Sola Scriptura Then and Now

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When you come to the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, “I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,” you may indeed set a king over you whom the LORD your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you. You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother. Only he must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the LORD has said to you, “You shall never return that way again.” And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.

And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel. (Deut. 17:14–20)

The setting here is important. Moses envisages a time, long after his own death and after the people have settled into the Promised Land, when they will ask for a king to rule over them. The people are to ensure that the man they appoint is the one “the LORD your God chooses” (14:15). He is to be a fellow Israelite, i.e., a member of the covenant people of God, not a stranger. Then the king is told what he must not do as he launches into this new role. This list includes four things:

  1. He must not acquire a great number of horses (v. 16). For “horses,” read “tanks”: the king is not to build his power by military might. The lust for power recurs in every age. The apostles themselves, misunderstanding the nature of the kingdom, sought the places of privilege and perceived power next to Jesus (Matt. 20:20–28), not discerning that the Master himself came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
  2. He must not make the people return to Egypt (v. 16). The prohibition reflects Israel’s political realities. God saved Israel by enabling her to escape slavery in Egypt. Sadly, Israel kept trying to play power politics, pitting friendship with Egypt over against friendship with one of the regional superpowers to the north (first Assyria, then Babylon). The desire for political security was something Israel valued more highly than the promises of God.
  3. The king must not take many wives (v. 17). The issue was not just sex; it was networking. To marry one of the daughters of every regional two-bit city-monarchy meant it was far less likely that these tiny city-states would rebel against the king. Solomon became a master of such networking, the size of his harem simultaneously establishing his sexual prowess and securing his borders. Sadly, as God warned, his wives led his heart astray: pretty soon he was building pagan temples for them, even within Jerusalem itself. The desire for the kind of networking that guarantees social approval has not faded in the centuries since then.
  4. And finally, he must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold. Jesus himself insists that one cannot serve both God and money. What we must passionately desire becomes god for us. Money regularly signals freedom, prestige, power—and idolatry.

Look again at these four prohibitions: power, false security, desire for social approval through compromised networking, the pursuit of wealth—very much among the false gods still cherished and worshiped today.

So what, then, should the king make his top priority when he first assumes the royal throne? Should he audit the books of his predecessor? Rapidly form his cabinet, or at least appoint a secretary of state and a minister of defense? No, the first thing he is to do concerns the priority that God gives to Scripture. The king is to write out, by hand, a copy of “this law” (v.18). This is not a matter of downloading a text from the cloud to the hard-drive of a laptop without it going through anyone’s brain. This is laborious copying by hand.

What is included in the expression “this law” is disputed: it may be part of Deuteronomy, or all of Deuteronomy, or all of the Pentateuch. Whatever the size of text to be copied, the work is to be done so carefully that it becomes the king’s personal reading copy—a reading copy to be read and pondered by the king every day for the rest of his life. God provides three reasons for this priority: (1) the king will thereby learn to revere the Lord and his words; (2) he will thus be protected from thinking of himself as superior to others; and (3) he will not turn aside from God’s ways, to the right or to the left (17:18–20).

This passage indicates how highly the Word of God is valued, even at this early stage of canonical history. Joshua is told much the same thing: this book of the law shall not be tossed aside; rather, Joshua is to keep the Book of the Law on his lips, and meditate on it day and night, carefully doing everything written in it; for then he shall enjoy good success (Josh. 1:7–8).

The opening psalm in the Psalter declares, in the second verse, that the righteous person delights in the law of the Lord, and meditates on it day and night (Ps. 1:2). It takes constant meditation on holy Scripture to train one’s mind to think God’s thoughts after him. The point, in part, is that we are not what we think we are, but what we think, we are. That is why Paul tells the Romans that they must be transformed by the renewing of their minds (Rom. 12:1–2). So important is the valuation of Scripture that it trumps even our necessary food: God takes pains to teach Israel that “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deut. 8:3)—a lesson the Lord Jesus has already absorbed when he faces his own Satanic temptations (Matt. 4).

