Last Episode of Why I am Orthodox…
Last post in my series of why I am an Orthodox Christian, I outlined that there was an obvious and not-so-easily reconcilable flaw within Protestant Christianity: the preponderance towards having a diversity of mutually contradictory beliefs which result in differing forms of worship. One could put this down to merely worship being a series of preferential subjective tastes, but this raises a few questions which only deepens the problem:
- Christ said that His followers must worship Him in spirit and in truth. How can it said to be worshipping in truth when the various parties who claim to do so are contradicting one another? Logically, either one of these groups is correct and the rest false, or all of these groups are false.
- Likewise, Christ also said that the Spirit would lead His disciples into all truth. If this is so, how can we meaningfully say that the Spirit has led Christ’s disciples into all truth when Christ’s disciples are at odds with one another in what the truth about God is? This is not relegated to trivial matters but rather seems to be at the heart of the understanding of Christianity itself: the very character of God, the means by which God grants grace (which is essential to salvation), the activity of God in the world now, and so on.
- One could say that worship is a largely subjective matter, but this seems to contradict Christ’s sayings above, who understands that there is a truth in worship which must be achieved. How can we say this when the God presented in the Old Testament, who is the same God as of the New Testament, has a particular concern for worship to follow certain prescribed forms, methods, rites and rituals? This seems to be a function of his unchanging character rather than being mere accidental occurrence. In other words, one cannot deny the necessity of prescribed forms and rituals without also saying that the unchangeable character of God has changed.
How did we get into this circumstance and is there a way outside of this? I would say yes, there is – however it requires realising that certain fundamental assumptions are causative. Which assumptions? I argue that the reason these issues exist is primarily (amongst other reasons) due to the foundational Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura: the idea that the Bible is the ultimate authority for faith and living. If this belief is adopted, I argued that it necessarily leads to the problems outlined above, due to a series of internal contradictions which renders Christian belief to be incoherent both methodologically and doctrinally.
When I began writing this article the intention was to concisely put forth my arguments all at once. However, over 6000 words and counting, it became clear to me that I needed to break this argument into multiple, smaller arguments tying it all up at the end.
As such my discussion on Sola Scriptura will be a series of smaller essays arguing the following:
- Firstly, Sola Scriptura is self-contradictory in that we have to rely upon a tradition to know what the Bible is.
- Secondly, Sola Scriptura is self-contradictory because it is not attested to in the Bible itself, whilst the Bible also attests to the value of tradition.
- Thirdly, Sola Scriptura ultimately causes fractures and dissensions in worship and belief because it is based on some poor philosophical and theological presuppositions about how interpretation works and about how the Spirit guides people into all truth, inevitably making every single Christian their own ultimate authority.
What is Sola Scriptura?
Before I can argue anything, however, it is essential that I define the doctrine I claim to take issue with. If I do not represent the belief properly, I would be arguing against a fictional construct rather the belief itself and thus would prove nothing. I hope, however, this does a good enough job: Sola Scriptura, simply speaking, claims that for theological matters, the Bible is the ultimate authority. Any claim relating to theology – that is, to what Christians are supposed to believe about God, God in relation to themselves, their salvation, their ethical living as Christians, their ultimate worldview – the Bible is the final authority. To put this in the context of a very basic example: let’s say someone was trying to understand how God saves people. This view says that the way that we would know what salvation is and how it occurs would be to consult the Bible, to see what it says, try our very best to understand it, and then treat its proclamation on this issue as the authoritatively true word. The basic logic behind this is that God alone has the authority on matters pertaining to who He is and what He desires. As such, He must reveal Himself to us and of the many means He has done so through, the main normative source of what to be believed is the written text of the Bible. This is because the Bible is the collected witness to the reality of God’s interaction with humanity culminating in the incarnation of God as the man Jesus Christ. To put it another way, God has spoken through the Bible by the witness of those who have experienced Him, thus making it God’s word and uniquely so. Since it is uniquely God’s word, it stands to reason, then, that it maintains a high level of authority for Christians. It can serve as a solid foundation of teaching and instruction regarding God’s desired ends: to bring people to salvation so that they might enjoy communion with him.
