In Defense of Sola Scriptura

I ran across an Instagram post the other day that contained a 5 point argument against Sola Scriptura (although, it was more of an argument against the Protestant conception of canon, though that was misrepresented as well). The argument was as follows:

  1. If Sola Scriptura is true, then all important theological data necessary for doctrine is found in Scripture.
  2. The canon is an important theological datum necessary for doctrine.
  3. The canon is NOT found in Scripture.
  4. Therefore an important theological datum is not found in Scripture.
  5. Therefore Sola Scriptura is false.

I’m going to tackle this premise by premise, demonstrating that the conclusions do not follow from the premises.

If Sola Scriptura is true, then all important theological data necessary for doctrine is found in Scripture.

This premise, so far as I can tell, is pretty much true. God has deposited all we need to know in the Scriptures. However, not “all important theological data” are found in Scripture. Many things that we would like to know are hidden from us nonetheless. Deuteronomy 29:29 says, “The secret things belong to Yahweh our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” In this sense, Scripture does not contain all theological data necessary for doctrine, but rather all theological data necessary for us to know in this life.

The canon is an important theological datum necessary for doctrine.

At this point, the problem is confounded for the Catholics. If this statement is true (which I think it is), then an important theological datum necessary for doctrine was missing for 1500 years after the death of Christ, because the canon was not defined dogmatically by the Catholic Church until 1546. Certain regional councils (the Council of Carthage, for example) had attempted to do so, but nothing was ever set in stone. It took Luther’s challenge to the then widely accepted canon of the Council of Florence in the 15th century (an ecumenical council that sought to heal the divide between Rome and various other schismatic churches, including Eastern Orthodoxy) to spur the Church into action. Florence was not dogmatic; hence, the need to further declare the canon and anathematize those who disagreed. But while all this talk of history is of merit, what is beneficial is the consideration of the theological implications of canon, outlined in my response to the third premise.

The canon is NOT found in Scripture.

Now, this is confusing. The canon, after all, is the books that make up Scripture; so the canon is Scripture. The word “canon” means “rule” or “rod,” something by which other things are judged. But what the argument here refers to is the list of those books, as though the table of contents at the beginning of our Bibles is the inspired 67th (or 74th) book of the Bible. It’s not the list that is inspired; the Scriptures are.

It’s helpful here to differentiate between what is called Canon 1, and what is called Canon 2. Canon 1 comes into existence by necessity of God writing a book. Once God inspires something, a canon of his work comes into existence; there is no need to write it down or to have an inspired list for the canon to be in existence. What’s left to be done is for the church to recognize (not declare) what books God has written and which ones he hasn’t. Since the Scriptures by nature are “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16) and Jesus’ “sheep hear [his] voice” (John 10:27), Scripture must needs be recognizable to those who believe.

Canon 2 is distinct from Canon 1 in that it comprises the fallible list of books that the church has recognized as God-breathed. While Canon 1 contains all the books God has written (and none of those that he hasn’t), Canon 2 contains all the books that the church has believed to be authentically inspired by God; the church may err in this, as she has throughout history (just look at the canon list of Carthage, or the church fathers who considered pseudepigraphical works like The Shepherd of Hermas or the Epistle of Barnabas to be Scripture). However, as it has worked out in history, God’s people has always recognized the books he has written: the Jews believed the Tanakh (the 39 books of the Protestant Old Testament) to be Scripture, and the church was pretty much agreed on the New Testament canon by the time Athanasius sent out his 39th Festal Letter, wherein he listed the 27 books that make up the NT canon in the order that we have them now.

So no, Canon 2 (the fallible list, i.e. table of contents) is not found in Scripture, and is not inspired of God—but considering Canon 1 is Scripture, the claim is ridiculous. I refer you to White, James R., Scripture Alone for a fuller treatment of this topic.

Therefore an important theological datum is not found in Scripture.

The conclusion does not follow from the premises.

Therefore Sola Scriptura is false.

The conclusion does not follow from the premises.

Conclusion

Sola Scriptura is necessary for establishing doctrine. We know what the canon is; God wrote a book, and we recognize his voice. Scripture, as it exists, is sufficient for any and all doctrine. As the canon is merely an artifact of revelation, it exists by necessity of God having written a book. Since it comprises the books of Scripture, it by definition cannot be something contained within Scripture. God chose not to inspire a list of the books of Scripture; claiming that he must have done so for Sola Scriptura to be true is erroneous.

Advertisements

8 thoughts on “In Defense of Sola Scriptura

  1. I may be conflating ideas (and if I am, I apologize). First question in a nutshell: if sola scriptura is true, and is widely accepted through protestantism, why do the branches of protestantism arrive at such different conclusions on major practical matters?

