I recently posted an article entitled The Scriptures Alone: 45,000 denominations can’t be wrong, in which I reflect a bit on the result of five centuries of Protestantism. I would suggest that the one thing that unifies Protestants is the concept of Sola Scriptura; a Latin phrase meaning the scriptures alone. Now of course this phrase needs a bit of unpacking. Protestants do not mean by this that they will not use church buildings or have some degree of clergy (although some have come to that sort of conclusion), generally they mean that the Old and New Testament in the Protestant bible is sufficient to guide the church in matters of faith and practice. Noted Protestant speaker and pastor John MacArthur defines Sola Scriptura in this way:
The Reformation principle of sola Scriptura has to do with the sufficiency of Scripture as our supreme authority in all spiritual matters. Sola Scriptura simply means that all truth necessary for our salvation and spiritual life is taught either explicitly or implicitly in Scripture.
This is certainly a noble sounding proposition. It is little wonder that this became the mantra of the Reformation. If you found yourself in the position of Martin Luther, a Monk in the 1500’s, and you were hoping to take on an institution with the history and prestige of the Roman Catholic Church, you would need to appeal to something with equal prestige and sanctity. What better to appeal to than the sacred scriptures? In fact, says the Reformer, the traditions of the Church may have Apostolic authority, but the scriptures are the Word of God. Surely God’s Word is higher than the words of mere men – even Apostles? So off we go with a sure thing. Except, as I point out in the previous article, things do not go so well. Multitudes of denominations and splinter groups later, Sola Scriptura has failed to produce what it promised. I would contend that if the scriptures alone were truly sufficient as the rule of faith and practice, then this approach should have produced a somewhat unified Protestant church. Particularly in the area of faith and practice; which is ironically where they are most divided. It seems obvious that sola scriptura is not sufficient, after all in regards to establishing the faith and practice for the Church of God.
The question that then seems to linger is this: why does sola scriptura not work? The answer to this is quite subtle. In fact it may take an exhausted, truth seeking protestant-turned-convert to arrive at the answer. (One such as myself). In order to demonstrate the point let us examine a few issues that arise in Protestantism. For instance let us look at cessationism (gifts of the Holy Spirit have ceased to operate in the Church) vs continuationism (gifts still operate). I don’t want to bore the reader with the details here, the bottom line is that one camp affirms that the Holy Spirit still imparts supernatural gifts through the Church and the other denies that this is the case. This while both use the exact same Bible to arrive at their conclusions. I am going to pick on the Cessationists here because they offer a great opportunity to demonstrate the point. The Cessationist Protestant, sola scriptura to the core, picks up his Bible (utterly sufficient for faith and practice) and then ignores and dismisses large portions that teach about and indicate the value of Spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12-14 for instance). (Whether one agree or disagrees with the Charismatic practice of gifts is irrelevant to this point). Why do they ignore these passages? Because he and his group have developed an interpretive system that declares that those passages no longer apply to modern Christians. Let this sink in: they have developed a tradition that they use to interpret scripture; further one that legislates the applicability of New Testament scriptures.
And least our Continuationist Protestant friends rejoice too much, let’s talk about about a continued action of the Holy Spirit. You see, one of the issues that Cessationists raise against Continuationists is this: If the Holy Spirit is still speaking in the Church, then how can the Bible be the only word on faith and practice? It would seem that the doctrine of sola scriptura implies a cessation of God’s actions through the Church; at least in the mind of some Cessationists. In fact they do have a point. You cannot contend that the Holy Spirit is still acting and guiding the Church, while maintaining that the scriptures alone are sufficient to give direction in all spiritual matters. You would have to admit that the Holy Spirit, acting in the Church, is just as authoritative as the Holy Spirit inspiring the scriptures. What our Charismatic Protestant friends then have is not sola scriptura but prima scriptura; which is actually the correct approach. (Also perhaps another reason why Mike Spreng writes that “Charismatics should become Orthodox”.) Fr David Moser says that the Holy Scriptures are like a beautiful diamond in the midst of a pendant. He compares the other jewels in the setting to “the lives of the saints, the writings of the fathers, the services and traditions of the Church.” The Holy Scripture is the centerpiece of God’s Revelation, it however is not the only part of that revelation. Further, the scriptures never make a claim that they are given as a rule of faith and practice. This, according to St. Paul, is in the hands of those God has given to the Church (See Eph 4:11). Sola scriptura makes the error of using the scriptures for something for which they were never intended. In fact, the idea that “all truth necessary for our salvation and spiritual life is taught either explicitly or implicitly in Scripture”, is a tradition that is used to interpret the scripture that is not found in the scripture. Thus Sola Scriptura is a self-defeating proposition.
