A large segment of Christianity holds to Sola Scriptura, which is typically defined as the belief that the Bible alone is the final authority for all things related to faith and practice. This view is taught in many Bible colleges and seminaries, and we are taught that it was one of the central battle cries of the Reformation. Holding to Sola Scriptura, men like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli led the charge against the Roman Catholic Church.
The Reformers were opposed to many abuses within the church, and believed that most of these abuses stemmed from the Catholic Church’s reliance upon tradition for their beliefs, practices, and understanding of Scripture. The Reformers, in trying to correct these abuses, tried to reject tradition and return to the Sola Scriptura,“the Bible alone.”
It’s too bad such a move was impossible.
Sola Scriptura is Impossible
Yes, Sola Scriptura, or “the Bible alone” is an impossible belief. It is doomed from the start. It cannot be held. It cannot be practiced. It cannot be believed. Even if you or your church claims to believe in Sola Scriptura, you actually don’t.
Why not? Because in every area of the Bible, from the writing of the text, to the collection of the books, to the transmission, translation, and teaching of the text, extra-biblical tradition and authority is required.
The Authors Used Tradition
The biblical authors themselves did not write from a Sola Scriptura perspective. They often appealed to various beliefs, traditions, and customs which are not found in Scripture to support the argument they make in their writings.
If we want to believe and understand what these authors are saying, then to some degree, we must also believe and understand the extra-biblical beliefs, traditions, and customs which the biblical authors mention.
Selecting the Books of the Bible Used Tradition
Even the Bible itself, as we have it today, is largely a product of tradition and church authority. In fact, if it were not for church tradition and authority, we would not have the 27 books of the New Testament at all.
We learned in a previous post about the Canonization of Scripture, that in 397 AD, some of the church leaders decided which books to include in the New Testament. And one of the criteria they used to help make this decision was the tradition of the church up to that time. If we reject church tradition, we end up rejecting the Bible which church tradition has given to us.
Copying the Bible Used Tradition
Unless one wants to limit Sola Scriptura to the original manuscripts themselves (which I have never heard of anyone doing, because such a move would make the Bible completely useless for us today), the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts we have today are the result of 2000 years of church tradition.
As we learned in the discussion on Inerrancy, the process of copying the Greek and Hebrew texts caused errors to creep into the biblical manuscripts over time. When a copiest faced a variant in a manuscript, he was forced to make a decision about which variant was most likely correct. How did he decide? Tradition. There are two main schools of thought on how to determine which variant is the right one, but both approaches use a tradition that has developed over time.
Translating the Bible Uses Tradition
There is not a single translation in the entire world which literally translates every single word from the Greek and Hebrew. Some get closer than others, and those that are closest in literal translation (such as Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible) are nearly impossible to read.
So when scholars translate the Greek and Hebrew text of Scripture, how do they decide where to “tweak” the translation to make the meaning and ideas of the text more clear for modern readers? They use tradition. Occasionally, people come along and challenge that tradition, and as a result, translations change. Furthermore, translations often reflect the theology of the translator as well, which also is dependent upon a tradition of church beliefs and doctrine.
Teaching of Bible Uses Tradition
Even pastors, professors, and Bible teachers use tradition when they preach and teach the Bible. Any time someone goes from simply reading the text to explaining the text, they are falling back on some sort of church tradition. This is especially true when they seek to shed light on the cultural and historical background of a text, or explain the theology of a particular passage. Both of these approaches require the use of tradition and knowledge that is not found in “the Bible alone.”
So as you can see, there is no aspect of the Bible which fits the claim of Sola Scriptura. Every aspect of the Bible, from the authors who wrote it all the way up to we today who read it, is based in some way or another on tradition and extra-biblical information.
None of this means that we cannot challenge the tradition. We can and we should. But when we challenge a traditional understanding or interpretation of Scripture, this should never be confused with challenging Scripture itself. At the same time, when proposing an alternate understanding, we must never accuse those who believe in the traditional view of believing in “Scripture plus tradition” while we believe in “the Bible alone” for even a “new view” is based in some way on previous traditions, and as soon as it is taught, becomes a tradition itself.
So no, you and I do not believe in Sola Scriptura. It is an impossible belief.