Sola Scriptura vs. Historical Criticism: an Ironic Debate

Every good Protestant should at least know about Sola Scriptura. Unless you’ve intentionally decided to question it, though, you probably accept it. And, to be sure, it is a nice sentiment which had a rightful place in overthrowing the corrupt authority of the Catholic church at the time of the Protestant Reformation. But does it hold up to scrutiny? I argue that it does not.

Sola Scriptura, using the Wikipedia definition, suggests that the Bible contains “all knowledge necessary for salvation and holiness.” Or, as I have heard it before, the Bible is the “final authority” on such matters.

“Scripture alone” might seem to suggest to the unlearned that all theological knowledge is self-contained within Scripture; however, very few, if any, scholars who support Sola Scriptura would suggest that you cannot bring in outside knowledge to interpret the Bible. The problem is that while scholars do indeed bring in outside sources to help with interpretation, the notion of Sola Scriptura ends up being self-defeating.

Part of the problem comes from the notion of the Bible being an “authority.” Once someone invokes the authority card on a passage, he/she says, “I have considered this passage against all the right pieces of evidence, and I have come to the proper conclusion.” With such a notion at the very foundation of Protestantism, we automatically have a problem — hence the diversity of denominations all claiming to have the right views. But even if an interpreter is slower to draw the lines in the sand when dealing with a complicated passage, the approach of Sola Scriptura still has difficulties.

Many try to set up standards for what sorts of things constitute the right and wrong types of information to bring into interpretation. We can trust the lessons of, say, Josephus or other ancient historians, but when we discuss the sciences, those are off limits, because they conflict with pre-existing interpretations. But why should that be a problem? Given several competing interpretations, science may show us which of them can’t be the case. Science does not have to be problematic; it can instead be an aid.

Any such standards for what constitutes right knowledge are man-made authorities on what is authoritative. If you should disqualify biology, archaeology, or history from commenting on scripture, you are now an authority on top of the authority of Scripture, at which point Sola Scriptura ceases to function, because there is an authority governing its application. Someone attempting to apply Sola Scriptura has to allow all lines of inquiry.

But what if one were to discover that the Biblical authors weren’t writing the directly revealed Word of God? The authority of the Bible rests on it being God’s word. If it turns out this isn’t quite the case, then you’re stuck imposing another authority on top of God’s authority to salvage the doctrine.

This, I believe, explains the opposition to historical criticism, because historical criticism suggests that the Bible actually drew a lot of inspiration from contemporary or pre-existing texts and cultures. Far from invalidating the Bible, though, it gives us a better idea of how the ancients wrestled with the idea of God. From the comparison of Genesis 1 against the Enuma Elish, for example, we learn that creation is not the accidental result of capricious gods battling; instead, it is the ordered work of a divine, rational creator.

You would do better to look elsewhere for an authority on what historical criticism actually teaches, but I can comment on the philosophical differences between it and Sola Scriptura. Sola Scriptura inevitably must impose artificial restrictions on the study of the Bible, whereas historical criticism is far more free to ask questions and make inferences from any source at all. It is the difference between saying “This is what is” and asking “What is?” The latter of these is far more submissive to reality.

It is no small coincidence that historical criticism tends to converge on certain views, whereas many Christian denominations seem locked in endless back-and-forth. This one philosophical difference accounts for the dramatic distinction. A battle of artificially-imposed authorities is not a matter of academic discourse; it is a shouting match or a rhetorical battle. When we at least attempt to make reality into the only authority, we depart from rhetoric and start to learn what is really true.

Thus, for all the pious diatribes against the “knowledge of the world” vs. “God’s knowledge,” Sola Scriptura is ironically man-centric, because man ends up as the arbiter of what is and is not true. Historical criticism, against the prevailing sentiments of conservative theologians, is remarkably submissive to God, acknowledging that — as the saying goes — “all truth is God’s truth.” But, of course, God is in the habit of irony.

Author’s note: be sure to follow the blog in one way or another if you liked this post. I will be posting hopefully at least 4 blog posts a week at a similar quality level to this post.

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About Chris Attaway

Raised in the digital wilderness of the pre-Internet 2.0 era, Chris Attaway is a true gamer and Internet citizen. After a stint studying computer science, his life got flipped turned upside down, and he ended up studying philosophy to help him sort out his life. Now the black sheep in a family of engineers, he has set out to get his footing in the world of freelance journalism. With interests ranging from gaming and technology to LGBT rights, race and politics, Chris is a diverse and skilled writer who always tries to give a fair shake to his subjects.
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12 Responses to Sola Scriptura vs. Historical Criticism: an Ironic Debate

  1. shon says:

    You are essentially arguing that we based on our cultural understanding should ignore what we don’t like in the Bible because it may be based on their cultural understanding, and God did not care that much if his word was recorded accurately or not.

