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0764220489
Trade Paperback
224 pages
Oct 2004
Bethany House

Scripture Alone

by James R. White

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt

Excerpt:

Definitions: More Than Half the Battle

After engaging hundreds, possibly thousands of individuals over the sufficiency of Scripture, I have come to realize that 85 percent of the battle is fought over definitions. Few of the arguments against biblical sufficiency in matters of faith and morals are truly compelling if one is fully aware of the real issues. In fact, many who have abandoned their faith in this doctrine have done so not because the arguments against it were overwhelming but because they held to a flawed, incomplete, and simply erroneous concept to begin with. Straw men have never been known to put up much of a fight, hence, trying to defend an errant view of sola scriptura always results in defeat.

Sola scriptura literally means “Scripture alone.” Unfortunately, this phrase tends to be taken in the vein of “Scripture in isolation, Scripture outside of the rest of God’s work in the church.”

That is not its intended meaning; again, it means “Scripture alone as the sole infallible rule of faith for the church.” As mentioned previously, it is a positive assertion of the nature and traits of Scripture as well as a negative statement indicating that only Scripture possesses its unique capacities as the rule of faith. A rule of faith is that which governs and guides what we believe and why. One work, placing the phrase in its historical setting (the Reformation), defines sola scriptura as “the freedom of Scripture to rule as God’s word in the church, disentangled from papal and ecclesiastical magisterium and tradition.”

The reason men’s religions must deny this truth is simple, for the corollary of sola scriptura is that all a person must believe to be a follower of Christ is found in Scripture and in no other source. If it has been given to us in Scripture by the Holy Spirit, then it is binding upon the believer’s heart and conscience. We cannot pick and choose what we will and will not believe: If it is the infallible rule of faith, it must be believed.

Here is how I expressed it when defending this belief in a public debate a number of years ago:

The Bible claims to be the sole and sufficient infallible rule of faith for the Christian church. The Scriptures are not in need of any supplement; their authority comes from their nature as God-breathed revelation; their authority is not dependent upon man, church, or council. The Scriptures are self-consistent, self-interpreting, and self-authenticating. The Christian church looks to the Scriptures as the only infallible and sufficient rule of faith, and the church is always subject to the Word, and is constantly reformed thereby.

I am an elder in a Reformed Baptist church; we use, as a subordinate standard, the London Baptist Confession of 1689 as a sufficient statement of the faith of our church. In most matters the LBC of 1689 is word-for-word identical to the great Westminster Confession of 1648 and, with only a few exceptions, is identical in the following citations, indicating the unanimity on the nature of Scripture expressed here between Baptists and Presbyterians.

The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God. (1:4)

Many of the dialogues in Scripture Alone will develop this section’s assertion—based upon the teachings of Matthew 22:31; 2 Timothy 3:14–17; and 2 Peter 1:20–21—that Scripture’s authority is inherent in its nature as the very speech of God. Given the ultimacy of the author, the Scriptures can boast of no higher authority attesting to their truth than that which they themselves give. This is a fact well known to generations past but often lost in our day. Keep this in mind—it will come up over and over again.

As I noted above, “Scripture alone” does not mean “Scripture isolated.” The Word is divine, and the Spirit who gave it does not will to be separated from His masterpiece. Read these words from the Confession:

We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church of God to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture, and the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God; yet, notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the word in our hearts. (1:5)

Many of the dialogues in this book will end with the recognition that outside of the Holy Spirit’s work in man’s heart and mind, even the plainest truths, which seem so utterly compelling to the renewed mind and the regenerated heart, remain “foolishness” and a “stumbling block” (1 Corinthians 1:18ff.)

We then come to the specific delineation of the doctrine of sola scriptura. The LBC begins with these words:

The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience, although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and his will which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord at sundry times and in divers manners to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church; and afterward for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan, and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which maketh the Holy Scriptures to be most necessary, those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased. (1:1)

These words were chosen carefully, so note them well. Sufficient, certain, and infallible. Three attributes of divine Scripture that nothing else can begin to approach. Test any pretended contender for the throne of the church’s allegiance, and you will find it isn’t sufficient in its scope and matter, certain in its nature and content, or infallible in its consistency and authority.

The confession recognizes the existence of “general revelation,” the revelation given in nature whereby God shows Himself to be the all-powerful Creator, rendering humans accountable to honor Him as God and give thanks to Him (Romans 1:20–21). Even so, the LBC rightfully says that general revelation is insufficient to communicate the gospel itself. Instead, God has chosen to commit His truth to writing. Why? For the “better preserving and propagating of the truth and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church.” These truths will also regularly reappear in the dialogues that follow.

