Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism and Sola Scriptura

17 Jul

“Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent,” was a favorite dictum of the tradition that I was educated in and was a part of for many years.  While this saying may be a bit simplistic, it aptly expresses the massive importance that the Bible has in the life and thought of so many Christians, and rightly so.  It is the Word of God, it is God-breathed, it is inspired, it is so many things.  I myself have spent literally years studying the Christian Scriptures (ending up with a degree in Biblical Interpretation, which is about as employable as a philosophy degree unless you work in a church).  And it is precisely because the Bible is so important that we as Christians must not just study and think about the Bible, but think about how we approach and assumptions we make about the Bible.

In this post I’d like to talk about one subject that played a large role in my journey toward joining the Catholic church (for those of you who don’t know, I joined the Catholic church this Easter). That subject is twofold: first, the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, the idea that the Bible is the only authority for Christian belief and practice, and second, “pervasive interpretive pluralism”, or the fact that there are multitudes of different, conflicting (even on some central issues) beliefs, all held by Christians who use this “bible only” (Sola Scriptura) approach, even when they all seem to genuinely seek to objectively read the bible.

I never gave much thought to the idea of Sola Scriptura growing up.  And while this was an assumption upon which any of my thought about Christian belief relied, I couldn’t have told you what that term meant until college, where I began to study theology.  Even in college, while I understood what Sola Scriptura was, we didn’t talk about it much since the tradition that I was a part of didn’t stress its Reformation heritage as much as other Protestant groups do (this was because my tradition had more of a “back to the bible”/”back to the early Church” focus). Nevertheless, Sola Scriptura was a foundational, if often unspoken, philosophy upon which we all relied.

I would like to point out two problems with this assumption.  First, the bible itself never makes the claim that it is the only authority for Christians or that it contains everything that Christians need to know for faith and practice.  The bible never sets itself against the teaching authority of the Church, or against the traditions that have been handed down from the apostles.  While some here would bring up 2 Timothy 4:15-17, in which St. Paul writes to Timothy:

“…from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God[a] may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (ESV)

However, this doesn’t come anywhere near Sola Scriptura.  All Christians would agree that Scripture is “God-breathed” and that it is profitable for many things, but this does not mean that it is the sole and exhaustive authority for Christians.  The doctrine of Sola Scriptura instead is accepted (though most don’t think about this) on the authority of the Reformation tradition (this idea that the bible is the sole authority for Christians comes from the Protestant Reformation, when the Reformers were breaking from the Catholic church and its authority).  Once I realized this, I was overcome with just how ironic it is to argue that Scripture alone, not tradition, is authoritative for Christians, when that position is accepted on the authority of tradition, not Scripture.

The second problem with this is that some doctrines, such as the Trinity, or the “two-natures-one-person” understanding of Christ (and how his divinity and humanity relate) would be held to be essential orthodox beliefs by most Christians, and yet they cannot be upheld purely on the basis of Scripture alone.  One certainly sees the trajectory towards the idea of the Trinity in the New Testament, but it is nowhere near being fully articulated. One person could interpret the Bible as saying that Jesus is a created being, who is the highest created being, but not fully God (as the early Arians did, similarly to modern Jehovah’s Witnesses), while the rest of Christians would interpret the Bible as teaching that Jesus is fully God and a part of the Trinity.  The problem is that if you say that the Bible is the only authority (Sola Scriptura), it’s simply my interpretation versus yours, even if one interpretation is in line with what the Church has taught for centuries while another is new, because there is no other authority to appeal to.

One more thing to add is that the canon of the New Testament (the list of which books are considered to be Scripture) was not completed until centuries after the books were written, and this canon was decided by the authority of the Church.  This doesn’t mean that the Church arbitrarily decided this canon, yet it was still a human process. If we can trust that the Holy Spirit guided the Church to “get it right” in this process, surely it’s not too much of a stretch to believe that the Spirit could guide and protect the teaching of the Church for more than just this one time (like guiding and protecting the teaching and development of doctrine over the years). We can’t say that we trust the Bible, but don’t trust the authority and teaching of the Church which determined which books were a part of the Bible.

As to the second, related topic, “pervasive interpretive pluralism,” I would first like to give credit where credit is due.  The term “pervasive interpretive pluralism” comes from the book The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith (which is a fantastic book). While I have noticed this phenomenon/problem (depending on how you look at it) before, Smith’s book made the problem acutely clear.  Since writing the book, Smith has joined the Catholic church. But the question that he poses is this: how can there be so many, radically different, even conflicting, beliefs on all sorts of Christian beliefs, from peripheral to critically central issues and topics?  How can Christians, all reading the same Bible, not be able to agree on even some central issues?  And especially: what authority is there to determine whether one interpretation is better than another interpretation?  The problem, Smith says, is that when there are so many interpretations to choose from, and no authority higher than the individual Christian to determine which interpretation is right, we are left free to pick whatever interpretation we like the best.  And when we get to pick whatever interpretation and belief we like best, the Bible is no longer functionally an authority in our lives, rather we are the highest authority in our lives, because we can pick whatever belief and interpretation we like best.

