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Sola Scriptura


Perhaps it is time to tip the scale in our understanding of Sola Scriptura. For too long, we have allowed our proclivity for biblical literalism to apply also to Sola Scriptura. Our insistence on a literal understanding of Sola Scriptura risks worshipping scripture itself rather than God who inspired it. Additionally, one result of our arguments over the authority of scripture and its relation to other sources of authority, is a loss of the inspirational value scripture normally provides. This strikes me as unnecessary and tragic. My commentary will attempt to show that we use Sola Scriptura more rhetorically than literally all the while arguing the opposite. We are better served to recognize our rhetoric openly for in the literal we risk bibliolatry and a loss of inspiration.

On Bibliolatry or Worshipping the Bible

Although I am not an oratorical or literary scholar, as I understand it, “rhetoric” is a literary flourish intended to persuade listeners. It may use figures of speech that move beyond straightforward, proposition statement of fact. For the context of making my point here, suffice it to say that when we assert the standard of Sola Scriptura, we are making a statement of faith, not a statement of fact. We have stated it so often and so forcefully that we’ve come to believe it to be a statement of fact rather than faith.

I do not think it necessary to establish that we Adventists take our Sola Scriptura rhetoric too literally. One recent article by Elder Ted Wilson is illustrative. On page 16 of his article “Our Sure Foundation” in Adventist World, January 2020, Wilson writes, “Our sacred responsibility as Seventh-day Adventists is to protect, lift up, and promote the lifesaving power of God’s sure Word—the Bible.”[1] Wilson’s words illustrate the risk of bibliolatry. If our attention to scripture turns scripture itself into the means of our salvation, we run the risk of idolizing the Bible. To be sure, there is a fine line between drawing attention to scripture and drawing attention to the God of scripture. Our tendency toward literalism risks sacralizing the text itself.

Wilson goes on to call scripture a “handbook for living.” Mind you, there is nothing unique about him saying this. I’ve heard this for years, but what do we really mean in calling it a handbook? And if we mean it literally, that scripture is our sole source of authority serving as a type of handbook, then we are sorely mistaken. I’ve just spent hundreds of hours over the past month working on a handbook of sorts for how to deal with COVID-19 in the worst-case scenario of having to ration ventilators. If my experience can be illustrative, a truly useful handbook for COVID-19 necessitates complete clarity and intimate detail; a document that needs no further clarification, no additional tools, or commentary. After all, if and when it comes into usage, persons will die.

Scripture is vastly messier than a handbook. What, for instance, would we make of Jesus’ comments about families in the Gospel stories if we used his comments in handbook fashion? What of Paul’s assertion of male-female relations when used in handbook fashion? This says nothing of so many other passages that strike even the most Bible-naïve readers as flatly contradictory: Who inspired David to number the soldiers of Israel? Did the rooster crow once, twice, or thrice? Do women really have to give birth in order to be saved? Was the altar of incense in the Holy Place or Most Holy Place?

The lesson makes contradictory claims within a few sentences, but we’ve grown so used to our rhetoric that it no longer strikes us as odd. In the introduction to the quarter’s lessons we learn that it is because of the egregious “proliferation of false doctrines” that we need the principles of interpretation offered in this quarter’s lessons. The final emphasis in the introduction makes a startling statement given our traditional argument that anyone can understand scripture: “believing in the Bible itself isn’t enough. We must learn how to interpret it, as well.”

Again, turning to my recent efforts to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, one document in wide use regarding appropriate methods of triage is the Minnesota Department of Health Patient Care Strategies for Scarce Resource Situations.[2] It is a large document with multiple additional massive documents that form its foundation. Imagine if your loved one were dying of COVID-19 and I come to talk to you about the unfortunate reality that she is ineligible for a ventilator. I hand you a 50-page document and assert that it is a clear and unified document as it reads; it will interpret itself. In the event you want further detail, I hand you a 350-page notebook of supporting documents. I tell you to read the supporting documents in order to properly understand how the smaller document works. As it turns out, I tell you, some people falsely interpret the large document, so I have prepared an interpretive system you’ll need for the Minnesota protocol.

Would this be confusing to you? In simple terms, I give you a document and tell you it is all you need. Then I hand you a second document, saying you will also need it to properly interpret the document I just gave you. Our lesson for this week notes on Sabbath that we will “learn that sola Scriptura implies some fundamental principles of biblical interpretation that are indispensable for a proper understanding of God’s Word.” Yet, on Tuesday we read that the “Bible is so clear that it can be understood by children and by adults alike.”

