Viewpoint: Why I don't believe in sola scriptura

Is the Bible our only rule of faith and practice? Does Christian teaching allow room for inspired, authoritative messages beyond the New Testament canon?

Tim Crosby pastors in Ellijay, Georgia

Viewpoint is designed to allow readers an opportunity to express opinions regarding matters of interest to their colleagues. The ideas expressed in this feature are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Seventh-day Adventist Church or the opinions of the MINISTRY staff.

You are invited to submit your ideas to Viewpoint on any topic; however, the editors reserve the right to make a final decision regarding the appropriateness or suitability for publication. Editors.


The problem with theological formulas is that they tend to fossilize into shibbo leths that put an end to thought. One such shibboleth is sola fide ("by faith alone"), which the Greek New Testament mentions only to reject as erroneous. (This expression occurs only in James 2:24.)

Sola scriptura, another carryover from the Reformation, is also somewhat problematic. Although this doctrine has served a useful purpose, it is time to take a critical look at it.

In what sense is the Bible our only rule of faith and practice? The laws of the land, employee handbooks, the Church Manual, and countless other documents are rules of practice. True, Christians consider Scripture the supreme court of appeal; they subordinate these other rules of practice to it. But this is prima ("first, chief) scriptura, not sola ("only") scriptura.

Nor is the Bible our only rule of faith (i.e., belief). A textbook of physics or anatomy or even theology is also a rule of faith, though not a final one. The truth is that the Bible is the final authority in mat ters relating to theology, ethics, and sa cred history. Again, this is prima, not sola.

With its all-or-none implications, the term sola scriptura creates an unnecessary dilemma. Some who accept it believe they must reject any postcanonical claim to inspired authority. Others with different theological leanings conclude that because of this doctrine they must elevate the writings of Ellen G. White to a position of equality with Scripture.

Both positions are untenable. The adoption of prima scriptura enables us to retain the concept of noncanonical inspired authority without elevating this authority to an equality with Scripture.

The problem arises because people commonly use sola scriptura in the context of the wrong issue. They see it in terms of canonical versus noncanonical, when the real issue is inspiration versus tradition. The Reformers were not trying to choose between true and false prophets, but between "divine Scripture and human teaching or custom." Is it not in this sense that Ellen G. White used the term "the Bible alone"? Did she address the issue of her writings versus Scripture, or was it rather Scripture versus tradition? Ellen White contrasts "the Bible, and the Bible alone, . . .our rule of faith" with "the sayings and doings of men."2 She says that "the words of the Bible, and the Bible alone, should be heard from the pulpit" as opposed to "tradition and hu man theories and maxims";3 "the Bible, and the Bible alone, is to be our creed, the sole bond of union," in contrast to "our own views and ideas";4 and "the Bible, and the Bible only, is the religion of Protestants," as opposed to "the authority of tradition. She counsels us "to maintain the Bible, and the Bible only, as the standard of all doctrines and the basis of all reforms" in contrast to "the opinions of learned men, the deductions of science, the creeds or decisions of ecclesiastical councils, as numerous and discordant as are the churches which they represent, [and] the voice of the majority."6 Clearly, it was considering human tradition authoritative that she opposed, not the authority of extracanonical inspired writings.

The New Testament and continuing revelation

Only when understood in this way can the doctrine of sola scriptura find scriptural support (specifically, Matt. 15:1- 9). We must always hold tradition subordinate to the inspired writings.

But no canonical passage limits inspi ration or authority to the canon. The New Testament does not teach that the gift of prophecy or even the apostolic office ceased with the close of the canon. Ephesians 4 seems to indicate that all the gifts continue to function until the church is perfected. First Corinthians 13:8-12 implies that the spectacular gifts will be done away with only when the new age has come.

