I know I said I was taking week off from theology, but I also promised to give my view of Sola Scriptura, so I’ll have to plead the words of Walt Whitman, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am vast; I contain multitudes.” Best way to shrug off an editors objection I’ve ever heard.
What I want to do here is sketch out my view of Scripture, and in what way I understand it’s authoritative function. The banner of Sola Scriptura (Only Scripture) will work as a heading for this view, even though it’s construed in a way that might be foreign to some of the more fundamentalist defenders of the title. I’m going to work this out in two parts. First, the list of presumptions that I am committed to, even prior to asking about the authority of the text. Second, how those presumptions interact to formulate my view of scripture’s authoritative function.
(1) Text as Text. The basic assumption here is that the authors and editors (oops – my fundie friends are already grabbing their pitchforks) of the scriptures wrote what they wrote as text, within a historical and cultural context, for a specific and localized purpose.
This leads to a few things – anyone reading Amos looking for a secret numerological verb sequence that reveals the future history of the world (i.e. the Bible Code) has already missed the point. Also, anyone reading Genesis as a science textbook has also already missed the point. The authors say what they say using letters and words and phrases, and the text operates in the way that any other sort of text operates. Luke’s “Acts of the Apostles” and Josephus’ “Jewish Antiquities” are not fundamentally different sorts of things. This doesn’t prevent us from saying that they have different degrees of accuracy, of usefulness, or of divine inspiration (more about that later), but it does say that if Luke writes the sentence “I went to the kitchen to grab a beer”, those words are functioning in the same way that they would function if your or I, or Josephus, wrote them.
(2) Special Inspiration. The second presumption is that the Holy Spirit was involved in the production of these texts in some unique and special way. I need to give the caveats here first: this is not the same thing as saying that they are error-free, and it is not the same thing as saying that they are dictated. You may hold one, both, or neither of these views without it fundamentally affecting Sola Scriptura authority. What it does say is this; that the text that was written was the text God intended to have written.
(3) Revelatory Purpose. As with any great work, there are multiple themes, multiple layers at work within it. In the first presumption, I talked about the intent of the authors; they were writing largely ad hoc works, intended to address historical and cultural and localized issues. There is also a divine purpose at work; the text was produced for the purpose of revealing God (his character, his intentions, his abilities) to Humanity. This is to say that where the text gives information about God, it doesn’t do so for ancillary and incidental reasons; it does so in accordance with the primary purpose of the text’s production.
So let me pack this section up in one neat sentence, as my people are wont to do. Here’s my thesis: Biblical texts contain a reliable retelling of God’s self-revelation within a fixed historical and cultural context.
Because Sola Scriptura is primarily a doctrine about authority, it’s going to be helpful at this point to clarify my use of the word. There are two primary ways that we use the word “authority” that are germane to this discussion. First, Authority of Office. This is the kind of authority that a police officer has – she has an ability to make certain demands on the basis of the office that she holds, who she represents. In that office, she is a representative of the judicial power of the collective people, and therefore has a certain authority. The second sense of the term is what we might call Authority of Expertise. A college professor who has spent 20 years researching the works of Milton is an authority on Milton, not on the basis of some office or conferred power, but on the basis of accumulated expertise in an certain area.
By now, we’re probably asking the same questions, “Which of these two types of authority are we talking about when we refer to the Authority of Scripture?”
A very good question.