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.
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