The Challies Chronicles: The Puritan Commitment to Sola Scriptura

The Westminster DivinesThe final session on day two of the Strange Fire conference was led by Steven Lawson who spoke on “The Puritan Commitment to Sola Scriptura.” This was another historical message meant to demonstrate how our forebears were committed to the doctrine of Scripture alone.

Tonight the focus of our study will be another historical theology overview of a critical issue that ties in wonderfully with this entire conference.

-Pastor Tim Challies liveblogging
Strange Fire Conference: Scripture Alone,” October 18, 2013

I have a strange relationship with Sola Scriptura (scripture alone) having written about it on a few occasions. My general understanding is when a Christian says “sola scriptura,” they mean “only scripture” in the sense that any contextual cues that the original audience may have had available to them that would have modified their understanding of scripture beyond the plain meaning of the text are never allowed for us in the 21st century. It would interfere with too much of our Protestant tradition if we had to read the various sections of the Bible in a manner consistent with the original authors and readers, that is to say, with a Jewish perspective.

So you can imagine as I approached this next “strange” and “fiery” presentation, I was a little hesitant. Nevertheless, I said I would see this project through to its end and so I shall.

Rome said “We accept Scripture, but also Church tradition, ecclesiastical hierarchies, etc.” But the Reformers said “No, it’s sola scriptura. If anything else is added to the foundation of the church, the foundation will be split and unable to hold the rest of the doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

If I’d been in the room when Lawson made that statement, I’d have had a terrifically difficult time keeping a straight face. Is Lawson actually suggesting that the Catholics view scripture through the lens of Church tradition but the Protestant Church in the modern age (inheritors of the “Reformers”) does not?

Upon the foundation of sola scripture are three massive pillars which frame and uphold the gospel in its most basic formulation—by grace alone, through faith alone, and in Christ alone. And when this foundation and these pillars are in place, the crown can be erected across which is written soli Deo gloria.

And you don’t call that artificial structure a “tradition?” Where does it say such a thing in the Bible directly and how much inference and interpretation through the lens of tradition does it take to create this structure of pillars?

What are the distinguishing marks out of the Bible itself regarding sola scriptura?

Lawson then goes through a list of the “distinguishing marks” of sola scriptura as defined by the Westminster Divines, which according to Wikipedia, are “a synod composed of theologians (or “divines”) and members of Parliament appointed to restructure the Church of England…The Assembly met for ten years (1643–53), and in the process produced a new Form of Government, a Confession of Faith, two catechisms (Shorter and Larger), and a liturgical manual for the Churches of England and Scotland.”

bet_midrash_temaniI don’t suppose they consulted a more ancient Hebraic lens in looking at scripture before making such decisions. Probably not.

In that case, I have to believe they missed a step or two (or three or four).

You can read the Challies blog post to get the full list of “distinguishing marks,” but I think Lawson must have been building up to point number nine:

Ninth, and finally, sola scriptura implies the finality of Scripture. That there is no new revelation to be given to man after the close of the canon of Scripture, the faith once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).

There is no adding to the Bible once canon is closed. I think most people can believe in that. We don’t see radically different versions of the Bible circling around different streams of Christianity and Judaism (keeping in mind Christianity has a whole section of the Bible that Judaism discounts).

Whenever God opens the heavens to bless his people, the devil opens his mouth to blast them. At the exact same time as the Westminster Divines were writing the Confession, the Quakers were forming. They claimed to be receiving new revelations and prophecies. They were lead by a man named George Fox. At the heart of their theology was this message, that one can be saved apart from the Scripture, that there is an inner light in all man, and this inner revelation makes salvation for all humanity possible. They called this light within the “indwelling spirit” which they claimed was even in unbelievers.

As they gathered together, the Quakers claimed that they had the Holy Spirit within them. Their worship services had no ordained pastors. They would all sit in a building like we’re sitting here and would be encouraged to meditate, and as you would feel prompted, you were encouraged to stand up and speak your thoughts to others. This commitment to be open and uncautious led them into all kinds of bizarre behaviors and beliefs, including going naked as a sign of judgment to others.