More subtle is Revelation 2:2, which speaks of testing false apostles. That the believers at Ephesus had to test some who were claiming to be apostles at a time when John was probably the only survi vor of the twelve indicates a continuing apostolate, as it is highly unlikely that these impostors were attempting to im personate the twelve. The very fact that they laid claim to the office implies that the office still existed. Perhaps they had failed the sort of test later codified in chapter 11 of the Didache, an early second-century "church manual" that lists behaviors considered legitimate and illegitimate for an apostle.

Hebrews 1:1f is sometimes quoted as proving that the New Testament is God's ultimate revelation to man. But this text teaches that Christ is a better revelation of God than any prophetic document--including the New Testament. We must not confuse what witnesses to Christ with Christ Himself, the ultimate revelation of God. Other texts, such as Revela tion 22:18 (which refers only to the book of Revelation itself) or Jude 3, do not speak to the issue.7

More light?

Proof-texting aside, the heart of the matter is the question of whether or not there can be progress beyond the New Testament. Should the motto of the theologian be that of the fifteenthcentury explorers of the oceans: "No more beyond" ? Has God finished speak ing? Has the church attained omni science? How did "I have much to say to you, but you cannot bear it now" be come, in the space of about 70 years, "I have nothing more to say to you; you know it all"?

No, theological progress did not end with the close of the scriptural canon. Any formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity goes somewhat beyond the New Testament, which nowhere explicitly states that there are three members of the Godhead (1 John 5:7 is an interpola tion). Moreover, any ethical system that condemns slavery and narcotics and allows women to worship without a veil goes beyond the New Testament. It is untenable to maintain that the New Tes tament gives the last word on every subject that it touches on although, of course, it does disallow contradictory po sitions. I believe that Matthew 16:19 grants the church a limited (the Roman Catholic Church would say unlimited) freedom to forbid and permit.

The question of canonicity is central in this issue. In part the problem arises because of a simplistic identification of canon with the 66 books. But a closer look reveals a series of nested canons, beginning with the books of Moses.

The Pentateuch was the first Bible, and probably constituted a closed canon by the time of the Exile--that is, nothing could be added to it. Yet this did not mean the end of authoritative inspired writings. To "the law" (the Torah) was added "the testimony" (Isa. 8:20), and these components made up a larger canon--the Old Testament. Yet other inspired books--the New Testament--were combined with the Old Testament into a larger canon, the Bible.

Today the Bible is a closed canon, as was the Old Testament, as was the Pentateuch. But that does not preclude the production of further inspired writings, which, if the Lord's coming is further delayed, may come to be regarded as a rule or test to which an even later in spired writer must conform (this is what canonical really means). Nevertheless, they will never become part of Scripture, for that canon is closed--just as Paul's writings could never become part of the Old Testament canon, which had been closed long before the New Testament canon was established.

So then, there is a succession of closed canons, with the earlier canons being subsumed within the later. Each of these canons is adequate for salvation for the people to whom it is addressed. The Isra elites under Joshua needed nothing more than the Torah for their salvation. And I do not doubt that there are Jews living today who through their conscientious adherence to the Old Testament will be among the redeemed. After all, the Old Testament is said to be profitable for didache (doctrinal instruction), capable of making the man of God "perfect," completely equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:17). So even the Old Testament alone is in some sense a perfect and com plete revelation. Yet each canon--including the Christian canon--is also incomplete and imperfect in the sense that there is always more that God can tell us about Himself.

Novel interpretation

Whenever the Spirit of prophecy is revived in the church (which occurs in conjunction with significant events in salvation history), the new prophets, though loyal to the canon, interpret it in novel ways--ways that are rejected by most of the traditional "proprietors" of the canon who believe that one should not go beyond what is written.

Acts reveals this process at work in Paul's ministry. Paul claimed, surprisingly, that his teachings were in complete harmony with the Jewish canon (Acts 24:14; 26:22), just as Ellen G. White claimed complete harmony with the Christian canon. Both writers believed in prima scriptura. Yet Paul's teachings clearly go beyond the Old Testament. There is continuity, but there is also change.

