of tradition to bolster his claim, but he undercuts himself by saying at the start that tradition is subordinate to the words on the page. Only Scripture is trustworthy, and only in a vacuum where the Church cannot defile the Scriptures with her dirty hands. The Bible is a perfect book, so long as nobody ever reads it.
There is, of course, an opposite error that some Catholics of various traditions (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican) tend to fall into, and that is the idea that the Church derives and holds authority apart from Scripture. Herein the encyclicals of popes, the scattered thoughts of long dead saints, and even the canons of councils that do such strange things as regulate bathing with Jews suddenly become addendums to God’s Word, or possibly even substitutes. This is a grievous error, leading to all kinds of false conclusions and abuses of power.
Nonetheless, the Church’s interpretation of the Scripture is part of the divine revelation in the same way that the mouth and the voice are a part of speaking lines in a play. The actors must read the words as printed, without ad libbing new material, but the way a word is said, the inflection used and the tone struck, can create great variety in what is communicated to the audience. In the historical, Catholic, and conciliar view, the Holy Spirit is not merely the writer of the play but also the director, making sure that the words He entrusted to the page are faithfully rendered in their performance. In the Protestant view, the Holy Spirit remains the writer, but the director could really be anyone. In both views, there is a clear desire to get the words right, but in the latter, getting the words right is all that matters.
To be sure, Anglicanism is not immune from this problem, on either end. There have been moments when we have drifted towards making too much of the Church and moments when we have drifted towards the heresy of Protestantism in making too little of her. At our best, though, we have accepted our inheritance of what another blogger recently called prima Scriptura, a doctrine of revelation that acknowledges both the impotence of the Church without the Scripture and the incomprehensibility of the Scripture without the Church. It is in this respect, and perhaps only in this respect, that we can lay claim to Archbishop Fisher’s famous quote, “The Anglican Communion has no peculiar thought, practice, creed or confession of its own. It has only the Catholic Faith of the ancient Catholic Church, as preserved in the Catholic Creeds and maintained in the Catholic and Apostolic constitution of Christ’s Church from the beginning.” Ours is not to invent but to faithfully pass on and apply the Word of God, a Word that exists not only in the theoretical realm but in the actual, concrete, lived reality of the Church’s teaching and life.