Friday, January 22, 2010

Principles of sola Scriptura

Some Catholic epologists try to argue that sola Scriptura is self-refuting. Or they may argue that certain versions of sola Scriptura are self-refuting. I’ll probably have more to say about the logic (or lack thereof) of this objection. But let’s approach the issue from a different angle.

1.What’s the rationale for sola Scriptura? Well, let’s start with this question: who or what is the ultimate source and standard of our duties to God and man?

The answer to that question is God. God is naturally the final source and standard of our duties to God and man.

And why is that? Because God is our Maker, Redeemer, and/or Judge.

(I say “and/or” because God is the redeemer of the elect, but the judge of the reprobate.)

God is just and true. Hence, whatever God does is just and true (i.e. true to his character).

We are uniquely obligated to God for our being and wellbeing. We are his creatures. And he endowed us with a specific nature. Our duties are a reflection of our nature.

That relationship constitutes the metaphysical basis of ethics.

2.And the order of being (metaphysics) carries over into the order of knowing (epistemology). Because God is just and true, whatever he does is just and true.

By the same token, whatever he says is just and true. Because God is the ontological source and standard of our duties to God and man, he is also the epistemic source of our duties to God and man.

God is uniquely qualified to tell us what our duties are-both to him and to our fellow man–the way an autoengineer is uniquely qualified to write the owner’s manual for the car he designed.

3.Apropos (2), God’s words are the final source and standard of our duties to God and man. Put another way, divine revelation is the only rule of faith and life.

Here I’m using “rule” as a synonym for the ultimate criterion.

This doesn’t mean we can’t have other sources of information. But they don’t set the standard.

4.This is the principle which underlies sola Scriptura. Inscripturated revelation is a special case of general revelation.

In theory, the mode divine revelation can employ the spoken word or the written word. It can take the form of visionary revelation–although mere imagery is uninformative unless there’s some key to the significance of the imagery.

In theory, mode of divine revelation can also be telepathic. Bypass the audiovisual media if God were to communicate his message directly to the mind of the recipient.

And, at one time or another, God has used all these modalities.

5.The Bible itself bears witness to (1-4).

6.The next question we need to ask is how and where to find God’s words for his people. For we no longer live in the age of public revelation. God no longer speaks to his people through prophets and apostles.

Even if, say, he were to give a foreign missionary a private revelation (e.g. “Don’t go into the jungle tomorrow!”), that isn’t given to or for God’s people collectively.

I’d add that Catholicism accepts this distinction as well. Catholicism also admits that the age of public revelation is over. Even if Jesus appears to Teresa of Avila in a vision, her private revelation isn’t binding on a second party. The faithful aren’t bound to believe or accede to her ostensible private revelation.

7.The Bible lays great emphasis on the necessity of a written record of revelation for the benefit of posterity. And that’s bound up with the nature of a covenant community. The covenant is a document. It supplies a common reference point for different members of the covenant community.

Over the long-haul, oral tradition won’t do. Uninspired memories won’t do.

Inspired written words transcribe inspired spoken words. Unless we have an inspired transcription (or paraphrase) of inspired speech, we no longer have inspired words. Rather, we have somebody’s uninspired memory of who said what.

OT prophets spoke the word of God. But it’s not coincidental that we have written records of their speeches. God didn’t leave it to the vicissitudes of oral tradition to preserve the words of Isaiah for later generations.

Peter and Paul both spoke and wrote the word of God. And we have some of their letters.

But what’s striking is that we also have written records of speeches they made (in Acts). God didn’t leave it to the vicissitudes of oral tradition to preserve their speeches. He inspired Luke to transcribe (or paraphrase) their speeches.

Jesus didn’t write anything down. Yet God inspired Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to record his speeches. To leave us a written record of his speeches.

Of course, God is selective in what he chooses to preserve. It isn’t necessary to have a record of everything an apostle or prophet said. Just representative speeches and writings.

8.We find God’s words by using our God-given faculties. Scripture itself bears witness to our God-given faculties. So there’s nothing unscriptural about using ordinary lines of evidence to find where God has deposited his word.

That’s no more at odds with sola Scripture than using our eyes to read the Bible or accessing our memories to recollect what we read.

Likewise, God, in his providence, as put certain evidence at our disposal. Since the Bible bears witness to the providence of God, there’s nothing unscriptural about sifting the evidence which God has providentially preserved for our benefit.

There's more than could be said, but it's useful to clarify one thing at a time.


  1. "But let’s approach the issue from a different angle."

    One helpful approach is to identify and expose strawmen mischaracterizations of what Sola Scriptura really means and says.

    This post helps immensely to illuminate Sola Scriptura which would hopefully then have the byproduct of eliminating the weeds and seeds of strawman objections to the fragrant flower of Sola Scriptura.

  2. And I suppose the opposite is true with one caveat?


    Without God, the opposite could not be true.

    Although I am pondering the last enemy, this enemy is "Death", your elucidation today helps me and comforts me the more I see his handiwork!

