The Problems of Biblical Reductionism I


By the “problem of biblical reductionism” I mean the narrowing of dogmatic and pragmatic authority to the text of the Scriptures. It is an attempt to guard against the “traditions of men,” but is ultimately self-defeating and self-refuting. Its primary instantiation is in the dogma of sola scriptura.

I will say it clearly and bluntly: the Protestant dogma of sola scriptura is an invention of men; it is not from God. Indeed, the human tradition of sola scriptura is a hindrance to faith and salvation. This is true for many of the variations of sola scriptura one finds, whether the more open form which accepts historical traditions of the Church so long as they don’t go against Scripture (or, rather, against a particular interpretation of Scripture), or the more narrow form which demands that every belief and practice be justified by explicit propositions or inferential arguments from Scripture.

The primary problem with sola scriptura is that the dogma itself is not to be found anywhere within Scripture. If sola scriptura is taken in its more narrow form, then it is an extra-Scriptural dogma, and thus is self-refuting. If sola scriptura is taken in its broader form, it is question-begging circularity since it first must assume what it later concludes.

But there are three other problems that are fatal to the dogma of sola scriptura: the definition of what exactly is scriptura, i.e., the extent of the biblical canon; the question of hermeneutical methodology, i.e., the problem of proper interpretation of the Scripture on which sole basis we are to form dogma and practice; and the lack of a criterion (or of criteria) through which to decide disputed interpretations. Since sola scriptura cannot answer the questions of canon, interpretive methodology and interpretive criterion/-ia, the dogma of sola scriptura cannot do that which it is intended to do: to provide an authoritative voice to the Church of the will of God. It is, then, simply a polemical tool to criticize and neutralize the Tradition of the Church with which sola scriptura adherents disagree.

1. The Problem of the Canon

The question sola scriptura cannot answer is: What, precisely, is the Bible? That is to say, what books make up the Bible?

There are very few explicit references in Scripture in which particular books claim (for themselves or other books) divine inspiration. St. Paul in 2 Timothy 3:14-17 claims that all Scripture is inspired (“God-out-breathed”), but does not otherwise list those books (and does not claim that 2 Timothy itself is part of that Scriptural canon.) St. Peter seems pretty clearly to include St. Paul’s letters in with the rest of Scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16). But once again, we do not have a list of letters that are considered part of the canon of Scripture. Should we also include the epistle to the Laodiceans (Colossians 4:16)?

This scenario is exacerbated, for us in the positivist modern world, in that the canon of Scripture was largely assumed more than it was codified. We know that some books, such as the Shepherd of Hermas, quite popular in the early Church but which we do not now consider canonical, were viewed alongside what we now know as canonical New Testament books as having similar authority. Other books that we now view as canonical, such as the Revelation, were in dispute for centuries.

This is further illustrated by the place (or lack thereof) in our own Bibles today of the so-called “Apocrypha” or “Deuterocanonicals”–the books of Tobit, Judith, the books of Maccabees (two, three or four?), the additions to Esther and Daniel, Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah, the books of Esdras, Psalm 151, the prayer of Manasseh, Ecclesiasticus and Wisdom. For most of the Church, and for most of the first millennium and a half of the life of the Church, these books were viewed as part of the Scriptures. Indeed, some of our earliest codices of complete Scriptures bind them with the rest of the (undisputed) Old Testament books and the New Testament.

The, to us, seeming uncertainty of the extent of the canon is further aggravated by the fact that neither in the East nor in the West did an ecumenical synod decree about the canon for more than a millennium—though individuals, such as St. Athanasios, and local synods did enumerate the canon, and the consensus of the Church on the canon is clear and settled by the fourth century: all of the (undisputed) Old Testament, most of the so-called “apocrypha” (with 3 and 4 Maccabees and 2 Esdras remaining in some doubt), and all of the New Testament. Both Origen and St. Jerome indicate that the “apocrypha” are not found in the Hebrew canon and themselves hold them in some doubt, but both include them in their editions of the Scriptures–thus testifying to their acceptance by and use in the Church as a whole.

It wasn’t until Luther’s and other Reformational polemical attacks on the “apocrypha” that they were ever held as not being part of the Scripture. But Luther’s own credibility on the matter is suspect as he, himself, based on his own subjective criteria, rejected the apostolic authority of Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation, though he thought they were “fine” books, and placed them at the end of his New Testament. The epistle of James, however, Luther stated is “flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture.” So Luther rejects a book that had never been in serious doubt in the early Church–and on no other authority than his own personal understanding of the Gospel.

In fact, in the original 1522 preface to his New Testament, Luther further opined on the New Testament canon:

John’s Gospel is the one, tender, true chief Gospel, far, far to be preferred to the other three and placed high above them. So, too, the Epistles of St. Paul and St. Peter far surpass the other three Gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

In a word, St. John’s Gospel and his first Epistle, St. Paul’s Epistles, especially Romans, Galatians and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first Epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and good for you to know, even though you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine. Therefore St. James’ Epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to them; for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.

(I should note that Luther apparently removed these words in his 1545 preface, but it is clear that he hardly moved away from this opinion in general. I should also note that other Reformers rejected Luther’s judgments on the canonicity of the books he rejects.)

Luther illustrates quite perfectly the polemical nature of sola scriptura. The dogma cannot determine the extent of the canon, and ultimately, its use is to restrict those texts that go against one’s own theological positions. The “apocrypha” are rejected in the Reformation, in part, because they can be used to support prayers for the dead. But if we can reject the “apocrypha” as canonical, then we can reject the support for the teaching of prayers for the dead. But once one buys into such a paradigm, it will work out to its logical conclusion, as Luther demonstrates. By rejecting, or simply ignoring and downplaying the importance of, biblical texts that oppose one’s theological positions, one must eventually box oneself into a narrow Marcionite prison of presuppositions.

Sola scriptura adherents simply fail to acknowledge that the canon is not derived from sola scriptura but from the received authority of the Tradition of the Church. They then use the Tradition (the canon) and a polemical device (sola scriptura) to oppose those aspects of the Tradition they misunderstand or with which they disagree.

That the question of the canon cannot be settled by the dogma of sola scriptura, and the fact that sola scriptura adherents absolutely depend upon the traditional New Testament canon is not only a delicious irony, but the utter defeat of their dogma of sola scriptura.

[Next: 2. The Problem of Hermeneutics]