Monday, September 01, 2008

Sola Scriptura

Josh says in the comments that he was taught to ask the questions "Says who?" and "On what authority?" And it is those questions that has led him to question the reliability of some protestant doctrinal stances (Josh, correct me if I'm misrepresenting you).

Of course this goes to the heart of one of the central points of difference between Protestants and Orthodox and Roman Catholics. Protestants say that Scripture is the only ultimate, infallible authority, Orthodox point to Tradition/the Church as the ultimate authority, and Roman Catholics have the Pope. Orthodox and Roman Catholics object to the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura on the grounds that this introduces anarchy into the Church. Instead of one Pope, we now have millions. And granted, there are plenty of anabaptists still carrying on like they are in fact descended from St. Peter, and some of them call themselves "presbyterian" or "reformed."

But the Magisterial Reformers have always been at war with such unbridled autonomy. At the same time, they also insisted that the Church could submit to the Scriptures as ultimate without resulting in relativistic splintering. They said that the Scriptures could be (and are) ultimate, and what they authoritatively say is not a secret so deep we need bishops to decipher the code nor is it so mysterious that disagreement between interpreters means it is insufficient. Of course all branches of Christendom hold the Scriptures in high regard, please don't misunderstand me. The question that we keep bumping into is whose interpretation is correct? And how do you know?

But one of the fundamental problems with asking the question this way is that it already assumes that Scripture isn't clear. Is the Word of God unclear? Or do reckless men twist the Scriptures to their own destruction? Yes, I know that there are some things that are hard to understand, but it is our problem, not God's, right?

And the comeback I anticipate is: Well, why do we have denominations and sects breeding like maggots in a trash can? How come every time you blink there's a new group of people and churches forming a new association and excommunicating the rest of Christendom? But my point is that in so far as these are acts of schism, bitterness, envy, and arrogance, they are acts of sin. And anyone who's been around the block in Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism knows that those sins are not absent there either. Unity on paper is not closer to real unity of purpose, unity of mind, communion of the saints, etc. And often this counterfeit unity passes for the real deal. We have apostolic succession, they solemnly insist, and meanwhile various branches of the church transfer their allegiance to a different archbishop, a different metropolitan, and they can call it "autocephalous" or "transferring jurisdictions" and claim they cannot be accused of being protestant schismatics. Come on, people. Just because Protestants tend to do their laundry out in public for everyone to see doesn't mean our Roman and Eastern brothers aren't busy bickering and dividing over their issues.

And the point: the sin of schism does not prove that Scripture is any less clear or any less sufficient for our needs. It does not prove that we need a class of gypsy priests to interpret the Scriptures like so many tea leaves for the ignorant masses. In fact, if anything, it proves our need for God's Word, and our insufficiency as sinful humans.


Anonymous said...

Pastor Sumpter,

"But one of the fundamental problems with asking the question this way is that it already assumes that Scripture isn't clear. Is the Word of God unclear?"

I would highly encourage you to read Capon's "The Parables of the Kingdom" on this one. I'd be interested in hearing a defense of the idea that the Word of God is "clear." Where does this assumption come from? And what do we mean by "clear"?

Let me toss this one back at you: Would you agree or disagree with, "The Gospel is so simple that even a child can understand it"?

Toby said...

When the Protestant tradition appeals to the sufficiency of Scripture or it's clarity on the fundamentals of the gospel, we mean that it is like milk for newborn babes (1 Pet 2:2). We mean that Scripture is light that illumines our paths (Ps. 119:105). In fact Scripture is written such that it gives understanding to the simple, "the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple" (Ps. 19:7, 119:130). The idea that Scripture is clear means that it's a good and worthwhile endeavor to "search the Scriptures daily" to see if what apostles or pastors or bishops say is true (e.g. Acts 17:11).

What I've read of Capon I tend to appreciate, and I would look forward to being equally challenged and appreciative of his work on the parables/gospels, etc. And to be sure, I am not saying that the Scriptures are easy, shallow, or simplistic. At the same time, to answer your question, the Scriptures are used of God to declare clearly the basic reality of the gospel, such that even a child can understand it. It's light that even a child can see, it's honey that a child can taste, and St. Peter says that in some sense you can't understand the Scriptures unless you become like a little child.

What sayest thou?

Anonymous said...

Pastor Sumpter,

The short of what I'd say is that any truly good theology of the Gospel accounts for dead babies and Helen Keller without gerrymandering definitions or making special exceptions.

I'm not saying you don't or can't do that, but I don't think what you've written so far as particularly satisfying. I think, though, you have more to say...