Just over two years ago, I began to wrestle with the concept of sola scriptura, trying to figure out more precisely what it means, what I actually believe, and what the Bible and the Church have to say on the matter. My initial thoughts resulted in three decent principles on scriptural interpretation:
- The ultimate authority on God is the Word, that is, Jesus of Nazareth.
- Biblical interpretation requires the Holy Spirit, thus making Scripture the best interpreter of Scripture.
- If the Apostles passed on their authority to their successors, then the second level of biblical interpretation belongs in the hands of that succession.
Is there a need for Holy Tradition?
After writing that blog post I started polling the opinions of others to look for what sola scriptura meant to them. The variety of answers was fairly diverse. Some gave answers suggesting the core of the faith is easily discernible in the Bible, others rejected sola scriptura arguing for a Tradition in which Scripture finds its true home, others took it to mean that the Bible is measuring stick for all truth, while others still came out with individualistic assertions that the Bible needs no outside interpretive assistance.
It had become clear to me that whatever the definition of sola scriptura is, was, or ought to be, that definition was lost on the popular level. So I went on to explore an Early Christian document called the Rule of St. Vincent [or the Vincentian Canon] for insight into the earlier notions of Tradition & Scripture, and I dug up another couple New Testament quotes on the subject of biblical authority, and came to a new thesis in that blog post:
it seems right to uphold the concept of sola scriptura, understanding that it means that Scripture alone is required. But it does not mean that Scripture is the only source of authority. It is the primary source of authority for all Christian doctrine, tempered by the witness of Christian Tradition. And the Bible is a sufficient source for our knowledge of salvation. … So for now, I think I’ll define my position on this matter as prima scriptura, Scripture first.
I was probably aware of this at the time, but it’s worth pointing out now that the conclusion at which I arrived was in line with the 39 Articles of Religion, wherein Article 6 says:
Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.
This fits in with sola scriptura with regards to teaching the core of the faith required for salvation, but it does not agree with a wider application of sola scriptura whereby the Bible teaches us everything we could ever want to know, spiritually or otherwise. Therefore, there is an important place for Holy Tradition alongside Holy Scriptures.
What counts as Holy Tradition?
Looking around at Christians today, there seem to be three views on how the Bible is to be interpreted in an authoritative manner. All three affirm the critical guiding role of the Holy Spirit who leads us into all truth, but differ in the Spirit’s method. These three views are individual, confessional, and apostolic.
The individual approach to biblical interpretation has no rules per se. In this view, every individual (Christian) has equal access to the guidance of the Holy Spirit to the end of understanding the Bible. This is not just the domain of liberal Christianity, but also some serious Christians who don’t want to be tied to the authority of a document outside of the Bible or to the authority of Church leaders.
The confessional approach to biblical interpretation sets forth, instead of a person, a confessional statement or document, or some other clearly-defined theological lens as the authoritative guide to understanding scripture. This is how most Protestants handle Holy Tradition. Sola scriptura itself is an example of a principle of a confessional Tradition, though it is usually embedded into a more formal confession such as the Heidelburg Catechism or the Westminster Confession.
The apostolic approach to biblical interpretation puts people back into that authoritative role. Instead of any individual, it’s more of a “great cloud of witnesses” approach. This view purports that when the authors of the New Testament raised up their successors, those new leaders also received some measure of the Apostles’ authority in defining the true faith according to the Scriptures. The further away in time you get from the Apostles, perhaps the weaker that authority gets, but you still come away with a good several centuries of Early Church writings that form an authoritative set of voices into the interpretation of Scripture.
For sure, there are many ways that these three views can be worked out or even combined. But they are still, at the heart of it, distinct and contradictory views. One of my favorite Anglican bloggers recently posted about his experience of this very issue while meeting with other local pastors. As an Anglican, he is coming from a form of Apostolic Tradition, and as he interacts with Lutheran pastors (who uphold a Confessional Tradition) occasional interesting disagreements come up. Granted, the example he shared was not a major issue, and indeed classic Lutheranism and classic Anglicanism are extraordinarily similar; nevertheless there was a fundamental difference in their approaches to biblical interpretation.
I, too, find myself running into this issue fairly frequently as well. I’m in fellowship with a local house church where this issue of biblical interpretation is not clearly defined. Again, the content of our doctrines are generally very similar, but the underlying method of recognizing authority in and over our faith is radically different. I would hazard to guess that the prevailing view in that group is individual Tradition, though to be fair, it’s not something they’ve intentionally sought to define as of yet.
Finding Common Ground
Now that I’ve gone out of my way to highlight the differences between these views, I want to end on a positive note by pointing out common ground between these three views. I made this Venn Diagram to visualize what I’m getting at. Apostolic authority and individual authority both are person-centered, giving them a personal edge over those stuffy old confessional documents. Individual authority and confessional authority both share an accessibility to the common Christian that can be difficult to find among the volumes of Early Church literature. Confessional authority and apostolic authority both have the advantage of being well-defined, where different individuals can very quickly and easily come to conflicting interpretations of Holy Scripture.
At the end of the day, I think one of these is right and the other two are wrong, and I can cite Scripture and history to back myself up. But then again, other Christians are equally convinced that a different view is right and that I am wrong. We can’t be pluralists and say that everyone is right, because we believe in objective truth – God is truth, there is no other – but we can respect one another’s integrity and remain in dialogue with one another in the hopes that we can still function as one Body of Christ despite our divisions.