However, this is not the entire picture. So far Sola Scriptura has only claimed that the Bible is an authority, not the only authority. To make that next step, we simultaneously require the belief in the sinfulness of humanity in that they are both limited in understanding and perceiving truth, and that the institutions created by humans will be tainted or corrupted by sin. The sinfulness of humans is such that no one can be completely sure that they are correct. Every person is sinful and limited by their finitude, and as a result of being contextual beings what we say, particularly about an all transcendental God, should be considered correct for all time. Furthermore, no person or institution run by persons is guaranteed to get God ‘right’, because all people and institutions are incapable of doing so, running the inherent risk that they may be speaking and teaching in error. It only makes sense, then, that we would say that the Bible alone is God’s word, because the words of people are not the words of God, unless God inspires it, or “breathes it”, as it were.
What this therefore looks like, then, is that the Christian is left with the ongoing task of reading the scriptures. Christians must base their belief on the Bible, figure out what is true with regards to theological beliefs and making sure that we are consistently returning to the Bible to make sure that we are getting things correct, because being the sinful people that we are, we may stray at some point in time. Consequently this means that traditions cannot be taken as an ultimate authority because a tradition could simply be a wrong belief handed down through time, and likewise we cannot trust official statements of any Church, or the individual teaching of any teacher, because all of these could be in error in contradiction to the truth of what the Bible actually teaches. Things that earlier Christians believed, which may have held popular sway, should not be considered to be true right off the bat, because the Bible might not teach it.
To complicate things even further, there are two methodological out-workings of this position which correspond with two strands of the Protestant tradition.
In line with the tradition of the magisterial reformers (such as Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin and so on), what this looks like is the acceptance of derivative authorities which are subjected under the ultimate authority of the Bible. Certain traditions held throughout time (beliefs, practises, church statements, the teachings of early Christians etc.) can be authoritative so long as they conform to the teaching of the Scriptures. To put it another way, authority acts like a pyramid, with the Bible on top and with these other authorities sitting underneath, and these can only be trusted so long as they these lower authorities are in conformity with the higher authority.
In line with the radical reformers (the variegated “Anabaptist” groups) what this idea of Sola Scriptura looks like is an abandonment of tradition altogether: past traditions of the Church, what has been historically practiced and taught, the teachings of earlier Christians – none of these can be trusted as an authority and so these are to be all abandoned in favour of the only ultimate and true authority, the Bible. The Bible being sufficient for salvation, there is no need to have other authorities than the good book itself, as it were.
As defined above, Sola Scriptura has its own seemingly consistent premises and consequent logic. It is certainly an appealing position; however, it cannot withstand deeper analysis. Let us address the first of our problems.
The Contradictions of Sola Scriptura
Scripture Relies on Tradition
This is a rather simple argument, but I think it’s a profound one. The most obvious issue with Sola Scriptura is the fact that the Bible itself does not tell us exactly what it is. Let me explain the significance of this: as elaborated above, Sola Scriptura is a position which says that the ultimate authority – the ultimate source by which we can know God and his will for us in how we live: the final say on all theological matters – is the Bible. However, if the Bible is the source of ultimate authority, how do we come to a determination of what the Bible is?
What do I mean by this? Well, we must keep at the front of our minds the fact that “the Bible” as it exists now did not always exist. The Bible is a compendium of lots of different books from various genres, written at different times by different authors. This collection of books, for a very long time, did not exist as one unified volume recognised as being inspired by God. When Christianity came onto the scene, the closest thing available to a Bible was the Old Testament (OT) and specifically in the earliest Christians throughout the Roman Empire made use of the Greek translation of the OT known as the Septuagint (LXX). That is, Christianity existed before a New Testament (NT) was even written. Furthermore, when the NT texts were finally completed by the Apostles by the close of the first century, they weren’t formally recognised as constituting “Scripture” or “the NT” until the mid 4th century, well over 250 years after the Apostles died. This is not to say that the early Christians didn’t recognise certain biblical texts as being authoritative in a sense akin to Scripture before then. My point here is simply that there was a long time before someone could definitively say all the books which made up the NT, and therefore “The Bible”. In fact there were often debates and discussions over which books should be included in the Bible, and depending on where you were geographically located in the (now Christian) empire there were slight differences in which books were considered canonical or not. There was, in other words, a certain fluidity as to which texts constituted Scripture and which texts did not. For instance, the Epistle to the Hebrews and Revelation, among others, were questioned as to whether or not they should belong in the Bible, the Christian East frowning upon the confusing and mystical nature of the latter text (in fact, you will find that in the Orthodox Church today, even though Revelation IS considered to be canonical, none of the Church’s official services, typically saturated with a plethora of Biblical texts from all over the corpus, refuse to quote the book). These were eventually recognised to be inspired by a process of discernment and investigation and thus “made the cut”. Likewise there were books considered for inclusion (though there were more considered for exclusion), such as the early Christian text The Shepherd of Hermas, which didn’t make it into the canon. There is an important observation to be made by here: an early Christian in this context, who themselves likely would not have had access to every book of “the Bible” (let alone being able to read in the first place) would have found it very difficult to say that the Bible has the final authority when the Bible itself had not been formed. There were sacred Scriptures, certainly, but there was no unified, unilaterally determining source of authority and doctrine.