I’m telling you, if you take one step off of sola scriptura you have put your foot on a theological banana peel that will send you down till you hit bottom.

OK, I see where Lawson is going with this. The Puritans were giants for establishing sola scriptura but the Quakers undermined that principle by claiming direct (and new) revelation from the Holy Spirit detaching themselves from scripture entirely, thus Lawson draws a comparison between Christian Evangelicals (MacArthur, et al) and Pentecostals/Charismatics.

I like the banana peel analogy. I think it’s cute.

But let’s take a look at what else the “Divines” believed in:

While the issue of biblical inerrancy, the belief that there are no errors in the Bible, did not arise until the eighteenth century, the divines clearly did not believe the Bible to contain any errors. Many of the divines held a rather mechanical view of biblical inspiration, believing that not only the words but the letters and vowel points of the Hebrew text were inspired by God, while often acknowledging that the text was at the same time written by humans in their own styles. They did not make any distinction between essential and incidental matters with respect to biblical inspiration.

Source: Letham, Robert (2009). The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context. The Westminster Assembly and the Reformed Faith. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing. ISBN 978-0-87552-612-6.

This doesn’t torpedo the “Divines” as a valid information source for Lawson’s presentation, but it does add an interesting bit of color to this assembly, or at least some of their members, since according to Jewish Virtual Library:

Because of this system of assigning numerical values to letters, every word has a numerical value. There is an entire discipline of Jewish mysticism known as Gematria that is devoted to finding hidden meanings in the numerical values of words. For example, the number 18 is very significant, because it is the numerical value of the word Chai, meaning life. Donations to Jewish charities are routinely made in denominations of 18 for that reason.

oral-tradition-talmudThe point I’m trying to make is that you can’t hand-pick the little bits and pieces of history that support an argument without dragging along the rest of the historical, cultural, and theological context to which those bits are attached. I seriously doubt that Lawson would take on board a belief that each letter and vowel point, or for that matter, the numerical value of each Hebrew letter, were particularly significant let alone inspired by God.

One “slippery slope” I think Lawson failed to take into account in his presentation was how difficult it would be to apply a “good guys” and “bad guys” paradigm to the current Evangelicalism vs. Pentecostalism debate using a historical precedence. While I certainly don’t support the historical Quaker’s method of worship and how they conceptualized theology (from what little I know about it), I can’t say that it directly speaks to the current debate, anymore than “the Divines” (and their views on the significance of the letters and vowel points of the Hebrew in the Bible) could be considered directly applicable to Lawson’s and MacArthur’s side of the conversation.

My conclusion is that, while Lawson’s presentation may have carried with it some interesting historical information, it contributed little if anything to the overall presentation of “Strange Fire” and their case against the Pentecostals/Charismatics. I know where he was going with this, but Church history has many strange and even cruel (and even murderous) aspects. One must take great care in summoning history into the present as if they are indistinguishable. They’re not, as I’m sure the apostle Paul could attest.

26 thoughts on “The Challies Chronicles: The Puritan Commitment to Sola Scriptura”

  1. Having had been part of John MacArthur’s congregation for many years, I know that he supports Sola Scriptura and teaches that Scripture should be interpreted with the historical and cultural context taken into consideration as best as possible to grasp the original intent of the author.

    I do believe that Sola Scriptura is a good and important principle for proper handling of Scripture. It’s purpose is to prevent one’s personal bias, opinion, impression, or experience from carrying the same authoritative weight as Scripture itself. The doctrinal foundation of the church would indeed crumble if we stray from this principle.

    The real conundrum is that however inerrant and complete Scripture may be, the responsibility of interpreting it falls upon us error prone and ignorant people. Even so, Scripture is intended to be sufficiently understandable to all.

    The only answer I have to this conundrum is love. The two most important commandments are to love God and to love each other.

    If we love God, then we will naturally desire to seek a proper knowledge of Him through the Scriptures. With the help of the Spirit, such knowledge will be granted to us, but it shall be a lifelong process of seeking.

    If we love each other, we will tolerate each other’s faults, and acknowledge our own. Even amid our disagreements, God can use our differences to sharpen our understanding.