So, which is it? Well, it is both, but the problem is we fail to honestly note our usage of Sola Scriptura in rhetorical ways. Over time we begin to take the inspirational rhetoric of the up lifting of scripture as a literal proposition. We begin to literally believe that scripture is the only source of knowledge and authority needed to navigate our daily lives.

Revealing Our Use of Sola Scriptura as Rhetorical

We should recognize that in our present time Sola Scriptura is a rhetorical device used by preachers and evangelists to highlight the value of scripture. Indeed, the lesson implicitly acknowledges this. The verbiage of the lesson actually reveals a Prima Scriptura orientation over against the stated, rhetorical assertion of Sola Scriptura.

According to the lesson, Sola Scriptura:

* Is “the sole standard and decisive source for theology.” (Sabbath)

* Is “the final authority when matters of faith and doctrine are at issue.” (Sabbath)

* Is “[our] ultimate authority.” (Sabbath)

* Is “the Ruling Norm for our theology.” (Sunday)

* Teaches that “Other sources [of authority, namely, experience, reason, tradition] are subservient to the Bible.” (Sunday)

* As a Ruling Norm “does not exclude insights…resources…aspects, sciences, secondary helps, and viewpoints” (Sunday)

The fact that the lesson takes pains to nuance what we mean by Sola Scriptura is evidence that we don’t really mean it literally. Perhaps we mean it more along the lines of Prima Scriptura, namely, as we ourselves say, it is the most important authority (not the only authority) in matters of theology, doctrine, and faith. Wouldn’t it be clearer if we just said this explicitly, particularly if we mean our words in lessons such as this, to be straightforward and propositional rather than rhetorical?

Without directly saying so, however, last week’s lesson undercut the idea that we operate on a Prima Scriptura basis or by way of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Last week we were supposed to learn that tradition, experience, and reason are not to be trusted as sources of authority. Elder Wilson made similar assertions in his Adventist World article referenced above. “[E]xperiential religion,” he argues, is a ruse of the devil, urging us instead to search scripture without need for feeling the movement of the spirit.[3]

Losing the Inspirational Value of Scripture in the Midst of Our Debates

Our disputes over scripture among church leadership, ministers, and educators is at times harsh. Without much effort, over my relatively short ministerial career, I can name a half dozen educators, ministers, and administrators who have lost their jobs over their use of authoritative resources in matters of our life and faith. Think of Glacier View if you need a particular reference. I heard one pastor recently introduce himself as a “Bible-believing Adventist.” I guess I was supposed to recognize what was behind such defining language. I wondered who among us might introduce herself as a “Non-Bible-believing Adventist.”

One recent illustration of our inability to come to agreement in our interpretation of the supposed clear and unified teaching of scripture is the Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC). TOSC is one of the clearest examples of the fact that we ourselves cannot agree upon the unity and clarity of scripture. Biblical students and scholars from every corner of the Adventist world gathered together to offer a final, biblical answer to our theology of ordination and how women do (or do not) fit into that answer. There was no consensus.

Why does this week’s lesson take such a simple stance toward the issues of unity and clarity of scripture? As an ethicist, it strikes me as irresponsible to avoid our own history in a lesson that purports to be about one of the most important of our Fundamental Beliefs. Wouldn’t our members be better served with the truth of how messy and difficult it is to find coherence and consensus in our Church’s understanding of scripture? Through most of our short history, finding consensus in our beliefs has indeed centered around scripture and we’ve managed that process fairly well. I think, for instance, of the “Sabbath Conference”[4] meetings of our early pioneers in 1848–1850 as they narrowed in on the biblical teachings thought to be most important to our budding movement. The trouble with what happened in the TOSC event was that for the first time, perhaps in our history, scripture did not resolve our dispute.

In the lead-up to the 2015 General Conference, GC Vice President Artur Stele, met with a group of young adult delegates about the pending vote on women’s ordination. According to Stele, as reported in Spectrum, PREXAD (President’s Executive Administrative Council) came to the conclusion that resolution of the women’s ordination issue would have to come through a church decision; ecclesiological determination.[5] By definition, this fails to meet the standard of Sola Scriptura. Of course, it could be that Stele was mistaken. Whatever the case may be, the point here is that our lived experience as a church demonstrates the fallacy of using Sola Scriptura in a literal fashion. Rather, our own experience over the decades of debating the role of women in ministry demonstrates that we do not actually operate by the Sola Scriptura model; its role is rhetorical. Scripture, it seems, from our own experience is not actually clear enough to serve as our sole source of authority. Perhaps it is time we face this head on.

