This is a huge topic which will probably take more than my lifetime to address. My opinions, understandings, and ability to communicate ideas are bound to grow and shift over the years. Nevertheless, I think it’s time for me to start working this out.
First of all, “sola scriptura” is a Latin phrase meaning “by Scripture only,” and was one of “five solas” employed by Martin Luther during the Reformation to summarize reformed theology. They are as follows: sola scriptura, sola fide (by faith only), sola gratia (by grace only), solus Christus (through Christ only), and soli Deo gloria (glory to God only). Sola fide refers to the idea of justification by faith such as in Romans 3:28. Sola gratia refers to the idea of salvation purely as a matter of God’s grace, as phrased in Ephesians 2:8. Solus Christus refers to the idea that Christ is the only mediator between a human and God, as stated in 1 Timothy 2:5. Soli Deo gloria refers to the idea that worshipers ought to glorify God only, keeping the Church and the Saints below him, as suggested in Romans 11:36.
What strikes me as peculiar about this whole deal is that while the other four are all stated fairly explicitly in Scripture, the first one, sola scriptura, is not. Of course, when the Bible makes an explicit statement it doesn’t always mean that’s the whole story. Oftentimes the text of the Bible give what appears to be contradictions to help its readers to see things from different angles. And on the other side of the same coin, just because the Bible doesn’t explicitly say something, that doesn’t mean it’s not true. Some things are logically derivable from the Bible, and other things are simply taken for granted, offering no explanation because the reader is assumed to know already. Oftentimes this is not a problem for us, but occasionally it is.
Anyway, the challenge with understanding the what the Bible says (particularly the New Testament) about its own authority is largely in the fact that there is a prominent reoccurring symbol whereby the “Word of God” describes not the Bible, but Jesus himself. This is explained most clearly in John 1, with the image developed in verses 1-18, the historical context given in verses 19-28, and the explicit statement in v29-30 that the “Word” is Jesus. What this does is set up Jesus Christ as the ultimate authority on God. Logically speaking, then, those who were around to hear him teach in person, or learn from his original disciples, are by far the most qualified to teach and write reliable truth from the mouth of Jesus, as well as synthesize what they’ve heard from him with the Hebrew Bible to develop Christian doctrine further. This way of thinking, however, cannot be the sole validation of scriptural authority, for there were other first-century Christian writings which we have today not appearing in the Bible, such as the epistle of Clement.
The authors of the New Testament made a couple claims regarding the authority of their (and each others’) writings. In 2 Timothy 3:14-17, Paul makes it clear that the Bible can make us “wise for salvation.” This is as close as we get to the idea of sola scriptura: the Bible can teach us all we need to know, and it’s also useful for the entire scope of our spiritual lives and faith – but Paul doesn’t explicitly say Scripture is unique in this way. In 2 Peter 3:15-16, Peter affirms Paul’s writings as “scripture.” In 1 Peter 1:16-21, Peter affirms that he and some unnamed others were not only direct eyewitnesses of what they’re writing, but also that the Holy Spirit was a coauthor with them, bringing in the Old Testament understanding that God writes Scripture through his prophets.
In those same verses, he further cautions that the interpretation of Scripture is not an individual venture, but is in their (the authors’) hands. This suggests to me two major categories of interpretation: 1) the role of interpreting the Bible is in the hands of the original authors only, meaning that Scripture interprets Scripture; 2) the role of interpreting the Bible is in the hands of the original authors and their successors.
Given the incredible variety of interpretations resulting from “scripture interprets scripture,” the second option strikes me as the most likely. So this begs the question who are the successors of the Apostles that are to interpret the Bible for us? Is this succession something that points to all Christians ever since, or particularly to the trained leadership that was specifically and intentionally passed down? And does the Bible itself give us any hints to this effect?
Clearly, there’ll have to be more on this later.