    Because of our shortcomings, I suppose that we all have some doctrinal imperfections. The remedy for these is the knowledge that love covers a multitude of sins (1 Pet 4:8). However, if we lack love, even perfect doctrine wouldn’t benefit us (1 Cor 13:1-2).

  2. I think you hit on it Jerry, that the weak link in sola scriptura is people. Scripture may be sufficient and even intended to be understandable, but we never have direct access to the text, interestingly enough. We always impose an interpretive and even a translational bias into our readings, but to that degree, we make scripture say something it may or may not actually be saying.

    That’s where my issues with Bible study last Sunday came in. We were all reading the same scripture expressed in more or less the same English (relative to the different Bible versions we were using) but coming up with different conclusions about why the Jewish leadership in Acts 17:1-5 were “jealous” and if that meant that “the Jews rejected Jesus” or not.

    In Algebra, you can input specific values into certain formulas in order to solve particular problems, but understanding the Bible isn’t quite that straightforward. That’s why “sola scriptura” will never be an “exact science” and why we tend to disagree about what the Bible says from time to time.

    I’m not trying to avoid applying love to the situation, but loving my fellow Christian still won’t solve the disagreement if, for example, he says all the Jews rejected Jesus because they were offended by a Messiah dying on the cross and I say, no that’s not the problem at all, it was fear of a massive inclusion of pagan Gentiles in the synagogue.

  3. I agree with your take that you can’t use a source to support your side or attack your opponent, without allowing those sources to be cross-examined, as would occur in a court of law, to decide whether these sources are credible and/or relevant.

    Interesting that the Quakers were at the forefront of the abolition movement, while many (not all) of the sola scriptura crowd supported slavery on supposed biblcal grounds.

    But none of this matters, because in Christian environments, those approach their camp idols with anything other than eager willingness to regurgitate their party line are an endangered species. I’ve come to the conclusion that the hard heart and closed mind is also judgement.

  4. As much as I’ve criticized the Strange Fire conference, I have to say that we probably shouldn’t paint the entire Christian Church with the same broad brush. There are believers, including some Pastors, who have opened their minds to a more progressive view of Paul as a Jewish apostle who didn’t abandon Judaism or his former teachings, but instead, understood the Messiah as being the capstone holding Israel, the Jewish people, and Judaism together, with the rest of the world also bound to that center.

  5. I agree that sola scriptura is not an exact science like mathematics. If anything, it is more like a natural science where we all have access to the observed facts, and we try to develop theories that consistently explain those facts. As you point out, the facts can be distorted or misunderstood and our theories may be influenced by our own bias.

    Good natural scientists understand that these sorts of errors can occur, and that such errors are not readily recognizable and identifiable. For this reason, theories of natural science are always provisional. Scientists must remain open to the possibility that their cherished theory could be wrong or incomplete. In fact, this attitude can be the springboard to greater understanding. Christians, I think, should adopt an similar stance with respect to understanding scripture, but too often, we tend to go the other way and be excessively confident. I do think that Pastor MacArthur does suffer a bit from such over-confidence. I’m pretty sure we all do, and this attitude hinders learning.

    And yes, loving your neighbor will not resolve disagreements like the one you mentioned. That is, it won’t make the disagreement go away. However it should mitigate some of the harmful effects that could arise from such disagreements. Also, love for God should cause the disagreeing parties to humbly seek, and hopefully find, a resolution to the disagreement itself. I know that some of my views and attitudes have changed substantially over the past 10 years or so, but they didn’t change overnight. Sometimes, its a matter of patiently and kindly giving all parties the time and stimulus to reflect and grow. This way, we can honor God even if we don’t get our theological views just right.

    For the record, I tend to agree with you about Acts 17. It seems to be a more natural understanding of the sort of jealousy one would expect in that situation.

  6. Good natural scientists understand that these sorts of errors can occur, and that such errors are not readily recognizable and identifiable. For this reason, theories of natural science are always provisional.

    Christians, I think, should adopt an similar stance with respect to understanding scripture, but too often, we tend to go the other way and be excessively confident.

