I have read this thread with some interest. I have been asking myself the same questions for some years, as I have had many friends who would say that the Bible is the only authority in their lives, and they study it much. But they have gotten off into some really strange and sometimes heretical doctrine. I have been in other situations where I have been told to do whatever my "spiritual leader" said and that he would be responsible for whatever I did since he was the one that told me to do it.
There are dangers on both sides. I read a book called The Shape of Sola Scriptura by Keith Mathison which was really helpful for me as I thought through the issue. I might not agree with every single thing he says, but overall it was a helpful way to think about the question of "Sola Scriptura". I wrote a short summary of it, which I have included below. I hope this is helpful to some of you.
The Shape of Sola Scriptura Review
I recently read the book, The Shape of Sola Scriptura by Keith Mathison. It looked like an interesting book, and I was not disappointed.
The basic premise of this book is that the term sola scriptura used by Luther, Calvin, and the other magisterial reformers has been hijacked by modern evangelicals. He states that because modern evangelicals have twisted this doctrine so badly, many have become disillusioned with Protestantism and are fleeing to the Catholic Church and the strong sense of authority.
Mathison argues that this is an extremely important issue. He takes an in-depth look at how the early church thought of the relationship between Scripture and the church and Scripture and tradition. Basically, he contends that the early church saw Scripture as the one authority, but believed that Scripture must be interpreted according to the regula fidei, or rule of faith. In other words, the dominant idea of Scripture and tradition was that only Scripture was the divinely inspired Word of God.
From the 4th century on, there are passages from various men which could be interpreted as appealing to tradition as a secondary source of revelation, but they are ambiguous at best, and most still seem to see Scripture as the one authority. William of Ockham in the 1300s is the first person to clearly state the idea of a two-source revelation. He believed that Scripture and unwritten tradition were two equal sources of revelation. His idea was rejected at the time, but came to be useful to the pope later, and has since become the official teaching of Catholicism. (This is ironic because at the time it was written against the pope who affirmed Scripture to be the final authority.)
Around the time of the reformation, this view was gaining popularity. Luther, Calvin, and the other reformers were fighting against this view of a two-source theory of revelation, which Mathison refers to as Tradition II. The reformers were arguing for a return to the theory held by the early church, which he calls Tradition I. Again, Tradition I would assert that Scripture is the only infallible and ultimate authority, but it would give weight to ecumenical councils, creeds, and the true teaching authority of the church.
The reformers used the term sola Scriptura to refer to this position. The anabaptists, or radical reformers, came to a position which Mathison refers to as Tradition 0. Their position was essentially that neither tradition, the historical teaching of the church, nor anything else had any bearing on issues. The only issue is, What saith the Scriptures? Mathison points out that this is dangerous, and points to some of the excesses and dangerous doctrines that it led to in the radical reformation (Anabaptists).
In the battle over Scripture and tradition, the Catholic church became increasingly convinced of the two-source theory of revelation. Indeed, it must have some such invention since so many of its doctrines are obviously against the Scripture. In later days, Mathison argues that Catholicism actually embraces something even more dangerous. It says that the Catholic Church itself and the pope when he speaks ex cathedra, are actually infallible. This means that whenever the Catholic church speaks to any doctrinal or practical matter authoritatively, by definition it cannot be wrong. Mathison calls this Tradition 3. It is the idea that whatever the Catholic Church says today is inherently true, and also, that it is what the Catholic church has always taught.
Mathison points out that America has been much influenced by the Anabaptist idea of Scriptural interpretation, as well as by the radical individualism of the Enlightenment. He makes the statement that American Christianity has been influenced much more by the rationalism of the Enlightenment than by Scripture or history. This is probably true.
Mathison then looks at the four different ideas of Tradition.
Tradition 0Mathison asserts that this is the position of most evangelicals today. It is the position that says that all we need is the Bible. If we just look to Scripture and allow the Holy Spirit to guide us, we will find the truth. He points out the results of this; thousands of denominations claiming mutually exclusive things; heresies being propagated throughout evangelicalism, etc... Mathison argues that the problem with Tradition 0 is that ultimately it leads to autonomy. Whenever we speak of Scripture, we are necessarily speaking of someone's interpretation of Scripture. So if I say that the only authority in my life is the Word of God, what I am really saying is that the only authority in my life is myself and how I choose to interpret the Word of God. He states that this is dangerous. I believe he is correct. Each one of us is easily deceived by ourselves, and if the standard is simply what I think the Bible says, I may be led into grave error.
