I am a conservative Protestant, but I follow a good number of blogs by Roman Catholics, liberal Protestants, and a number of other people as well. Recently, though, I’ve noticed two major ideas that have been the subject of repeated and sustained attack. From the Roman Catholic blogs, I’ve seen a continued critique of the idea of Sola-Scriptura, or “Scripture alone”, which I will explain later. From the so-called, ‘progressive Christian’ blogs I’ve seen the idea of “fundamentalism” constantly derided and decried as basically the worst thing about contemporary Christianity, and potentially its own harbinger. It is in the light of these two ideas that I’d like to explain why I, myself, remain one of those fuddy-duddy fundamentalists, and why I enjoy and remain an advocate of the reformation teaching on Sola-Scriptura.
First, it’s really important to define your terms. That said, Sola-Scriptura seems to be the subject of either much debate, or simply much confusion. In particular I’m thinking of Edward Feser’s recent posts (here, here, and here) on the epistemological fallaciousness of Sola-Scriptura. In a quick summary, Feser, citing Feyeraband, who is citing early Jesuits, basically argues,
a) Scripture alone can never tell you what counts as Scripture, b) Scripture alone can never tell you how to interpret Scripture, and c) Scripture alone cannot give us a procedure for deriving consequences from Scripture, applying it to new circumstances.
While this is a fascinating argument, I’ve always understood Sola-Scriptura to be rather more limited in its claim than the claims that this argument attempts to refute. My understanding of Sola-Scriptura is that this means, “Scripture alone is the rule of faith and life.” Now, note that I am citing the Westminster Confession of Faith, and I’m doing so without a tinge of worry that I’m somehow violating the principle of Sola-Scriptura. This is because the idea that the Bible alone is “the rule of faith and life”, means essentially that it is the standard, the measure, the ordering principle, and the guiding authority of all things having to do with my salvation. But, does this concept deny the idea that there are subordinate authorities that help inform “what counts as Scripture”, “how to interpret Scripture”, or “give us a procedure for deriving consequences”? No. It doesn’t. You may ask, “Why not?”
My answer is this: because the picture that is being painted by Sola-Scriptura is that there is an objective truth that is from God Himself, which comes to us so real, so true, and so pure that it, and only it, is the light upon our dark road. Subordinate authorities help us understand the light. They can draw up equations to explain its properties, and then use this
knowledge of properties to invent devices to control the light. They make filters to diffuse it. They make solar panels to harness it. They make lenses to sharpen it, and turn it to fire. But the subordinate authorities are not the light. This is why we consider them subordinate authorities. They do not stand for us as the light itself, or as perfect interpreters of the light, or as perfect employers of the light, but they do stand for us as useful authorities on the matter. This, then, is why I can cite Westminster without fear of treading down the beloved Sola-Scriptura. Westminster is, indeed, an authority, but it is an authority that is expressly subordinate to that of Scripture. The Westminster Divines (yes, that’s what we call them because we honor them!) saw the light of God’s truth, recognized it as truth, and explained it as such.
I suppose, in conclusion, you might ask me, “To what extent is Scripture then alone or the authority on faith and life? If there are a million subordinate and derivative authorities of Scripture, all with their own standards for determining what makes something Scripture, how to interpret it, and how to use it today, then how is Scripture really alone in regards to our faith and life?” I understand Feser’s critique, when it comes down to this point. But Feser’s solution is just as problematic as that of Sola Scriptura. While Scripture itself stands as the only pure and perfect teacher for our salvation, it is inevitable that we must deal with interpretations of Scripture. Which interpretation is accurate? How do we decide if so-and-so’s view is right, or why not that other guy’s view? Feser’s solution is that the Church has the same level of authority as Scripture, and is thus able to discern the appropriate view from a Father or counsel or Papal bull. But this isn’t a solution. Counsels contradict one another. The Fathers disagreed, argued, and also contradicted each other. Many pope’s issued inaccurate, inappropriate, and totally wild statements based out of flawed exegesis. So which one does the Church trust? Father A or Father B? Counsel 1 or 2? This pope or that pope?