Sola scriptura is no mere slogan, a creedal point to be checked off with approval from a list. Either Scripture establishes what the gospel is, calls people back to the gospel, and transforms God’s people with his Spirit-anointed gospel truth, shaping them into conformity with his Son, or it is but an empty boast. Sadly, some affirm sola scriptura in a sloganeering way, but rarely read Scripture and never meditate on it; or, worse yet, they thoughtlessly defy it. Against all such failure, Deuteronomy 17:14–20 stands as a powerful bulwark. If these seven verses from Deuteronomy had been followed in the centuries before Christ, all of Old Testament history would have been different. Scripture—and, as we shall see, Scripture alone—is that important.

Here are eight reflections on sola Scriptura, reflections that are variously historical, theological, and pastoral.

1. Truthful and Reliable

The doctrine of sola Scriptura demands the truthfulness and reliability of holy Scripture. A document may be truthful but not in any useful sense authoritative. For example, a restaurant menu may tell the truth as to what is on offer, but we do not therefore speak of an authoritative menu. It is much more difficult to see how a document can be authoritative without being truthful—unless, of course, its “authority” is nothing more than a declarative fiction or an agreed convention.

For example, an organization may decide to operate under the authority of its charter, even if it is widely recognized that that charter needs revision because it embraces serious errors. For a document to be intrinsically authoritative in the matters of which it speaks, however, it must speak the truth, or its authority is pretentious folly.[1]

2. Context of the Debate

The formula sola scriptura can be accurately understood as a facet of Reformation theology (though the formula itself was invented a generation or so later) only when the sola component is grasped in the historical context of the debates of the 16th century. Seen in one way, the position on Scripture upheld by the Roman Catholic Church was every bit as “high” as the position of the Reformers on Scripture: Scripture is inspired by God, utterly truthful and reliable, infallible, reflecting the words and the mind of God. But late-medieval Catholicism insisted that God had given his deposit of truth to the church, and that this deposit included not only Scripture but also extra-biblical tradition confided to the magisterium. Indeed, only the magisterium was authorized to interpret Scripture. After all, had not the church declared which books should be accepted as canonical and authoritative?

Small wonder that in many contexts where the Roman Catholic Church holds sway, laypeople have been actively discouraged from reading the Bible (as was the case in French Canada when I was growing up) or even forcefully prohibited from reading it. By contrast, from the perspective of the Reformers it was obvious that the magisterium set itself over the Scriptures. The debate between Catholics and Reformers was not over the truthfulness of Scripture, nor over the authority of Scripture, but over the locus of divine authority in the Church: was it sola scriptura, or, alternatively, Scripture embedded in the still larger deposit entrusted to the Church? The rival of sola Scriptura is not the abandonment of scriptural authority, but a configuration of authority in the Church such that, say, only 80 percent of this authority is scriptural, or 90 percent, or 99 percent. The Reformers insisted that Scripture alone is invested with divine authority as the norma normans.

Though the events are well known, we do well to remind ourselves of what took place at the Diet of Worms. The imperial “diet” was an evaluating council chaired by the holy Roman Emperor, at that time the young Charles V. It was customarily convened in the German city of Worms. And so, about three and a half years after he had posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the chapel of the Wittenberg castle, Luther found himself before this Diet. On April 16, 1721, at 4 p.m., the council began its work. The moderator, Johann Maier von Eck, pointed to stacks of books on the desk—25 volumes written by Luther—and asked if Luther was ready to renounce the heresies in them. Luther did not say, “Here I stand; I can do no other. So help me God.” Rather, he said, in effect, “May I have the night to think about this?”

He spent the evening and night consulting with some of his trusted friends, praying, and reading Romans. The next morning, April 17, 1521, when the diet was reconvened and Eck confronted him with the same challenge, Luther replied that the material in the 25 books could be divided into three parts. The first part was made up of material that surely caused no offense: everyone agreed that Luther was speaking the truth. The second part was made up of things grounded in Scripture that were contrary to Catholicism. The third part was personal attack, where Luther acknowledged his fault: his zeal sometimes prompted him to resort to abusive language, and for this he begged forgiveness.