    I think one big difference between Natural Science and Theology is that most people don’t feel they can be provisional in terms of their faith. They seek absolute answers, not possibilities. My Pastor said that a good Pastor wouldn’t preach the way I often write, and invoked the saying, “Fog from the pulpit produces mist in the pews.”

    The people in the pews want to be assured that they’re saved, that they’re right, and that everything they understand about God, Jesus, and the Bible is true. The advantage of having a Pastor like MacArthur is that he produces that framework for his church. The only problem is when you start getting people asking questions and presenting alternate viewpoints.

    It’s difficult to endure dissonance and uncertainty in one’s theology and to admit that there may be a great deal about God we don’t know for certain.

    1. Oh, dear, James — it seems that your pastor described the people in the pews similarly to Rav Shaul’s description to Timothy in 2Tim.4:3 “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires …”. There seems to me something seriously wrong with a model of pastoring that is unable to challenge and stimulate the thinking of a congregation for fear that they cannot handle uncertainty or the need to continue learning and investigating.

  7. To be fair, from his perspective, he is presenting sound doctrine and not sugar coating anything. I think what he’s saying is that he cannot come across as wishy-washy or uncertain about what he is preaching. Yeah, he can say something like, “The exact location of such and thus ancient synagogue mentioned in the Bible is unknown, but…,” however as far as taking a theological position and interpreting passages in the Bible, he must be as certain as possible and present himself with a level of confidence.

    We just happen to disagree on how some scripture is interpreted.

    I think if he were fully convinced that he was wrong about something, he would be honest about it to the congregation, but his viewpoint on the Bible is pretty well fixed.

  8. @James, if you read the book of Proverbs, there is so much about being willing to learn from others and receive correction, and to change. I know most church tradition teaches the idea that things are set in stone, and in order to gain followers who are looking for someone to tell them what is true and what to do, you cannot have a more honest (I believe) attitude that there is much ambiguity, mystery, and things we may never understand in this life. Often you can’t blame a pastor, as his congregation expects this of him.

  9. No, I don’t blame him but I do agree, I think there are deep mysteries in the Bible that we only get glimpses of. To me, a life of faith is more like delving into those mysterious depths while for a lot of other Christians, it’s like reading a set of blueprints.

  10. I don’t know why people use Latin terms in order to build up their beliefs… They should know by now (21st century) that Latin is the language of ROME. If they really were all about “Scripture Only” and “Glory to God alone”, they would surely drop every single element that has anything to do with the fourth beast in Daniel’s visions. I mean, why should I be talking the adversary’s language? Why should I be living under the adversary’s terms? Why should I be celebrating the adversary’s feast within the adversary’s calendar? It is written: “Go out from Babylon” Isa 48:20, Jer 50:8, Rev 18:2-5
    It just happen to be that ROME is the great-granddaughter of Babylon.

  11. @James. I have been reading your “The Challies Chronicles” series. The Lord has given me one of the spiritual gifts which is the speaking of tongues. Is it important? To me, it is very important. To others? Not too much. Do I go telling everybody? Not at all.

    You see, I happen to be in the Computer Science Industry. So I work basically with Logic. Do speaking of tongues work by logic? No. That is one thing that I cherish very much about it. When I pray using tongues, I’m totally aware that the mechanism that is activated goes way far from logic. It gives me Peace (Shalom) for my heart in troubled times. It gives me Joy when I’m feeling fine. It is a gift for me, not for others. And it also is a very powerful reminder for me: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” 1 Cor 13:1

    Having said that, let’s get to the point. I think there is a power struggle between leaders who are pastors, who usually handle the churches and congregations, that consider themselves to have reached that position through a formal process of learning in universities and theological institutes, versus other informal leaders existing within churches and congregations who feel the need to influence and to some extent direct others, but are relegated by pastors in this regard, not finding their places sitting on the bench.

    Therefore, I can see that there have appeared many churches and congregations based on prophets and apostles (at least where I live) who base their establishment coming from a direct call from God and instant capacity (that is not through formal studies) to preach the Word.

    Are there calls of these kind essentially true? Sure. Are there calls that are the product of emotions and carnal desires of directing others? Probably.

