Why Sola Scriptura Doesn’t Work

March 18, 2014 Length: 8:23

A blogger on Orthodox Christianity and subdeacon at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Church in Bellingham, Washington, explains why the Scriptures must be read in the context of tradition.





Orthodox Christians do not hold to the Reformation principle of sola scriptura. Instead, we view the scriptures as the pinnacle or summit of Holy Tradition, neither separating the two as wholly distinct nor eliminating one or the other. The reason for this is simple. The scriptures are witness to Divine Revelation given from God to mankind, and specially to God’s holy people, first Israel and now the Catholic Church. Holy Tradition refers to the totality of this Divine Revelation, and includes our liturgical hymns and prayers and services, the lives of the saints, the writings of our Fathers, the decrees and canons of the ecumenical councils and so on. Atop this foundation rests Holy Scripture, so to divorce scripture from tradition, or visa-versa, is to both needlessly and dangerously tear apart the whole of Divine Revelation.

Fr. John Whiteford and his helpful tract on sola scriptura writes,

Taken from it’s context within Holy Tradition the solid rock of scripture becomes a mere ball of clay to be molded into whatever shape its handlers wish. It is no honor to the scriptures to misuse and twist them even if this is done in the name of exulting their authority.

So, even when sola scriptura is given nuance to make room for creeds, confessions and councils, the final arbiter is still a person’s interpretation of the Bible. So while one might hold to a document such as the Westminster Confession of Faith if they are Presbyterian, when doctrinal disagreements arise a consistent biblicist will come down in favor of a particular interpretation of the Bible over and against that Confession. This has led to some difficulties over the years for certain Protestant churches, but I believe that the nuance is ultimately, if we can be frank, pointless.

But why? One example, let’s say somebody confesses a creed that states Jesus is a bunny rabbit. While this belief could theoretically be held by many, anybody could deny it as being contrary to the Bible, which it obviously is, rendering that creed both incorrect and even unnecessary. So it doesn’t really matter what creeds or confessions say, so long as the Bible, or someone’s interpretation of it, is held to be the final authority.

This foundationalist or positive-ist approach might seem tidy, but a tree is known by its fruit. And what we have are hundreds of different denominations, and that number keeps growing, especially with the non-denominational movement of the last decade or so, and many splits within these major confessional gatherings now as well. And so even with the best of intentions sola scriptura is a doctrine of confusion not union, which would seem to contradict 1 Corinthians 14—33.

It’s worth noting that sola scriptura presumes both faith and piety can be deduced from, and reduced to, a set of propositions. The chief mechanism for this investigation is human reason aided by rational tools like exegesis, hermeneutical methods, historical critical scholarship, contextual studies and more, all of which are really potential traditions of men. But if the scriptures are a witness to the Divine Revelation given to God’s people the Church, then their understanding can only take place within that community, and as a consequence of the interpreter’s union with God. Fr. Whiteford continues in his tract on this point saying,

In the Orthodox approach to scripture, it is the job of the individual not to strive for originality in interpretation, but rather to understand what is already present in the traditions of the Church. We are obliged not to go beyond the boundaries set by the Fathers and creeds of the Church, but to faithfully pass on the Tradition just as we have received it. To do this requires a great deal of study and thought, but even more, if we are to truly understand the scriptures, we must enter deeply into the mystical life of the Church.

At the ecumenical councils such as at Chalcedon in 451, the synodal decisions are outlined in what is called, in Greek, the ***horos. This is sometimes translated ‘definition’, but is more accurately a ‘boundary’. In other words, the Church sets the boundary for Orthodox belief in her creeds, liturgies and cannons, but there is a great deal of freedom within this boundary for scholarly investigation, dialogue, and even debate. For example, the Church does not have a single, infallible interpretation for every single verse of the Bible! So while one should not strive for originality in interpretation, or to go beyond the boundaries set by the Fathers, this is not a call to intellectual suicide, nor should it be seen as an attempt by the Church to be always stuck in the past.

There is still much to be said so long as it does not contradict the apostolic faith. But if there remains much to be said regarding the scriptures within the boundaries of Orthodoxy, who is capable of rightly dividing that word of truth. Can anyone do this, is this something for the intellectual elite alone? Saint Augustine describes the type of person fit for the proper study and understanding of scripture on Christian doctrine. Fr. Whiteford summarizes for us in this helpful tract saying that such a person

One: Loves God with his whole heart and is empty of pride.
Two: Is motivated to seek the knowledge of God’s will by faith and reverence rather than pride or greed.
Three: Has a heart subdued by piety, a purified mind dead to the world, and neither fears nor seeks to please men.
Four: Seeks nothing but knowledge of, and union with Christ.
Five: Hungers and thirsts after righteousness, and
Six: Is diligently engaged in works of mercy and love.

Absent from this description in Saint Augustine is the kind of PhD a person has acquired, the university that granted it, or a mastery of the finer points of ancient near-Eastern history. While all these things are great in their own right, they neither guarantee nor even suggest that a person with that sort of experience is equipped to understand the scriptures as part of Holy Tradition. Without rejecting scholarship we must be careful to balance scholarship with the necessary holiness, piety and mystical union with Christ which can only take place in His body, the Apostolic and Catholic Church of the interpreter.

If we truly believe that the scriptures are divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit then their right understanding can only be the result of theosis or deification. If our salvation is an acquisition of the Holy Spirit, as Saint Seraphim of Sarov says, then with that acquisition comes the mind of God, a mind that is attuned to the breath of the Spirit as he breathes through the life of the Church.

The Church is not some other competing academic institution alongside seminaries and universities. Those led astray by the academy can be tempted to subvert tradition for the sake of, let’s say, academic merit-badges. But rather than pitting the Church against the scholarly community, we must learn to appreciate both in their proper context, reminding ourselves that the qualities of a true interpreter of Divine Revelation are more related to holiness than they are to academic credentials. If a scholar’s primary goal is to blaze new trails, be controversial or directly subvert Holy Tradition, they are not seeking the mind of Christ.

The Church is the very body of Christ as 1 Corinthians 12-27 says. If it is the fullness or the pleroma of God as it says in Ephesians 1:23, and as Paul writes in 1 Timothy 3:15, it is the pillar and ground (or foundation) of truth.

It is only in the life of that mystical, theanthropic, or divine human communion, that a person can ever hope to acquire this mind, and to both read and understand the scriptures rightly as the precious summit and anchor of God’s revelation to His people.