Thursday, October 15, 2015
I Can Do No Other...
I was recently asked to explain my objections to the theological theory of Sola Scriptura. Sola Scriptura is the Protestant theory that the Bible is the sole or primary source of authority on matters of faith and morality - with some general debate about what specifically that means, but that's the gist of it.
It originated with the Protestant revolution and with some (in my opinion) good reason. The Catholic Church believed/believes that "Scripture AND human Tradition (specifically, the teachings/traditions of "the church," which can then be debated futher) are equally important. With the Protestant Reformation, the protestors were saying that some popes and church leaders were making up tradition out of whole cloth, contrary and apart from what the Bible had to say. Thus, in protest to these abuses of the church leaders, they cried "Sola Scriptura!" meaning that the popes couldn't just make up doctrine willy nilly. As an attempt to get away from abuses, it isn't wholly irrational.
Consider: At one point, the Catholic Church demanded that Martin Luther recant from some of his positions. His response...
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony from scripture or by evident reason - for I confide neither in the Pope nor in a Council alone, since it is certain they have often erred and contradicted themselves - I am held fast by the scriptures adduced by me, and my conscience is held captive by God’s Word, and I neither can nor will revoke anything, seeing it is not safe or right to act against conscience. God help me. Amen.“
Thus, sola scriptura was a noble attempt to defend religious liberty (or at least could be seen that way) from those who presumed to speak for God. But, I would argue that sola scriptura ended up being a way of just establishing a NEW and different tradition that wasn't the Catholic Church making the call, but that, in practice, still demanded that people heed what others thought the Bible was saying.
Because I object to sola scriptura theories, I was asked to espouse my alternative theory, and so...
An Alternative to the Human Theory/Tradition of Sola Scriptura, a Theory Never Espoused in the Bible or by Jesus or in any way called "essential" in the Bible, because it is not espoused in the Bible:
My Theory is what I will call the Rational Theory of Godly Inspiration
I. Regarding "sola scriptura..." theories
1. In the Bible (for those of us who take the Bible seriously as a book of wisdom), we find that God reveals God's Self and Ideas in many ways...
a. through Creation,
b. through God's Spirit,
c. through Jesus' direct teaching,
d. through "scripture" (almost always speaking specifically of OT teachings)
e. through "God's Word" or revelation (here, not speaking specifically of Bible books, but the over-arching notion of "every word out of God's mouth..." or the idea of God's Ways)
f. through God's Self revealed in our hearts, minds and/or being,
g. through our God-given reasoning,
h. through "special" or direct revelation (God speaking to someone, directly, audibly - and sometimes inaudibly)
i. through tradition,
j. ...and possibly others I'm not thinking of at the moment
2. At NO time in the Bible, do biblical authors, God or the text give one of these methods of revelation a priority over the others. It never happens.
3. At NO time in the Bible - and for followers of Jesus, more specifically, in Jesus' teachings - do we read about any direct notion of "sola scriptura," or the human theory that the 66 books of the Bible have a special, primary place of authority, in matters of theology or practice. It never happens, not for the 66 books of the Protestant Bible, nor for "Scripture," in general.
4. At NO time in the Bible is the notion of "sola scriptura" - never being directly taught by anyone in general or Jesus, specifically, not literally - called "essential" to Christian teaching. It never happens.
5. Given all this, at a minimum, we need to start with the recognition that, as a point of fact:
a. sola scriptura is a human theory/tradition,
b. it is not an essential teaching of Jesus (or of the essence of Jesus' teachings)
c. that believers of good faith can disagree on this and that's okay
II. If not "sola scriptura," then what?
1. First of all, if we have no rational or biblical reason for Theory A, we are under no obligation to espouse an Alternative to Theory A. It is sufficient to say, Theory A is not sound or can not be supported by data in the real world. For instance, if someone says that we can "know" all Biblical inspiration comes from God via an alien race named Thetans and we can know this because of Ezekiel's story of the spinning wheel and a few other verses, it is sufficient to say "that is not a rational conclusion..." and if they respond, "then via what source do we receive God's inspiration?" we do not need to come up with an alternative theory to Thetan revelation. It is sufficient to say, "that is not a sound theory."
2. But, to answer the question, If not the theory of sola scriptura, then what? I respond: No theory at all, just Reason. Period.
But human reason is not perfect, is it? Hardly. The suggestion is laughable.
Understand, I'm not making the suggestion we should choose to embrace reason in questions of morality, faith, theology and religion. I'm saying that it's what we have. Plain and simple. It's not like we have a line of choices (Do we want to use the Bible, the Koran, Sagan's "Cosmos" or human reason to settle these matters? Let's use... hmmm, option A!") and must choose one and, if not one, then the other.
No, it's not like we have a choice and one answer is the best answer. Rather, we have our reason to sort through ALL the available data out there and do the best we can on matters that are not provable. If we like all or part of what the Bible has to say, we use and have used our reason to understand it. Without reason, it's just a bunch of text that is undecipherable gibberish. Whether we're speaking of the Bible, the Koran, Cosmos or Playboy.
If we highly value the Bible as a source of wisdom on matters of faith, then we hopefully used our reason to reach that conclusion and didn't just start off with "I highly value the Bible because someone else told me to do so..." That wouldn't be a very solid rational starting point for faith.
If we highly value the Bible as a source of wisdom, then we use our reason to sort it out. THIS passage is literal history, it seems to me based upon my best reasoning and the data I have available... THAT passage is likely more mythic in nature, based upon my best reasoning... This OTHER passage seems solidly poetic (as opposed to being a list of literal rules, for instance, or a model for perfect living, for instance). We all do this, beginning with our reasoning, because it's what we have. Those who embrace sola scriptura begin not from the Bible, but from reason, as do the rest of us.
Thus, the answer is, as a point of fact and not preference, that we all begin from a place of reason. It's not a question to be answered, but an observation that we can establish.
Now, all of our reasoning may not be as solid and well-thought-out as others and none of our reason is anything like perfect, but it IS our starting point, just as a point of fact. For all of us. Thus, sola scriptura is not the starting point, as a simple point of fact, our reason is.
And, using our reason, we see that the Bible's authors nowhere specifically push sola scriptura. Just as a point of fact. Further, while some people have, using their reason, taken some passages and reasoned out sola scriptura as a theory, it is a human theory derived using human reason. So, for those people, too, reason was the starting point, the "primary source," literally speaking.
I point back to Luther's quote which I cited early on...
"my conscience is held captive by God’s Word, and I neither can nor will revoke anything, seeing it is not safe or right to act against conscience."
What is Luther citing there? Nominally, "God's Word," presumably he meant the Bible. But, what is he actually citing? He's citing HIS UNDERSTANDING of what God wants. His primary appeal, then, is to his conscience, his reason, not primarily the Bible. Which is right, it's just the fact of the matter.
There's no harm in citing the reality that we are all beginning with our reason. I know there's more comfort and "certainty" if we can conflate our understanding of the Bible with fact or God's Word, but that's just not factual. Thus, let us cling to our fallible human reasoning and acknowledge it as such.
It's what we have.
And if someone were to demand that I recant from this "heretical" position, what would I do?
I would answer, with Luther, that this is right and good and factual, as best I understand it, and I must follow the good and right and factual (ie, God, to me) and can do no other. The difference between Luther and me, is I am making it clear that this is the good and right, as best I understand it, and I do not conflate my opinions and interpretations with God's Word.
It is a critical - the critical - difference.