    Thank you!

    Oh the writing, the writing:

    1 Cor. 15:26

    You too, be encouraged:::>

    Rom 15:13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.


    Rom 16:20 The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

    It is my earnest prayer, these Words of God, that by them I too now throw in with all others to hasten the coming of the Day of the Lord:::>

    1Ch 16:31 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice, and let them say among the nations, "The LORD reigns!"
    1Ch 16:32 Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it!
    1Ch 16:33 Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth.
    1Ch 16:34 Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!

  3. I'm glad that you phrased the issue this way. I think it really does boil down to an issue of revelation, rather than an argument about written vs. "oral" tradition.

    Too often I think the debate gets sidetracked with discussions about "living magisteriums" versus the "dead letter", etc. When you think about it, what really is being claimed for oral tradition?

    They are not suggesting secret word-of-mouth teaching down through the centuries, as if one pope whispers in the ear of another and so on. At the same time, even they no longer maintain that all of their doctrine was there in full from the beginning. Rather, they claim "development".

    But if doctrines develop, then by definition they are no longer in the form in which they were originally taught. So you're no longer talking about the oral revelation of the apostles themselves, but rather something that developed out of that.

    But where is the basis for this development, if not in some new kind of revelation? Even if you subscribe to a mild theory of development -- say, that the church merely recognizes or more fully comprehends something that was there all along -- you still have this change in understanding from what was originally there.

    How do you know, and more to the point, how can you authoritatively state, that this changed understanding comports with God's revelation? When you consider claims of infallibility, the continuing (in a sense) incarnation of Christ in the church, and "interpretive authority", I think what it boils down to is a claim of continued public revelation through the church.

    It's not really "written vs. oral", it's "final vs. continuing". They may "admit that the age of public revelation is over" in theory, but I don't see how that works out in practice.

  4. Good post, Steve. These arguments can get so convoluted but the idea is actually quite simple, at least in my mind.

  5. It should also be said that while all forms of God's special revelation are equally authoritative because they are GOD'S Word (whether verbally through a prophet, through an auditory voice (interally or externally heard), through visions/dreams, through angelic message).

    Yet, *since* the time of Moses when special revelation started to become inscripturated in the covenant community, all additional alleged revelations (including written) needed to be tested by the already accepted and acknowledged Scriptures in the covenant community.

    So, for example, before the book of Esther could be included in the canon, at the very least, it could not have contradicted the Scriptures already known to be part of the Canon. The same goes for a generally reliable prophet.

    Isaiah's divinely claimed pronouncements and prophecies were to be believed because he was known to be a prophet who had genuinely spoken in the past for the God of Israel. However, knowing that a prophet could backslide (Jonah 1) or tell untruths (1Kings 13:18), anything a prophet might say must still always be tested by a past certain revelation (whether unwritten, but especially the written Scriptures (Deut 18:14-22)).

    So, in 1 Kings 13, the younger prophet should have tested the pronouncements of the older prophet by what he (the younger prophet) *KNEW* to be Jehovah's past (auditory?) Word to him. If he had, he would have known that the older prophet's pronouncement was not truly from Jehovah. Even though in the past the older prophet was genuinely used by God as His mouthpiece. In fact, after the old prophet lied, God speaks through the old prophet again in judgement against the younger prophet for not abiding by the earlier revelation he (the younger) had received and known to be from God. He should have realized that the newer alleged revelation by the older prophet contradicted God's revelation to him and therefore must not be from God since God cannot contradict Himself.

    In the same way, Isaiah's claimed (additional) divine pronouncements needed to be tested by Scripture. Same with his prophecies. While some of Isaiah's prophecies would not be fulfilled in the lifetime of his hearers, what could be tested had to be in keeping with and not contradict Scripture. They also had to come to pass as predicted. Otherwise, it could be known to be a false prophecy.

    Since Catholics acknowledge that public universally binding special revelation has ceased with the death of the Apostles, all alleged further private revelations or alleged traditions must be tested by the only source of unquestioned infallible and inspired Revelation, namely the Holy Scriptures.

    In times past, when public universally binding revelation was still being given, infallibility went hand-in-hand with inspiration. Or if it was a tradition that wasn't necessarily "inspired", yet God ordained/required (e.g. some specific about temple worship), it could nevertheless be approved or rejected by someone who was a Prophet or Apostle (so long as he met the criteria mentioned above).

    But in this day, there are no such OT Prophets or NT Apostles. Therefore, it's Catholics who have introduced a theological novum by requiring us to accept as infallible, teachings that are ADMITTEDLY uninspired and/or aren't public universally binding special revelation.

  6. I'm rephrasing something in my earlier post.

    Since Catholics acknowledge that [the giving of] public universally binding special revelation has ceased with the death of the Apostles, all alleged further private revelations or alleged traditions must be tested by the only source of unquestioned infallible and inspired Revelation [AVAILABLE TO US], namely the Holy Scriptures.