For example, just as Ellen White's teaching on the sanctuary stands in apparent tension with certain themes in Hebrews, Paul's doctrine of forensic justification stands in apparent tension with certain Old Testament themes. (Cf. Rom. 5:4 with Ex. 23:7. In both cases there is a genuine underlying harmony.) Many Jews of Paul's day denied that his teachings were in harmony with their canon (Acts 18:13). Similarly, many Christians deny that Ellen White's are in harmony with theirs. This is to be expected.

Yet while authentic later revelations may go beyond earlier teachings, they will not stand in actual contradiction to those teachings. Rather, they often are simply an unfolding of the principles that may be obscurely implicit in the earlier writings. Thus Ellen White states that the Decalogue is just a written statement of the oral law; it would not have been needed if the oral law had been kept. Likewise, the Pentateuch is simply an expansion of the Decalogue, and the teachings of Christ are not a new revela tion but simply an expansion of the principles in the law and the prophets. 9 Finally, she states that her own writings are an expansion of the principles of Scrip ture not to give new light, but needed because so many had departed from bib lical teaching.10

Both Calvin and Luther also believed the New Testament essentially adds nothing to the Old. 11 Even the great me dieval Jewish scholar Maimonides de clared that Christians "will not find in their Torah [the New Testament] any thing that conflicts with our Torah." 12 The purpose of the later inspired writings, then, is not so much to impart new information as to turn people back to the truths of the earlier writings (see Mal. 4:4).

On the other hand, it is also true that the later writings reveal things that, while implicit in the earlier writings, were "not understood by those to whom they had been given," for "the spiritual import of what they had written, was un discovered by them. They did not see the meaning of the truth."13 Later inspired writers often find meaning in a canonical text that transcends the original intent of the human author--though not, evidently, that of the divine Author (e.g., 1 Cor. 9:9f). So in passages like Romans 16:25, 26; Ephesians 3:5; and Colossians 1:26, Paul indicates he is teaching "new light" (this is essentially the meaning of Paul's term mystery). This new light has been "hidden from the foundation of the world," though the Old Testament hinted at it.

Ellen White says something very similar of her own teachings. In a 1905 article dealing especially with the sanctuary doctrine, which was then under attack, she wrote: "That which the Holy Spirit testified to as truth after the passing of the time, in our great disappointment, is the solid foundation of truth. Pillars of truth were revealed, and we accepted the foundation principles that have made us what we are--Seventh-day Adventists, keeping the commandments of God and having the faith of Jesus. . . . Has not the Lord Jesus opened to us the Scriptures, and presented to us things kept secret from the foundation of the world?" 14 

Ellen G. White--prophet or apostle?

This is very similar to the apostolic claim to new light that Paul made. In deed, a case could be made that Ellen White stands in the same apostolic rela tionship to the remnant church that Paul does to Christianity and Moses does to Judaism. Ellen G. White seems to meet all the criteria of an apostle. Like Paul, she had a personal vision of the risen Christ and was commissioned by Him to preach. And like Paul, she manifested the "signs of an apostle" (miraculous healings, etc.) in her early ministry.

The volume and tone of her writings resembles more closely the New Testament apostolic phenomena than the somewhat ad hoc exercises of prophetic utterance exampled in the New Testa ment. Although she upheld the Bible as the ultimate standard of doctrine, Ellen White did not hesitate to claim norma tive authority for her writings. "I am thankful," she wrote in 1906, "that the instruction contained in my books estab lishes present truth for this time." 15

Furthermore, Ellen White refused to accept the title prophet. "My work in cludes much more than this name signi fies," she wrote. "I regard myself as a messenger." 16 This is a remarkable statement, for messenger is the English equivalent of the Greek apostolos. The fact that she felt her work was of a higher order than that of a prophet and therefore chose as her title the equivalent of apostle is tantalizing.