In light of our deep divisions over proper interpretation of scripture, I must confess it is sometimes difficult to pick up my Bible in search of inspiration. Aside from all else that we might say or believe about scripture, aside from all the disputed, debated, and dismissive positions we take about it, I need it to be inspirational. As a follower of Christ in this day and age, I need something beyond the ordinary to inspire me toward something greater. Scripture does that, or at least it should.

Rediscovering the Inspiration of Scripture:

I find inspiration and I agree with Elder Wilson in his article “Our Sure Foundation,” when he writes, “There are physical and mental benefits from studying the Bible and focusing on eternal values.” I breath in fresh hope alongside him when through its pages we learn together that our “salvation is possible through Christ.”[6]

I find inspiration in the now distant but searing words of my dear professor, Alden Thompson, when, in my Biblical Exegesis class at Walla Walla College thirty-seven years ago, he declared, “Boys, (because we really were all boys) you can read the whole Bible through and find lots of issues to argue about, disagree with, and debate, but if you read your way through it and miss the fact that God’s salvation is present in Jesus Christ, then you’ve missed the point.”

I find inspiration in Peter Enns’ efforts to bring scripture to life in new ways for us today. The view he brings to his scholarship, identifying how messy scripture is, inspires me to take a fresh look and read it again. He writes of the purpose of scripture:

Its purpose is to invite us to explore, ponder, reflect, muse, discuss, debate, and in doing so work out a life of faith—not to keep that hard work from happening. The Bible is not the problem. The Bible is great—not because it is an answer book, but precisely because it isn’t; not because it protectively hovers over us, but because it most definitely doesn’t. The Bible will make that clear to us if we let it.[7]

I find inspiration and see the positive effect of well-used reason and church tradition in the published works of one of the world’s pre-eminent theological and biblical scholars, David Bentley Hart. In his newly published Theological Territories, he writes of his experience upon recently translating the New Testament for publication with the Yale University Press.

Engaging the difficult work of translating an ancient text, he notes that some words “defy translation altogether because their ranges of connotation are simply too immense and varied to be captured in any available modern term.”[8]

When I came to the task of producing my own translation of the New Testament, I knew that there are certain words and phrases in the text that present special difficulties and that no solution I chose would please everybody. In some cases, the difficulty lies in an inherent ambiguity in the word itself—an uncertainty regarding what concept or set of concepts it signifies or implies—but, in other cases, the difficulty lies precisely in the word’s clarity, because any truly literal translation will fall afoul of dearly held theological or doctrinal conventions….To be fair, the real world of the New Testament is an unsettlingly strange one.[9]

Being honest with the text is essential to the idea of Sola Scriptura and it is simultaneously inspirational. When one engages with the text in light of all we now know about human nature, psychology, and experience we are simply hard-pressed to maintain that scripture interprets itself. When we accept this reality, we also come to understand Sola Scriptura as a precious truth from the history and experience of Western Christianity. Perhaps in the process of this spawning honesty, we can re-capture some of scripture’s inspirational value.

Hart goes on to describe his personal experience while translating God’s word:

The moral of all of this is, perhaps, an unexpected one. At least, it was for me. As I say, when I began my translation I took it as my primary task to restore some proper sense of the distance separating the world of the New Testament from ours—to make the text strange again, so to speak. At the very least, I succeeded in making it stranger to myself. And yet, curiously enough, it was precisely this desire to find that forgotten distance once more than allowed me to cross it, or rather allowed it to be crossed from the other side. As the historical backdrop of the texts drew further away, the players in the drama drew ever nearer. What emerged from my sometimes deeply frustrating struggles with everything alien and impenetrable about the early Christian conceptual world—especially as the veils of conventional phrasing and received ideas melted away—were living personalities: the diverse voices of the scriptures’ authors (many of whom were very ordinary men) became distinct for me, and progressively clearer, proclaiming something that to them was absolutely and consumingly urgent. And somehow I was hearing that urgency for the first time and being persuaded by it with a force wholly new to me. Precisely in making the texts strange—in trying to make them truly remote—I experienced them with an immediacy that I had never really know before. It was not what I expected. But, then again, he is never what we expect.[10]

May you also find the unexpected in the pages of scripture today.


Notes & References:

[4] Search “early Adventist sabbath conferences” for a number of documents available that refer to these conferences. One of those is available at:

[7] Peter Enns, How The Bible Actually Works, (New York; HarperOne, Harper Collins Publishers, 2019), 20. You may also enjoy a podcast that Peter Enns is involved with:

[8] David Bentley Hart, Theological Territories, (Notre Dame, Indiana; University of Notre Dame Press, 2020), 336.

[9] Ibid, 340

[10] Ibid, 338–339.


Mark F. Carr, MDiv, PhD, is regional director of Ethics for Providence Health & Services.

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels


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