The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the word; and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the word, which are always to be observed. (1:6)

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (1:7)

Here is where the reality of sola scriptura comes to expression. What is the Scripture sufficient to reveal with clarity? “All things necessary for [God’s] own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life.” In Scripture, these things are either revealed “expressly” or are “necessarily contained.” That is, we are not limited only to the words of Scripture, but we must also believe what the Scriptures lead us to believe through the entire spectrum of their teaching. The most obvious example of this is the divine doctrine of the Trinity: while the term itself (Trinity) is not found in the Bible, the doctrines that not only lead us to it but in fact demand we believe it (monotheism, the equality of the divine persons, the distinction of the divine persons) are plainly stated in Scripture, thus the doctrine is necessarily contained in the words God used to teach it.

Obviously, this is not a claim that the Bible is the complete storehouse of all knowledge, divine and human. It is manifestly limited from the divine side, for as we are told in Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God.” The Bible does not exhaust the truth about God—indeed, even eternity itself will not accomplish this. The same is true about human knowledge. The Bible does not tell you everything you need to know to perform brain surgery or to figure out your tax forms. God’s Word is not intended to inform you on the formation of tidewater glaciers or to give you exhaustive instructions on the use of a centrifuge in biochemical analysis. Arguments that prove the Bible cannot do these things are not arguments against sola scriptura; what Scripture is sufficient for must be kept clearly in mind.

The LBC likewise addresses (in 1:6–7) another vital aspect of the truth: the Bible is not a simplistic user’s manual. It isn’t arranged with a “Quick Start” section for those in a hurry. It doesn’t have topical and subject indexes, and some parts are more difficult to understand than others. Instead, “those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation” are to be found in Scripture so that not only the learned but also the unlearned may, “in a due use of the ordinary means,” come to a sufficient understanding. This too will come out in the discussions that follow.

So to summarize, the Scriptures are the sole sufficient, certain, infallible rule of faith for the church—they alone reveal all that is necessary to be believed for salvation and a godly life. But we might clarify this definition even more by noting some of the most common misrepresentations of sola scriptura.

WHAT SOLA SCRIPTURA IS NOT

The following dialogue between Joshua, our defender of sola scriptura, and Robert, a Roman Catholic, closely parallels the persistent arguments of today’s Catholic apologists. Many are likewise used by other groups.

JOSHUA:

So we see that Paul directed Timothy to the Scriptures alone as the source of his ability to do everything God called him to do in the church.

ROBERT:

But sola scriptura is clearly unscriptural, a manmade tradition. Think about it: The Bible does not tell us all sorts of things. How can you say it is sufficient?

JOSHUA:

As I just noted, Timothy was equipped by the Scriptures to do his work in the church. I never said the Bible could have told him everything he needed to know about being a goldsmith or a tentmaker or a sailor. The Bible surely speaks to all of human endeavor in that we are to do all things to the glory of God, but I never claimed it tells us everything there is to know. You do not understand the doctrine if you think we claim the Bible is a repository of all knowledge, divine and human. It is the rule of faith, not the Universal Encyclopedia.

ROBERT:

Joshua, the Bible actually denies that it is the complete rule of faith. John tells us that not everything concerning Christ’s work is in Scripture:

And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books which were written.

JOSHUA:

Again, Robert, this shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the doctrine you are denying. Yes, many of Jesus’ words and actions are not recorded in Scripture—they weren’t intended to be. It is not necessary that the Bible contain every single possible detail about the life and ministry of Jesus for it to function just as God intended, as the sole infallible rule of faith for the church.

Think about it: Do you need to know the style and color of the robe Peter was wearing on the Mount of Transfiguration? The weight and birth date of the donkey upon which Jesus rode into Jerusalem, or the genus and species of the palm branches laid before Him? And if you think your “tradition” fills in all these blanks, can you point me to where Rome has answered these very questions, or has infallibly defined even a single word spoken by the Lord Jesus or any of the apostles that is not contained in Scripture?

ROBERT:

Well, I don’t know of any, but you have to admit that sola scriptura is completely unworkable, a blueprint for anarchy! Look at what it’s done to the Protestant church. I’ve heard there are more than 28,000 Protestant denominations because of sola scriptura, with more springing up every day. Surely that’s not what God intended—He wants us to be one, as Jesus says in John 17.

JOSHUA:

Ah, two common errors rolled into a single argument! Let’s dismiss the 28,000-denominations argument right off the bat. Dr. Eric Svendsen has expertly documented

that this number is grossly inflated, and if you actually traced back to the sources, you’d discover that if you held yourself to the same standards, Roman Catholicism would represent literally hundreds of denominations itself. Do you buy that?

ROBERT:

I haven’t looked at that, but no, there is only one church.

JOSHUA:

I’d recommend a look at the actual data.

