Three Understandings of Sola Scriptura
October 29, 2007 § 48 Comments
Recent discussions with respect to textual positivism and postmodernism, while less productive in themselves than one might have hoped, have led me to the realization that there are really three quite distinct attitudes toward sola scriptura among various Christians. For the purposes of this post I’ll take sola scriptura as a very general doctrine about the Biblical text: a doctrine which asserts that for the purpose of working out one’s salvation everything which is necessary can be deduced fairly straightforwardly from the text of the closed Canon alone.
The first understanding is of course acceptance of sola scriptura in some form. For Catholics this is, I think fairly straightforwardly, not an available option; not even if one doesn’t particularly understand the intellectual reasons why it is not an option. (That one’s salvation does not implicitly depend upon philosophical reasoning from first principles is I think a wonderful feature of non-sola-scriptura Christianity. Heaven is open even to the illiterate.)
The second understanding is one of rejection of sola scriptura as something specifically problemmatic when it comes to religious revelation and only religious revelation. The idea here seems to be that sola scriptura is not an instance of some general intellectual error about meaning in general, but rather is a particular problem only because the class of truth we are dealing with is Divine revelation. Religious revelation isn’t true in the way that other things are true, so sola scriptura (the doctrine that for certain generalized purposes every necessary truth is straightforwardly deducable from some closed written canonical text alone) is perfectly fine in (some) other disciplines even though those disciplines, and indeed all disciplines, also necessarily make – and require the making of – true or false assertions about their objects.
The third understanding is that sola scriptura represents a fundamental error about the basic nature of truth and more specifically the nature of the relationship between written text and meaning. Sola scriptura with respect to the Bible isn’t really a unique case, it is just a particular case of a very general kind of error.
It won’t surprise anyone who reads this blog that this third understanding is the one that I think is correct.