5 Reasons I Gave Up Sola Scriptura or How I Learned to Love the Bible *and* Tradition

At the core of my beliefs are the unity of God’s family, that we be one as the Trinity is One. So what follows comes from a desire for unity, not attack, unbelief or to stir up trouble. I also don’t wish to frustrate anyone’s evangelical faith, rather to strengthen and deepen it. Inspired by a great post out there in the blogosphere, I promised the author my own thoughts. Of course, I didn’t expect it to showcase the more interesting aspects of my theology… nevertheless, here are my 5 reasons I gave up sola scriptura and learned to love the Bible *and* Tradition:

  1. Sola scriptura often sows division and controversy
  2. Jesus is the Interpreter: the one with ultimate interpretive authority
  3. The Apostles were given the authority to interpret the Interpreter
  4. Jesus’ interpretive authority flowed through the Apostles and is carried in his Body
  5. Tradition is also a valid and necessary authority for Christian faith and practice

1. Sola scriptura often sows division and controversy

Now it’s a simple matter of history that sola scriptura originated out of a schism within the Body of Christ. Unfortunately the Catholic Church, at the time, had the Reformation coming. Years of spiritual, moral and political corruption had marred the church’s authority, seeming to render it illegitimate. In thus rejecting the authority of the Catholic Church, the Reformers espoused sola scriptura: the Bible contains all knowledge necessary for salvation. On it’s face, this is true. However, despite carefully crafted wording, in practice sola scriptura negates, countermands or supersedes whatever is found outside the Bible, and denies the possibility of any other authority than itself. Thus began its long history of division, first Protestant from Catholic, and up to today Protestant from Protestant. In 2011 Pew published a report on the size and distribution of the world’s Christian population, breaking down the denominations of Protestants:

Pew’s findings were that there are 41,000 Christian denominations worldwide, along with some overlap between countries. This simple chart masks the denominational distinctions within each of these major groups; the other denominations that rank too small numerically to fit on the chart; and the variety under the last 38.2% who are beholden theologically, at most, their pastor’s or their own interpretation of Scripture. Dig deeper and you find some who believe Catholics aren’t Christian, or even that other Protestants aren’t, simply because we major on the minors of Scripture.

We do this primarily because the sola scriptura doctrine encourages an individualistic interpretation of Scripture, driving us further towards denominationalism, discord and division. It allows us to ‘solely’ determine truth and to walk away from a church, the church, a denomination, what have you, that we disagree with, and take others with us. One can argue that submission to authority is still necessary, division is a sin and those don’t go away. But the simple fact is that’s never been the case, and sola scriptura makes it possible because it makes each man and woman the author of his or her own Christian faith, not Jesus. Next, I want to explain how Jesus and orthodox Christianity intended interpretive authority to be handled.

2. Jesus is the Interpreter: the one with ultimate interpretive authority

Spend 5 minutes with me talking about church and you’ll find I’m not a fan of evangelicalism – even though technically I am one. Evangelicals like to say a few wrong things, such as holding up the Bible triumphantly while saying Jesus is the word made flesh, or half-jokingly saying it stands for Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. These are wrong because there is a difference between the Word and the Logos. Jesus is the manifestation of God, the second person in the Trinity, the Logos. Though we sometimes use “the word” interchangeably, we must make distinctions between the word of God and the Word. The half-joke of B.I.B.L.E is wrong because, as I will argue, the basic intent of the Bible is not to serve as our sole authority on Christian faith and practice, rather, its purpose is to lead us to the ultimate authority, Jesus.

Let me segue by making a good confession: I believe the Bible is the inspired word of God. I also believe it is reliable, true and authoritative for what we ought to know and believe about God. It is unique, holy, precious and a powerful corrective. It is all those things because it is a powerful, collected testimony of mankind’s interactions with an active, loving God. It testifies to the ultimate interaction, as John put it, “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.” (1 John 1:1) The Bible is a God-given tool to lead us to Jesus – the word leads us to the Word. That is the intent and function of the Bible.

Jesus the Word is a radical, authoritative re-interpreter of the word. Mark, catching the words from Peter’s mouth, recorded that Jesus amazed everyone because “he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.” (Mark 1:22) Matthew remembers Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, recording his reinterpretations of the Law in his “you heard it said… but I say to you” discourse. In all this we see Jesus sets himself forever as the only one with interpretive authority over the Scriptures.  Certainly, he found those who agreed with him, such as the teacher of the law in Mark 12:8-34, but who besides the one for whom the Scriptures exist has authority to interpret them?

3. The Apostles were given the authority to interpret the Interpreter

The question dawned that if Jesus is the Interpreter, who has the authority to say what Jesus did or did not say, what Jesus meant or did not mean?

I could say, the Holy Spirit or the individual Christian. The first works: Jesus himself said the Spirit would remind us of what he said and lead us into all truth. But the Spirit is unseen and he speaks in a small silent voice. Many have claimed to speak by him and lied, so the “each Christian” option is out. If you ever have been berated by a Bible thumper, you know what I mean. So the Holy Spirit, needs a more trustworthy “host”, for lack of a better term. The answer, then, must be the Apostles.

Jesus breathed on the Apostles saying “receive the Holy Spirit”. He spoke to the Apostles that the Spirit would come and lead them to all truth. Jesus also directly said “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” All the authority Jesus had, including interpretive authority, was imparted to the Apostles and empowered by the Holy Spirit. All Jesus taught was contained in them, with more to come via the Holy Spirit. The Word had left the earth but he left his word in the Apostles.

