Deconstructing the sola

Some of my Protestant friends have the impression, inspired by lack of clarity on my part, as well as logical fallacies on the part of writers like Greg Bahnsen (who assumes sola scriptura in order to find it in Scripture), that to attack the modern application of sola scriptura is to advocate additions to Scripture. The real issue, however, is that seeking to interpret Scripture solely with Scripture opens the door to profound doctrinal error. The truth is that we bring a worldview to what we read. The reason many Christians imagine God cannot be near a sinner, for example, is because they have a Platonic view of Justice as this higher essence that in a sense functions as deity, thereby constraining God. The doctine of Original Guilt, likewise, stems from an Augustinian (read: Roman, legalistic) reading of Scriptures.

The question is: how shall we understand what we all believe is the God-breathed Word? Early Church tradition helps us do so, because we have more reason to trust that the first churches, started by the Apostles themselves, were on a right path to interpretation than the schismatic Catholic church 1000 years later, and certainly than the Calvinist theocrats who rejected tradition (like paedocommunion) because it didn’t fit with Calvin’s legalistic reading of Scriptures (I recommend Trent’s explication of the difference between Luther and Calvin regarding sola scriptura, in the comments on my previous post). This is not equivalent, so far as I can see, to claiming that there is a whole other set of divine revelations out there.

Some of my Protestant friends — good, thoughtful people — earnestly believe that they are holding fast to the Apostolic Church traditions, and that it’s the Romanists (with whom they lump the Orthodox — a grave misreading of history) who abandoned the early Church. I used to agree. But the more I read about the early Church, the less sense this view makes.


  1. Kevin Cassidy

    Tony – Regarding your first paragraph, I read your comments to mean that seeking to interpret Scripture with Scripture alone opens the door to doctrinal error. However, the mechanism described by which this occurs is taking an outside worldview – extra-Scriptural – and applying it to the interpretation of Scripture. Wouldn’t this violate the concept of sola scriptura?

    This would mean that we aren’t doing a good job at sola scriptura, but does it mean the concept is invalid?

  2. Tony

    That’s a good point, and it illustrates why I find Trent’s distinction between Lutheran and Calvinist uses of sola scriptura so helpful. An Orthodox friend recently quoted George Florovsky to me, who wrote: “[Eastern Orthodox] Tradition is actually Scripture rightly understood.”

    My issue is with those post-Luther who use sola scriptura illogically — ruling out that with which they disagree by interpreting Scripture with a fine-toothed comb, but allowing in what they like by interpreting Scripture accordingly (as they do, in fact, to conclude that sola scriptura is a Biblical doctrine).

    The problem with Luther, on the other hand, is that he started with a flawed model (the Catholic Church) and pitched out what was clearly (based on Scripture) erroneous, while keeping what was less clearly so.

  3. Adam DeVille

    This conflation of “Augustinian (read: Roman, legalistic)” is simplistic and tendentious, revealing, frankly, ignorance of the vast corpus of Augustine (so often misunderstood because so little read by his detractors) and of Latin Christianity. It is unworthy of one who is otherwise a generally careful thinker and whom, for that reason, I have hitherto enjoyed reading.

    It is an incontrovertible law that (as Abp. Sheen once put it) many thousands of people hate what they think the Roman Church teaches (a law I would apply, mutatis mutandis, to Augustine), but fewer than a hundred of them would persist in that hatred if they properly inquired and actually discovered the real nature of that teaching. I think your discussion clearly suffers from a lack of serious and informed reading of, inter alia, Augustine and Latin patristics, and Catholic theology in general. (In saying this, I am not denying that there are not problematic aspects of Augustine, or difficulties in Catholic teaching.) Instead I detect an infelicitous over-fondness for trafficking in such dismissive slogans as these and others (“schismatic Catholic Church,” etc., etc.), an approach that marks one down as fundamentally unserious.

  4. Tony

    I see I wasn’t clear enough. I certainly didn’t mean to characterize all of Augustine’s work, but specifically that concerning Original Sin. I hope you understand as well that I don’t intend “Roman” to be a slantwise insult of Catholicism, but truly the culture of the Roman empire, which along with Plato had a formative influence on Augustine’s thinking. I think it is a fair reading of his work on Original Sin to call it Roman (or perhaps a more skilled philosopher would substitute here “Platonic”) and legalistic, taken as it is with juridical notions of guilt and culpability.

    As for the Great Schism, both sides agree in modern times that blame falls on East and West, but it seems fairly clear that the schism was initiated by the novel Western concept of papal primacy (as opposed to first among equal status), combined with a willingness to tear the Church in two.

    I understand that there are plenty of Latin patristic tracts that would vigorously counter this characterization, but I hope you recognize that there are plenty of well-reasoned tracts originally written in Greek that would concur.

    I am sorry if the words I used smacked of the bigotry I’m sure you’ve encountered elsewhere. I’m simply trying to state the history and theology as best I understand it. I certainly admit the severe limits to that understanding.

  5. Steve Bogner

    Interesting to read all of this about ‘pro-life’ (or maybe more accurately ‘anti-abortion’) getting tangled up in sola scriptura and the Reformation.

    I’m on the board of trustees at a crisis pregnancy center, and our board and volunteer base varies from Holy-rolling Pentacostals to very traditional Catholics. I’m the progressive Catholic in that mix. There are all kinds of things that can separate us, that are different among us, but we’re all in favor of saving babies and caring for their moms. If we focused on our theological differences we’d never get anything done!

    I think something we tend to forget about what led to the Reformation and what resulted from it has a lot to do with egos, politics and resources. Sometimes people went to extremes to demonize the other guy, and we’re still dealing with that legacy; and still somewhat sensitive to it. We can look back at favorable moments in history to justify our present situation or worldview, but it’s also good to remember those unfavorable historical moments – we all have them.

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