The “problem” that exists for Sola Scriptura (the need to trust some other authority) isn’t solved by the Roman Catholic view of twin authorities (Scripture and Church), but is only watered-down. The solution is to properly understand the doctrine of Sola-Scriptura: Scripture is from the mouth of God through the writings of men under the influence of the Spirit. If we have trouble understanding what it means, it nonetheless remains God’s Word and the only authority that in itself fully can tell us how to be saved. Meanwhile, all other “authorities” that exist concerning salvation are only derived from Scripture itself. The individual exegete that is good at exegesis is good because he has sat underneath this Word, and sought to understand the author’s intent. When he expresses to a friend, “You may be saved by believing in Jesus Christ,” he has not learned this from observing nature or the wisdom of the world, but from God’s Word alone. The counsels that provide good counsel have sat beneath the influence of the Word. The popes that have spoken accurately (and yes, my Protestant friends, there have been some good statements from some popes) have only done so insofar as they have studied the Scriptures. While we are clearly always influenced by people as well as Scripture, it is the people who have studied the Scriptures who prove to be the most influential upon us, because they carry in themselves the knowledge of the Word of the living God.
So far I’ve shown why I believe in Sola-Scriptura, but I haven’t addressed the idea of “fundamentalism”. What do I mean by this word, and what do “progressive” Christians mean by it? I first heard this term when I was in college, studying visual art. It was always used in reference to Christians who hold a rather (in my opinion) odd view about the last-days. Typically, these men and women believe that Christ will return, rule the world for a thousand years from his throne in Jerusalem, while the Church–being raptured–will dwell in heaven. But, when I first stumbled across a blog by a “progressive” Christian, and commented on it, arguing that atonement is real, they spoke of me pejoratively as being a “fundamentalist”. What did they mean? I wasn’t discussing the last-days in any sense. Now, from my seminary studies, I’ve come to realize that fundamentalism, broadly understood, refers to a type of doctrine of Scripture. According to this teaching, Scripture in its original autographs (documents) is inspired by God, without error, without fault, and is still useful today for “teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). Most people understand the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy to be a good summary of this sort of fundamentalism.
You might be saying, “So, what’s wrong with that view?” Or, you could be saying, “What kind of nincompoop believes that God could or would speak to humanity in such a way?” Or maybe you’re somewhere in between those two questions. Simply put, “progressive” Christians lie somewhere closer to the latter questioners than the former, and so I’ve certainly received a bit of flack from them for arguing from Scripture for my positions regarding atonement, doctrine of God, and ethics. But after all the disputes, why am I still a fundamentalist? Is it simply, as one lovely critic said to me, because I grew up in a Christian household, and am lazily resting in the beliefs of my parents? Goodness, no. This is the exact thing that I sought, in college, to overcome. I didn’t spent the years reading the writings of Islam, Judaism, Bahai, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Mormonism, existentialism, atheism, materialism, nihilism, New Age, and all sorts of blends of these in order to lazily rest in my parent’s beliefs. I sought and pursued the truth (and am still doing such) for myself, and have become a fundamentalist.
First, let’s look at what doesn’t convince me. As I have discussed the “progressive” Christian’s views on Scripture, I’ve learned that most of them still believe that God somehow interacts specially with Scripture to bring truth to us. While they don’t believe it is by directly inspiring and perfectly composing writings for all humanity through humanity, they do believe that He uses the text to explain Himself to us. Most of them are very much Barthian, or neo-Orthodox. In short, they believe that these were ancient texts, very much outdated and without application, in themselves, to God’s people today. But, they are the place that God speaks to us. So, when we pull out the rag-tag pages of these ancient men and women, and preach from them, God uses this preaching to illumine the minds and hearts of His people. Can you see the inevitable problem(s) with this doctrine of Scripture? It’s sort of like this: you stumble across an old farming implement, and you wonder, “Hm. How was this thing used? Can I use it today?” So you read books about the implement. You talk to scholars about it, and speculate about it. You figure out that it is an old type of plow, pulled by an ox. You determine–for some unknown reason–that this plow is the thing that must be used today for proper farming, but the old ways of farming with the implement were wrong. But the problem with this conclusion is two-fold. How have you determined that the implement is what is most effectively used for farming? Secondly, how will you then employ the implement for farming? If you say, “Well, I’m just not going to worry about how to employ the implement because an ancient spirit will steer my hand in the right direction,” that’s simply a cop-out. You will inevitably make up your own way of using this tool, and who is to say the proper method for using it today? These are huge problems with a neo-Orthodox, “progressive” Christian, doctrine of Scripture.