    • That’s assuming that God dictated or otherwise revealed “his Word” in the first place. From the argumentation here, I don’t think that is the case.

      • shon says:

        What is the Bible to you then?

      • My working definition for right now — one which admittedly needs maintenance — is that the Bible is the result of people grappling with the Living God and writing of Him in the genres of their cultures.

      • shon says:

        Were the prophesies predicting Jesus meaningless?

      • I would be careful throwing things like this around. I may have different theology than you, but I take Christ very seriously. Try to be a little more charitable in your comments.

      • davidpmathew says:

        Would you call yourself a believer in Jesus. Do you believe Jesus died for you sins and rose from the dead? I do. When someone proves he is God by rising from the dead and he affirms and fulfills all Scripture calling himself the word incarnate, I tend to trust what the Bible says.

        Remember that much of what is called science is assumed to be automatically proven. But much of what’s labeled science is interpretation of data and evidence. So one has to take a sound look at how that raw data is being interpreted. No Sola Scriptura Apologist I’ve heard has ever disqualified biology, archaeology, or history in the study of the Bible. In fact, they use them to confirm the accuracy of Scripture.

        I agree that the Bible is not the *only* sources of truth. This should be obvious. I don’t think that’s what Sola Scriptura would say. Remember that the term Sola Scripture arose as a rejection of the false authority of the Roman Catholic Church teaching that contradicted what the Bible actually says. So it has to be understood in that context. Do some misuse it today? Sure. But to their own folly, as many writers of Scripture quoted from extra-biblical sources. (I would urge you to read Don Richardson’s Eternity In Their Hearts to understand what I’m trying to say.) Sola Scriptura means we can use the Scriptures as a Standard approved by Jesus and the Prophets by which we can litmus test other teachings. Otherwise, we’d have no way to know for sure what Jesus says, or be able to recognize a false teacher.

        Another good resource to check out is Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien.

      • I definitely believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The exact history of how that happened is not in the Bible, though. The various stories each have their own theological points which they are trying to make.

        I don’t know about this thing where you claim that Jesus calls himself the Word. John 1 is referring primarily to Philo, wherein the Word is more of a metaphysical grounding for all existence. The irony of the passage is that this metaphysical thing, this “logos,” became flesh, which would have flown in the face of prevailing philosophy at the time.

        My point, though, is that there is a lot of evidence to say that the Bible is not God’s directly-revealed word. There are lots of comparisons to make to contemporary literature that are a lot more than coincidental. Directly revealed by God to Moses (or whomever you think wrote it)? Possible… but unlikely. Sola Scriptura rests on this being the case, though.

      • shon says:

        I apologize if my comments and questions come across as uncharitable, but I find your beliefs very confusing, the reason I asked whether or not you considered Jesus’ prophesies meaningless is because those would seem to be the “dictated” or revealed word of God otherwise it would not make much sense for such a prophesy to be true.

        Is it not possible that contemporary literature was in fact inspired by the same events recorded in the Bible or perhaps by the Bible itself? Can you please cite some of your evidence?

      • Hmm, well you would do better asking a theologian about that. I intend to read Dr. Peter Enns’ “Inspiration and Incarnation” very soon, provided I have time with my coursework.

        The role I’m trying to assume is to wind up the machine, so to speak, not to say where it will go afterward. I can’t comment as much on the specific results of hermeneutics as I can on hermeneutics as a discipline.

  2. David says:

    Jesus affirms the OT entirely, even explaining to his disciples how the whole of the OT speaks about him.

  3. Chase says:

    I’m thinking about understanding the Bible as God’s word in a way based on the belief He has middle knowledge. In this way, God would know how the books of the Bible would be written by their authors in any possible world he might actualize and then actualize the world that has the scripture which best conveys what He wants and in the way He wants. This would allow God to play the role of inspiring scripture in someway or extent as He wants, while not restricting us to think God directly guided the whole process since He could have allowed the authors to write freely from their own understanding while still writing what God wanted. I don’t think this would require us to hold to inerrancy and we would want to remember God would have other criteria for which world He actualizes which might leave Him to actualize a world with scripture that doesn’t give us the best possible picture, but would at least be sufficient enough that our ability to reason and reflect would be the tool that helps us to work through the murk (and God might make some scripture intentionally murky precisely because He wants us to use our reason).

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