The Shape of Sola Scriptura, part 1

Ligonier’s Keith Mathison, one of the Reformation Study Bible editors, wrote an interesting book a few years ago called The Shape of Sola Scriptura. In it, he notes that Reformed theologians were quick to pounce on the reductionistic corruption of sola fide (“faith alone”) by certain dispensationalists during the Lordship Salvation controversy. However, while sola fide has been closely guarded (as is evident again in the Federal Vision discussions), “a drastic alteration of the classic Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura has occurred over the last 150 years [that] has caused hardly a stir.”

Sola scriptura says that Scripture is the only infallible source of revelation and the final authority in matters of faith and life. It it is to be interpreted in and by the Church according to the regula fidei (aka. the rule of faith, a summary of the faith taught by the Apostles and expressed in a fuller way by the Nicene Creed). The ancient creeds express the historic interpretive consensus of the Church. Evangelicals, however, have corrupted sola scriptura by making the Bible the only authority. The Church and historic creeds are given no more weight than any individual beliefs, and it is up to everyone to individually intepret Scripture. This corruption of sola scriptura has been coined “solo scriptura.”

Years ago, I interviewed a prospective job candidate and asked his qualifications. He responded with what you might call the tabula rasa argument: He didn’t have any qualifications, but that was an advantage because he was a blank slate who lacked preconceived notions. He could think outside the box! I admired his gall but didn’t recommend him for the job. I recalled that incident after reading this from the 19th century dispensationalist Lewis Sperry Chafer, which so well typifies solo scriptura:

The very fact that I did not study a prescribed course in theology made it possible for me to approach the subject with an unprejudiced mind and to be concerned only with what the Bible actually teaches.

Similar sentiments were voiced by the anti-denominationalist Alexander Campbell, father of the Disciples of Christ and Churches of Christ (some of whom now believe that only their denomination adminsters true baptism):

I have endeavored to read the scriptures as though no one had read them before me, and I am as much on my guard against reading them today, through the medium of my own views yesterday, or a week ago, as I am against being influenced by any foreign name, authority, or system whatever.

Many have pointed out the main problem with these “me and my Bible” positions: Arrogance. Each of us comes to the Bible with our own influences, assumptions, biases, and blind spots. We come as sinners. As Michael Horton says, it’s easy to distort God’s word when we cut ourselves off from the consensus of other Christians across time and place (and given the novel doctrines that arose in the 19th century in particular, this is exactly what happened). An individual Christian should study Scripture alone, but not isolated from the past and present communion of saints. As Spurgeon so aptly put it:

Of course, you are not such wiseacres as to think or say that you can expound Scripture without assistance from the works of divines and learned men who have laboured before you in the field of exposition. If you are of that opinion, pray remain so, for you are not worth the trouble of conversion, and like a little coterie who think with you, would resent the attempt as an insult to your infallibility. It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what He has revealed to others.

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