The Inherent Weaknesses of Arguments Against the “Bible Alone”

A few days ago on TurretinFan’s blog, someone linked to an article on Romans 9 by an Eastern Orthodox website, which I responded to starting here. It is the same old worn out arguments that John Piper refuted in his classic exegetical study of Romans 9, The Justification of God.

I went on the website today, and found that they also had an article on Sola Scriptura here. The arguments are not that difficult to refute, so I would like to take the time to deal with them quickly.

1. A “perfect “ Bible does not ensure correct interpretation. A sharp and perfectly designed scalpel does not insure a successful operation. [Examples amongst hundreds : The Lord’s supper, views on war, salvation, baptism and its significance, church administration, Bishops, end times etc etc etc. Many essentials of the faith]

True, a perfect Bible does not ensure correct interpretation, but a perfect Bible does provide a *foundation* and a *reference point* by which we can test to see which interpretation is correct-God being the ultimate reference point, and the author being a secondary reference point.

2. Christian doctrine is misunderstood as something solely rational. Under the influence of Melanchthon and Protestant Scholasticism, faith became an intellectual concept. This may have been useful against battling Rome, but was an approach foreign both to the mind of the early church and the Bible itself.

Of course, this ignores the connection between what we believe rationally and how we live it out. If we truly believe something rationally, we will live it out externally. Language, as we have pointed out many times on this blog, involves intentionality, and the accomplishing of certain propositions within the life of an individual is the heart and soul of Biblical application. Hence, it is impossible to separate propositional truth from the practical application of that propositional truth, because language has intentionality.

3. A view of scripture which denies its human element ignores the church’s role in compiling the books of the Bible. The scriptures were not viewed as “being dropped from heaven” (like the Koran or Book of Mormon) but born and confirmed within a believing community.

No one denies the human element of scripture. Indeed, it is this human element, along with the great truth that man is created in the image of God that absolutely destroys the notion that #1 is an alleged weakness. Also, no one denies that the scriptures were born and confirmed within a believing community. The issue is the *reason* why they were born and confirmed. It is not because God is granting some “infallibility” to the community, nor is it because this community will never change. It is because of the purposes of God in giving us what he wants us to have, so that we can have an unchanging standard as the church changes and the society changes.

Second, the society of first century Judaism is not the society of Eastern Orthodoxy or of Roman Catholicism. The notion of a married woman remaining celibate would have been repulsive to the Jews of the first century. The influences of unchristian philosophies such as Neo-Platonism, Stoicism, Epicurianism, all depart from the views of first century Jewish thought, and yet, these can be demonstrated to be clearly infecting the church’s teaching with things such as the perpetual virginity of Mary.

Thirdly, some of the scriptures existed before the Greek Orthodox Church ever did. How would a Jew living 50 years before the time of Christ know that Isaiah and 2 Chronicles were scripture? There is no Greek Orthodox community to tell him that they are. And, of course, Jesus fulled destroyed the notion that the religious leaders of that time were infallible. However, Jesus also held people responsible for knowing which scriptures were inspired and which were not. Their response should have been, “We don’t have the community of the Greek Orthodox church yet, so there is no way for us to ever have known that this was scripture, and therefore, you can’t blame us for our disobedience to this scripture.”

4. A Literal interpretation of the bible can replace the Holy Spirit. An atheist can uncover the literal sense of Biblical passage, but to rightfully interpret the Scriptures one must submit to the guidance of the Spirit (John 16:13 ff). Neither Luther nor Calvin ever confused the written texts of the Bible with “the Word of God’ which is Christ Himself. [See for example, Luke 18:34 ; John 14:26 ; John 15:26 ; Matthew 22:29 ]

Of course, the issue is how we *know* of Christ. The Protestant says we know of God and Christ through their revelation of themselves in the scriptures. The Greek Orthodox says it is through the Bible and tradition.

Still, does that mean that we deny the role of the Holy Spirit? Of course not. First of all, the context of John 16 is not the interpretation of the scriptures, but the significance of the scriptures. For example:

John 16:8-13 “And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin, and righteousness, and judgment; 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me; 10 and concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you no longer behold Me; 11 and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged. 12 “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.

If this passage has anything to do with the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the scriptures, it is dealing with the convicting work of the Holy Spirit to show the world their error, and to call to memory what it is that Jesus taught his disciples. However, none of these things have to do with the *semantics* of these teachings, nor do they have to do with how to interpret them, but rather, how to apply them in their current context.

Yes, even an atheist can get the correct *interpretation* of scripture, but he will not recognize its *significance* to his own life without the work of the Holy Spirit in taking out his heart of stone, which views these texts as mere fairy tales, and giving him a heart of flesh, which views these texts as truth that directly affects his daily life.

Also, even in the role of meaning, the Holy Spirit can play a role, as he can lead us to the correct meaning when we are struggling. However, given the Biblical admonition to test the spirits [1 John 4:1], we still must test to see whether this interpretation is correct, by comparing it with the intent of the author.

