Good discussion, and some equally good thoughts scattered through the comments.
I received a question in email recently asking whether I’d ever blogged my understanding of sola Scriptura. I haven’t (so far as I can recall), but I hope I’ve illustrated where I’m at. Still, I though it would be worth jotting it down. Here’s the result of the 2-3 minutes it took me to hunt and peck my approach to Scripture in terms of understanding what it means and its authority. (This is a longer statement than what I sent to that person in email). Perhaps some of you can suggest better ways to say this or that:
Biblical theology should be derived from exegesis of the biblical text within the framework of the original context of those texts (for both writer and readers). For the OT, that context is the intellectual, cultural and historical world of the ANE and eastern Mediterranean. The NT context inherits the OT/ANE context but has other contexts as well. Consequently, NT theology should derive from exegesis of the NT writings understand against the OT/ANE context that preceded it as well as that of Second Temple Judaism and the Greco-Roman world. The relationship between the NT and the OT is also a specific context — i.e., how the NT cites and interprets the OT matters. Such citation methods often conform to known hermeneutical methods in Second Temple Judaism.
I see little contribution to understanding biblical meaning from subsequent contexts (rabbinic discussions that post-date the NT, church fathers, history of Christianity, etc.). What value there is in those contexts is less about the meaning of the text than it is helping us think about how to articulate the results of exegesis. That is, the later discussions and debates will help us with language that addresses, or is sensitive to, important questions that people asked about the content of the OT and NT over time. But any articulation needs to be defensible with respect to what the biblical text can sustain. If the text can’t sustain it, it shouldn’t be said. Once we know what the text can sustain, the truth assertions it asks us to believe carry authority.
I don’t know if that conforms to any understanding of sola Scriptura (and yes, there is more than one), which is usually understood to be about the authority of Scripture. The last two sentences hit authority and (I hope) are set against how we determine what the text meant (a first step before talking about “authority”). You’ll notice that the last sentence is malleable. That’s because (in my thinking) truth assertions are conditioned and molded by general revelation as well (and the writers’ understanding of general revelation). Knowledge of general revelation (nature – and what it tells us about a creator) changes over time. Since God of course knew the human understanding of nature would change, truth assertions do not derive from a biblical writer’s perception of the phenomena of general revelation. That said, changes in our knowledge of general revelation can influence how general revelation helps us understand the intentionality of the text and what it can or cannot sustain by way of interpretation. Biblical content outside the bounds of general revelation (i.e., things that cannot be know via nature and can therefore not be tested by science) will contain theological truth assertions that are to be embraced if one cares to assign authority to the Bible.
Sola Scriptura (for those unfamiliar with the Latin phrase) is more about biblical authority with respect to doctrine and practice. In a grouchy mood I’d say it’s about whether or not we can dismiss catholic or church tradition when we do theology. (I actually think that’s where the rubber meets the road for most). Here are two lengthy explanations of sola Scriptura (notice how they say nothing about interpreting Scripture in its original contexts, which is why I don’t pay much attention to debates over terms like this — but I know they aren’t without importance):
Scripture alone; the watchword of the Reformation in its establishment of the basis for a renewed and reformed statement of Christian doctrine. We find the concept of sola Scriptura, Scripture alone as the primary and absolute norm of doctrine, at the foundation of the early Protestant attempts at theological system in the form of exegetical loci communes (q.v.), or common places. In the orthodox or scholastic codification of Lutheran and Reformed doctrine, the sola Scriptura of the Reformers was elaborated as a separate doctrinal locus placed at the beginning of theological system and determinative of its contents. Scripture was identified as the principium cognoscendi, the principle of knowing or cognitive foundation of theology, and described doctrinally in terms of its authority, clarity, and sufficiency in all matters of faith and morals. Finally, it ought to be noted that sola Scriptura was never meant as a denial of the usefulness of the Christian tradition as a subordinate norm in theology. The views of the Reformers developed out of a debate in the late medieval theology over the relation of Scripture and tradition, one party viewing the two as coequal norms, the other party viewing Scripture as the absolute and therefore prior norm, but allowing tradition a derivative but important secondary role in doctrinal statement. The Reformers and the Protestant orthodox held the latter view, on the assumption that tradition was a useful guide, that the trinitarian and christological statements of Nicaea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon were expressions of biblical truth, and that the great teachers of the church provided valuable instruction in theology that always needed to be evaluated in the light of Scripture. We encounter, particularly in the scholastic era of Protestantism, a profound interest in the patristic period and a critical, but often substantive, use of ideas and patterns enunciated by the medieval doctors
Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms : Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1985), 284.
In light of the above, we should be positively disposed toward the idea of tradition informing our theology. However, tradition is a double-edged sword and can be grievously misused. During the Middle Ages there emerged a different view of tradition as something apart from Scripture that was considered as authoritative as revelation. A stream of unwritten sources was vocal where the Bible was silent and provided the authoritative source of God’s will revealed through the church fathers, councils, popes, and magisterium. In Catholic teaching, the tradition of the Roman Church was said to be handed on by the apostles themselves and had been faithfully transmitted thereafter. The problem for the Catholics has been that they claimed that the faith was always the same, while introducing doctrinal innovations that were clearly secondary, late, and of questionable theological legitimacy (e.g., the immaculate conception and assumption of Mary; papal infallibility; penance and purgatory, etc.).
In response to this, the Reformers had a slogan of sola scriptura (“scripture alone”) as the ultimate authority in the churches. Yet when the Reformers spoke of sola scriptura, they meant the Bible illuminated by the Spirit in the matrix of the church. Sola scriptura is not nuda scriptura (“the bare scripture”). The Protestant confessions are indebted to the ecumenical councils and patristic theologies in every respect. Thus the Reformers’ use of Scripture is more tantamount to suprema scriptura. This means that the Bible is our primary authority, but not our only authority
Michael F. Bird, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 68–69.
As readers will discern, I’m closer to nuda scriptura than anything (Naked Bible!), though my own statements above allow some role for ancillary or subsequent contexts to help us think about the results of exegesis. And since Bird doesn’t really comment on interpretation and contexts, I don’t know if he thinks nuda Scriptura means context-less exegesis (I don’t think so, since that’s sort of absurd). I’d say if what “Protestant confessions” and “ecumenical councils” and “patristic theologies” say cannot be sustained by exegesis in the contexts I describe above, they don’t need to be embraced or assigned authority. (And, by the way, those three things won’t always agree with each other, either). And then there’s the issue of what exactly is “Scriptura” (MT or LXX or some hybrid thereof, for example). I better go now.