Sunday, October 06, 2013

The perilous and exciting doctrine of Sola Scriptura

The Shape of Sola Scriptura by Keith A. Mathison

Sola Scriptura ("Scripture alone") was one of the slogans of the Reformation. According to Mathison, it is the idea that the Bible alone is the ultimate source of authority. This book explains what the doctrine is, and also what it isn't, and Mathison says some things that will come as a surprise to many readers. I, for one, learned a lot while reading it.

In the first place, Mathison convincingly argues that Sola Scriptura was not a Reformation innovation. On the contrary, it was the Roman Catholic view of tradition that was the new idea. The Council of Trent states thatsaving truth, and moral discipline... are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand.” Yet this idea of unwritten apostolic tradition really only comes from the 12th century  a mere 400 years before the Reformation. 

Mathison argues that the doctrine has four components:
    1. Scripture is the sole source of revelation
    2. Scripture is the final authoritative norm of doctrine and practice
    3. Scripture is to be interpreted in and by the Church
    4. Scripture is to be interpreted according to the Rule of Faith
Mathison is not just critiquing the Roman Catholic view; he also criticises the view of the Radical Reformers, liberal Christianity, sects such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, and many modern evangelicals, who all say that Scripture is not just the sole infallible authority, but the only authority altogether. This is summed up in Alexander Campbell's statement, “I have endeavored to read the Scriptures as though no one had read them before me” and the slogan, “No creed but Christ, no book but the Bible”.

Mathison repeatedly emphasises that this is not the Reformer's doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Rather he says that according to Sola Scriptura, the Bible is to be interpreted “in and by the Church” – it's not just me and the Bible – and “according to the Rule of Faith”, by which he means the ecumenical creeds. In other words, if I read the Bible and conclude that there is no Trinity, I'm reading it wrong. Mathison notes that heretics have often appealed to "the Bible only", and this is not what the Reformers had in mind.

So Scripture is the only infallible authority in the Church, but there are other, lesser authorities below the Bible. I think we express this well in my denomination – the Basis of Union of the Presbyterian Church of Australia declares that the Bible is the "Supreme Standard", and the Westminster Confession is the "Subordinate Standard".

And thus Mathison steers us between the Scylla of “both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence” (as the Second Vatican Council put it) and the Charybdis of “No book but the Bible”. And although G. K. Chesterton might not have believed in Sola Scriptura, he was right when he said that there was nothing “so perilous or exciting as orthodoxy”.

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