    For example, if sola scriptura is true, shouldn’t the bible tell us the manner in which baptism is to be performed, the age at which it is to be performed, and by whom it is to be performed. While you may have your answer to these questions, so do people who take opposing viewpoints. How would you propose to discern who is right or do you just accept an inherent fungibility and variability in the practice of christianity, all of which you take to be true?

    Secondary question not entirely related to this article: why do you claim the Bible as the whole word of your god when the Bible itself doesn’t claim that? Should there not be space for further revelations and prophetic guidance (as was always the method employed by Yahweh in biblical history)?

    P.S. I left these comments on the Freed Thinker Facebook page, and if you’d prefer we can have the discussion there. I just thought there was no reason not to leave them here too. I know my blog posts get lonely when no one comments here, only Facebook.

    Like

    1. Hi Zach,

      I may be conflating ideas (and if I am, I apologize). First question in a nutshell: if sola scriptura is true, and is widely accepted through protestantism, why do the branches of protestantism arrive at such different conclusions on major practical matters?

      Much of the time, this is to do with a lack of fidelity to both Scripture Alone and Tota Scriptura, that is, “all of Scripture.” It’s all well and good if you believe Scripture to be the sole infallible rule of faith for the church, but if you don’t believe all of Scripture, you are inevitably going to mess things up.

      For example, if sola scriptura is true, shouldn’t the bible tell us the manner in which baptism is to be performed, the age at which it is to be performed, and by whom it is to be performed. While you may have your answer to these questions, so do people who take opposing viewpoints. How would you propose to discern who is right or do you just accept an inherent fungibility and variability in the practice of christianity, all of which you take to be true?

      The Reformers recognized that while Scripture is sufficient to establish all doctrines of the Christian faith, some things are not as clear as others. Baptism is one such instance. Church government is another. Some things must be arrived at by “good and necessary consequence,” or if you’d rather, deductive reasoning, based both on the clear doctrines of Scripture and inferences made therefrom. I refer you to what they said on the matter:

      The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

      All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

      (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1, Sections 6-7)

      This essentially means that there is room for Christians to disagree because sometimes the Word is not as clear as we’d like it to be. Still, the denial of the Word as the sole infallible authority does not solve the issue, but rather compounds it, allowing any invention of doctrine to go unchallenged or accepted as some sort of “tradition.”

      Secondary question not entirely related to this article: why do you claim the Bible as the whole word of your god when the Bible itself doesn’t claim that? Should there not be space for further revelations and prophetic guidance (as was always the method employed by Yahweh in biblical history)?

      I will infer from these comments that you are not a Christian. If I am mistaken, let me know.

      The Bible evidences itself to be the Word of God in many different ways. In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, he says that the Old Testament Scriptures are “breathed out by God,” that is, so intimately connected with the Creator that it is as though He placed a page before his mouth to catch the very breath that of necessity comes forth when one speaks (2 Timothy 3:16). Peter likewise mentions that “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (1 Peter 1:21). So at least the Old Testament Scriptures are rightly called “the Word of God,” and they were recognized as such by the Apostles and Christians.

      But what about the New Testament? Several clues within the New Testament itself point us to the fact that its authors knew that they were writing authoritatively, under the inspiration of the Spirit, in much the same fashion that the Old Testament had been written. Peter seems to imply that Paul’s letters are Scripture in 2 Peter 3:16 – “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” He would not number Paul’s letters among the “other Scriptures” if he did not see them as God-breathed. A second example can be found in Paul’s first letter to Timothy, where he quotes first from Deuteronomy, and then from the gospel of Luke, calling them both Scripture and implying that he saw them as equal in authority – “For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.'” This at least tells us that Paul’s letters and the gospel of Luke were seen as inspired and authoritative in the first century, and leaves open the possibility that more was yet to be written.

      Finally, the letter to the Hebrews explains why we ought not expect any more revelation – “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Hebrews 1:1-2). Jesus Christ is God’s revelation to his people in these “last days.” We needn’t look for anything more. The Son is the fullness of God’s self-revelation to his people, tying up every loose end and fulfilling every last former word. Prophetic guidance, while it might be nice, is not necessary because of the sufficiency of the Word, Jesus, as explained by the Word, the Scriptures.

      Again I quote the Westminster Confession:

      Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.

      2 Timothy 3:16-17 reads, “All Scripture is breathed out by God, and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” If the Scriptures are somehow deficient, such that we need tradition or further revelation from God, then they cannot truly equip men of God for every good work, as there must needs be some work equipped by the tradition or further revelation. The man of God would then not be made complete by the Scriptures, but rather the Scriptures and whatever else we might append to them. This is why I believe it absolutely necessary that we cling to the Bible as the only infallible rule of faith.