4. Jesus’ interpretive authority flowed through the Apostles and is carried in his Body

It is worth noting here that I am not Catholic. I was born a sinner, raised a cultural Baptist, “got saved” as a 19 year old in college and have sufficient evangelical bona fides: led Bible studies, taught classes, led people to Christ, mission trips, etc. Nor am I making an argument for the Catholic Church or Magisterium. In fact, until God corrected my divisive and unChristian thinking, I hated Catholicism and thought they would all burn. I just started asking questions and studying history, and arrived at conclusions distant from where I was spiritually raised.

God incarnated in time, working out his salvation in history, so it is appropriate to consider history when understanding God’s salvific work. Historically, the Body of Christ understood Jesus’ authority being passed on, signified by the laying on of hands, to the Apostles and from them to others. We see it in the Bible: in Acts, the Apostles lay hands on Matthias, the successor to Judas Iscariot; they lay hands on the seven, including Stephen, the first martyr of the faith; Paul says to Timothy to stir up the gift of God given him by the laying on of hands. My argument is not for whether laying on of hands is important, rather it’s that authority is transferred or passed on.

Teachings are passed on in addition to interpretive authority. It is clear that for at least the first 20 years or so of our faith, nothing was recorded or written down, at least not anything extant. Our earliest writings are from Paul in the early 50s, and the earliest dating for any of the gospels is just prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. For 20 years at least, Jesus’ teachings were communicated just as he imparted them: orally. The apostles handed down the way of life learned from Jesus not only, not even primarily, by what they wrote, but how they lived. This is good and it is beautiful, because ultimately the faith is not about words but of a powerful life (1 Cor 4:20).

Catholicism calls these oral teachings “the deposit of faith” and the embodiment of them “Tradition.” No matter what I thought of Catholicism, the argument was compelling that Jesus imparted his interpretive authority and oral teachings to his Apostles, who then passed it on to others. In light of this I arrived at my last reason:

5. Tradition is also a valid and necessary authority for Christian faith and practice

Tweet: Tradition is also a valid and necessary authority for Christian faith and practice #whyigaveupsolascriptura http://ctt.ec/a109L+

We see Tradition’s important role as early as AD 180. Irenaeus of Lyons defended Christianity against the Gnostic heresy by appealing to apostolic tradition, saying

“those that wish to discern the truth may observe the apostolic tradition made manifest in every church through the world. We can enumerate those who are appointed bishops in the churches by the Apostles and their successors down to our own day.” (Against Heresies, III)

Irenaeus was himself was a disciple of the martyr Polycarp, who was discipled by John.

Do not walk away from this post thinking I don’t believe in the Bible’s authority. I do. What I no longer believe is that the Bible is the *sole* authority for Christian faith and practice. Tradition is also just as valid and necessary – they are interdependent twin pillars for Christian faith and practice.

The Body of Christ, generally, unconsciously holds this truth to be self-evident, even if we wouldn’t explain it as such. We exclude as heretical certain teachings not explicitly taught in the Bible, such as the Trinity and hypostatic union. Arius is a great example. Arius was a presbyter in the church at Alexandria in the early 300s. He got into an argument with his bishop about 318

“over their conflicting interpretations of the divinity of Christ. Arius claimed that [Jesus], though divine, was less so than the Father because he was created by the Father and therefore a creature rather than the Creator. Moreover, because [Jesus] had been created “in time,” he did not share in the eternality of the Father but was temporal–” (Nystrom, 90)

Arius’ teachings were controversial because they were believable, not heretical, as their orthodoxy was yet to be decided. Arius had read some of Jesus’ own words and arrived at his own conclusions. He interpreted scripture for himself and drew many followers to his side. It nearly tore the church apart. Arian churches were set up. Christians fought in the street. Besides Gnosticism and the Donatist controversy, it was the first major test of Christian orthodoxy. We cannot look backward on history with rose-colored glasses; we must remember that, as they experienced it, Arius’ ideas were not a settled matter.

Constantine wanted his new Empire, now mostly Christian, to hold together, so he convened bishops at Nicea in 325. It is a funny note of history that St. Nick (yes, Santa Claus) slapped Arius for his teachings, but it underscores the potency of the moment. After much argument, it was finally decided that Jesus was co-equal with the Father. It would, however, be another 125 years before the matter was finally settled at Chalcedon, where Athanasius helped craft the words any Christian ought to well know: “Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages… begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;”

These bishops, successors to the Apostles, appealed not only to the Bible but also Tradition to establish some of our most important doctrines. The Body of Christ had exercised its interpretive authority, and every Christian, Catholic or not, whether they knew of Nicea and Chalcedon, must subscribe to these teachings regardless. The Bible and Tradition had won.

Someone had to exercise interpretive authority over the Bible. Jesus had left the earth, giving his interpretive authority not generally to any Christian, but to the Apostles specifically. They passed it on to other faithful people along with the oral teachings of Jesus and other things they learned from the Spirit. As the Bible is not intended to function by itself, sola scriptura, in Christian faith and practice absent some sort of interpretive authority, which I find Jesus intended to locate within the Apostolic Tradition. For these reasons I no longer hold to sola scriptura. Rather, I believe both the Bible and Tradition are interdependent authorities for Christian faith and practice.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s