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]

12 thoughts on “The Problems of Biblical Reductionism I

  1. What an excellent post, Clifton. I have been pondering this very subject and thinking of writing about it, but I could not put it a clearly as you have. I shall simply refer others to your post.

  2. Clifton,

    Missing from your post is a fair statement of what the Protestant dogma of sola scriptura actually says. Unfortunately, there is no single, unified “Protestant dogma”. Different groups with a Reformation heritage mean different things by “Sola Scriptura”.

    The word “sola” implies not just the exaltation of Scripture, but the exclusion of something else. What “Sola Scriptura” means very much depends on what you think is being excluded by the word “sola”. In other words, “Scripture Alone – compared to what?”. It makes a great deal of difference whether “Sola” is intended to exclude:

    * Any and all reference to Tradition,
    * Creeds and confessions of the early Church,
    * Any secondary authority of the Fathers, or simply
    * The arbitrary authority of the contemporary Papacy

    In short, Sola Scriptura can be understood either within the Church’s Tradition, or to the exclusion of the Church’s Tradition.

    Take care lest in your indictment of Sola Scriptura you deny the primacy of Scripture among the expressions of the Apostolic Tradition.

  3. Chris:

    Point taken, but note, please these words in the post:

    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.


    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.

    My criticism of sola scriptura in no way denies the place and role of Scripture as one manifestation of the Tradition, nor its divine authority. It does, however, demonstrate that sola scriptura is a polemical fantasy. One need not hold sola scriptura to hold that Scripture is divinely authoritative.

  4. I think that Chris’s comments are extremely good, and I had some difficulties with this passage:

    If sola scriptura is taken in its broader form, it is question-begging circularity since it first must assume what it later concludes.

    I think that this is true, but perhaps trivially so. All assertions about authority have to be taken on faith and so can be criticized for “assuming what they later conclude”. As much as I agree with the meat of your post, I don’t really understand you objection to the broad view of sola scriptura.

  5. JS:

    My objection to the broader view of sola scriptura is primarily focused on the dichotomy it forces on the Tradition, bifurcating it into Scripture over against certain elements of that Tradition (which are deemed, by the private interpreter or an intepretive group, to be contradictory to Scripture).

  6. I have never read the apocrypha. Could you give us a brief report on what we can learn from the apocrypha that we cannot learn from the other cannonical scriptures. I understand from your post that the apocrypha contains passages that would support prayers to the dead. What else can we find there? Thanks.

  7. Kirk:

    I’m puzzled that you base the necessity on the “apocrypha” that they must teach something the rest of Scripture doesn’t teach. Why is that necessary? Is this a requirement you make of the rest of the canon? What, then, do you do about the synoptics? Are we to ignore that material in Matthew and Luke that is redundant to Mark?

    Historically the place of the “apocrypha” in the canon of the Scriptures has not been predicated upon their novelty but upon their reception and use by the Church.

  8. Clifton,

    I expect that you will elaborate on your objection to “the broader view” of sola scriptura in your post on “the problem of hermeneutics”. But let me urge you to clarify what you mean by “the broader view” (with some evidence as to where within Protestantism this broader view is considered to be dogma) before you state your objections to it.

    Have you read the two posts on “Scripture and Tradtion” on my weblog, from August?
    My own view is that there is no necessary conflict between sola scriptura and recognizing the Church’s Tradition as a hermeneutical norm. I agree with you (strongly) that Scripture and Tradition must never be divided, but that is a two-edged sword. Tradition must be kept as the hermeneutical norm, so that Scripture does not become the (devil’s) playground of private interpretation. But Tradition must be anchored in Scripture, so that it does not come untethered from the Apostolic rule of faith. If it does, that is just as much a case of dividing Scripture from Tradition as it is when elements of Tradition are rejected based on a group’s private interpretation of Scripture.

    I don’t think that has happened in the Orthodox Church, but I believe that it did happen in the mediaeval West, in which the notion of Tradition degenerated into an intellectual “development of doctrine” divorced from Scripture. It was in this context that the Reformers’ notion of sola scriptura developed.

  9. Cliff,

    Don’t be puzzled. I’ll get around to reading the apocrypha one of these days. I never said I based my necessity on the apocrypha that it must teach something different that the rest of scripture doesn’t teach. Please don’t put words in my mouth. I just thought you might oblige and give some of your readers who are not familiar with them a taste of what we’re missing.

  10. Chris:

    As a Lutheran, you will no doubt be quite familiar with the Rule and Norm of the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, wherein it is stated:

    3] 1. First [, then, we receive and embrace with our whole heart] the Prophetic and Apostolic Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the pure, clear fountain of Israel, which is the only true standard by which all teachers and doctrines are to be judged.

    4] 2. And since of old the true Christian doctrine, in a pure, sound sense, was collected from God’s Word into brief articles or chapters against the corruption of heretics, we confess, in the second place, the three Ecumenical Creeds, namely, the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian, as glorious confessions of the faith, brief, devout, and founded upon God’s Word, in which all the heresies which at that time had arisen in the Christian Church are clearly and unanswerably refuted. . . .

    . . . the Word of God alone should be and remain the only standard and rule of doctrine, to which the writings of no man should be regarded as equal, but to which everything should be subjected.(Rule and Norm 3-4, 9)

    Now I grant you that Lutherans–and I am thinking of one in particular with whom I have discussed this matter in the past couple of months–will likely affirm that this is no repudiation of Tradition. It is simply the case, my erstwhile interlocutor claimed, that Tradition is nothing more nor less than Scripture. There is no bifurcation; it is only identity.

    To this I would simply say: whence the extent of the canon? What is this Scripture to which Tradition is identical? Although the broad view would not demand a positivist approach to Scripture, but would be open to those things that do not contradict Scripture, clearly though, based on the Lutheran text above, Tradition is only Tradition if it is Scripture. But what is Scripture itself and how did it come to us?

    You, I’m sure, based on your posts on your blog (which I had read by the way, but with which I refamiliarized myself), would go further, especially with your Orthodox experiences. You openly admit that our Scripture comes to us by way of Tradition, thus at least nodding toward if not actually affirming that Scripture is one manifestation of the single thing that is Tradition, or, as you note, the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

    But your view, Chris, I have to say, is not the typical broad or narrow view of sola scriptura.

    To folks like my Lutheran interolcutor, who claim the identity of Scripture and Tradition, I would say: Whence the canon? Where are the rest of your Old Testament books? Where are your icons? Where is your Wednesday and Friday, your Nativity, Lenten, Apostles and Dormition fasts? Where is your a capella chanting? Where is your epiclesis in the Lord’s Supper? Do you confess the filioque? Are these things, which have been handed down from the beginning, part of the Church’s life or not? If not, how does one know? On the basis of Scripture? But what in Scripture would exclude these from the life of the Church?

    In other words, I hope, you get my point.

    Sola scriptura, no matter how one slices it, will always end up bifurcating Scripture and Tradition. And in the division between the two will one find the origin of schism and heresy.

  11. Kirk:

    My apologies. I misread your post. I took your question to imply a criticism and not to be a genuine curiosity about the contents of the Apocrypha.

    Bruce Metzger’s introduction to the Apocrypha is a very accessible and reliable introdcution. The RSV annotated Apocrypha is also a good resource. I’m not familiar with any decent online resources, and a quick Google search didn’t bring up any I would recommend.

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