But as for that second part, Luther declared, in words that flesh out what we mean by sola scriptura:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scripture or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is not safe nor right to go against my conscience. May God help me.

At least in the early months and years of the magisterial Reformation, the test case for the effect of sola scriptura was Catholic teaching on indulgences. Once again, permit me to remind you of the history all of you already know. We should begin with Johann Tetzel (1465–1519). He became a Dominican friar in 1489, and served as inquitor of heresy in Poland, and then grand commissioner for indulgences in Germany. Apparently he offered full plenary indulgences even for sins not yet committed. The money he collected was supposed to go to the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but about half of it went to Cardinal Albert of Brandenburg, the archbishop of Mainz, Tetzel’s superior, to pay off the debts Albert had incurred in securing the archbishopric. Tetzel secured his doctorate of sacred theology in 1518, one year after the posting of the 95 Theses, for defending the doctrine of indulgences against Luther. After his studies, he retreated to the Dominican monastery in Leipzig, where he fell out of favor and died a year later.

So what is an indulgence? The quick and ready definition is that it is a way of reducing the amount of punishment for sin. Today, a sophisticated Catholic definition is this:

An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain defined conditions through the church’s help when, as a minister of redemption, she [the church] dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of satisfactions won by Christ and the saints.

The Counter-Reformation adopted wording along these lines to clean up what it saw as abuses: indulgences cannot free anyone from hell, but only from purgatory (hence the reference to “temporal punishment”). Further, indulgences cannot protect anyone from sins not yet committed, nor can they be purchased with money. Under these tighter standards than those assumed by Tetzel, both the current pope, Pope Francis, and his predecessor, Pope Benedict, have liberally dispensed indulgences.

Benedict promised special plenary indulgences to Catholics who participated in the Year of Faith celebration (2012–13). These indulgences were designed, in part, to encourage the reading of Vatican II documents and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and were offered to pilgrims who went to shrines and participated in the events of the Year of Faith. The blessings of these indulgences could fall either on a Catholic pilgrim or on a departed soul. Similarly, Pope Francis announced jubilee indulgences ahead of the Year of Mercy. To secure such an indulgence, a Catholic had to go to the confessional, receive the holy Eucharist, make a profession of faith, and pray for the pope and for his intentions.

All of this makes a fair bit of sense if one has adopted the structures of Roman Catholic theology. The theology of indulgences fits nicely into orthodox Catholic frameworks, shaped by merit theology and a view of justification in which sinners actively participate in securing the needed righteousness. Apply sola scriptura, however, and purgatory dissolves into nothing, the arguments for the papacy and its claimed authority begin to totter, and “the treasury of satisfactions won by Christ and the saints” is merely a way of diminishing the exclusive sufficiency of the cross work of Jesus Christ. How much more sharply shall sola scriptura ravage the undisciplined form of indulgences offered by Tetzel?

It would be easy to survey the effect of sola scriptura across the entire theological syllabus. Sola scriptura is the epistemological center on which all of the solas are established. But perhaps it is enough to remind ourselves that sola scriptura is not only a theological stance that eliminates errors, but it establishes the truth; in short, it reforms. To quote another well-known passage from the pen of Martin Luther:

Take me, for example. I opposed indulgences and all papists, but never by force. I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word: otherwise I did nothing. And then, while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip of Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing; the Word did it all. Had I wanted to start trouble . . . I could have started such a little game at Worms that even the Emperor wouldn’t have been safe. But what would it have been? A mug’s game. I did nothing: I left it to the Word.

Now that was the historic context in which sola scriptura exercised its transforming role.

3. Recovery of Early Theology

It is important to grasp that the Reformation commitment to sola scriptura was not a new doctrinal development, but the recovery of the theology of the early church. In a fascinating book, professor Larry W. Hurtado demonstrates how the Christians of the early centuries were committed to a book, to Scripture. Christianity was a bookish religion, with great focus on “reading, writing, copying and observation of texts” (105). This was one of the means by which early Christians, to use the language of Hurtado, destroyed the pagan gods: the authority of Scriptures that could be studied, learned, preached, heard, read, obeyed.