5. An anti-intellectual interpretation equates naiveté with spirituality. The educated vs. the uneducated battle

Which is why we reject the anti-intellectual interpretation.

6. Private interpretations of Scripture compromise the Bible through “individual traditions.” Private judgment (which characterizes Protestantism) results in scripture losing its authority. [The Jehovah Witnesses and other cults (and heretics such as the Arians and Pelagians in the early church for examples) assert the Bible to be the sole authority behind their teachings.]

Of course, this, again, assumes that the interpreter is the only factor in interpretation. If the text itself sets up a world of reality, and if the text itself reflects the intention of the author, and, if both we and the author are created in the image of God, then there is a reference point by which to correct our “traditions.” Of course, if church tradition is wrong, then, in Eastern Orthodoxy, there is no way to correct church tradition. You *have* to believe that this tradition is the world of the text, even if [in the case of the Perpetual Virginity] all first century Jewish literature view such a situation as a “celibate marriage” as downright ridiculous. Also, one would have to ignore clear statements from the Apostle Paul that “celibate marriage” is a sin [1 Corinthians 7:1-5]. Is this correct? You can’t even ask the question whether these things are correct because, now, you have to accept the world of the Church as the world of the text a priori, whether it is defensible or not.

7. “The Bible Alone” was not sufficient to defend the Christian Faith in the past. Councils were called to defend the faith and ended using terms which appear nowhere in the Bible. If the Christians of the time of Nicea, for example, could have defended Christ’s divinity by “bible alone”, the Council of Nicea (325 AD) and the creed which it authored would never have been needed in the first place !!! [The Nicean Creed (and for the Orthodox all Seven Ecumenical Councils) is viewed as authoritative by even some Protestants !!! An example of the Holy Spirit leading the CHURCH into all truth. (John 16:13 ; 1 Timothy 3:15 for example)]

Interesting that, after the Council of Nicaea, the church was completely overtaken by Arianism. This is where we get the phrase “Athenasius contra mundum” [Athenasius against the world]. I guess the Council of Nicaea and the scriptures weren’t enough to stop Arianism. Worse than that, there were actually Arian councils that condemned Nicaea’s statements as heretical. Yet, arbitrarily, we accept Nicaea, and reject these councils as being legitimate church councils, even though almost the entire church had condemned Nicaea at the time.

The Protestant has an easy answer to this. Historically, this Arian uprising was defeated through the scriptures alone. Athenasius, when challenged by the heretics from scripture, responded to their scriptural arguments. He didn’t say, “Nicaea has spoken; shut up” like so many Greek Orthodox will say today. No, the beauty of the Trinity is that it is so clear from scripture, that this uprising could be handled from scripture alone, and it was scripture alone which defeated the Arian uprising.

8. The Bible alone approach has failed to bring agreement in doctrine. Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and many Anabaptists (the major players influencing the Reformation) believed that if all followed the teachings of scripture, it would be natural for everyone to be in agreement with each other. [We are not talking about differences in minor teachings, but major differences in the ESSENTIALS of the faith. Hence, a Protestant Church opposite from each other on every street corner (I come from Grand Rapids, MI).]

Of course, I don’t know of any of the reformers who though that “if all followed the teachings of scripture, it would be natural for everyone to be in agreement with each other.” Such is naivete to the extreme, and not what Sola Scriptura teaches.

First of all, one has to deal with ethical concerns. What if a person does not *want* to accurately handle the scriptures, but only to use them for their own gain? Can Sola Scriptura really be blamed for an unwillingness to submit to the scriptures? If people don’t want to believe what the scriptures say, then they are not following Sola Scriptura, and thus, cannot be considered Protestant. I suppose what someone might say is that they could claim they are following scripture, and that they are Protestant, but I might also claim that I am following Greek Orthodox tradition, and that I am Greek Orthodox. It doesn’t make it true.

Secondly, I have difficulty with how Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy define what the “essentials” are, because they do not do it according to the priorities of the Biblical authors. On the elements which the Biblical authors actually view as central: Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus, and Soli Deo Gloria, all of the major Protestant denominations coming out of the reformation agree with these statements, including even myself as a Presbyterian, and my Wesleyan Arminian friends from the Church of the Nazarene. That agreement comes from Scripture Alone.

On other issues, we may disagree, but the other problem with this argument is that it assumes that, because we *haven’t* come to agreement on these issues, that necessarily means that we *won’t* come to agreement on these issues from Scripture Alone. Such forces the Greek Orthodox or Roman Catholic to prove a universal negative, namely, that this is something that *could never* happen in the future, because it hasn’t happened in the past. As I heard one apologist say one time, “I have never died before in the past; does that mean I will never die in the future?”