At any rate, it does not matter whether we class Ellen White as an apos tle or as a prophet. Both constitute the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20); both receive authoritative revelations of new light that had not been given to previous generations (Eph. 3:5). A true prophet will bring forth things both old and new from the treasury of truth (Matt. 13:52--widely regarded as Matthew's self-description). The role includes both restoration and innovation.

But the doctrine of sola scriptura, as commonly understood, leaves no room for the new. It will accept only the old wine in the old bottles. Thus it virtually guarantees that later revelation will be rejected by most of the religious adher ents to the earlier canon. Indeed, it caused Israel to reject Christ. Moreover, it has produced such heretical groups as the Sadducees and the Ebionites. An ex amination of these groups will help us to understand how a doctrine meant to pre vent heresy can actually cause it.

Causing heresy

The Sadducees refused to accept as inspired any writings beyond the original canon--the books of Moses. Hence they did not accept the innovative teachings of the prophets. They did not believe in angels, spirits, an afterlife, heaven, hell, or the resurrection from the dead, since the books of Moses did not teach these things. 17

The Ebionites were a group of Jewish Christians who limited their canon to the Old Testament, refusing to accept any Christian teaching that could not be founded upon the Old Testament alone. Hence they questioned Christian distinctives such as the deity of Christ.

Because they took such a strong stand on sola scriptura, they gradually drifted out of the fold of orthodox Christianity and, after several hundred years, died out. They could not accept a teaching that seemed to contradict the central teaching of the Old Testament--that God is one.

We find the sola scriptura issue crop ping up in some of the earliest noncanonical Christian literature--that of Ignatius, which dates to about A.D. 117. Ignatius records a bit of dialogue he had with certain Christians (who may have been Ebionites) as to whether it is right to believe anything taught in the gospel but not found in the Old Testament: "When I heard some people saying, 'If I don't find it in the original documents [i.e., the Old Testament], I don't believe it in the gospel' [i.e., the New Testa ment; cf. Ignatius to the Philadelphians 5:1, 2], I answered them, 'But it is written there.' They retorted, 'That's just the question.' To my mind it is Jesus Christ who is the original documents. The invi olable archives are His cross and death and His resurrection and the faith that came by Him."18

In other words, some were saying that they believed only those New Testament teachings that were explicitly taught in the Old Testament. This is an untenable position, for we do not even hold unin spired writings to such a strict standard.

We believe many things we read in ordi nary books that the Bible doesn't men tion; hence this position gives the prophet even less authority than a secu lar writer. The correct position—prima scriptura—holds that later inspired writers cannot contradict the canon, but that does not mean that they cannot speak authoritatively on matters on which the canon is silent.

We need not rely on ancient history for examples of how sola scriptura can prevent theological maturity. The heterodox Christology of the nineteenth century Adventist Church was caused in part by a strong early belief in sola scriptura! One reason our Adventist forefathers rejected the doctrine of the Trinity was that they believed that it is nowhere explicitly taught in Scripture but was developed by the early Roman Catholic Church.

The lesson in this is that heresy is just as likely to arise from the camp of those who cling heroically to the canon and refuse to accept any theological progress as it is to arise from the theological inno vators. Or as Ellen White put it: "In ev ery age there is a new development of truth, a message of God to the people of that generation. The old truths are all essential; new truth is not independent oftheold, but an unfolding of it. Itisonly as the old truths are understood that we can comprehend the new. When Christ desired to open to His disciples the truth of His resurrection, He began 'at Moses and all the prophets' and 'expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself' (Luke 24:27). But it is the light which shines in the fresh un folding of truth that glorifies the old. He who rejects or neglects the new does not really possess the old. For him it loses its vital power and becomes but a lifeless form."19

Tracing the trajectory of truth

But how can we know which prophets are true and which are false ? How do we know, for example, that the Koran is not within the trajectory of the Christian canon?