This only becomes more unlikely when one considers the criteria which were used to determine whether or not certain books were inspired. That is, these were dependent upon extra biblical factors, themselves often times relying upon traditions. Amongst the many necessary criteria for inspiration (Apostolic authorship, prevalence among the churches, etc), one of the most important was if a book conformed to the teaching of the apostles as it was understood. When St Paul or St Peter (or any other apostle for that fact) traversed the Roman Empire evangelising and establishing Christian communities, they would stay and minister for a time and at the completion of their ministry leave someone in their stead as an episkopos (Bishop or Overseer, in English). They would be responsible for teaching the faith as taught by the apostles to the people. This can be seen most clearly in the Biblical texts with the examples of St Timothy and St Titus. However, the earliest Christians understood their communal self-identity as Christians to be focused around these individuals: these Bishops who acted as Christ in their midst, holding the repository of the very teaching of the saving doctrine of Christ. These Bishops would then subsequently place someone in charge at the conclusion of their ministry to hand down the faith in their stead in the same way, ad infinitum. This line of reasoning was utilised by St Irenaeus in Against Heresies written the 2nd century (who was the disciple of Polycarp, the disciple of St John, the author of the gospel, the three letters and Revelation). This was important as it was used as a means of combating the gnostic heresies which had arisen during the time period, often supported by the creation of various gnostic “gospels” claiming to truly teach Christ’s hidden message which he had revealed to certain disciples in secret. Irenaeus (and others) said “no!”, explaining that the true doctrine of Christ was handed down to the apostles who handed it down to their disciples and so on; and that this was public and verifiable amongst all the churches around the world. It was this teaching which was to determine what was a valid written gospel (and therefore authoritative) in contrast to what was not. This reliance upon a tradition was rather standard procedure for determining what belonged in, or had the character of, Scripture and what did not.
And so this brings me to reiterate the question I asked earlier: if the ultimate theological authority for Christians is the Bible, how do determine what the Bible is? For the Christians who were compiling a list of books that made up the Scriptures, they did not have a Bible to refer to tell them what belonged in this list. If this is a universal, authoritative principle for all Christians after the Apostolic era, it seems odd to have to apply this standard to Christians who come after the Apostles who simply cannot appeal to this standard as no “Bible” existed. What is even more troubling for this view is the fact that these Christians seem to be appealing to an existing tradition as being ultimately authoritative in a theological matter.
It seems that Sola Scriptura doesn’t make sense when we consider the nature and development of the Bible itself. But let us for one moment ignore the historical past and consider ourselves now in our present situation. Ask yourself, “how do I personally know which books belong in the Bible? Have I figured this out? Did God tell me? Am I just trusting what’s there, or what Pastor Gary told me?” I suspect this may not be a question we have asked ourselves before, which is somewhat surprising considering how important the Bible is to us Christians. If we trust the Bible, we want to make sure that what we’re actually reading is the Bible, right? Surely we would have to make sure no ‘wrong’ books are in it. In the first place, we cannot appeal to the Bible itself, because that would be viciously circular. To determine what the Bible is, I cannot look at the Bible in front of me because that Bible could be wrong having certain incorrect books within its pages. As such I undermine any trust that I should have in it. In other words, if I were to appeal to the Bible in this circumstance, I am assuming the answer to the very question which I am trying to answer. It is, therefore, self-defeating. For instance, we could say that 2 Peter 3:16 says that Paul’s letters are scripture and thus they belong in the New Testament. However, this begs the question of why we should trust 2 Peter in the first place. How do we know 2 Peter belongs in the Bible? Do we even know which letters of Paul’s are his rather than being forgeries (more on this below)? We could suggest that we can look at the earliest Christian testimonies and see which ones refer to each other as Scripture or treat each other in this light. This might not be a bad methodology, but we would still come up incredibly short as not every NT book (and not even every OT book) is referred to by other books and that still begs the question of any book that I choose to be my starting point. It becomes utterly ad hoc in its process.