    I think that this power struggle is rooted by this situation. Pastors trying to keep their sheep within boundaries so that they might not be mislead by false prophets and apostles. On the other hand, natural born leaders that want to run congregations without going through formal education.

    This is my opinion.

  12. Just to play the other side of the coin for a moment Alfredo, anyone can say they’ve had “a word from the Lord” whether it’s true or not. Conrad Mbewe made a good point about how “unregulated” leaders can mislead sheep, too.

    As far as formally educated Pastors go, Paul was “formally educated” too. He just didn’t spontaneously receive all of his knowledge about the Torah. He was a disciple of Gamiliel and, if you recall Acts 17, Paul commended the Bereans for not taking his word for anything he said, but continually searching the scriptures.

    Although I’m not a particular fan of John MacArthur, I don’t think his motivation is that he’s worried about losing his power base to the Charismatic movement.

  13. @Alfred, that was a very good point about using Latin terms. Although Protestants have claimed they have left Catholicism, they need to use Latin terms to label the books of torah. If you translated,”sola scriptura,” and, “Gloria Dei,” into Hebrew, you might end up with Judah Maccabee’s cry, “For the torah and for the covenant. He who is for the Holy One, follow me.”

    I spent a number of years in house churches, and some in this movement employ the moed as celebrations for their community, even if they are not torah pursuant. One thing I liked about these groups was that anyone could contribute, and we would have discussion time rather than sermon time, although sometimes a person would share a teaching, and then there would be discussion. This one way stuff of churches, and messianic congregations following in footstep, is missing the contributions, the various expression of the gifts of each member. I don’t know if an uneducated person who didn’t jump through the formal hoops is any better, as the leadership structure is usually the same, and often they are worse, as they never went through any vetting or mentoring/apprenticeship process, and often think very highly of themselves. Sometimes the more ignorant a person is, the more prideful they are. It takes hard work and commitment to complete seminary, and a person’s character is on display before their professors and colleagues. Any man or woman with a charismatic personality can do the, “God told me,” thing and draw a crowd. If God told me and God told you different things, the person lowest on the totem pole is deemed to be the one not hearing correctly.

    One problem in house churches, at least the ones I was involved in, is that they only lasted for a season. As much as we liked the idea of not having a paid pastor who ran (and controlled) things, there are benefits in that regard. One group was homeschoolers supporting each other and providing a venue for kids and family to get together, but as the kids grew up and went off to college, the group petered out. Another group had a situation where of the three major involved families, one moved and the other two had business difficulties that took them away from ministering in the group. But I am thankful for those times. Since then, it seems most of the house church movement has gone in two directions; about 70% emergent and 10% patriarchy (ugh.) I’ve talked with some in messianic house churches, and they complain about the lack of tolerance for children being children. I had a bit of that too in one group, where they all had sweet little girls who would sit in daddies’ lap during the discussion part of the meeting, while my kids (tough little boys) wanted to go play somewhere. The next group I was part of sent the kids off to play during adult time.

    JM is not so afraid of losing his market; he desires to expand it, and even more strike fear in the hearts of his own so that they don’t even consider anything outside his guilded cage.

  14. Sola Scriptura… Yeah. Riiiggghhhhttt. (I would have been laughing out loud with you, James!)

    As a former ordained Reformed Presbyterian Pastor, the Father has really opened my eyes to how much tradition there is in the church… Not bashing. Just stating truth.

    Simple argument KILLS Sola Scriptura. Seven times in the Torah we have the seventh day Shabbat spelled out. Ex. 31:12-17… ‘everlasting,’ ‘sign,’ ‘covenant’…. Nowhere EVER in Scripture is this ‘everlasting covenant’ explicitly or even implicitly overturned. Therefore, any ‘sunday’ church cannot, by definition, be ‘Sola Scriptura.’ Period.

  15. Well hopefully I wouldn’t have been so rude as to laugh out loud, but I agree that if people really put a lot of effort into “scripture alone,” they’d immediately have problems where their traditions conflicted with the plain meaning of the text.

