Sola Scriptura Question

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Clement Ng left the following comment, and I wanted to leave a space for people with more knowledge of the subject than I have to respond:

Jeremy, I've been following a "Sola Scriptura" debate at Bill Vallicella's blog ( and earlier posts at Edward Feser of Right Reason and some commentator by the name of Spur are duking it out. I'm looking for the work of any evangelical and Protestant epistemologists who have written defenses of Sola Scriptura. I didn't study philosophy of religion and theology at grad school, so my knowledge of any literature in this area is thin.

Most of the defenses of Sola Scriptura I come accross are authored by theologians and lay apologists, usually of the Reformed variety (like Some of this stuff is good, some of it is not. The reinnaisance in Roman Catholic apologetics over the last twenty years has ushered in a wave of former evangelicals swimming accross the Tiber (or converting to Orthodoxy) and unless evangelical theologians and philosophers mount better defenses of key doctrines on their side (sola scriptura, sola fide, invisible unity, non-hierarchical authority,
informal apostolicity, Reformed/Zwinglian views of the sacraments) the wave will continue to grow.

I'm not anti-Catholic (I presently attend an Anglo-Catholic parish) mind you. I just find it dissapointing that evangelicals aren't keeping in shape when it comes to inter-Christian apologetics. I tell you, whenever I visit Pontifications ( I find some top-rate Catholic or Orthodox apologist wiping the floor with some under-prepared Baptist or Reformed type. If evangelicals have a hard time defending Sola Scriptura, non-hiearchical authority, and other distinctives (and I think they do), then perhaps they need to brush up on their analytical and exegetical skills. Anyway, I'm interested in hearing your literature recommendations.

This isn't an area I've spent a lot of time on, but there is the Carnival of the Reformation on this theme. I highlighted the posts I thought were best here. I did respond to several standard arguments against Sola Scriptura here. I also have to say that I love this infinite regress argument in one Spur comment on one of those Maverick Philosopher posts:

If the statements of revelation are not self-interpreting, then what about the statements of the authoritative interpreter of revelation? The teachings of the Pope, or the teaching Magisterium, are no more self-interpreting than those of the Biblical writers. Do we then need another Pope to interpret the words of the first one?

Anyone who can provide more help should feel free to leave a comment.


Thanks Jeremy. Some readers will insist that evangelicals are not, in fact, out of shape in this area. After all, you can find dozens of apologetics textbooks at your local evangelical bookstore and, all over the web, you can download Reformed/Calvinist justifications of sola scriptura, presbyterian/congregational governance, invisible unity, etc. Why then do we encouter many former evangelicals who have crossed the Tiber or Bhosphorous? (this article from the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society is a good overview of the phenomenon. Sure, a lot of former Roman Catholics become evangelicals too, but these are mostly from a lapsed and uncatechized Roman Catholic background. By contrast, those who have converted to Catholicism were usually well-read and informed evangelicals - having encoutered the Fathers and delved into church history, they experienced crises of "authority", "certainity", and "unity" and entered into communion with Rome. Mark Noll and Carol Nystrom conceded this in their book last year. If mature evangelicals often head to Rome and immature Roman Catholics often leave Rome, then, quite apart from the actual number of conversions, then what does this tell us?

ALso, I find it odd that evangelical philosophers, who have achieved significant gains in epistemology and metaphysics over the last generation, have not mounted similarly impressive defenses of evangelical epistemic, hermeneutical, and ecclesiastical norms. Sure, evangelical theologians, as opposed to philosophers, have been writing on these matters for centuries. Their arguments often lack the clarity, rigour, and consistency that is characterisitc of analytic methodology, however. Perhaps I'm simply not familiar with the literature?

My impression of the arguments against sola scriptura is that they betray a deep misunderstanding of what the view says. I think the kind of person who will accept such arguments is not the kind of person who is moved by them intellectually, even if it's a very smart person. I think in most of these cases it's for other reasons.