Earlier yet, it is remarkable that when the apostle Paul is arguing with biblically literate Jews or Gentiles, he does not argue from his experience: we do not find him saying, “What you need is your own version of my Damascus Road experience.” Nor does he declare that apostolic authority sorts out everything: after all, he has himself rebuked the apostle Peter for hypocritical inconsistency (Gal. 2:14–18), and the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) was constrained not by apostolic authority but by scriptural arguments. The point I am making is a simple one: sola scriptura was not invented by the Reformers, but rescued and reasserted by the Reformers.

4. Sola, Not Solo or Nuda

One cannot too strongly insist that sola scriptura is not to be confused with solo scriptura or nuda scriptura. The doctrine does not open itself to biblicist proof-texting that is devoid of awareness of how Scripture has been read and applied in past generations and in other cultures. As John Peckham astutely comments, “All that is necessary to undergird the ‘sola’ of this principle is for Scripture to present itself as uniquely authoritative over all other factors. Notably, each of the three categories that encompass other possible sources of theology—reason, experience, and tradition—are not excluded but are explicitly subordinated to the unique authority of Scripture.”

Peckham goes on to give some examples:

[W]hile humans should make careful and appropriate use of reason and experience (cf. Isa 1:18), the reliability of human reason and experience is explicitly undermined through the Bible, especially in light of the fall (Ps 14:1–3; Rom 1:21; 3:11). . . . Proverbs 28:26 adds, “He who trusts in his own heart is a fool” (cf. Job 11:7; Prov 14:12; Isa 55:8–9; Ro 11:3; 1 Cor 1:16). Human experience is thus to be tested by God’s word (Matt 24:24–26; cf. 2 Cor 11:3-4; Gal 1:8). . . . With regard to religious authority, Christ subjects tradition to the “word of God” and the “commandment of God,” criticizing those who “invalidated the word of God” and transgressed “the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition” (Matt 15:6, 3; cf. Mark 7:5–13; Col 2:8). Peter’s response to the high priest’s command (religious authority) is equally clear: “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29), the apostolic message itself being not merely “the word of men” but “the word of God” (1 Thes 2:13). (205)

When we speak of other authorities, such as creeds and confessions (for example, Augsburg, Heidelberg, Westminster), their authority does not subtract from the authority of Scripture, as if by acknowledging their authority, the authority of Scripture is correspondingly reduced. We are not playing a zero-sum game. The authority of the creeds is always a subordinate and derived authority. The authority of a creed invariably leaves the sola of sola scriptura unscathed, because Scripture alone has the authority of the norma normans.[2]

Much more evidence could be adduced to justify a place for creeds, formulas, catechisms, and more. But Christians in the Reformed tradition are not living up to the best insights of the Reformation when confessional documents are given such status that they effectively stand over Scripture, instead of under it.

5. For Ordinary Christians

In a remarkable paper, not yet published, Scott Manetsch, gathers some of the evidence from the 16th century as to how the Bible was cherished and handled by the Reformers and their followers.[3] In other words, he asks for evidence as to how Scripture functions in the lives of the Reformers and their followers. Much of the material is familiar: one begins with the place of the Bible in family and church, the printing and reading of the Bible, the interpretation and the preaching of the Bible, the centrality of the Bible in the fledgling theological institutions the Reformers were starting, the use of the Bible in pastoral care, and much more. But then Manetsch poses a question that is often overlooked. It is one thing to study the Reformers themselves, and it is easy to detect their commitment to the sola scriptura principle—but how far did such commitments extend to ordinary Christians?

To answer his own question, Manetsch turns to the little-known work of Jean Crespin. Stripped of his inheritance and banished from his hometown of Arras in the Spanish Netherlands because of his “Lutheran” leanings, Crespin fled to Geneva in 1548, where with Calvin’s help he returned to his trade and set up a printing shop with four printing machines and 16 workers. He became the most prolific printer of the Protestant Reformation.