      Regards,
      Jay

      Like

      1. Jay, thanks for responding. I think this is a really important issue and I’m glad we can discuss it.

        Couple of broad points before I start. You say that you “will infer from these comments that [I am] not a Christian”. You can proceed on that assumption if you want, though I don’t know why it should matter for the purposes of this discussion. We’re talking about whether you can argue that the Bible is the whole word of this god, so personal convictions shouldn’t really enter into it.

        You quote rather heavily from the Westminster Confession, which is fine except that it isn’t in the Bible and by your standard shouldn’t be taken as having the authority of the word of your god. As I say, I certainly don’t mind you using it, but let’s just be clear about its limits.

        I’m just going to take the rest of this in order, if that is alright.

        “Some things must be arrived at by ‘good and necessary consequence,’ or if you’d rather, deductive reasoning, based both on the clear doctrines of Scripture and inferences made therefrom.”

        So, because some things aren’t spelled out in the Bible (and because the reformers had no other source of authority) they allowed for the use of reason and expediency to form their doctrines and practices. Again, like with baptism, this is only acceptable if you believe that your god is okay with variability in how he is worshipped. If he is okay with some people praying certain words and others using other words; some baptizing by sprinkling and others by immersion; some holding very different views of the end times; etc. Do you think your god is okay with that kind of variability? If not, why isn’t it better spelled out in the Bible to which you think people should be limited?

        “the denial of the Word as the sole infallible authority does not solve the issue, but rather compounds it, allowing any invention of doctrine to go unchallenged or accepted as some sort of ‘tradition.'”

        This doesn’t strike me as particularly relevant. I don’t see why the problem of making life more complicated has bearing on whether the doctrine in question is true. To employ an imperfect example, it would have been simpler if the Jews could have done their sacrifices at home, but their gods mandated they go to the temple at Jerusalem.

        You go on for some length about how the Bible says it is the word of this god, which isn’t really relevant to the issue at hand, which is whether the collection of books and letters commonly agreed by members of your religion should be deemed the totality of the words of your god.

        You quoting 2 Peter 3:16 seems to support the point of the need for something more authoritative than written words in settling matters of doctrine. He is literally talking about how men twist the words out of their poor understanding (or malice). Hebrews 1 says that this god has spoken through prophets then spoke through his son. It does not say that he will not speak through prophets any more or that the canon is sealed, as you put it:

        “We needn’t look for anything more. The Son is the fullness of God’s self-revelation to his people, tying up every loose end and fulfilling every last former word. Prophetic guidance, while it might be nice, is not necessary because of the sufficiency of the Word, Jesus, as explained by the Word, the Scriptures.”

        Except that the scriptures you cited don’t say that. They say, these words are from God, that He used to speak through prophets, and that he has most recently spoken through his son. Even the passage of the Westminster confession repeats what we’ve been talking about from scripture, but then it just flatly states “those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.” What is bothersome is that it does so without any citation or reason, it simply asserts this as true. If they had a revelation or a scripture, I could respect that, but how could you say with a straight face that the Bible has all the words of your god and that there will be no more when the Bible itself doesn’t say that?

        The 2 Timothy verse is a stretch to draw that conclusion, please tell me you see that.

        The questions I end up with are the ones that I asked originally: is your god satisfied by being worshipped in such diverse (and often conflicting) ways, and if the Bible doesn’t explicitly say the canon is closed, why do you.

        Put another way, why should there be no room in your theology for more words from your god? More prophets? More authority?

        Like

  2. So, getting back to that original argument against Sola Scriptura… is it really saying that its own self-sufficiency isn’t valid because it doesn’t identify itself within itself?

    It seems like I know somebody else who likes to twist words like that.

    Deductive or inductive reasoning is all fine and good in the classroom and in the laboratory, but I don’t think there’s any formula or algorithm that can confine the thoughts and wishes of the Creator of this universe.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Unless I’m badly missing something, you didn’t actually attempt to refute either of my questions, you just restated one of them in the most convoluted way possible to make them seem absurd.

      To restate briefly: sola scripture claims or implies that all truths necessary for salvation are contained within the Bible, despite the fact that the Bible itself does not make that claim. Even setting that aside, we still have the issue of how people take that Bible and draw vastly different conclusions on matters that ought to be (or at least could be) essential to salvation, which I think would undercut the argument that the Bible is all you need.

      Do you disagree that either of those points are true? If you disagree with either of them, could you tell me why? If you do not disagree that they are true, how are they not a problem for the sola scriptura position.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s