It was these kinds of problems I found with Sola Scriptura and the resulting interpretive and doctrinal anarchy that led me to believe that there must be an ongoing teaching authority in the Church throughout history.  Once I realized this, it was pretty clear that the Catholic church had the best historical claim to that authority.  It was this along with many other issues that helped to push me along in the journey towards the Catholic church.  On a personal note, I would like to say that while at first the idea of joining the Catholic church scared me, now that I have joined, I feel completely at home.  I have never really felt completely at home in any church tradition until now, and joining the Catholic church is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

As always, I love getting comments, feedback and questions.  Did I portray Sola Scriptura fairly?  What options are there for one who sees the problems with Sola Scriptura (does it automatically lead to Catholicism)? Are there other explanations for “pervasive interpretive pluralism”?


Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture


3 Responses to “Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism and Sola Scriptura”

  1. patristoration July 17, 2012 at 11:56 pm #

    Thanks for the post,
    This is the biggest reason that I sympathize with your switch ( even morethan sacramental realism). There really does need to be an authority in interpretation because of the interpretive pluralism, but there must be a hierarchy and a mechanism for correction. One thing I found myself wishing that I would find in your post is the clarification that while scripture is not the only authority, it is the ultimate authority. I think that the Catholic Church recognizes this, correct me if I am wrong. What must now be addressed is the process for internal Correction. What happens when the angency given this authoritative responsibility and divine guidence rejects what we know to be the teaching of the apostles and embraces another teaching (lets use the selling of indulgences for example). I thing a primary cause for the reformation was the lack of potency for any internal, orthodox revival. How does the catholic church account for its own historically demonstrated captivity to get it wrong?

    Here is my sphiel, I think the doctrine of infant baptism is one of the authoritative decisions which falls to this process of internal review (it never will I realize that) I can show historically that it did not belong to the earliest expressions of Christianity and that its development was posthumous to the apostles. I can argue for its abolition with the same historical pull that leads you to accept the authority of the organization which endorses it, only I can go more ancient than you can because the patristic evidence of the first 200 years ad are decidedly and with very rare exception in favor of adult immersion.

    As to church authority I would look to the first 4 centuries of the church before the bishop of Rome was reguarded with the primacy that it later claimed, the plea of ignatious in many of his letters is “submit to the bishop” each city/region had a bishop which would be authoritative for interpretive purposes as well as in many other areas the election of this bishop was an interestingly inconsistent combination of popular election and ecclesial designation. If ongregants believed their bishop to be straying from the truth the congregants would request review from other bishops, especially the ones in the major church-cities like Antioch Jerusalem Carthage Milan and Rome and the visiting or corresponding bishops would either support this bishops teaching or dispose and replace him. It was a local (still multi-congregational) authority that had indirect but efficacious authority over itself from its peers

    • danielericcummings July 18, 2012 at 10:53 pm #

      A few points…

      1. As to “internal review”, it is important to make a clear distinction between doctrinal and moral issues. The Catholic belief is that the Holy Spirit guides and protects the truth of its dogma and doctrine, and thus is not in need of reforming. The same claim is not (and could not be) made about the morality of the men who are in teaching and authority roles in the Catholic church. Something like the selling of indulgences was an immoral abuse and has been stopped. There are ways of reforming church structures and practices and immorality on the part of church leaders, but this often happens very slowly unfortunately.
      2. As to Infant baptism, I would first cede that you do know the early church fathers much better than I do, however, I would still question whether the claim you made about the absence of infant baptism in the early church is an argument from silence.
      3. As to your description of bishops in the early church, what you are describing is known as the collegiality of the bishops, and is still a belief of the Catholic church. However the bishop of Rome is viewed as a special sign and source of unity for the Church and the bishops that flows from the primacy of Peter (a separate and long discussion).
      4. As to numbers 3 and 4, I would strongly recommend a work that I am currently reading, called An Essay On The Development of Doctrine by Cardinal John Henry Newman. Newman was a longtime Anglican in the mid 19th Century who joined the Catholic church and was an influential figure in what was known as the Oxford movement among Anglicans The question Newman raises is whether a doctrine can develop organically and look different than it originally the way (metaphorically) an oak tree looks different than an acorn. Doctrines grow up in the soil of the Church, and may look different, but don’t grow into something that was not contained within the original idea. An acorn doesn’t grow into a cherry tree or a fire truck, but neither does an oak tree look just like an acorn. Ideas and doctrines grow and develop. I wish I could tell you more about what Newman says, but as I said, I am in the middle of it now and haven’t finished it yet. I really think you would enjoy Newman’s sharp reasoning and great writing.

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