Let us step back for a moment, as there is, I think, another profound observation to be made. We have a Bible which is meant to be our ultimate authority, and yet it cannot tell us what belongs in it. I hazard a guess that, really, most of us have not actually thought about this question. Instead, we have taken this issue upon trust – we have been given a Bible with a certain number of books in it and assumed that this was it. We may have been told by a pastor, a Sunday school teacher or an educated friend that the books of the Bible are books a, b, c… x, y, z and simply accepted the fact. None of these individuals are necessarily wrong, but this stands to prove my point: The Bible was formed on the basis of a tradition and in fact is now handed down to us as a tradition. Whether we realise it or not, we have in fact trusted ourselves to a tradition on a theological matter and treated it as an ultimate source of authority. In the case of Protestants, they have decided to hold to a particular tradition that says the Bible is 66 books, normalised by Martin Luther in the 16th century. Catholics and Orthodox, for instance, rely upon the determinations of earlier Christians which have put it at more than this. To trust the Bible is to a priori trust a tradition, because it is the tradition handed down by Christians in our past that we use to say what the Bible is, and it is only from there that we can use the Bible as an authority at all.
To summarise my argument here, there is a conundrum for Sola Scriptura-‘ists’: if we believe in Sola Scriptura we have no way of actually know what the Bible is, because the Bible itself does not tell us which books belong in it. We have to refer to some other source of authority which then holds authority over the Bible to tell us what it is. This means that even if we claim to believe in Sola Scriptura, we are actually tacitly trusting in a tradition as our ultimate authority, because we have trusted the repeated and handed down attestation of Christians through history to know what it is – in other words, we have to trust tradition.
I offer a brief personal anecdote for a moment to illustrate the stakes of this circumstance. When I was studying my undergraduate in theology, certain behind-the-scenes ideas about the academic study of the Bible became apparent to me: one of these was the notion that several documents of the New Testament are pseudepigraphical. That is, they are claimed to have been written by certain authors, but critical investigation reveals that they were not – that they were written by individuals who then penned them in someone else’s name. For instance, the modern scholarly consensus on St Paul’s various epistles is that St Paul has undisputedly written only 7 of 13 of them, the remaining letters having varying levels of support in the academy as to whether or not they were penned by him or in his name by disciples, imitators, communities established by him, or whatever else. This has often caused Christians of a more liberal disposition to devalue or exclude certain books from the Bible wholesale, treating them as if they were less authoritative than the rest, if not utterly unauthoritative altogether.
To the one who believes in Sola Scriptura, my question would be, why is this problematic? It is consequently those who are conservative in their theological dispositions who so vociferously argue that these documents were written by Paul and necessarily canonical. But why? The Bible doesn’t say anywhere which books belong in it. If we use our tools of critical investigation and discover that they probably weren’t written by Paul, an apostle or someone affiliated with an apostle, why should we keep it? In fact, how can we even know if these were the case? Answers to these questions typically boil down to defending tradition or the historical processes and criteria which produced these texts. The former is simply a shibboleth in the eyes of Sola Scriptura; the latter is the very processes and conclusions questioned by critical methods and is simply a more subtle and intelligently codified defense of tradition, which, despite its apparent complexity and sophistication, still remains a shibboleth in the eyes of Sola Scriptura. On the part of the more “liberal” theologian and church goer, it seems to me that they are in fact being more consistent with the foundational axioms of Sola Scriptura, attempting to determine what Scripture is and then getting rid of what is not Scripture. After all, traditions can be wrong, even a tradition which says Romans is written by St Paul.
How this is deleterious to Christian faith is obvious. No single book of the Bible is free from being questioned as being authoritative, inspired and legitimately part of the Bible, and we cannot have surety of saying that any text therein is significant for communicating God’s will for us. But let’s not pretend that this is uncommon or not endemic to the Protestant paradigm – after all, Protestantism’s hero, Martin Luther, questioned the canonical value of the Epistle of St James saying “St. James’ Epistle is really an epistle of straw, for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.”
Next post – Scripture does not teach Sola Scriptura