Despite the popularity of the 28,000-denominations claim, it holds no water. But beyond this, asserting that sola scriptura is to blame for fundamental disagreements shows an even deeper misunderstanding of the issues. I would like to think the majority of those who promote such an argument have simply not thought through what they are saying. Let me ask you: Are there disagreements among Roman Catholics as to theological beliefs? Differences of view on the nature of tradition, or on what amounts to an infallible pronouncement, or on other similar matters?

ROBERT:

Well, you know the answer to that question, Joshua, but I point out that those are not central issues.

JOSHUA:

The nature of tradition is certainly important, but even granting your objection, I would point out that the depth of agreement between groups who accept the Bible alone without any external “infallible” authorities and interpreters on the central issues

is great indeed. You would agree, then, that despite the existence of the magisterial teaching of Rome, disagreements remain between Roman Catholics?

ROBERT:

To some degree, yes.

JOSHUA:

So is it not somewhat inconsistent to maintain that for Protestants the Bible has to produce perfect unanimity of opinion when the addition of Rome’s teaching authority has not accomplished the same thing for Catholics?

ROBERT:

But if it is truly sufficient ...

JOSHUA:

 ... to do what God intends it to do, yes, but why do you assume that for sola scriptura to be correct, God had to have intended us to have perfect unanimity of opinion?

ROBERT:

Jesus said we would all be one, did He not?

JOSHUA:

Yes, as Jesus indicates, we are to be one in Him and in the Father, but you are going way too far to assume that this precludes differences of viewpoint, let alone false teachers or heretics. In fact, Paul told the Ephesian elders before he left them that men would arise from their own ranks and lead the sheep astray.

In similar fashion, he told Timothy that deceivers would grow worse and worse.

Please note, Robert, that in both instances Paul’s solution was not to direct anyone to the bishop of Rome or any such authority. Each time Paul directed those he had warned concerning false teachers to look to the Word of God.

I want to emphasize something else, too. Have you ever changed printers on your computer system?

ROBERT:

Yes, just recently, in fact. The never-ending cycle of upgrade, upgrade, upgrade.

JOSHUA:

I know it well. When you did so, did you do what most men do and just plug the thing in to see if it would work, or did you read the instructions first?

ROBERT:

Well, it says, “Plug and play.”

JOSHUA:

Yes. And if it had gone wrong, would you have blamed the instructions you didn’t read?

ROBERT:

I think I have done that, actually, but of course I realize there’s no basis for blaming unread instructions.

JOSHUA:

Exactly. And let me ask something else: Did you sort of assume that your new printer would work the same way as your old one, but then need to be adjusted when it worked a little differently?

ROBERT:

Sure did. But I don’t get where you’re headed.

JOSHUA:

Well, it’s like this: Just as it’s not the instructions’ fault if you have problems with your printer, so it’s not the Bible’s fault if people don’t read it. Coming to the Scriptures with our traditions is like carrying over “traditions” from your old printer. Is it the instructions’ fault that you assumed the printer would work in a way it didn’t? Or, what if you picked which sections of the instruction manual you wanted to read and which you didn’t, just as people pick and choose which passages of Scripture they will or will not heed? You can have the perfect instruction manual, clear, perspicuous—-might I say infallible?—but this will not, by itself, guarantee that you will use the printer perfectly, does it?

ROBERT:

But the Lord said we should be one; so if His Word is all we have=—

JOSHUA:

I didn’t say it’s “all we have.” I said it is the sole infallible rule of faith. I never said it exists in a vacuum; I never said the community of faith is devoid of the Spirit; I never said that elders have no authority, etc. The point of the illustration is that blaming the Scriptures for what people do with them is an approach that should be rejected, and indeed ridiculed, by any serious-minded individual.

ROBERT:

But sola scriptura does lead to an extreme form of individualism! You can’t have an authoritative church and sola scriptura at the same time.

JOSHUA:

Why should we buy into the “you and your Bible under a tree in the woods alone” or “the infallible Pope in Rome” false dichotomy? I think most folks can see a pretty wide spectrum of belief that exists between the two extremes. What if the Bible, read in its own context and allowed to speak with the authority of divine revelation, teaches us that Christ has established His church and organized it in such a way as to provide His people with godly men entrusted with the duty to teach and preach and shepherd and guide, all under the ultimate authority of Christ, manifested by His Spirit and the Word? Could the Scriptures do that?

ROBERT:

Of course, but how can that really work when sola scriptura denies authority to anything but a Bible that, in the final analysis, must be interpreted by each individual?

JOSHUA:

Balance is the key in many areas of the Christian life. Rome’s claim to ultimacy in doctrinal and spiritual matters lacks balance, just as the “lone-ranger Christian” viewpoint lacks balance. The Bible, being God-breathed, partakes of the very authority of God Himself. As such, it cannot possibly embrace a non-divine authority alongside itself. However, this does not for a moment mean that God cannot set up subordinate authorities that are vitally important and necessary for the proper health and balance of the believing community and the individual believer—authorities that look to and draw from that divine authority while never eclipsing it or replacing it.