This question is not easy to answer, since both true and false prophets use the proof-text method, sometimes employ ing creative exegesis in support of their teachings. 20 Furthermore, both true and false prophets show development and change in their writings over a period of time.

Nevertheless, too much divergence from the canon would clearly disqualify the claim to inspiration. A telling point is that illegitimate prophets take a rather cavalier attitude toward the canon. They tend to downplay its authority or to hedge their endorsements with caveats like "to the extent that it is translated correctly." They introduce fundamen tally new doctrines and mythical histo ries to authenticate the origins of their movement (as do Gnosticism, Islam, and Mormonism).

True prophets, on the other hand, ex alt the canon and take it as their text, focus attention upon it, and emphasize its immutability (i.e., "Scripture cannot be broken," "not one jot nor tittle shall pass away," etc.). At the same time they advance theologically beyond the canon—occasionally even to the point of apparent contradiction—yet their teachings remain within the canonical orbit. Though they interpret it in inno vative ways, yet there is continuity of the fundamentals.

Not only do true prophets emphasize their continuity with the older canon and maintain that any new light arises from a deeper understanding of that older canon, but they emphasize that their fol lowers are members of the old faith. Thus, Adventists claim to be Christians, just as the early Gentile Christians claimed to be Jews. 21 The new prophets do not see themselves as setting up a new religion but as being the true remnant of the old religion. They do not claim that all of God's true children are within their group but that these "separated breth ren" will accept the light when it is pre sented to them. 22

Ellen G. White's writings seem to fit the pattern of a true prophet (as even famed archaeologist William Foxwell Albright recognized), 23 and her claims to inspiration must be taken seriously. Yet even if inspired, her writings are subordinate to the 66 books of Scripture in that they are tested by them, just as Paul's writings were tested by the Old Testament (Acts 17:11; 24:14; 26:22). This does not mean, however, that their authority is of an inferior quality, any more than Paul's authority is inferior to that of the Old Testament. If a document is found to be inspired in the fullest sense of the word, then it is fully authoritative and normative for its intended audience in all areas on which it makes pronounce ments.

Because each individual must see for himself or herself, it is true that the process of testing claims to authority never ends. This is also true of the Bible. How ever, there comes a point at which any given entity, whether a person or a church, must come to a decision as to the veracity of these claims—for the lack of a decision is actually a negative decision. And a positive verdict means that Ellen White's writings, subject to Scripture, are normative. But, like the New Testa ment, they are not the last word on every subject they touch on. There can be fur ther progress in certain areas, although this must not involve a denial of central themes.

Nor is this authority necessarily di luted by problematic phenomena such as the use of sources, minor errors of fact, unfulfilled predictions, paradoxes, or creative exegesis. These difficulties, which are found in the New Testament also, may puzzle us. But if that prophet's message has been sufficiently confirmed by miracles, fulfilled prophecies, the moving of the Spirit, and His practical fruit in the lives of followers, we must not allow these difficulties to become an ex cuse to reject a prophet's basic message.

In conclusion, the doctrine of sola scriptura should never be used to disallow contemporary prophetic authority. The term prima scnptura is better, as it is less likely to be abused in this way. In matters of faith and religious practice, the Bible must be our final authority. Yet—and there is a certain tension here—later prophets may advance beyond it, though not to the point of contradiction.

We must not follow the trend of the church to build whitewashed monu ments in honor of the ancient prophets while verbally stoning contemporary ones. God's contemporary messages to His people are no more optional than those given in a distant time. We must not dissipate the authority of God's ser vants by incessant debates over their re lation to earlier prophets. Either a document is inspired, hence authorita tive, or it is not. God is not against Him self.

1 Martin Luther, "Answer to the Superchristian,
Superspiritual, and Superlearned Book of Goat
Eraser," quoted in Hugh Thomson Kerr, A Compend
of Luther's Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster
Press, 1943), p. 15.

2 Ellen G. White, Counsels on Sabbath School
Work (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald
Pub. Assn., 1938), p. 84.