Tradition 2This is the Catholic idea that there are 2 sources of revelation: Scripture and tradition. Mathison rightly points out that in practice, unwritten tradition always becomes corrupted. He further points out that the Catholic church can't even tell anyone which are the unwritten traditions from the apostles that we are supposed to obey. Furthermore, when you have an unwritten and a written authority, it is easy to use the supposedly unwritten tradition to interpret the written one. He points out that some of the things supposedly handed down from the apostles were never mentioned until the 1800s! It seems like if they were really handed down from the apostles, we could find some record of them before the 1800s. For instance, the Catholic church has recently declared things such as that Mary was born of a virgin, ascended to heaven, and always remained a virgin. Mathison points out that such a concept really invalidates the Word of God.
Tradition 3Even more shocking than Tradition 2, Tradition 3 says the Catholic church is always right. The Scripture repeatedly warns us of false prophets, deceivers, etc... and exhorts us to test all things. The Catholic church invalidates this command by simply saying that it is always right. So there is absolutely no way to check and see if such an entity is off the narrow road, if the only authority she allows is herself. The job of Catholic theologians in many instances, is to read the present decisions made by the church back into Scripture or into history.
Mathison says the ultimate problem with all of these is that they lead to autonomy. The Protestant version leads to autonomy of the individual, while the Catholic and Orthodox version leads to autonomy of the church. In both instances, there is virtually no way to be held accountable. The fruit of this can be seen in both cases.
Mathison argues for Tradition IThe idea is that Scripture alone is the supreme authority, but that Scripture is interpreted by the church, and not just by the individual. Mathison acknowledges the difficulty is that there is not one visible true church today, but many branches of the church. He asserts that for the first 300 years or so of Christianity, this was not the case. The visible church had issues come up, and they would call a council to decide. He points out that even the apostles themselves did not deal with issues single-handedly, but would have councils about various important issues.
Ultimately, I get the sense that Mathison is simply putting out some boundaries. He is not able to say exactly what this should look like in every aspect. But he says strongly that it should not look like Catholic autonomy of the church or evangelical autonomy of the individual. He points to the Nicene Creed, the definition of Chalcedon, and the canon of Scripture as areas where we trust the judgment of the church. He cites proponents of tradition 0 saying that these councils are no more authoratative than the writings of an individual believer. Mathison strongly disagrees. He would say that where the church has ruled on such matters, they are no longer open questions. It is not acceptable to be debating whether Jesus was really God. That question has been settled by the church, as has the Trinity, the canon, etc...
The difficulty lies in that there were many councils that profess to be ecumenical councils. Some, such as the Council of Trent, were obviously heretical and said that anyone who believes the true Gospel is eternally damned. Mathison points to the corporate testimony of the Holy Spirit in the saints of God throughout history. He would say that the Nicene Creed, the definition of Chalcedon, and the NT canon are settled matters for the people of God throughout history, and thus we should accept their authority. He says that men are fallible and may err, but that does not mean they will always err. He acknowledges that sometimes the church may go astray, and that we are to know the Scriptures and be on guard against error. But he says that this is a serious thing.
One thing he states that is interesting is the idea that the invisible church is scattered throughout various branches of Christendom. He says these are not necessarily good churches or pure churches, but that they are churches, as evidenced by enough teaching of the Gospel for people to be converted, and the presence of believers in their midst. He says this is not God's will. And that it is a great scandal and tragedy that the church of Jesus Christ is split up into so many groups, etc... He prays for the day that there will be a unity based not on the false uniformity of Rome or the doctrinal indifference of liberals, but on the truth of Jesus Christ.
Overall, this book was interesting. I think it brought into focus some things that have been somewhat hazy for me before, but I'm not sure that it really changed how I see things. It seems to leave me in a pretty similar place to the one I was in. I was hoping he could recommend something to fix all my problems. No such luck. But it is a good reminder that the Lord has placed us in a body, and that we need each other, not just locally, but globally and throughout history, if we are to follow the Lord faithfully and be true ambassadors to a world that is perishing.