In philosophy you've got a very weird situation. More and more evangelicals are going into philosophy, but many of them are evangelicals on the fringes of orthodox or traditional theology. I don't expect many evangelical philosophers to defend any Reformation view at this point. The ones who are more solidly evangelical tend to be less good at what philosophers are good at (though there are clear exceptions in mind mind). I don't think it's got anything to do with the nature of evangelical views, though, because most of the arguments against those traditional views seem to me to be absolutely terrible.

I'm not competent to say too much about this question but I have a few observations in general.

One is that the question is in many ways not one of doctrine/theology but of historical theology. When one asks, "what IS sola scriptura?" that implies that there is some sort of univocal answer to the question, and it seems obvious to me that this is not the case.

So the more precise questions might be either, "what have been some formulations of the doctrine of scripture (by protestant theologians)?" or, "what is the propler way for the church to think about the place of scripture?"

I tend to be fairly sympathetic with Carl Braaten's book Mother Church where he states boldly that the early reformers never meant to found a "new church", but to reform THE church, so I'm not nearly so concerned as some protestants about how many people "defect" to the RC side. We should be much more concerned about what sorts of doctrinal directions both catholic and prostestant theologies are going in, and I don't see many prots even attempting to look into that.

Sorry for the rant there. Got off topic a bit.

Jeremy wrote:

"I don't expect many evangelical philosophers to defend any Reformation view at this point."

This ought to be of real concern. How come many of the bright evangelical minds studying philosophy are un-interested in defending their tradition (I'm using that term in a wide sense)? Does this point to an identity crisis? Why accept sola scriptura (and related principles) if they're unwilling to argue in their favour?

There are exceptions, as you say. I found these debates between Kevin Courter, Clifton Healy, and Perry Robinson to be a model of good philosopohical exchange (the first is a Reformed type and the latter two are Orthodox... who left the evangelical world!). It seems to me, nonetheless, that evangelicals have not put their best foot forward in defending their tradition, no matter how good their other contributions are (the arguments against the argument from evil, Plantingan epistemology, etc.). They can certainly do better than James White and R.C. Sproul!

Readers may find similar debates at Pontifications and Triablogue to be of interest. Alas, I'm a traditional Anglican, so I get to have my cake and eat it too :)

The people I was thinking of aren't holding to Sola Scriptura and then not defending it. They're wishy-washy on whether they believe it to begin with, probably in part because they think it means something other than what it has historically meant.

The ones who are more likely to want to defend it are more likely to be younger and simply trying to get their careers going by doing more acceptable work until they get tenure. Philosophy of religion in general isn't usually the best way to get tenure, but if you specialize in what will be viewed as apologetics as opposed to philosophy it makes it even more difficult.

It distresses me that so many evangelicals today seem to have so little understanding of the achievements of THEIR Reformation, where the concept of 'sola scriptura' began - but not alone, since it is integral with 'salvation by faith alone, through Christ alone'.
No-one who understands the Reformation could ever turn back to the RC church or become 'Orthodox' which believe none of the above, even recently claiming through the [now] present Pope that protestant churches are not 'real' churches! In saying that, he revealed where authority really lies in the RC system -the magisterium, not Scripture.

What he means by "real churches" isn't what Protestants mean, though. He means that in Protestant churches the bread and wine or grape juice don't turn into the body and blood of Jesus and such things. I think he's right. I just think that's also true of the Roman Catholic church. He also means that there's no apolostolic succession in Protestant churches, and I'd say similar things to that, denying the very premise of the charge. Pretty much the entirety of what he means by that becomes vacuous once Reformation doctrines are accepted. It's not as if he treats "real church" as meaning who is really saved. For him the Church is a humanly manifested organization, whereas biblically it's a reality in heaven. So his claim isn't anywhere as extreme as it would be if a Protestant were making it. That's why I have much harsher words for Presbyterians who say that Southern Baptist churches aren't real churches than I do for Benedict when he says the same thing. What they're saying is borderline heresy. What he's saying isn't much at all.

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