In 1554, he published Le Livre des Martyrs, which in 687 octavo pages told the stories of Christian martyrs from Jan Hus in 1415 to the more recent death of a Protestant, Pierre de la Vau, executed by burning at the stake in Nîmes in 1554. Crespin continued to update his work until 1570. That final form is customarily referred to in English as History of the Martyrs, and occupies 1,450 pages in folio, relating the deaths of about 600 martyrs. The book became a staple of Huguenot spirituality.

Crespin’s volume is simply saturated with Scripture. More remarkable is the way in which martyr after martyr ties his or her faith to holy Scripture. Here are the words of Charles Favre, a student killed in Lyons in 1554: “I believe and confess that the Scripture alone is the rule of religion and the Christian faith, which is contained in the Old and New Testaments, and that it is firm, certain and true, infallible and perfect.”[4] These are not statements uttered in the coolness of quiet meditation or in the comfort of an air-conditioned library. Often they are words drawn from judicial hearings.

For example, another martyr, by the name of Jean Rabec, when challenged about the immaculate conception of Mary, said, “You have as the foundation of your [belief] an explanation based on the human brain; as for me, I have the Word of God. Judge who is most wise, God or you.”[5] Rabec was defrocked and excommunicated, and sentenced to be burned at the stake. On the day of his death, the executioner first cut out Rabec’s tongue, and then suspended him by his wrists for half an hour before the wood for the fire was ignited. With blood still streaming from his mouth, Rabec was heard to be mouthing and voicing the words of Psalm 79 as the fire consumed him and reduced him to ash.

In the summarizing words of Scott Manetsch:

The Protestant martyrs in Crespin’s martyrology were people of the Bible. They not only defended its authority and debated its message, they also bought and sold it; they read it; they memorized it; they sang it; they talked about it; they found comfort from it; some even died for it. For many of these martyrs, the message of sacred Scripture profoundly shaped the way they viewed God, his nature and purposes, and the way they conducted their daily lives. An English noblewoman named Anne Askew stated before her accusers that she would “prefer to read five verses in the holy Bible of God than to hear the same number of Masses,” for she “felt great edification in reading the Bible but none when listening to the Mass.” Estienne Brun, a peasant farmer from Dauphiné, devoted the majority of his time to ploughing his fields and reading his French New Testament—the first activity was “for the nourishment of his family,” and the second was “for the instruction of himself in all fear of God.”[6]

6. Developed Over Time

We have already asserted that the Reformers were not so much innovators in their emphasis on sola scriptura as men who were recovering ancient doctrine. But now we must go further and insist that their heirs and successors often became more detailed and skilled in the articulation of this doctrine than were the initial Reformers themselves. In another paper,[7] also unpublished, written by another distinguished colleague, John Woodbridge discusses in some detail the work of William Whitaker (1547–1595), master of St. John’s College, Cambridge, as he engaged in debate with Robert Cardinal Bellarmine (1542–1621), Catholicism’s ablest apologist of the day. Whitaker’s major work is titled A Disputation on Holy Scripture Against the Papists especially Bellarmine and Stapleton (1588). Woodbridge calls it “the most comprehensive Protestant defense of biblical authority and sola scriptura in the English language during the Reformation era.”[8]

Moreover, it would be easy to demonstrate that the commitment to Scripture’s authority was not some aberrant stance that flared up in the 16th century and then fizzled out. The historical papers in a recent volume nicely lay that canard to rest.[9]

7. Important Today

We insist that sola scriptura is just as important today. To focus for a moment on one element of contemporary life in many parts of the world, this is a time when the effluent from the craze of epistemological postmodernism attempts to tear down all certainties and any trace of stable truth, and especially of the faith once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3). The arguments can be sophisticated, but in their most basic form they run something like this:

What is the point of truth claims about Scripture, it is asked, and what value is there in proclaiming sola scriptura, when contemporary analysis has demonstrated the subjectivism and relativism of all interpretations? Not only are claims of sola scriptura too self-referential to be believed, but, even if they are believed, the brute reality is that the interpretation of Scripture is unstable, intrinsically overflowing with multi-valence.

