Sola Scriptura verses Sola Verbum Dei: Whitterings, May 2008

Deacon Dan Endresen’s article in the March edition of the Montreal Anglican once again raised that hoary old chestnut ‘Sola Scriptura’. Sola Scriptura, by Scripture alone, consistently raises its head in Anglican circles these days although it is not an Anglican doctrine. Anglicans hold more to "Prima Scriptura," which holds that even though the Bible is the primary source of doctrine it is read in reference to other sources of Tradition (such as the Creeds) or "Sola Verbum Dei," (by the Word of God alone - Scripture and Tradition wedded together) is more normative. Many conservative evangelicals use the word ‘Scripturally based churches’ to refer to a certain idea of Christian orthodoxy. What does this mean? It means that the ‘final authority’ in their community is Scripture alone. This assumes that Scripture exists in some kind of stasis beyond interpretation. It assumes that the truth is found right there, easily accessible, on the page and that all people will read it the same way.

"Both read the Bible day and night, But thou read'st black where I read white."
William Blake

Sola Scriptura is an extreme protestant doctrine (even though in the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6 it is not "expressly set down in Scripture") that is not held by our church.Scripture has to be interpreted and it has been the Church’s vocation to interpret Scripture anew in every generation by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. As an Anglican I have a serious question for those who hold to Sola Scriptura. How does a ‘Scriptural Believer’ get around the historical reality of how Scripture was written and how it was formed into the existing canon?

The Church of Christ existed long before the New Testament existed. Her Bishops, guided by the Holy Spirit promised to her by Christ Himself, tested and discerned the presence of the same Spirit in the words of the Gospels and the Letters and Writings of the works that became the New Testament. It was the Bishops of the Church that canonised (collected together, sorted and decided what works would be included and which would not) the New Testament. It was through the Church that Scripture became Scripture and was given the authority that it has. We, as Anglicans, believe the same Spirit guided and moved amongst them during the seven Great Councils of the Church and the formulating of the three Creeds. We also believe that the Spirit “Which Will Lead you into the way of all truth” is still at work within the Church.

Specifically, it was only the four Gospels and the 13 Epistles of St Paul that were considered as accepted ‘doctrine forming’ writings of the early Church (c.130). The idea of even having a canon only came much later probably as a reaction to the heretic Marcion. It was only at the end of the second century that these writings were referred to as ‘Scripture’. We can tell from the writings of Eusebius (c. 260-340), Bishop of Caesarea, that the Letter to the Hebrews, the Letter of Jude, the Second Letter of Peter, the Second and Third Letter of John and the Book of Revelation were not considered Scripture until a much later date than the original writings. Some books, such as the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas, were only accorded the status of Scripture by certain churches. It was not until St Athanasius (296-375), Bishop of Alexandria, in his Festal Epistle for the year 367 that the current canon was set down. St Damasus (c. 304-384), Bishop of Rome, called a council that for the first time listed all of the books of the Old and New Testament. This is known as the ‘Gelasian Decree’ because Gelasius (d. 496), Bishop of Rome, reproduced it the year before he died. I point out that all of the men referred to were Bishops of the Church.

So we get to the meat of the question. How can someone believe in the authority of the Scripture alone whilst not believing in the authority of the Church that gave it it’s authority in the first place? You can not without falling into an obvious philosophical paradox. I was taught that the main difference between a Catholic and a protestant is that the two are built upon different foundations. Protestantism is founded on Scripture as its chief authority (Sola Scriptura). Catholicism is founded upon the working of the Holy Spirit. Catholics (by which I mean the Orthodox Churches, Anglicans, Old Catholics & Roman Catholics) say “the Holy Spirit, sent by Christ, founded the Church and guided the writing of the Scriptures, the discernment of the Church in recognising and canonising the Scripture, the theological outworking in the Councils and Creeds of the Church and continues to guide the interpretation and teaching about those same Scriptures down to the present day”. The New Testament is considered a Catholic Book as we wrote it, we edited it, we published it and we distributed it. To a Catholic Scripture is defined as a collection of inspired writings made by the tradition and the authority of the Church. All four Catholic Churches agree that only a Council of the Church has the right to declare a book Canonical.

If you discount the authority of the Church Catholic, how can you then say that her judgment in the discerning of what Is Scripture is, paradoxically, correct? I have never understood this. As the Scriptures themselves do not claim sole authority for themselves as a whole, what non ecclesiastical authority can possibly be appealed to for justification of the claim of Sola Scriptura? There is no way to circumvent the authority of the Church Herself without falling into paradox and contradiction. Some might, and have, used another word for this.

I do not usually write my column in response to another article in this paper. However Deacon Endresen's article rather disturbed me. I have only addressed one of the issues he raised in this column thus far. I would, however, like to briefly say that his accusation of Marcianism in the Faculty of Religious Studies at McGill is almost libellous. His use of the term also shows an ignorance about the nature of Marcianism itself. I need only remind you that Marcian (d. c.160) believed that only the ten epistles of St Paul and his own edited version of the Gospel of St Luke held authority. The Old Testament writers as well as the Apostles and Evangelists he considered blind because of their Jewishness and therefore their work was tainted. Show me one of our Priest Professors who teaches anything even remotely like this? I would remind the good Deacon that one should not use the term ‘heretic’ lightly when used against specific colleagues (we all know which Anglican Priests teach Old and New Testament at the University of McGill). Not only should one not throw rocks in glass houses (“those who live by the sword shall die by the sword”) but it is also tasteless and simply just bad manners.