ROBERT:

But I’ve talked to many Protestants who find the constant difficulties they face in the church, especially over personal disputes and doctrinal divisions, to be a great hindrance and cause of despair.

JOSHUA:

So have I. My heart grieves over schisms and controversies and all the other assorted problematic issues in the church. Paul’s heart broke over the same issues! If such difficulties existed when apostles chosen directly by the Lord Jesus Christ, through whom revelation came and Scripture was written, walked the earth and ministered in the churches, then upon what logical basis are we to believe that it is God’s intention to banish such troubles from the church after the apostolic age? Will not the church always struggle against false sons in her midst, against wolves in sheep’s clothing? If the existence of such difficulties indicates a problem with sola scriptura, then would it not follow that there was something “wrong” or “insufficient” in the apostolic ministry of Paul or Peter or John as well?

ROBERT:

An interesting point, Joshua, but one of the problems I’ve always had with sola scriptura is that there was obviously a point in time when it simply could not have been true. What I mean is, there was a time when God’s Word was communicated orally—for example, in the preaching and teaching of the apostles or in the ministry of the prophets. If sola scriptura could not have been true at that time, how can it be true now?

JOSHUA:

Your question contains its own answer, ROBERT, for we both acknowledge that something was going on then that is not going on now. Rome agrees that the special activity of revealing Scripture ended with the apostolic era, and that the church’s role is one of communicating an already given body of truth, not of producing “new revelation.” So you do confess that something was true then that is not true today. Something has changed. We both agree that God has given us inspired revelation that He has spoken. The question is, how do we recognize that revelation today? Is it clear and easily distinguished or is it in some sense “secret” and known only to a particular group of leaders?

ROBERT:

So you’re saying that sola scriptura is only true at times?

JOSHUA:

The question sola scriptura addresses is, “In the normal existence of the church down through the ages, what is God’s intended means of conveying His truth to His church?” God did not continue the ministry of apostles down through the ages,

so what rule of faith has He given us by which we can maintain the purity of the gospel? Has He given us a Scripture that is subject to a higher authority and a body of unwritten, oral traditions, which content we can only know when its guardians choose to reveal small portions thereof?

Returning to your question, sola scriptura can be true when the scriptura exists in such a form as to be able to function as the rule of faith. Logically, during times of revelation, what was possessed by the church as God-breathed revelation was in transition. When that process came to an end (enscripturation), what was and is the final authority? That which is produced by the Spirit (Scripture), or that which is claimed by an ecclesiastical group as “tradition” but which we cannot test or observe over time?

ROBERT:

You don’t seem to like the word tradition.

JOSHUA:

Well, you must confess it repeatedly appears in the Scriptures in a negative light. I am well aware that “tradition” can have a positive meaning, and believe me, I know that everyone, including myself, has “traditions.”

ROBERT:

The difference is between godly traditions and human traditions.

JOSHUA:

I would agree only if you mean “godly” in the sense of those traditions which are subordinate to Scripture, corrected by Scripture, and lead to further godliness through order in worship and the promotion of true piety. All such traditions are human, in the sense that they are not God-breathed. The key fact with tradition is that all traditions, even those that men claim have come from God, are to be tested by the higher authority of Scripture.

So the real issue is, does your tradition bow in submission to Scripture, or does your tradition force Scripture into subservience?

ROBERT:

What makes tradition different is that we have the living voice of the Spirit in the Church.

JOSHUA:

The role of the Spirit is unquestionably vital in the church. Everyone agrees on that point.

ROBERT:

But doesn’t sola scriptura in essence “muzzle the Spirit”?

JOSHUA:

Some believe so, but that would also require us to believe the Spirit cannot give a living, scriptural revelation that speaks to every generation. We know that the Scriptures are the delight of the spiritually minded man, and that he meditates upon them day and night.

Believing in sola scriptura only means that God has chosen the means by which He will guide His people for His own honor and glory. The intimate relationship between the Word and the Spirit, found throughout Scripture, neither necessitates an “open canon,” so that further revelation can be added, nor requires us to believe in some other “source” or “form” of revelation or the need of a human authority to “fill in” where Scripture falls short. The Spirit “birthed” the Scriptures; hence, there cannot possibly be any contradiction or disharmony between His leading and the Scriptures themselves.

* * *

After having a conversation like this, Joshua and Robert would have a significantly better chance of meaningfully discussing sola scriptura than takes place in most apologetic conversations today. Definitions must be established so that real communication can take place. Often, merely clearing up misconceptions can open wide the door to positive proclamation of God’s truth.

Excerpted from:
Scripture Alone by James R. White
Copyright © 2004 ; ISBN 0764220489
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.