Nowadays, we are all familiar with the arguments. When I was a young man, old-fashioned hermeneutics taught me that I, the interpreter, ask probing questions of it, the text. The questions are from me to it; the text, as it were, answers back. If my hermeneutics, considered to be a set of sophisticated rules that enable me to understand texts in all the complexity of their diverse genres, are mature and responsible, the questions I ask of the text cannot fail to produce straight answers that warrant my claim that I know what the text means.

But about three-quarters of a century ago, the so-called new hermeneutic argued that the “I” that is doing the questioning is not stable. “I” will not bring the same set of questions as, say, a semi-literate prostitute on the streets of Lagos, or an elegant Chinese expert in Confucianism. Truth be told, the questions I bring to the text today may not be the same as the questions I bring to the text tomorrow, as by then I may be short of sleep, or ill, or perhaps I’ve suffered a bereavement. That means that the answers “I” am open to hearing from the text are a little different from what another “I” will hear.

Not only so, but the answers I hear, whatever they are, will subtly change me, with the result that the questions I pose tomorrow, and the answers I hear tomorrow, cannot be exactly the same as what I hear today. The text does not give me straight answers. Its answers swipe me, as it were, and change me, so that the text appears different to me the next time I confront it. Not only do I interpret the text, but in this fashion one might say that the text interprets me. And thus a hermeneutical circle is set up, in which fixed interpretations are impossible. Our finitude and our changeableness, our social location and our corruptions, all conspire to make the interpretation of Scripture a fickle and changeable thing. Does not reception theory teach us the same lesson? So how is it meaningful to trumpet “Scripture alone” when Scripture itself has become so plastic?

How shall we respond?

Many things might be said, but I shall restrict myself to four observations.

  1. It is vital to avoid holding up as our goal the certainty that is possible only to Omniscience. We finite human beings can never know things as God knows them, in all their entanglements, complexities, and multi-layered relationships. We will never be omniscient. Even in the new heaven and the new earth, our knowledge will never be more than partial. If the only acceptable standard that enables us to speak of knowing truly is omniscience, than human beings can never truly know anything. We are disqualified from the certainty of knowledge that only Omniscience enjoys.

    In reality, however, we can and do speak of human knowing, and even of certain knowing with certainty, as long as such claims acknowledge our status as finite image-bearers. We do speak of knowing things—of knowing people, of knowing texts, of knowing history, of knowing facts, and much more—in natural ways that are entirely appropriate to our experience as finite beings. Far too much of the argumentation of the new hermeneutic turns on holding up an ideal of knowledge that is impossible for human beings to attain, and then declaring that we cannot therefore truly know anything. We might well wonder, of course, how those committed to this stance can know this alleged truth with such certainty. In any case, invoking omniscience as the necessary condition for all true human knowledge, in order to dismiss the possibility of certainty in human knowledge, is finally manipulative.

  2. Experience shows us that we can learn some things, in some measure. First-year students of the Greek language start with the alphabet, memorizing simple declensions, gaining some control over regular verbs, moving on gradually to more complex syntax. After two or three years of study, demonstrably the student knows more than he or she did three years earlier. We do not say they know nothing because they do not know everything. Of course, some early memorized “rules” turn out to be such generalizations that later study shows them to be reductionistic, even inept: we keep learning, and consequently know more. But even the greatest Greek scholar knows a great deal about how much he or she still doesn’t know. What sort of model is it, then, that argues such learning and knowledge is impossible, when similar experiences of learning crop up in every discipline?
  3. We must recall the many things God has put in place to enable us to know: general revelation, godly examples, the illumining work of the Holy Spirit, pastors to teach us, and above all holy Scripture. Human knowledge is not a zero-sum game: either we know everything, or we truly know nothing. We are not dealing with a hermeneutical circle so much as with a hermeneutical spiral, even if we never manage to spiral all the way in to omniscience. Or, to change the metaphor, our knowledge makes an asymptotic approach to the ideal, even if, as an asymptote, it never touches the line.[10]
  4. The reality is that sola scriptura releases us from both the arrogance of personal, subjective truth claims, and also from the groundless authority of a magisterium. But it would take another lecture to justify this claim.

