Sunday, February 17, 2008

Sola Scriptura, an Impossibility

Nobody can find Sola Scriptura in Scripture.

And that’s terribly ironic, is it not? Scripture never says God’s guidance is only reliably to be found in Holy Scripture. It does not say the source of doctrine or practice is the Holy Scripture alone. It does not say something is to be judged by Scripture alone. It does not say Scripture is self interpreting. It does not say once upon a time ultimate authority was in God's spoken word, but at a certain point that authority was transferred to the Scriptures.

Scripture itself, in fact, shows us with approval myriad examples of saints whose theology and praxis was not found in Scripture. Moses did not lead his people out of Egypt on the basis of Scripture. Noah did not check his instructions to build the Ark against Scripture. Elizabeth did not recognize Mary as the Mother of the Messiah by Scripture, or check this recognition against Scripture. St. Paul went to Macedonia not because he had found his marching orders in Scripture, but on the basis of a dream -- a dream! -- interpreted by the Church.

(You can’t find Sola Scriptura in the Fathers, either, even if you can make certain, select passages from them sound that way. They may have taught some variant of it, but not any Reformation variant.)

Nobody can practice Sola Scriptura.

Take for example the problem of Acts 9:7 versus Acts 22:9. Did those who were traveling with Saul on the road to Damascus hear the voice he heard, or did they not? You can attempt to resolve this apparent contradiction (by the same writer, St. Luke!) in various ways, or you can say who cares as it does not pertain to Christian dogma. Take your pick, but…

…but here is the thing to notice very particularly: whatever method you use, it will not be Sola Scriptura! Nor could it be, for this issue cannot be resolved on the basis of Holy Scripture alone. In this case, Scripture is not interpreting Scripture. Even if you decide to accept both things as true, namely that Saul’s companions both heard and did not hear the voice, what Scriptural warrant have you for simply deciding that Scripture contradicts Scripture? Or that you should become an incoherent fool and swallow such a contradiction whole? Neither Scripture nor Sola Scriptura tells you to do that; in fact, Sola Scriptura calls for whatever contradicts Scripture to be thrown out.

So no matter how you deal or don’t deal with these two verses, you aren’t going to be practicing Sola Scriptura to do it. The same applies to the question of how many angels were seen at Jesus’ empty tomb.

And in fact, the same applies to all of Scripture. Because if Sola Scriptura cannot even deal with such clear-cut, by no means complex or nuanced, factual issues, where cultural, linguistic, and other factors aren’t even in play, how will it begin to be capable of dealing with complex, nuanced, spiritual issues? It can’t, and the hard fact is, we are always interpreting Scripture by something else. Even just selecting, say, half a dozen verses to back up some theological assertion is already interpretation (and this is so whether your theology is true or false). It’s interpretation because, correctly or not, you are interpreting those verses as (A) applicable to your argument, (B) favoring your argument, and (C) favoring your argument more than the other dozen verses you could have chosen.

Nobody in fact has (or ever did have) Sola Scriptura.

If Sola Scriptura were even possible, then true Sola Scripturists would neither have nor need anything else. But such items as the Westminster Confession, the Thirty-Nine Articles, or the Book of Concord bear witness that Scripture is always interpreted. Even to say, “Our interpretation is drawn wholly from Scripture” is to interpret Scripture a certain way, a point which ought to be obvious to all (and is, to most). Everybody who reads Scripture interprets it, and everybody inescapably does so according to some norm. This is unavoidable, and it's time to face up to this and admit it.

Moreover – another point to note most carefully! – whatever you are using to interpret (norm) the Holy Scriptures, you are de facto placing that above the Holy Scriptures. That's a very serious thing, a very high rank. We’d best be sure we choose well! Well and Scripturally.

Scripture calls the Church “the pillar and foundation of the Truth.”