You may have never heard of the term “sola scriptura,” but I bet you are familiar with the concept.
It’s the idea that the scriptures contain all knowledge necessary for salvation and is the only final authority in matters of faith and practice. Consequently, sola scriptura demands that only doctrines that are found directly within the scriptures or indirectly by using valid deductive reasoning from them are to be admitted or confessed. Sola scriptura is not a denial of other authorities governing Christian life and devotion. Rather, it demands that all other authorities are subordinate to and are to be corrected by the scriptures (paraphrased from Wikipedia).
This doctrine first made its appearance during the 16th century in the Reformation, in which Martin Luther initiated a reaction against the ignorance of the Catholic Church regarding some significant issues relating to the scriptures. One such issue was the Catholic doctrine of ex cathedra. This is the doctrine that states that the Pope can choose to “define a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church” (First Vatican Council). In other words, if the Pope says something is true, then it must be accepted as true. A similar idea was probably at work on a practical level as well; only those who were “qualified” could interpret the scriptures. Thus, the declaration of ultimate truth rested within their power of those who were ordained by the ecclesiastical authorities such as bishops.
Seeing the corruption within the religious institutions of their time, the Protestants (those who protested against the practices of the Catholic Church) swung to the other side of the pendulum and decided to place absolute authority within the scriptures and the scriptures alone. The key implication of this move was that interpretations of the scriptures were not given the same authority as the scriptures themselves, no matter who the interpreter was. Hence, the ecclesiastical authority came to be viewed as subject to correction by the scriptures.
This idea was taken further when people began to hold that not only is the bible the Word of God but every part of it too in and of itself, irrespective of context, setting the stage for the idea that individual verses lifted out of the scriptures are true in their own right and can be used to prove a doctrine or practice (“proof texting”). This practice was started around 1600 by Protestant scholastics who took the teachings of the Reformers and systematized them according to the rules of Aristotelian logic (i.e. they relied on Greek philosophy).
Although claiming, as the Catholic church had done, that an “ecclesiastical authority” could declare truth for everyone was silly, claiming that a book could do the same was just as ridiculous. Think about it. A book cannot tell you what is true because it cannot interpret itself for you. Regardless of whether interpretation is done for one’s self or for others, the reader themselves must necessarily do the interpreting. Further, bibles cannot exercise authority over people; they are lifeless books (by the way, if my calling bibles “lifeless” made you think of Hebrews 4:12, it might benefit you to know that it’s talking about Jesus, not bibles).
Selecting a group of individuals or a collection of writings to tell us what is true can never be made an absolutely objective endeavor. We cannot escape subjectivity.
To put it plainly, sola scriptura is a man-made doctrine of the 16th century that was created in reaction to bad church politics. This doesn’t conclusively demonstrate that it’s wrong. But that this idea wasn’t believed for the first 1500 years after Jesus’ time on earth should cause you to seriously question its validity.
Further, although many people claim sola scriptura as a foundational doctrine, it is certainly not universally held among believers and is even rejected by entire believing institutions (for example, the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox churches equally uphold the value of the tradition that was started by the apostles).
So I would like to propose another option: sola Jesus. (I don’t mean the solus Christus of the Reformation.)
What I basically mean by that is that everything that people have claimed that the ecclesiastical authorities or the scriptures are (as they pertain to truth and authority), Jesus and Jesus alone is.
Such a concept is unpopular because, unlike physical people and books we can feel, hear, and see, Jesus is not always objectively tangible. If we say Jesus gets the final word on everything, the application of authority necessarily works subjectively because people hear and interpret what Jesus communicates to us differently.
That’s fine by me.
The Catholic Church has its pope with his ex cathedra, and Protestants have their bibles with its sola scriptura. Both systems ultimately replace the person of Jesus with something else as the final authority. I accept the man Jesus as the subjective basis for truth, and indeed as Truth itself.
Some might say that this is all fine in theory but that it cannot work practically. What could having Jesus as the ultimate authority possibly look like?
In response I would first point out that lacking experience and a conception of how it could work doesn’t invalidate it. Second, sola scriptura (or having ecclesiastical authorities for that matter) is just as “impractical” because it is just as subjective as having a person as the ultimate standard.
I understand that there is for many a significant fear of deception when it comes to being “led by the Spirit.” There are plenty of cults out there that began because somebody “got a revelation.” Yet I can say with honesty that I have no fear of the like because I trust Jesus’ ability to correct me more than I fear my potential to be led astray. Cults are obvious as such because they cease to be centered on Jesus and accordingly cease to look like Jesus.
Please notice that I did not say and understand that I have no intention of saying, “let’s throw out the scriptures!” There may be other things that people think I am saying that I did not explicitly assert. Please refrain from jumping to conclusions about what I believe about the scriptures based on this blog post because that is something that I have not expounded on here. If that’s something you would like to know, I’d love to talk with you about it. Just let me know 🙂