Why Sola Scriptura honestly scares me

SOURCE: Patheos
By Ryan Adams

Being raised in a Protestant home, the Scriptures were (and in many ways still are) the end-all-be-all of the faith for me. However, there is a reason I am no longer a Protestant. This reason has many branches but all points back to one thing, context. Given the necessity of context, I find the whole idea of “Scripture Alone” horrifying.

What it is:

Sola Scriptura is the idea that Christianity ought to be based off of “Scripture Alone” (which is the English translation of “Sola Scriptura”), that is to say, it should be without ritual, or the teaching authority of anyone. And that each of us is obligated to read the Scriptures and form ourselves through them, on our own.

It Can’t Really Exist:

Many of the things we are afraid of do not exist. Zombies, Armageddon cults (the kind who bring on the end of the world via some long-forgotten Egyptian deity), Cthulhu, and so on, are all prime examples of thing which are scary, but don’t really exist.

This is how I feel about Sola Scriptura. It’s frightening, but in reality it doesn’t exist.

It would seem a little ridiculous to say that it doesn’t exist; being that it’s the staple doctrine of nearly all Protestants. However, that’s just the point… it’s a doctrine. It’s already going against itself, erasing itself from the realm of possibility by its own action. A doctrine (not scripture) which proclaims that all doctrine are to be rejected is ludicrous (A harkening back to the, now terribly clichéd, argument against relativism). It simply isn’t possible to have Scripture alone, since you didn’t receive Scripture alone. Instead, all of us were taught about Scripture by someone else. It didn’t just fall out of the sky and land on us. And even if it did, it’s still given to us by someone, the authors who had lives, cultures, rituals, and all number of things which provide a context for the Scriptures. And context means that Scripture is by no means “alone.”

If It Does Exist, It’s an Autobiography:

All this talk of texts, context, authorship and interpretation reminds me of a certain Frenchman…

Anyways, there’s a serious problem which arises from the relentlessly individualistic model of Biblical interpretation. Whenever anyone begins their own interpretation of anything, without direction, they form a sort of autobiography in their interpretation. Interpretation of this sort reflects nothing but oneself.

This is a main idea of that certain Frenchman (philosopher Jacques Derrida), that whenever one interprets a text without context, one is simply painting a self-portrait with the colors of the text they are interpreting. This is because pure ideas do not simply pass from one person to another, instead they must pass through the filtration of language, which is passed further through the schema of one’s consciousness which allows one to make sense of things. This schema is built, in part, by the social, historical, political, etc, context in which we live, making it impossible to avoid unless we allow our understanding to be mapped by another context. If this contextual misreading and subsequent autobiography is turned upon the Scriptures, then I can think of no more grievous blasphemy than to make the Scriptures, which are supposed to be the image and fulfillment, the Word of God, into nothing more than an autobiography.

To deform God into an image of yourself is idolatry itself; a golden calf of proudly defended misinterpretation.

It Isn’t Biblical:

Nowhere in the Bible will you find any discussion of the Bible or how to interpret the Bible. Both the New and Old Testament will make reference to “the Scriptures,” but this does not refer to the Bible as a whole, only the Old Testament.

2 Thessalonians 2:15 makes it clear that there is a decisively important element of tradition and that much was taught by word of mouth. The separation between what has been taught by word of mouth and what has been relayed by the epistles (which are letters by bishops/Apostles) means that not everything which was important to know was recorded in the epistles.

Furthermore, the New Testament makes it clear that the Apostles (and in the First Letter to Timothy, bishops) are the bearers of the teaching of Christ, and that it is their duty to protect those teachings, and to instruct those of the faith in these teachings. Also made abundantly clear is the fact that anyone’s interpretation of the teachings of Christ is not as good as anyone else’s, were this true, there would have been no need for Paul’s letters, or really any of the New Testament aside from the Gospels.

What About History(?):

As I’ve already mentioned, the concept of Scripture Alone rejects a basic fact of the Scriptures; that they were written by men. While I do believe that they were inspired by the Holy Spirit, and kept free of error by the Holy Spirit, it doesn’t change the fact that people wrote these books, and as such, they are full of context (historical situation, cultural practices, societal expectations, and (perhaps most importantly) language and idiom). Without knowledge of the history and culture of the human authors of the Scriptures, one can have no hope of understanding what they are trying to communicate.

