May 7, 2005 § 30 Comments
I’ve probably been too cryptic in the discussions I’ve been having below with a few very bright mathematicians. Let me explain the pedantry in (hopefully) more layman-accessible terms. (At the same time please do keep in mind that pedantry is one of the founding principles of this weblog).
A “hermeneutical system” consists of a finite text (for example the Bible or the Koran**) which we will call scripture and some rational process for interpreting that scripture. Interpreting the scripture means, among other things, producing written doctrines which we say must be believed. When I say “true” in the remaining discussion, I don’t mean “happens to be true”: I mean “must be believed”. Lots of things happen to be true but do not have the character that they must be believed by Christians. The sort of “true/false” I am using here, though, is the “must be believed/need not be believed” sort.
Sola scriptura states that if a doctrine is proposed as true, its truth must be decideable from the text of scripture. To claim that whether a given proposition must be believed or not is decideable from the text of scripture is to claim that scripture is complete. Sola scriptura also claims that it is, itself, derived from the text of scripture. And so, via Godel’s Theorem (the proof/comprehension of which is left as an exercise), sola scriptura asserts its own logical inconsistency:
“The hermeneutical system of which this sentence is a theorem is complete.”
The only way for this not to be a logically inconsistent claim – and you will see the quibbling about this between myself and the real mathematicians in the comments – is if the hermeneutical system is expressly restricted not to be smart enough to do arithmetic. If any abstract concepts that can be used to build a functional arithmetic sneak into our hermeneutical system (we don’t have to actually do any arithmetic, we just have to make use of abstract reasoning capable of doing some), then sola scriptura asserts the inconsistency of the hermeneutical system. Sola scriptura asserts its own irrationality. Martin Luther was presciently right to decry reason as the mortal enemy of sola scriptura.
** An interesting bit of trivia in the history of theology is that the Moslem faith adopted a form of sola scriptura long before any Christian faith did. It may or may not be coincidence that John Wyclif (the inventor of Christian sola scriptura), his friend and patron John of Gaunt, and John of Gaunt’s secretary Geoffrey Chaucer were all quite familiar with the faith of the Moors.