Monday, May 25, 2009

Sola Scriptura Or Prima Scriptura: Not Solo Scriptura

Here is part of an interesting article by Blake Huggins over at Emergent Village:
We might as well deal with the Elephant in the room first. For many people, admitting that Sola Scriptura is not longer viable is roughly equivalent to saying we are throwing out the Bible altogether and opting for some sort of slippery relativism. But a rejection of Sola Scriptura is not a rejection of Scripture! Which is why it is important to provide an alternative to the “sola” — because we’re not rejecting Scripture wholesale, in fact I can say without reservation that my respect and love for the Bible is deeper and more unwavering now than it ever was.

But here’s the thing. Whether we realized it in the past or not Sola Scriptura has never been possible. It just can’t work. Because the moment I say that all I need is Scripture alone, I’ve assumed that I occupy some sort of void space, when in fact neither I nor Scripture exist vacuum. I can’t simply read Scripture (or anything for that matter) for what it is without biases or lenses. My position as an urban, white, American, male influences my reading more than I will ever know. The same could be said of the writers of Scripture. Even the notion of Sola Scriptura itself is conditioned by a cultural lens and a certain interpretation albeit an increasingly outmoded one. To read is to interpret; all our readings are always already interpretations and all our interpretations are always already situational. To me, that is inescapable.

So, admitting the immanent end of Sola Scriptura is not a categorical rejection of Scripture as much; rather, it is a coming to terms with our own limitations and finitude as human beings and adopting a certain humility about our readings. I seriously doubt whether the Bible is infallible since it was written by pre-modern men (yes, they were men). But that doesn’t mean I don’t think the Bible is authoritative or instructional. It merely means that I believe our ability as humans to fully understand the Bible is severely limited. The history of hermeneutics is indicative of this. We can very quickly identify points today where we believe our theological ancestors were absolutely wrong in their interpretation of Scripture (slavery, subjugation of women, etc.). I’m sure 50-100 years from now our grandchildren will say the same about us. We know things today that we didn’t know in the past and we don’t know things now that we will in the future. That deeply affects out readings. We are fallible, broken people. We need to hold our hemeneutical lenses loosely.

And here is a part of John Meunier's response to Huggins from Meunier's Blog:
Is Huggins’ giving us a proper read on what sola Scriptura meant to Luther and the other early reformers here? As I read these paragraphs, it sounds to me like he is describing a position staked out much later. Luther defended scripture as a final authority against which all doctrine and practice would have to be justified, but I do not think he ever argued for such post-Enlightenment ideas as objectivity and cultural neutrality.

Alister McGrath’s very readable history of Protestantism, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, makes the point that as early as 1520 Protestants were struggling with how to handle the theological diversity unleashed by the rejection of Roman Catholic teaching authority in favor of Scripture read by individuals. Even as they rallied behind the cry of sola Scriptura, the Reformers knew all too well that their principle would not produce a single, timeless, and objective reading of Scripture – which is phantom claim that Huggins’ appears to be attacking.

Indeed, the point of the Bible’s authority was not an attempt to establish it as a rival god – as so many critiques of sola Scriptura seem to argue assume the princple tries to do. A McGrath writes:

At its heart, Protestantism represents a constant return to the Bible to revalidate and where necessary restate its beliefs and values, refusing to allow one generation or individual to determine what is definitive of Protestantism as a whole. … While some very conservative Protestants do treat the Bible as if it were the Christian Qu’ran, the majority are clear that the Bible has a special place in the Christian life on account of its witness to Jesus Christ rather than its specific identity as a text. For Martin Luther, the purpose of scripture was to ‘inculcate Christ,’ who is the ‘mathematical point’ of the Bible.

And later:

Over the years, each strand of Protestantism developed its own way of understanding and implementing the sola Scriptura principle. Each accorded primacy to scripture yet recognized a number of additional resources – tradition, reason, and experience – that might serve in connecting scripture with the intellectual and experiential world of every generation.

We Methodists should recognize those additional resources in our much debate Wesleyan Quadrilateral.

In other words, Protestants and even Luther himself hold exactly the position that emergents are saying we need to adopt. It turns out that the “new” thing that excites so many people is just the old thing that we have either forgotten or allowed to be hidden from view.
I tend to agree with Meunier's thoughts as sola scriptura never meant solo scriptura as some tend to think today but is more akin to the idea of prima scriptura as even the bible is not a product of solo scriptura but canonization, church tradition and debates. However that said Blake offers a valid critique of the modern conception of sola scriptura as it is known today by many on the fundamentalist side of Christianity as even Luther didn't accept fully the dogma of sola scriptura as some may think. See TheoPoetic Musings: Luther, The Biblical/Textual Critic for example.


Christian Beyer said...

Good stuff. Thanks. I like this idea that the modern take on 'sola scriptura' is really just that and not one the Reformers had originally intended. Helps explain some of the problems Luther had with parts of the canon.

TheoPoet said...

No problem Christian and if you found that interesting, you may enjoy this tidbit I found on Baptist beliefs: "WHAT A MAN BELIEVES THE BIBLE TO TEACH IS HIS CREED, either written or unwritten. And though it has sometimes been said that creeds have produced differences of religious opinion, it would be nearer to the truth, logicallyand historically, to say that differences of religious opinion have produced creeds."---read more: here. I believe this is consistent with what Dr. Cameron was advocating here: TheoPoetic Musings: Luther, The Biblical/Textual Critic.