Is Sola Scriptura Really a Disagreement?
I’ve been enjoying a collaborative book titled “Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism,” a book full of meaningful dialogue across Christian traditions. In it, Bradley Nassif offers the perspective that Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism are highly compatible. Nassif is Eastern Orthodox and appears to bear the approval of Antiochian Eastern Orthodox hierarchy (even though he does not enjoy unanimous agreement among all of the Eastern Orthodox). Within his broader argument1 for compatibility between these two traditions, Nassif argues that Sola Scriptura is often misunderstood and does not in fact divide Evangelicalism and Eastern Orthodoxy.
SOLO OR SOLA?
Nassif reminded me of clarifying comments by George Aldheizer in conversation under this article: “There is this assumption that ‘sola scriptura’ means ‘solo scriptura,’ which just isn’t what the reformers and today’s Protestant theologians mean. Sola Scriptura is to say that the scriptures are the supreme authority, the ‘norming norm’ to use Kevin Vanhoozer’s words, that stands above all other norms.” Prior to George’s comment, I had not heard of a distinction between Solo and Sola Scriptura.
Jeff Hart also tackled Sola Scriptura in this article, stating, “I would not defend the sort of solo scriptura ‘just me and my Bible’ hermeneutic that, sadly, is prevalent within modern evangelicalism.”
Nassif appears to agree with George and Jeff as he states, “The church, the Bible, and Holy Tradition form an unbreakable unity of checks and balances wherein Scripture is given the most authoritative voice on matters of faith and practice.”
Nassif presented the evangelical understanding of Sola Scriptura as wholly compatible with Eastern Orthodoxy. So doing, he juxtaposed the “Radical Reformation” of the Anabaptists with the “Magisterial Reformation” of Luther, Calvin, and Anglicans. According to Nassif, the Anabaptists veered toward the common misunderstanding of many modern Protestants:
Members of the Radical Reformation (Anabaptists) maintained that the Bible is all that is needed and that church councils, creeds, church fathers, and liturgies have no significant role to play in the theological formulation of the faith. The private judgment and conscience of an individual’s interpretation of Scripture stand above the corporate judgment of the church.2
Then he contrasts:
The Magisterial Reformation (Luther, Calvin, and Anglicans), however, upheld the church’s traditional interpretation of Scripture and viewed the church fathers, councils, creeds, and liturgies as valuable guides to the correct understanding of Scripture. They were not ambivalent toward tradition, but stood only against its abuses. Scripture was still the primary authority for faith and practice, but it was not the only authority.3
IS SOLA SCRIPTURA REALLY A DISAGREEMENT?
By all appearances, I and many others conversing at Conciliar Post have failed to clarify the Anabaptist versus the “Magisterial” understandings of Sola Scriptura when debating the topic. Apparently the historic view of most Protestants aligns with the views of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, to which we could add the Assyrian Church of the East and Oriental Orthodoxy. That is to say:whether Protestant or adhering to one of the four continuous traditions, most of us see valid portions of Church Tradition as complementing Scripture with both Tradition and Scripture affirming the authority of the other.
Alyssa Hall seems to have agreed as well in her comments below this article: “I am not making the claim that all traditions are bad. God’s traditions are good and are to be kept diligently.” Later, she added:
I believe that while the Orthodox or Catholic liturgies, ecclesiology, etc. that you mentioned may indeed be sound (I’m not writing off everything they believe – I’m certainly open to study!), there seem to be elements within the Catholic/Orthodox churches that have evolved into something that was never intended to exist.
While he disagreed in part with Alyssa, Ben Winter appears to also see Scripture and Tradition as complementary in his comments on the same article:
Nothing is possible, either, without Scripture. So this is not an elevation of Tradition above Scripture. You are correct to note that, due to my position on the authority of the Catholic Church, I see Tradition as on equal footing with Scripture. It seems to be the only tenable position in light of the history of the unified, Spirit-guided Church across time and space.
SOLO EQUALS SOLA
While some on Conciliar Post have offered a distinction between Sola and Solo, these two forms are from the same adjective, the first being feminine and the second masculine in the “ablative” or instrumental Latin case4, indicating “by” Scripture alone. Thus, arguing Sola Scriptura is, by definition, an argument for “by Scripture alone.” If one agrees that proper Tradition properly interprets Scripture—as Protestant authors appear to repeatedly admitted at Conciliar Post—then I submit that we should bypass arguments over Sola Scriptura altogether. The real issue is which traditions one believes to be violation of the otherwise united testimonies of Scripture and Church Tradition.
If on the other hand, one claims what Nassif attributes to the Anabaptists, let him or her defend the proposition as is. Sola Scriptura means “by Scripture alone.” Yet it appears to be a position which Protestant contributors to Conciliar Post do not truly hold. Let us debate improper traditions as the real issue. “By Scripture Alone” (Sola Scriptura) has been surrendered often enough in this ecumenical dialogue that it appears to enjoy our unanimous agreement to be a misnomer, even among Protestant contributors. Tradition protects us from harmful interpretations of Scripture just as Scripture protects us from bad traditions. The two operate together, never solo.
- Nassif’s broader thesis: “I will contend that there are no core disagreements between evangelicals and Eastern Orthodox over the issues that define the evangelical movement, issues that are also present in the Eastern Orthodox Church. There are major differences, however, over the extent to which the Orthodox understand and manifest, as evangelicals do not, those larger principles of evangelical identity through the church’s incarnational Trinitarian vision of life.”
- Gundry, Stanley N., and James Stamoolis, eds. Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 65