    Then again, even translation is interpretation, so it seems that unless we were the original audience for a particular mention with direct access to the source material (directly listening to the prophet speaking or reading the original document penned by the prophet or apostle), we don’t have unfiltered access to the Bible.

    I agree with you completely about that God said to the Israelites about the Shabbat being an eternal sign of the covenant between them, but unfortunately, Church tradition has learned to call “eternal” as “temporary” under certain circumstances, more’s the pity.

  16. For what it’s worth, I don’t think that having traditions is itself a violation of the Sola Scriptura principle. However, it would be a problem if those traditions are either in conflict with scripture, or if they are regarded as carrying the same authoritative weight as scripture.

    The problem is that what is often called “scripture alone” really means “my interpretation of scripture alone”.

    For example, some ardent sola scriptura folks could use scripture to show that the earth doesn’t move (Psalm 93:1, 1 Chron 16:30), and thus assert that the geocentric model is Biblical. I think the young earth creationists (and Christian “science-bashers” in general) are among those who take the principle of “sola scriptura” too far, because they fail to acknowledge even the possibility that they are misinterpreting (let alone misunderstanding science).

    We must always recognize the inherent problems associated with human interpretation. This means we should be open to revising our methods as necessary to reconcile our interpretation of scripture with other (external) knowledge that may be gained over time.

  17. That’s just the thing, Jerry. No one who adhere’s to sola scriptura ever thinks their tradition contradicts scripture or the observable universe. Your example of the earth not moving being proved by “scripture alone” is a perfect example.

    1. @James and @Jerry — Well, of course the earth doesn’t move! The entire universe revolves around it! In a relativistic framework who could argue against this perspective? Of course, the mathematics become rather complex, and there are some objects revolving around others while they all revolve around the earth, but ….

  18. Yes. I like the principle of “scripture alone” to the extent that there is a necessity for recognizing the uniqueness of the Bible. It is God’s authoritative revealed message to mankind concerning the things we need to know about God and our relationship with Him.

    But this principle doesn’t guarantee that we will understand the Bible perfectly, nor does it mean that the Bible contains all knowledge of all things. Unfortunately, it seems that the “sola scriptura” adherents have given “sola scriptura” a bad name.

  19. Even people with a good idea can be their (and the idea’s) own worst enemy, especially as if it’s presented as a straightjacket instead of a tool.

  20. @ProclaimLiberty — I’m sorry that I doubted! You’re right of course.
    Incidentally, I believe you have demonstrated that objects can travel at many times the speed of light. Anything about 4 billion km away (which is most stuff) is travelling at warp speed around the earth. A major discovery for which I cannot take credit. 🙂

    1. Well, Jerry, I did mention that the math gets complicated, which includes a critical accounting for phase velocity as distinct from absolute velocity. So warp speed is still not a function of radial distance from earth, but one can’t expect to solve everything just because fancy math allows a shift in perspective. But there is a decided advantage in accepting perspectives that simplify the math. I rather enjoyed the discussion of this that Dan Gruber presented in the first chapter of his book “Copernicus and the Jews”, in which he compares the complicated attempts to describe the motions of “wandering stars” (planets), and the shift in perspective from a terracentric to a heliocentric system that they required to simplify the astronomical math, to the shift in perspective that is occasioned by the need to recognize that the long-suffering “wandering Jews” (the people, not the plants) were central to scriptural understanding.

  21. The only math and science classes I took were the ones that were required, so I don’t have the ability to think in this vein. But I think the ideas are fascinating. I would like to understand more of the science in a way a non-science person could. I see both the evolutionists and the YEC’s as fraudulent. I like to think of myself as pursuing knowledge the way a research scientist does; to start with a hypothesis, yet follow the evidence wherever it leads. Most seek for knowledge the way a defense or prosecuting attorney does: looking only for evidence that supports their client and validates their case, and discarding any contrary evidence. I asked Dr. Jay Wile, a creationist scientist (who is a rare honest person and admits that one cannot defend any of the various viewpoints via scripture) about what the scientific laws of Eden might have been like, and he said that we would have no way of knowing. But I suppose we can speculate.

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