This is not even to mention the fact that the Bible itself (especially the New Testament) is a book with a lot of historical movement. The early Church (in the time of the Apostles) did not have the books of the New Testament (mostly since they were still being written), and it wasn’t until many generations later that these books were codified and the canon was created. The Church spent the bulk of its early life without these New Testament scriptures, thus, Sola Scriptura is historically speaking a fairly new idea (it’s hard to preach “Scripture Alone” when you don’t yet have Scriptures…).

What’s more is that this ideal of “Scripture Alone” rejects the whole of Christianity which has come before the individual Christian. It rejects the history of the Church and the great teachers of the faith (and when it doesn’t, it doesn’t uphold its own values.)

Pride:

All of this culminates in my reason for rejecting Sola Scriptura (and thus Protestantism); pride.

I am perhaps one of the worst offenders when it comes to this particular sin, so I place no judgment on those who fall into it; however this doesn’t mean that even I, the worst among the prideful, should sit by and allow my pride to become dogma. Rather, we should always struggle against our sins.

The pride of Sola Scriptura, if it is even possible, is in its rejection of those who have taught us: our parents, our preachers/priests/teachers, the history of the Church (the saints, the councils, the Fathers), and through this, even the Apostles, those who learned everything directly from the mouth of Christ himself; in favor of a vain autobiography of self-interpretation. A self-portrait painted with the colors of the Gospel.

This is obvious the worst case scenario of the doctrine, but this is the result of it’s actually being followed. Even the most well-meaning person who takes the “Scripture Alone” seriously will be nothing more than an arm chair theologian, someone who is completely ignorant of the period and context of the texts written and so instead is forced to put their own context and period in as a stand in. Thus the self-portrait appears again, even when the believer is well-meaning and pious in their practice. In this, Scripture Alone is again found impossible, as it’s no longer “Scripture Alone,” but rather it is “Scripture and Me.”

This is why Sola Scriptura frightens me. I am full of sin: failings and misgivings and bias. As such I much prefer “Scripture and Tradition,” to “Scripture and Me.”

