Final Authority Doesn’t Mean Only Authority

October 17, 2011 — 1 Comment

Peter Leithart has an interesting article over at Credenda/Adenda interacting with some of Christian Smith’s thought. In The Bible Made Impossible, Smith critiques a view of Scripture called “biblicism,” and in his How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps Smith also critique sola Scriptura. Leithart responds with this:

Step #47 is to “realize that the doctrine of sola Scriptura is itself not biblical but, ironically, is received and believed as a sacred (Protestant) church tradition.” A neat bit of jiu jitsu, but the next sentence makes one suspect that he’s played dirty: sola Scriptura is the belief that Christians have “the Bible alone and no other human tradition as authority.” Later, he challenges his readers to find biblical passages that teach that “Scripture or the written word of God is the sole and sufficient authority for Christian faith.”

Now, I imagine that there are people who believe sola Scriptura as Smith describes it, and Protestants have always insisted that Scripture is a sufficient revelation of God’s will for us (cf., e.g., WCF 1.6). But neither the Reformers nor their heirs concluded that Scripture is the “sole” authority, nor did they deny the relative authority of human teachers. (If Calvin believed the Bible was the “sole” authority, why so much effort and time devoted to reading Augustine and Chrysostom?) As Smith himself points out, the Scriptures themselves point to human teachers and leaders who are to be honored as authorities. Smith is also correct that the New Testament writers encourage Christians to honor apostolic traditions. No argument there, but that’s because Smith has missed the point.

The argument is not about “sole” authority but “final” authority.

You should read the rest here. I think overall this is one of the more complex, yet vitally important issues to navigate within evangelical Christianity. We need well ordered and nuanced arguments for whatever position we end up holding. In the meantime, I feel like I probably need to put some more study time into some the new critiques that have emerged to see if they do indeed undermine either “something close to biblicism” as John Frame calls it, or sola Scriptura as a guiding principle. I suspect that they do not, but this is something I need to dig a bit deeper into.

What do you think?


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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