Sola Scriptura?

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” (Inigo Montoya, Princess Bride)

Sola Scriptura is one of the so-called Five Solas of the Reformation. The words themselves mean “by Scripture alone.” But the way it is sometimes applied reminds me of those words from the fictional character Inigo Montoya cited above. What were the Reformers communicating that was summed up by that phrase?

The phrase means that Scripture alone was the supreme authority over the church, that it was sufficient for all matters spiritually and is able to make known the way of salvation. It did not mean that there were no other valid authorities for the church or the Christian. It does not mean that we do not consult tradition, reason, or experience. To neglect those is not faithful adherence to the Reformers’ principle called Sola Scriptura.

Two Books of Revelation

Augustine spoke of two “books” by which God speaks to humanity. Through the first book, Scripture, God has revealed the way of salvation; all that is necessary for a godly life. The second book is nature, or creation.

“It is the divine page that you must listen to; it is the book of the universe that you must observe. The pages of Scripture can only be read by those who know how to read and write, while everyone, even the illiterate, can read the book of the universe.” (Augustine, Exposition of the Psalms)

How could Augustine speak with such confidence? Because he understood that all of God’s works (creation) were made by God’s Word, which is never contradictory. There is only one truth; both Scripture and creation should reveal the same truth. They do not often speak to the same aspects of the truth. Creation does not reveal the way of salvation. Nor do we perfectly interpret creation (or Scripture for that matter). However, both creation and Scripture make known the same God and when they are rightly understood, they agree. Christians don’t have to choose between science and faith.

The Scripture affirms the revealing power of the second book.

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. 2 Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. (Psa. 19:1-2)

In Romans 1:18-20, Paul tells us that through creation itself God has made Himself known to all humanity. It does not tell us that He made the way of salvation known to all this way, but that He has made his “eternal power and divine nature.” He has made Himself known sufficiently so that all are “without excuse.”

The book of nature can enhance our knowledge of God which we gain from Scripture. The Bible tells us that God is all powerful. Creation, in the study of both the universe and the atom, shows me the magnitude of what that means. The Bible tells me God is eternal and patient. Creation stretches my mind’s ability to conceive of how long eternity past is and how patient God has been even in the process of making the world.

Given that both Scripture and creation reveal God, how do believers interact with each? As we reason about creation (science or other studies of the created world), how do we engage apparent discrepancies? Maybe Norman can help us.

What’s Norman have to do with this?  

What I am about to share will be unfamiliar to many so it will take some effort to think through. Because of its importance, it is worth the effort.

To say that something is normative, means that it is a standard by which to live our lives. Is Scripture the only thing that is normative for the believer? Is that what is meant by sola scriptura? No! It certainly would not be true that any Christian has ever lived as if Scripture were the only thing normative in their life. There are many areas of our lives which we act out of knowledge gained through science, history, experience, etc. Science is normative in many areas of our lives. History helps us reach conclusions that are also normative. So how do we put these all together?

The classic way this has been framed is to say that Scripture is the norming norm, while these other areas of information (tradition, reason, experience) are the normed norms. In other words, Scripture has authority over our understanding of the other norms. They must be normed by Scripture. However, that does not mean that the other norms are not in fact normative. Nor does it mean that they should not influence our understanding of Scripture (note: I do not say that they should influence Scripture, but our understanding of it). The very words used to impart Scripture to us, the people whom God used to write Scripture, are all part of creation and therefore creation has always impacted our understanding of Scripture.

A good example of how this works can be seen in how the church, over time, came to understand that the earth was not the center of the universe. The Bible says that the earth can never be moved (Psa. 104:5). Taken literally, it could not revolve around the sun. Some believers rejected Galileo’s scientific discoveries because, in their mind, they contradicted Scripture. However, Galileo was merely observing creation (the one God made), his observations were valid. And if his observations were accurately understood, then the commonly held understanding of Scripture at the time must be wrong. Theologians had to go back and check if there was something wrong in how they read the text. Indeed, the psalmist was speaking poetically, not scientifically.

The Believer and the World in which We Live

All of this should help us, as believers, to know how to interact with the world around us. I remember sitting in a week-long class over a decade ago under the late David Powlison teaching on a Biblical approach to counseling. In that class he shared something he had learned over the years about interacting with the field of psychiatry and psychology. He had learned that, as believers, we are observing the same world that unbelieving psychiatrists/psychologists observe. But whereas believers were often focused on what the Bible says about a situation, the field of psychiatry/psychology was really good at patiently observing people and recording data. While some of the cures they may offer or the interpretations they may give could be flawed, believers could learn a lot from the unbelievers in these fields. To use the language which I described above, David Powlison had learned to read both books of revelation.

Believers can stand to learn a lot from history, sociology, medical science, biology, physics, etc. I love reading books by John Polkinghorne who is both a trained theologian and trained quantum physicist. It stretches my mind to think more about God through both of his learned disciplines.

According to John Calvin, we dare not neglect the benefit that is to be gained by the use of human reason:

But if the Lord has been pleased to assist us by the work and ministry of the ungodly in physics, dialectics, mathematics, and other similar sciences, let us avail ourselves of it, lest, by neglecting the gifts of God spontaneously offered to us, we be justly punished for our sloth. (The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Beveridge Translation, II.2.16)

Conclusion

Sola Scriptura, by Scripture alone, does not mean (and must not mean) that we live only by what is revealed in Scripture but rather that Scripture is the highest authority of many authorities in our lives. (If you doubt that, you probably have several speeding tickets.) To profess to live as if the Bible is your only authority is not only impossible, but neither is it an expression of the Reformed principle Sola Scriptura.

Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,

Jerry

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