Finally, the main problem with this argument is that it also assumes that we can be God, and know everything. What if God may have purposely made certain passages ambiguous, because he simply didn’t want us to know the whole truth? Does God not have a right to withhold certain information from us, because he is God and we are not? More than that, can God simply choose not to address certain things at all, because we simply are not supposed to know? That is what is so arrogant to me about this notion of “sacred tradition.” It is almost as if, on the basis of having certainty about every issue, man is demanding to be like God. God has no obligation to solve every issue and every question we would like to know. If he has decided to either leave it ambiguous or unaddressed, then no church has any right to make it “certain” through the use of “sacred” tradition. You can be certain about a lie, and the greatest way to be certain about a lie is to demand to know things which God has either temporarily or permanently decided to hide from us.

Finally, this also ignores the differences in Eastern Orthodoxy. You have Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and even forms of Orthodoxy that are considered “non-Chalcedonian” such as Syrian Orthodoxy and Coptic Orthodoxy. Eastern Orthodoxy has debates within its own communion as well, and it is pure hypocrisy for them to pull out this argument when they have disagreements amongst themselves.

9. A Bible Alone philosophy denies the legitimate place of Divine Tradition. For example, the Westminster Confession states the doctrine of the Trinity (II, 3) and the person of Christ (VIII, 2) in language almost VERBATIM from the Athanasian Creed and the Chalcedonian Creed but WITH NO ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF ITS SOURCE leaving the uninstructed reader to suppose it was the work of the Westminster Divines. [And why is the Westminster Confession (Heidelberg Catechism, Canons of Dort etc) AUTHORITATIVE? Demonstrates the folly of “Bible Alone.”]

Of course, at the time of the writing of the Westminster Confession, such creeds would have been well known enough that only an idiot would have missed the fact that they were quoting from these creeds. The issue is not whether we believe there is a place for tradition in the church; the issues is whether we raise it to the position in which it becomes the lens through which scripture must be read. Such is pure idolatry, and a bearing of false witness against the author of the text itself. As we do every other book, we must let the author define his own terms, construct his own view of reality, and accomplish things with his language. We do that whenever we read any other book. Why do our ethical standards change when we read the Bible?

The point is, we do not reject tradition. We simply don’t call it “divine,” and we recognize that this tradition is subject to the correction of scripture, and is *never* *ever* to be the lens through which scripture is read.

10. A Bible Alone Philosophy ignores the Holy Spirit’s Ministry in the Church for 1500 years. This is the biggy for me, and the height of Protestant arrogance in my opinion. “Yes, each Christian has the Holy Spirit, but His indwelling in the individual was never meant to substitute for His presence in the universal Church.”

Which is, again, a total strawman. We believe that the Holy Spirit was at work in his church for 1500 years, but we also believe that Satan was as well. We also believe that evil men started unbiblical traditions, and sought to propagate them as part of the gospel. How, then, do we distinguish between which traditions come from Satan, and which traditions come from God? Scripture alone. The arrogance is actually on the part of the Greek Orthodox who does not recognize the power of sin in his own heart, and in the hearts of those who came before us. If sin and evil is present even within the church, then that church will not be infallible. It is the height of arrogance to deny the sin of the church, and act as though it doesn’t exist. There will be evil as well as Godly teachings within the church. How do we decide between them: Scripture Alone.

My conclusion – Sola Scriptura in its modern form can actually lead Christians away from the Truth. Prima Scriptura in the context of that which “has been believed by everyone, everywhere, and at all times” is what is needed as a rule in the modern Western Church today. When Evangelicalism fully collapses soon, may Christians in the West (as myself has already discovered) rediscover the ageless faith of the ancient Church – an Orthodox Faith.

Or, evangelicals can return to the serious study of the scriptures. We can recognize that we need to be understanding the text in terms of the world of the *author* and in terms of the author’s *intention.* We can take seriously the fact that we need to derive our views from the text, and not read our traditions back into the text. We can truly allow God to speak in the context *he* defines, not in the context a limited, finite church has defined.

Finally, I would say that, because of the postmodern nature of these arguments, as Greek Orthodoxy comes into the west, it will be what collapses. Already, the emphasis on mystery and experience is playing right into postmodernism’s hands. These postmodern arguments against the objectivity of the text of scripture that we have seen in this post are easy pickings for Jacques Derrida and postmodern views of language. The only way to avoid collapse is to stand upon the scriptures as the ultimate standard whereby to even judge the church. Without this, because of the limited, finite nature of the church, the church can never provide any kind of a standard to decide between different interpretations of scripture, or whose experience is legitimate. However, once Greek Orthodoxy collapses, we must be right there to show people like the author of this post the truth of the Biblical and apostolic gospel of Justification by Grace Alone through Faith Alone, and the only way in which we can have any knowledge at all-There is a God who exists, and who has revealed himself to us in the scriptures. Without this foundation, this emphasis on the limited, finite church will lead to total collapse.

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