Of course, the loss of the ability to speak of truth in many parts of (mostly) Western culture is not the only worldview issue confronted by the claims of sola scriptura. Scripture alone is adequate to confront the miasma of narcissism, worldwide consumerism, and rampant individualism in some cultures and enchaining social conformity in others, the residue of theoretical Marxism that still promises freedom but everywhere leaves people in chains, the many faces of resurgent Islam, the vast appeal of Buddhism and Hinduism, growing militant atheism, active persecution, and, perhaps the most dispiriting of all, enormous seas of sheer lostness. Sola scriptura.

8. The Eschatological Dimension

We must see that sola scriptura has an eschatological dimension. Unlike people, who are like grass, and all their glory like the flowers of the field, “the word of the Lord endures forever” (1 Pet. 1:25; cf. Isa. 40:6–8). Indeed, the heavens and earth will pass away, but Christ’s word will endure (Matt. 5:18). More: the Scriptures keep pointing forward to the end. Jesus declares, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets: I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17; emphasis added).

Some hear the word “abolish” and, detecting an antithesis, interpret the verb “to fulfill” to mean something like “to maintain” or “to preserve,” the opposite of “to abolish”: I have not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to preserve them. Nevertheless, the verb plēroō, to fulfill, is used more frequently in Matthew than in the rest of the New Testament, and in Matthew it never means “to preserve.” Indeed, in Matthew it always has an eschatological orientation: to bring to pass what has been announced in the past. In other words, what starts off as an apparent antithesis has a twist in it: Jesus has not come to abolish the law or the prophets; no, that is not his purpose at all. Rather, he has come to do something quite different: to bring to pass everything the law and the prophets anticipate. Jesus fulfills them.

And how long does this function continue? The answer is provided in the two “until” phrases in the next verse: “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (5:18). So there are two terminuses. The first is the absolute one: until heaven and earth disappear. But the second lies on a roving scale, namely, until everything is accomplished.

For example, the Passover ritual becomes Christ our Passover sacrifice (1 Cor. 5:7); the temple becomes the destruction of Jesus’s body, raised up for us as the new and final place where sinners meet with God; the command not to commit adultery issues not only in the prohibition of lust but in the absolute purity of the new heaven and the new earth; yom kippurim in Leviticus 16 becomes the peerless sacrifice of Hebrews 9; and so, until everything is accomplished. That is the way Scripture works; it is the way only Scripture works.

As the prophet Isaiah repeatedly reminds us in Isaiah 40–45, God who has given us Scripture is the only one who can foretell the future, not only because he knows it, but because he brings it to pass. Precisely because Scripture is God’s Word, Scripture alone has the revelatory authority to set forth the gospel, in words that tie together the books of the Bible into one glorious eschatological whole, more stable than the universe itself, more permanent than heaven and earth. Of no ecclesiastical council or creed, of no pope or encyclical, does the Lord Jesus declare that heaven and earth will pass away, but that encyclicals pronounced ex cathedra will never pass away.

So let us hear the end of the matter: God has declared, “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word” (Isa. 66:2). 


Editors’ note: This is adapted from a paper delivered to a conference sponsored by the World Reformed Fellowship, “The Global Impact of the Reformation,” held in Lutherstadt Wittenberg. The paper was delivered on October 26, 2017.


[1] For a sophisticated treatment of the relationships between truth and authority, see Michael C. Rea, “Authority and Truth,” in D. A. Carson, ed., The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 872–98. At the more popular level, see Matthew Barrett, “Sola Scriptura Demands Inerrancy.”

[2] A similar argument could be mounted for the appropriate function of the regula fidei or analogia fidei, and for the way in which the early church recognized (but could not properly be said to establish) the books of the canon.

[3] “The Bible and Its Interpretation in the Reformation,” first presented at a conference at TEDS on September 17, 2017.

[4] Manetsch, “The Bible and Its Interpretation,” 21.

[5] Ibid., 25.

[6] Ibid., 30.

[7] John D. Woodbridge, “Sola Scriptura: Original Intent, Historical Development, and Import for Christian Living.”

[8] Ibid.

[9] See the essays and especially the bibliography in D. A. Carson, ed., The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016).

[10] I discuss these matters at greater length in The Gagging of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996).

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