Sola Scriptura: Critique of Tradition 0 (Part 2)

Solo scriptura’s creed, “The whole Bible and nothing but the Bible” is lost in the sea of Christian history. It has surfaced in the past with heretics like Arius, with the Radical Reformers, Rationalism of the Enlightenment, and the Democratic Populism of early America. The Radical Reformers, rationalism and democracy all have the same underlying position of autonomy. The assumption is that all one needs is individual conscience and reason to survive, whether in religion or secular disciplines.

The Reformers did not cohere to autonomy; they sought to prove a historical link through tradition to the apostolic age to fix their pedigree.[1] The Reformation was not a movement based on Scripture verses tradition, but rather between the medieval idea of tradition and the early Churches idea of tradition. The Reformers agreed to distinguish true tradition from corrupt tradition. They did this by testing tradition according to its faithfulness to Scripture. Thus, Scripture became the standard for identification of true tradition, rather than tradition the standard for interpretation of Scripture.[2]

Think about the early church. Many in the ancient church did not have access to a Bible. They relied on the church and its interpretation. Even today, there are parts of the world where men do not have Scripture. These churches and those of antiquity relied on church leaders and tradition to guide them, there was no individuality, there is no individuality.

If only we had  “Me and my Bible,” how could we have certain doctrine.  Without creeds, there would be no certain doctrine, because each individual would be responsible for fixing his own doctrinal boundaries. In the end, the catholic church would be seized by a plethora of autonomous churches. The local church in reality would consist of a community of doctrinal mini-individual churches under one roof. If there is no authority to check one’s interpretation then any doctrine can be tossed to suit one’s interpretation. The least of the problems for tradition 0 is that individualism, which results in subjectivism leading to skepticism, is the result. The gravest problem is self-condemnation (i.e. Arius).

Tradition 0 carries with it some practical problems as well.  When the sole authority of interpretation lies only with individuals apart from the church, division is the result. During the Reformation, this was one of Rome’s critiques of Luther’s doctrine of private interpretation. They said if every person was able to read scripture alone there would be many interpretations dividing the Church. There is truth to this statement, obvious today with all the different splits within Protestantism. If there is no outside source to say who is right or wrong, the church may split with no solution.[3] Luther’s doctrine of private interpretation did not mean individual interpretation apart from the church. If this was true, which tradition 0 holds, there would be no church authority. If Christ’s disciplinary authority remains in the church and the churches authority is taken away, then Christ’s authority is demolished. Christ did not set up a democracy; he set up a church with different gifts and elders with responsibilities and authority.  Does Scripture affirm leaders with no real authority (Heb 13.17; Acts 20.28)? No, Scripture calls Christians to submit because God has gifted leaders, called, ordained, and sent with authority. These men only have authority in so far that they submit to church doctrine. Church doctrine has authority in so far that it represents Scripture.

The doctrine of sola scriptura does not mean “Me Alone.” Nevertheless, this is where Tradition 0 inevitably leads; the individual becomes the final authority. This theology pervades much of the church today because of the Enlightenment.  This approach matured during the Enlightenment, which was an act to free itself from the restraints of tradition. Modern thought developed in a crisis of authority, wishing to flee from authority, founding itself on autonomy from all traditional influence.[4] Today’s worldview sees autonomy as king and this has pervaded the church. When one believes he approaches the Bible without bias, which is what autonomy assumes that person is the most bias. J. Van Engen:

Those free churches, particularly in America, that claim to stand on Scripture alone and to recognize no traditional authorities are in some sense the least free because they are not even conscious of what traditions have molded their understanding of Scripture.[5]

Nowhere in Scripture is there a single hint that every individual believer is free from bias, and able to decide for himself and by himself what is and is not the right interpretation.[6] American Evangelicals must do away with John Locke’s doctrine. No 21st century Christian is free from his heritage. Only with a historical confession might an American Evangelical study history, and flee Wheaton for Geneva, where Christianity do to the reformers gains brought the purest catholicity of the church.


[1] Allert, “What Are We Trying to Conserve?” 338.

[2] Allert, 337.

[3] Mathison, 250-51.

[4] Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), 190.

[5] J. Van Engen, “Tradition,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed., edited by

Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 1213.

[6] Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura, 252.

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5 thoughts on “Sola Scriptura: Critique of Tradition 0 (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Articles of Interest for Scriptural Study | Moje Da Poet: Meditations & Musings

  2. From one transplanted Montanan to another; nice article! It’s refreshing to see the historical perspective regarding authority and tradition in our faith. Nice job!

    BC

    • ‎BC,

      Thanks for leaving a comment. You may like this quote from 2nd c.e. apologist Irenaeus, “Take refuge in the Church and be brought up in its bosom, and be nourished with the Scripture of the Lord. For the Church is planted as a Paradise in this world. You will therefore eat food from every tree of Paradise, says the Spirit of God, that is, eat from every Scripture of the Lord.”

      JB

  3. Thanks for sharing that. I spent years reading early church writings, which is why I like what you are saying in this article. I look forward to stopping by once in a while to read your posts. Have a very blessed Easter!

    BC

  4. Pingback: Articles of Interest for Scriptural Study « Variegated Vision

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