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IS SOLA SCRIPTURA A HERESY?

November 14, 2013
A Sefer Torah, the traditional form of the Heb...

A Sefer Torah, the traditional form of the Hebrew Bible, is a scroll of parchment. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By: Robert D. Brinsmead

As the formal principle of the Reformation, sola Scriptura became a great Protestant slogan. “The Bible and the Bible only,” cried Chesterton, “is the religion of Protestants.” What Protestant sect, no matter how divergent, has not proudly congratulated itself for being “the people of the Book”?

We want to suggest, however, that even a slogan like sola Scriptura may be given such a slant as to embody a great heresy. It has often been said by wise observers of history that heresy is truth carried to an extreme. To illustrate what we mean we shall raise some questions which challenge the spirit of biblical absolutism.

Judaism was the classical example of a religion based on a book. The world has never seen greater exponents of sola Scriptura. Judaism claimed that the written text contained all that could be known of the will of God. They thought that their entire responsibility was to exegete and implement the text. God’s Word was dehistoricized and depersonalized.

The stage was set for the final confrontation between this religion of the book and the Word incarnate in Jesus Christ. Just as Israel repeatedly made war on the prophets, so they made war on the Living Word ­ and in principle for the same reason. In the name of written Scripture and from a sense of zealous allegiance to it, they arrayed themselves against the Word made flesh. They barricaded themselves behind the letter of Holy Scripture and closed their ears against the living, eternal Word of God.

The tragedy was that Pharisaic Judaism, in its exalted view of the written Torah, was partly right. Even the Psalms seem to extol the Torah or Law as the Word, light, life, light, wisdom and truth (Ps. 119). But the written Torah or Scripture was only those things in a secondary, derivative or relational sense. As John declares in his Gospel, Jesus Christ rather than the written Law and Scripture is all these things. That which was written is only a witness to the Living Word and may be called the Word only in that relational sense. It its own right (or in the absolute sense) it never was and never will be the Word of God.

Pharisaism’s mistake was to take the Word of God in a relative sense and make it the word of God in the absolute sense. For example, the living Word is eternal and inerrant, but Pharisaism claimed that their written Torah was eternal and inerrant. No wonder they thought Jesus blasphemous when He exalted His authority over Moses, the Sabbath and whatever else was in the Law! Even many Jewish Christians could not abandon this Judaistic notion that the written Law was eternal and inerrant. They therefore bitterly opposed Paul’s gospel, which announced the end of the Law’s binding claims.

Granting absolute status to the written witness was then and now a system of religious absolutism or religious fascism. It was then and now idolatry in its most insidious form because it makes a visible icon out of the witness to the Word of God. Taking that which belongs to the living Word (the eternal and inerrant attributes of God) and bestowing it on written Scripture compromises the uniqueness of the incarnation. As there is only one incarnation, so there is only one union of perfect divinity and perfect humanity. The one ideal, sinless humanity is the Word made flesh in Jesus’ humanity.

The living Word spoken by Old Testament prophets was finally disclosed in the person of Jesus. He was the living, eternal, inerrant Word, and the words which He spoke were Spirit and life (John 6:63). In Him and Him alone the eternal, inerrant Word took human form and was given human expression. To suggest that there could be any other human expression of God is to deny the absolute uniqueness of the incarnation.

It is significant that Jesus made no attempt to convey His message in writing. The only written record He left was what He wrote in sand ­ and that was soon swept away. If we think that the Word of God is essentially information, propositions or ideas, then we will also think that it can be adequately expressed in writing. But once we begin to see that God’s Word is the presence of infinite life and Spirit, we begin to appreciate why none of Christ’s eyewitnesses thought they could contain the Word in writing. The community of the beloved disciple passed on his testimony that “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” if the living Word had to be reduced to writing (John 21:25).

The priestly guardians of the written word tried to silence the living Word. But the death of Jesus did not silence the living Word. Like the alabaster box which, when broken, filled the house with perfume, Christ’s broken body resulted in the Spirit of Christ flowing out over all the world. The resurrection means that the living Word has not left; He has merely changed the mode of His being present. He is no longer present clothed in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth; but His Spirit is alive in those who believe in Him, and His personal presence makes the proclamation of His gospel the Word of God.

The New Testament authors did not customarily refer to their written record as the Word of God. That subsequent Christian tradition tends to do this while the writers themselves hesitate to do it should tell us something. Evidently they distinguished the difference between the living, infinite Word and the written record more clearly than we do. If the written record is every called the Word, it is the Word only in a secondary, derivative or relational sense. It is not the Word in the absolute sense. Strictly speaking, the Scripture is the witness to the Word of God, and like a good witness, it does not speak of itself but points away from itself (John 5:39).

Church history has amply demonstrated that we have not generally made the same distinction. The written record has been absolutized. The prophetic spirit was quenched. The Christian Scripture became a rigid Christian Torah, a rule book for everything Christians must believe and teach. The gospel became a new law. Faith was confounded with orthodoxy, which was really theological legalism. The church ceased to be a charismatic community and became an institution. Instead of the Spirit there were rules. Instead of the priesthood of all believers there was wretched clericalism. Instead of the Spirit and presence of the living Christ there was religious canned goods. Instead of the living gospel thee was dead ideology. Instead of freedom there was bondage. Yet, like the Pharisees, we have desperately tried to substitute an incredible devotion to the letter of Holy Scripture for the prophetic spirit. Instead of having the certainty which the Spirit inspires, we have looked for certainty in endless apologetics and theories of textual inerrancy.

In view of the fact that devotion to sola Scriptura led Pharisaic Judaism to oppose Jesus and the gospel, how can such devotion be the hallmark of faithfulness to the gospel today?

(Robert D. Brinsmead, “The Gospel and the Spirit of Biblicism, Part I”, The Christian Verdict, Essay 15, 1984. Fallbrook: Vedict Publications. Pgs. 3-9.)

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