I grew up in a church where everything was painted “Sola Scriptura.” I’m not referring to some chic Greco-Roman inspired hue from Benjamin Moore, but a Latin phrase meaning “Scripture Alone” which coloured the way we saw everything under the sun. “Sola Scriptura” was the primary pillar and doctrinal gatekeeper of Protestant faith. Scripture alone, accepted by faith alone, was the ultimate authority in all matters for us Baptist fundamentalists, whether at church, work, home, or school, with occasional exemptions for church hockey leagues and annual business meetings. Although I believe the world would probably be a better place if we adhered to a Biblical authority commanding us to love our enemies, serve the poor, and be slow to anger, I have many problems with the “Sola Scriptura” philosophy.
First of all, it isn’t realistic. No individual, congregation or denomination uses Scripture alone to understand God and spiritual truth, let alone good parenting skills and financial investments. And when we interact with the Bible, we engage many additional resources besides Scripture, including our experiences, beliefs, biases, expectations, education, reason, and normalization. We see through the lens of our personal worldviews causing us to perceive things as we are, rather than as they are.
No matter how educated, enlightened or earnest, no one approaches Biblical texts purely and objectively. We are always a factor that influences the outcome of the interpretative process. This explains why there are so many divergent interpretations by equally committed and intelligent Christian communities on passages about signs and wonders, pacifism, sexuality, and money—to name a few.
My second major problem with “Sola Scriptura” is that it contradicts the way of Jesus. Firstly, Jesus did not use Scripture exclusively or even primarily when he taught. He used contemporary and historical events, stories, riddles, questions, nature, object lessons and what I can only describe as zen-like sayings as much as he used the Bible. In fact, sometimes Jesus used Scripture to differentiate his message from it, like in Matthew 5:38-39, “You have heard that it was said [in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy], ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
Secondly, Jesus rebuked the Bible experts more than anyone, and they him. Even though these religious leaders were more Biblically literate than everyone else, it gave them no advantage in knowing God or truth. In fact, it appears to have been a hindrance. Jesus rebuked them saying, “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving” (Matthew 13:14). He called these Scriptural authorities sons of Satan, the blind leading the blind, whitewashed tombs, snakes, fools, hypocrites, children of hell, murderers and a generation of vipers. This is uncharacteristic as Jesus treats virtually everyone else with kindness and compassion. One has to wonder if over-emphasis on the written Word can harden our hearts and hinder our spiritual growth today as well.
Jesus says to these religious leaders in John 5:38-40, “You do not have God’s message in your hearts…You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!” Jesus is saying the Bible is not an end in itself but a means to an end. It is pointing to something beyond itself. When we start viewing the Bible as the truth, we miss the truth because the Bible does not contain the truth, it points to it. The Bible is like a finger pointing to the moon and we are lost when we mistake the finger pointing to the moon, for the moon itself!
Finally, Jesus did not promise to send a Bible to guide his followers into truth or to be the measuring stick of all truth once he departed. Jesus promised his followers the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit that guides them and us into truth. (John 16:13) Nowhere does Jesus mention or even hint at the promise of a future book of collected writings from the apostles (or anyone else) that would be essential for us to get to know God or discern spiritual truth. Jesus promises his followers only one thing—the anointing of the Holy Spirit. If anything, Jesus preaches “Sola Spiritus” not “Sola Scriptura”!
Troy Watson is Pastor of Quest Community in St. Catharines, Ontario. This is part of the series, “The Role of Scripture For Postmodern Life.”