I could press the points here further, but the point that we hopefully have established is simply this – not the first Sola Scriptura, Protestant Church is truly practicing Sola Scriptura. Each and every one of them is interpreting the scripture in light of their own tradition. Sola Scriptura while purporting to exalt the scripture above all, in the end, becomes a means to exalt the opinion of an individual teacher or group of individuals to that of Divine inspiration. What we end up with is a sort of hyper-individualism that drives Protestantism. There was once an old story related by the famed pastor and theologian H. A. Ironside about a Baptist congregation in the hills of Tennessee that broke from the larger First Church because they were convinced that Communion should be taken from a singular cup. He then added that this splinter group then split because they could not agree on whether or not the cup should have a handle. Then there is the more modern joke of the Protestant who was stranded on a deserted island. When rescued the rescuers notice a small hut and ask the castaway what it is used for. He responds “that is where I go to Church.” They then note another building and ask “what is that one for.” He responds “that is where I used to go to Church.” I think this joke perhaps highlights the issue surrounding Sola Scriptura, it leads to a hyper-individualism. Commenting on this joke, Protestant Evangelical David Jeffers writes:
“As funny as the story is, just how far from the truth is it? We’ve heard of the stories of churches splitting for the color of the carpet, piano, piano benches, even a peg for a pastor to hang up his hat.”
Jeffers then goes on to indicate that division was nothing uncommon in the New Testament. I would in fact agree. This is why St. Paul says “No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval.” What Jeffers and other Protestants seem to miss however is that these divisions in the New Testament record were the catalyst of Apostolic intervention and, in extreme cases, counsels that gathered the entire Church together. Seeing that this was the practice of the Apostles in the New Testament record, why would it be surprising if this was continued by the disciples of those very Apostles? Did Christ not promise: Truly I tell you, whatever you bind onearth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on the earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, I tell you truly that if two of you on the earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by My Father in heaven. Would this not certainly have applied to the Bishops of all the Churches agreeing together in council?
It did not take long for the earliest Protestant denominations to realize this tendency toward hyper-individualism. Soon they themselves were contending with issues over the Deity of Christ, the necessity (or lack thereof) of sacraments, the role of the clergy and much more. These of course were questions that had been dealt with and put to rest in Christianity centuries before, but now that the Pandora’s Box of inspired opinion had been released, the flood could hardly be retained. What authority could they appeal to in order to silence the heretic when they had assured him that all he needed was his opinion and his Bible? Of course this is why the most early denominations developed confessions of faith, creeds or some sort of guiding code that gave them an identity. In other words, they soon saw that Sola Scriptura was untenable and reverted to the some form of tradition in order to guide interpretation. The distinction being that this new tradition could not be said to have been the faith which has been “believed everywhere, always, by all.”
When we contrast Sola Scriptura to that of Inspired Tradition we do not see a debate over the importance of scripture. Both views would contend that the scripture is inspired, and inerrant. Both would place the scriptures at the pinnacle of God’s Revelation to humankind. The subtle difference is in who has the authority to guide our understanding of what the scriptures mean. Those who hold to Inspired Tradition would say that this is never to be given to private interpretation but rather should be the function of the whole Church, as witnessed in every time and every place. The adherent to Sola Scriptura must maintain that the opinion of the individual is sufficient. One view lends itself to unity, the other to division. One appeals to the leadership of the Holy Spirit in the Church, the other seems to put more confidence in the intellect of individuals.
Finally, Sola Scriptura does not work because it circumvents the will of Christ for His Church. It erodes unity and leads to confusion. It places the imagination of the individual above the counsel of God. It reduces the manifestation of Christ in His Church to that of “everyman doing that which is right in his own eyes.” I do not insinuate that Protestants now, nor those of the Reformation were not sincere. I do not feel that their intentions were diabolical. There was indeed a need for reformation … in fact repentance, in the Western Church; a return to the common faith and fellowship of the Whole (catholic) Church. I believe in fact that the intentions of the Reformation was to return the West to the ancient faith. Their intention was right, their method was wrong; five centuries of division seems proof enough.