Friday, September 2, 2011

The Limits of Sola Scriptura

Allow me to go ahead and express a few of my thoughts and convictions which may annoy potential future readers now, and get them out of the way. I do not oppose the concept at the root of the Sola Scriptura doctrine, which is to say that I agree with John Wesley that “In all cases, the Church is to be judged by the Scripture, not the Scripture by the Church.” That said I do not accept the expansion of this idea that has taken root, especially in many churches which self identify as Evangelical or Fundamentalist, such as the notion that God’s Word is easy to grasp for anyone of typical intelligence, with no special knowledge or education beyond the pages of Scripture itself.

I don’t mean for the above to sound elitist, and it is not my intention to claim that a typical member of the church requires a trained agent to guide him in bible study for it to be of value. I will lay out a few reasons for my objection in the hopes of dispelling the whiff of self aggrandizement.

First, I will address the simple issue of the history of the Scriptures and the nature of translation.  All copies of biblical text extant today for the layman to study are at best exact reprinting of second or third hand copies of original texts, most of which have been shown to differ among themselves in the original. Certainly, they may agree on critical doctrine (more on this later), but if copies may vary, how is a typical reader to know which passages are most certain, and which may be less firm? Why, only through outside knowledge given to him through education or from an expert. Let us not overlook the issue of translation, either. Alternate translations of the Bible into many languages abound, and in many passages are in conflicts with each other which would alter what an earnest seeker of guidance would feel is the Word of God. I cannot find any plain reading of the scripture not reliant upon outside knowledge or tradition which would inform me that in such cases I should place my faith in the King James version, or the New International version, or any other particular tradition, and yet a good number of churches which hold to the maximalist view of Sola Scriptura put forward a specific version as the one and only uncorrupted translation, a curious position to have reached from Scripture Alone.

Next I will address the logical fallacy of a self evident meaning to the Scriptures without context.  To begin, and expect to hear more on this in many future posts, our Savior taught primarily in parables. If one is to read the Bible context free, the meaning of these teaching would shift and roll like the sea at storm as the social institutions in which the parable were taught altered, changing the form of the lesson. This is clearly an absurd reality for a doctrine intended to promote the idea of an unchanging New Covenant for Christian life.  To understand and process what the Savior was teaching us, we must go outside of the Scriptures and seek knowledge of the culture and institutions in which he taught, knowledge that many a fine man of typical intelligence simply lacks when studying on his own, allowing his thoughts to reach quite odd conclusions. Starting from the other end, were these lessons truly self contained and clear to be read, surely there would not be so many heated and heartfelt arguments about what a passage means, or if two epistles conflict in their teachings, would there? To conclude, let me touch on the topic from a practical side; if Scripture is its own interpreter, why do so many deep advocates of a literal and inerrant Bible in practice work to correct and clarify the readings of those not yet dedicated to the orthodox positions of their own brand of Evangelism? While different in name and methods, is this really anything other than a sheepskin suit for the old Catholic practice of having the properly indoctrinated priest inform the laity what the Scriptures said? I have a hard time accepting it.

As a final criticism, let me speak on the limits of Scripture. It is generally, if not universally, accepted that the Bible is the collected writings needed for a good Christian life. I feel that many of the flaws in maximal application of Scripture Alone come from a misplaced effort to expand the Bible to be the guide for all that is in life period.  Clearly the Word of God is focused on what is needful for salvation. I believe and accept that God works in his own ways to ensure that the verses of scripture which reveal these truths are not corrupted or hidden. All translations speak of the Son of God, of his Baptism, Death and Resurrection, these are needful Doctrine. But is is needful for our salvation to know the exact size or nature of a building? No, and so God does not seek to “fix” the writings which would fail to produce a circle, or leave us unsure of the size of a temple, feeling that the impression of scale they give is “good enough” to convey his message to us. In many other items are the scriptures silent, as God has no need to speak to us of such things for our Salvation. In those items which are not speaking to our Salvation, I find it is impossible for a typical man to decide without a tradition, culture, or education to guide him what is literal and exact, what is literal and general, and what is figurative.  We are all informed by our own reason and by the teaching we are given outside of the Scriptures. No tradition, not even word for word biblical literalism can honestly claim to follow a pure path of Sola Scriptura without at least Reason, Tradition, or Authority influencing their faith and understanding of what bible passages mean.

If you feel that every word of the Bible is a literal truth, and that they establish an unchanging and complete guide to a Christian life and world view, how then do you reconcile the ongoing collection and translation of scriptures closer to the original writings which alter, add, and subtract significant facts from the Bible we have always read? Do you reject them, holding to a specific translation as eternal and true? Then I denounce your creed as blatantly not Sola Scriptura, relying upon an extra scriptural surety of a Greater Truth given to one translation above others, and once you rely upon extra Scriptural assurances, the claim of the Scriptures ultimate literal authority seems suspect. Do you accept them and correct your text? Then clearly you must accept that not every word is the literal and inerrant word of God, and discoveries yet to come may alter the meaning of other passages, and I implore you to hold fast to the teaching of Salvation and do not let your mortal lives be spent in futile effort to defend a truth which never was.

Allow me to state my own feelings explicitly, and to state for the record that these are my own conclusions and I do not assert them as infallible. 

I feel that the Old Testament is a record of the words and deeds of the Prophets of the Jews, men called by God and given powers to pronounce his word to his chosen people without flaw, as they were ready to receive it. I do not feel that it remains complete and accurate as first handed down by God, and suspect many records were made of, not by, these Prophets. The Old Testament we hold now contains a sure record protected by God from mistranslation and corruption enough to teach us the nature of his Chosen People, the evolution of their Covenant and the Trials they faced, leading to the coming of a Messiah.

I feel the New Testament is a record of the mission of Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, this Messiah, and the activities of His Church in the wake of his departure from this world. I feel that it records the truth of his nature as the Son of God, his Baptism and Mission, his Temptation and his Suffering, ultimately his Death and Resurrection, and the surety of his promise of Attonement this gives, of many of his teachings of proper word and attitude, and of the spread of his church and the resolution of many early conflicts within it. I feel that the record of these deeds was inspired, but the form of the books we have now is a work of Man, seeking to compile, correct, and editorialize the original record. I feel that God though his mysteries works to protect the core doctrine that we may known Christ, Jesus and have him as our Savior with a surety of salvation, even if we may have some confusion of exact actions, places, or events surrounding his ministry, these are not critical to knowing and following him.

I feel that it is a goodly, Christian, and valuable act to seek for ever more accurate records, to allow man to know more of the smaller details and non-critical facts of the life and times of our Savior, to restore a more authentic version of the Scriptures , that seeking for these truths and revising our understanding can only undermine the faith of those weakest in Christ who have not truly welcomed the Spirit, for they would know the salvation he brings does not depend upon which cave he was buried in, or if our calendar year is actually a record of the years since his birth. I will pray for those whose faith requires ignorance, and accept without malice that they will likely pray for me in turn.

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