3____ , Prophets and Kings (Mountain View,
Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1917), p. 626.

4____ , Selected Messages (Washington, D.C.:
Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1958), book 1, p.

5____ , The Great Controversy (Mountain
View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), p.
448; cf. ____, Spirit of Prophecy (Oakland,
Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1884), vol. 4, p.

6____ , The Great Controversy, p. 595.

7 It has been alleged that Jude 3 indicates a final
ity, a closure, to the revelatory process, as the gos
pel is now "once for all" committed to the saints
(RSV). God has nothing more, nothing new, to
say. But Jude was probably not the last book of the
New Testament to be written, so what must we say
of those books that were written after Jude? Are
they to be excluded from the canon because they
came after God had "once for all" finished speaking?

In verse 5 Jude uses the same word to tell his
intended recipients that they know everything
"once for all" (RSV). Does this mean they have
nothing more to learn? Why, then, did he need to
write them? One might also say that the law was
given once for all on Sinai, but that would not
mean that Sinai was the completion of God's
revelation to man. This verse simply indicates that the gospel
will not have to be given to the saints all over again.

8 ____, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain-
View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1958), p.

9 According to Mrs. White, "the sayings of
Christ are not a new revelation. The principles
which He expounded were announced to Moses
from the pillar of cloud, and to the prophets, who
spoke and wrote as they were moved upon by the
Holy Spirit" (Review and Herald, July 7, 1896, p. 418).

10 __ , Testimonies for the Church (MountainView,
Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948),
vol. 5, p. 665.

11 Martin Luther, "Avoiding the Doctrines of
Men," in E. Theodore Bachmann, ed. Luther's
Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, I960), vol

12 Quoted in Time, July 22, 1985, p. 57.

13 Selected Messages, book 1, p. 404; cf. The Great
Controversy, p. 344.

14 Ellen G. White, Special Testimonies, Series B,
No. 7, p. 58. (Italics supplied.)

15 Ellen G. White, letter 50, 1906. Cited in Arthur
L. White, The Early Elmshaven Years (Washington,
D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn.,
1981) pp. 427, 428. Ellen White referred to her
testimonies as "the word of the Lord."

16____ , Selected Messages (Washington,
D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1980),
book 3, p. 74.

17 Christ, when answering the Sadducees' ques
tion about the Resurrection (Luke 20:27-33),
quoted an obscure text from the Pentateuch (Ex.
3:6) rather than using a much clearer text such as
Daniel 12:2. Since the Sadducees did not accept
Daniel as canonical, a citation from that book
would have had no force with them. Does not this
passage give us a paradigm for dealing with others
who believe in a more restricted canon than we do?

18 Ignatius to the Philadelphians 8:2, in Alan
Richardson, Early Christian Fathers (New York:
Macmillan Pub. Co., 1970), p. 110.

19 Ellen G. White, Christ's Object Lessons (Washington,
D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn.,
1941), pp. 127, 128.

20 Where, for example, is the alleged Old Testament
prophecy that Christ will suffer and rise from
the dead on the third day (Luke 24:46)? It is doubtful
that the line of argument for the superiority of
Christ that Hebrews 1 posits would have occurred
to any modem scholar doing a contextual exegesis
of the Old Testament texts cited in that chapter.

21 See Rom. 2:28f.; 9:6; Gal. 3; 6:14f.;Phil. 3:3.
Revelation 2:9 and 3:9 are particularly interesting;
they say that literal Jews who are not Christians
have no right to the name "Jew"!

22 Cf. John 10:16; 3:20, 21; 15:22, 24.

23 W. F. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity,
2nd ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hppkins Press,
1957), pp. 18f.

24 As defined by Ellen G. White in Counsels to
Writers and Editors (Nashville: Southern Pub.
Assn., 1946), pp. 33, 34, and Education (Mountain
View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1903), p.

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Tim Crosby pastors in Ellijay, Georgia

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