Sola scriptura: a response

Who determines what is true at the cutting edge?

George W. Reid, Ph. D., heads the General Conference's Biblical Research Institute.

Tim Crosby points up well the foolishness of interpreting sola scriptura to exclude any other source of valid authority. Certainly the Bible was not intended to serve such a purpose. But in chastising the narrowness of modern usage, we must be careful not to read current sloppiness back into the Reformers' position.

The Reformers' point was that in developing doctrine, if the choice lies between Scripture and tradition or Scripture alone, we must opt for the latter. They came to this point for two reasons: first, the abuses medieval tradition had imposed on the Scriptures; and, second, claims by the medieval church--both West and East--that in authority the church outranks the Scriptures, for the canon itself is the creation of the church.

The Reformers' response was that the church universal only recognized God's communication to the believers; it could not confer such authority. For the Reformers, the authority incumbent in the Scriptures transcends church tradition, pronouncements, rational constructs, philosophy, or any other type of claim. The Reformers did not hold that the Scriptures are the only source of authority, but that they are the supreme, final, and terminal source before which all other must give way. Crosby's suggestion, then, that we speak of prima scriptura is a good one if we wish to convey accurately the Reformers' idea.

On another point, it has become fashionable to stress the developmental side of theology--"truth in movement." This follows in part from the influence of Whitehead's process epistemology. Unquestionably a degree of development appears within the recognized canonical writings themselves. But such development is restricted. To cite one example, nowhere in later canonical writings is there a more profound description of the Creation than in Genesis 1 and 2. On the other hand, the Bible's presentation of a Messianic Redeemer begins with an altar and a cryptic prophecy in Genesis 3:15, but comes to full blossom in the Christ of the New Testament. Generally we encounter an unfolding of meaning, seldom true innovation.

The difficulty with developmentalism is that in function it is a wild bull. By nature iconoclastic, it appeals to the contemporary mind-set's penchant for inductive particularity. Unless bounded by rigid controls, its end product is a corrosive universalism foreign to the original intent of Scripture.

It is not enough to say that the new must be compatible with the old. How much is compatible? Could the Koran, for example, be carried inside the tent by pointing up the unquestioned fact that it draws repeatedly from a pool of ideas held in common with the Bible, and often from the Bible itself? Could we not abstract principles from both books, underline the developmental aspect of truth, raise our threshold of tolerance to pluralism sufficiently to accommodate the dissonance, and move toward ecumenical brotherliness? It is exactly this process, developed in liberal theological circles, that has neutered mainline Protestantism.

A second difficult question is Who determines what is true at the cutting edge of developmental doctrine? The standard answer is the corporate believing community. But what kind of discretion is vested in the community? Certainly some, for there are many questions the Bible makes no attempt to deal with, typically those related to praxis.

But strong cautions are in order. If scriptural statement is treated as too plastic, the community selecting and innovating freely, we suffer grave problems. Absolutes fade as the approach becomes increasingly subjective. It is precisely this process that led to such developments as honoring the virgin, sacramentalism, sacerdotalism, and the pomp of a politically enfranchised Christianity. All of this the community approved, often as providentially prompted, and judged to be compatible with the scriptural core, well within the bounds of the church to inaugurate.

The Reformers rejected these teachings. But curiously, mainline Protestant theology's endorsement of the believing community as the functioning theological monitor brings us full circle to the essence of the Catholic position in their argument with the Reformers.

While Crosby's article is helpful in warning us against a calcified theology closed to the current work of the Spirit through the gifts, it casts an unrealistically roseate glow over developmentalism. We need strong cautions lest biblical authority come to grief.

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George W. Reid, Ph. D., heads the General Conference's Biblical Research Institute.

October 1987

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