“All Scripture is God-breathed …” 2 Timothy 3:16. The inspiration of Scripture should never be a matter of dispute among Christians, but are the Scriptures the only source for theology?
Some Christians (mainly Catholics) insist that both Scripture and church tradition, as given by the Holy Spirit, are the source for theology. Others (mainly Anabaptists and Quakers) insist that Scripture, and the Holy Spirit speaking new revelation to the individual, are the source for theology. Yet another group of Christians (mainly Evangelicals) insist that the Bible alone, as illuminated by the Holy Spirit, is the source for theology.
Each group of Christians cites the work of the Holy Spirit to legitimize their position, yet each of the views is problematic. When it’s assumed that God is the author of both Scripture and tradition equally, what happens when tradition clashes with or contradicts what the Bible says? When it’s assumed that an internal voice along with Scripture is authoritative, what happens when the internal voice says something the Bible doesn’t say? And when it’s assumed that there’s no authority other than the Bible, what happens when there’s disagreement about what the Bible says?
In considering the last question, it’s helpful to know that Protestant reformers made a distinction between the principles of “sola Scriptura” (Scripture alone) and “nuda Scriptura” (bare Scripture). “Sola Scriptura” has to do with the sufficiency of Scripture as the Christian’s supreme authority in all spiritual matters. “Nuda Scriptura” is the idea that the Bible is the Christian’s only theological authority in all spiritual matters. The best transliteration for “nuda Scriptura” today is “solo Scriptura” (just me and my Bible).
The distinction between “sola Scriptura” and “solo Scriptura” is important. The two are not the same and shouldn’t be equated. The emphasis in “sola Scriptura” is on theology being ultimately subject to the Scriptures. The emphasis in “solo Scriptura” is narrower. It gives prominence to personal interpretation removed from the Church.
“Solo Scriptura” naturally appeals to people who are suspicious of authority or individualistically inclined. The revivalist preacher Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) captured the essence of “solo Scriptura” when he said, “I have endeavored to read the Scriptures as though no one had read them before me, and I am as much on my guard against reading them today, through the medium of my own views yesterday, or a week ago, as I am against being influenced by any foreign name, authority, or system whatever.”
People are in error if they outright reject the theological insights of others in favour of their own interpretations. They’re also dangerous and divisive. Dangerous because “solo Scriptura” subjects theology to the whims and frailty of subjectivism, and divisive because “solo Scriptura” has no court of appeal for theological disagreements.
“Sola Scriptura”, on the other hand, depends on a communal reading of the Scriptures. It does this by interacting with the theological insights and understanding of Christians past and present. No man or woman is an island to himself or herself. “Sola scriptura” recognizes that while Scripture is the final authority to judge Christian doctrine and practice, it’s not the only resource for theology. That is, “sola Scriptura” identifies that the core convictions of the Church, as long as they don’t compete with or supplement the Scriptures, are essential resources for biblical interpretation, theological reflection, and interdenominational dialogue.
So what happens when there’s disagreement about what the Bible says? While there are no easy answers, it’s naïve to think that just me and my Bible is more than enough. We need one another. We need, with the Scriptures as the primary authority, to tap into the exegetical insights, doctrinal clarity, and pastoral perceptions of Christians through the ages.
© Scripture Union Canada 2020