So, why am I a convinced “fundamentalist”? Well, not only do I find the alternatives logically problematic, I find the fundamentalist doctrine of Scripture overwhelmingly true. By overwhelmingly true I mean that this doctrine as truth resonates in my whole being. First, my mind is convinced by it as I see its logical proofs: God spoke by men, because He spoke to men. He moved them to write perfectly, and guided them in their process of writing, yet they also wrote of their own free will what they wanted to write. This is similar to the doctrine of concurrence. Of course, God employed the literary conventions of these writers, and spoke within their context, because He didn’t ‘force the hand’ of each author. But this fact doesn’t lead us to become mere nominalists, believing that the ancient’s had no “true” grasp of God. But the better we understand the conventions of their culture, the better we will understand how the Scriptures explain God, really and truly. For example, while the authors employ anthropomorphisms to describe God (and we know–God has no body but in Christ), there is a corresponding reality to the idea that God is “grieved”. God used these authors because He desired to get this point across. He didn’t arbitrarily choose desert-dwellers to speak about Himself, but He chose them purposefully. Or, for another example, the authors speak about God as if He related to humans in covenants. The covenant was an ancient Near Eastern practice that is approximate to legal contracts today. While, today, if you fail to keep your word in a legal contract, you will probably be sued, back then the price of covenant-breaking was death. Now, “progressive” Christians will write-off the idea of the covenant as having nothing to do with God himself, and the ideas of death for covenant-breaking as totally ungodly–but God employed these social circumstances to speak the truth about Himself, and about His relation to His people. He really does make promises to us, and we make promises to Him. Our violation of these promises really does merit death. Perhaps a “progressive” Christian will call this doctrine of Scripture illogical, but honestly it isn’t illogical. It seems more likely to me that we moderns/post-moderns are simply uncomfortable with the idea that God can be anything like the descriptions of the ancient Israelites, and for that reason are quick to write-off a doctrine of Scripture that gives credence to their understanding of God.
I’m not just convinced by logic, though. My heart is convinced by this doctrine of Scripture as I hear the Scriptures read, “Did not our hearts burn within us while He talked to us on the road, while He opened to us the Scriptures?” (Lk. 24:32). My understanding of the doctrine of Scripture is very similar to that of the existence of God, and the reality of Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection. Though all of these things are miraculous, the idea is perfectly logical, and further, it confirms every longing of my soul. In fact, I’ve found the alternative options to be, inevitably, both illogical (at some point) and unsatisfying to my own longings. The Scriptures, though certainly going through various processes of redaction, corruption, correction, and so on, are inerrant in their original compositions. Insofar as we discern these originals, explain these originals, and preach these originals–this is God’s infallible word. While we may err in discerning it, or may err in interpreting, or may err in preserving it, I am pressed by the conviction that God, by the Spirit, uses the bits of truth that we have pulled out from the originals to convince us. Thankfully, as well-reputed scholars like Aland and Metzger have pointed out, we are blessed today with the ability to more closely discern the originals than many of our preceding generations (due to the prolific amount of texts we now possess). This means that the concern of any decent biblical scholar, textual critic, pastor, preacher, and even lay-person, is simply to find out what the original text says, what it meant for the people in its day, and what that means for us today. As these things are read and taught, “opened” to us, our hearts will burn within us as our longings are shown to be real, and our hopes to be fueled by the truth of God. So, I’m still one of those fuddy-duddy fundamentalists, and Sola-Scriptura sillies.