11/15/2013

Comments
Alice Linsley 6/25/2017 4:53 pm
Interesting reference to Jacques Derrida. However, the writer clearly has not delved deeply into his thought or much more pertinent passages would have been quoted that speak of the Presence behind the Scriptures to which the Scriptures point.
Noah10/15/2015 7:48 pm
As a Reformed Presbyterian, I can honestly say the author of this post fundamentally misunderstood what sola Scriptura means. Sola Scriptura is not a denial of ecclesial/creedal authority. It is the affirmation that the Scriptures alone are the sole _infallible_ rule for the Church, not the only rule. Some Protestant churches follow the "no creed but Christ" mantra (which is itself a creedal statement; equivalent to what is popularly termed "solo Scriptura", a denial of confessional authority), however the historic continental Reformed, Lutherans, Anglicans, & Presbyterians recognized the binding authority of creeds and councils which conform to the infallible rule of faith (Scripture). If you really believe that sola Scriptura is a denial of all other authorities, you don't understand Protestant Reformation theology and are in no position to critique it. Its also a poor witness to Eastern Orthodoxy to mischaracterize your opponents' position.
David R. 4/9/2015 9:07 pm
The fact that Protestants can't even agree what is the definition of sola scriptura further points out how it is ultimately not an objectively useful doctrine. Many Protestants hold to what Keith Mathison in his book The Shape of Sola Scriptura called "solo" scriptura, or nothing that is not expressly stated in the Bible. He states that this is not workable because in fact every Christian group has a body of tradition and received wisdom, even if unacknowledged as such, and because individual private interpretation results in endless fragmentation of Protestantism. Mathison defended sola scriptura, in contrast, as allowing for Tradition to explain and supplement Scripture, when it is not in contradiction of Scripture. However, Mathison says, sola scriptura will hold (rightly, according to him) that one's obligation to follow Tradition ceases when Tradition conflicts with one's conscience. As many have pointed out, Mathison's attempt to differentiate between solo and sola scriptura fails -- if your obligation to follow Tradition ceases when it conflicts with your conscience, that is the same as solo scriptura. It's still all just a matter of private interpretation and unchecked individualism.
Larry Green3/1/2014 9:05 pm
As a former Protestant who is in the process of joining the Orthodox church, here is one of my experiences with Sola Scriptura. I am teaching a Sunday school class and we look up a passage in the Bible. Now person A, says that it means X, then Person B says that it means Y, then Person C says that it means Z. Now we argue about the true meaning of the passage until the class is over. We leave confused and frustrated. This is was a common occurrence.
Joseph1/30/2014 1:49 am
I think you err in thinking it is prideful. Sola Scriptura is set to test whether teachers are preaching according to the Word of God. That way, when someone come up with a new claim in Christianity, we can test if what they are saying is biblical. I would rather rely on the infallible word of God than on than men.
Wade1/23/2014 10:12 am
I grew up Protestant (Baptist), was very active in the church, and understood quite clearly what the idea of Sola Scriptura was as a Protestant. After nearly 30 years believing in the teaching of Scripture Alone, I can attest that the author of this piece knows exactly what he means when he speaks of the doctrine. His definition and explanation is in fact quite correct (though no Protestant will enjoy his explanation... They would paint it in a much prettier light). Wonderful article. Thank you.
James1/23/2014 2:09 am
To those who say the author missed the point on the meaning or "context" of Sola Scriptura, would you care to enlighten us on what it means, and please share that context with us while you are at it. I'd find that interesting, because if it entails anything other than "Scripture alone," it ain't Sola Scriptura. Good article!
sav11/25/2013 11:11 pm
You premise is wrongly stated. You are missing the understanding of Sola Scriptura and the context in which it was first stated.
Hansol Lee11/18/2013 12:26 pm
Great article! One of the main reason why I converted from Protestantism and this was after reading the whole scripture too!
Athanasius11/17/2013 2:56 am
Solo and sola come from the same root word in Latin and they mean more or less the same thing - alone, by itself, sole, etc. How is what the author said a misunderstanding of the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura?
Fr. John Whiteford11/17/2013 1:14 am
Bryan, if you want a more detailed article about Sola Scriptura, see: http://orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/tca_solascriptura.aspx and http://orthodoxbridge.com/contra-sola-scriptura-1-of-4/
Harrison J. Krenitsky11/16/2013 10:57 pm
On scripture: When I attended the Late Vocations programs of the Pittsburgh Archdiocese in the early and mid-80’s, our Teacher and Instructor of Scriptures (Fr. Roman Braga) made an opening statement that changed my vision and perspective of scriptures forever. In his opening statement he said, “Gentlemen, the bible was written in the Church, by the Church, and for the Church and should not be interpreted outside the Church. It is the Church’s responsibility to understand the History under which the books were written. It is the Church’s responsibility to understand the Time Frame under which the books were written. It is the Church’s responsibility to understand the Traditions under which the books were written. It is the Church’s responsibility to understand the Literary context (Poetry etc.) under which these books were written. Example, (The Gospel of John is Poetic in script.) Ignoring any one of these four (4) perspectives when reading and interpreting the Scripture will invariably lead one to the wrong conclusion. That, gentlemen, is the reason and necessity for the Church.” I have remembered very little specifics of that term’s class on Scripture but for his opening statement. However, I have never forgotten the Enthusiasm, Patience and Love in which it was presented on that first day. It became the foundation for which I have viewed the Scriptures ever since, and my basis of understanding of the Orthodox Christian Church.
Jay 11/16/2013 8:35 pm
Your definition of Sola Scriptura is not correct.
Bryan 11/16/2013 5:13 pm
is a serious article about Sola Scriptura? I ask because I got a very strong impression that the author was either clueless about a proper understanding of what Sola Scriptura really is or he's confusing SOLO with SOLA which are different.
Dr. Odean P. Lawrence11/16/2013 10:25 am
As a Pastor and teacher, I have been teaching within the construct of Protestantism for some years now. I have recently written a historical Christian action/ adventure novel that is set in the year 120 AD. As you probably know, the New Testament Scriptures were not disseminated because they were held close to the particular churches. I believe that the story was inspired by GOD; not as a doctrine but as a literary journey into what life was like before Catholicism and the Reformation. Thus, leading me to venture into the realms of Orthodox Christianity because of my research. However, the orthodox that I discovered was a rich historical presentation of how the Gospel was presented to those that were not of the Jewish and Hebrew tradition. I have absolutely no training in Orthodoxy, but my lean is towards Orthodoxy. Go figure. You present some very interesting points, while subtlety addressing some of the fundamental practices of Jewish and Hebrew traditions such as Passover, and the many feast that were celebratory. I would like to hear/read your insights.
Rob M11/16/2013 1:51 am
Well said. The obvious irrationality of "Bible alone" is what drove me out of Protestantism too.
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