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What Do We Mean By Sola Scriptura?

Solas of the Reformation

I was going through a pile of old papers and I came across a stack of interesting essays I had read in college and seminary. I wanted to share a paper I read long ago that helped me to see how Scripture Alone as a rule of ultimate authority in the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod is not in line with the Confessions.

Many times when Lutherans today talk about the authority of the Bible they don't realize it, but they're doing it in a way that is different from how Luther and the 1st generation of reformers understood it.

This paper was written by Fr Gregory when he was a pastor and seminary professor in the LCMS. He gladly gave me permission to share it. It isn't an argument to become Orthodox or Catholic or anything else, but it is helpful in the sense that it shows how the understanding of things like Sola Scriptura has shifted in the Lutheran Church and no longer means what it did originally.

Anyone from an especially Lutheran background who wants to learn more about Orthodoxy can listen to this special on Ancient Faith Radio which is designed to introduce Orthodoxy to curious Lutherans: Faith of our Fathers Lutheran Colloquium.

Other helpful articles by formerly Lutheran pastors who are now Orthodox priests are linked here too:

Infant Communion, Revisted by Fr Gregory Hogg

All of that said, below is the article. I hope and pray it is a blessing to you as we grow in the understanding of our Christian faith.

What Do We Mean by Sola Scriptura

(Shared by permission of the author)

Nothing could be clearer to confessional Lutherans than the principle of sola Scriptura. This principle is so important and so central to all that we do that Francis Pieper’s massive Christian Dogmatics begins by saying, “We take the position that Holy Scripture, in contradistinction to all other books in the world, is God’s own infallible Word and therefore the only source and norm of Christian doctrine.”1 The benefit of this principle is obvious to all who read the rest of Pieper; he criticizes groups ranging from Roman Catholics to “modern” theologians by showing that each of them adopts some other element besides Scripture as a means of knowing God. For Roman Catholics it is the papacy; for “modern” theologians it is the theologian’s ego. Even in the case of Zwingli’s doctrine of the Eucharist Pieper points out that Zwingli claimed his teaching came to him in a dream.

Thirty years ago a massive split fractured the Missouri Synod over this very issue. Those who left were seen as undercutting the sola Scriptura principle by making use of higher-critical methods of biblical interpretation. The conflict, whose seeds were sown in the post-war era, produced notable works on the place of Scripture by theologians such as Robert Preus, Martin Scharlemann, and Ralph Bohlmann. Although the split divided many former friends and caused lasting bitterness for some, it was felt that the price paid was worth it. Missouri was united behind the Scripture principle.

Today that unity seems fragile at best. Missouri is splintered, as the recent Synodical elections demonstrate. Former allies find themselves on diverging paths. What makes our current troubles both more interesting and more dangerous is the fact that all sides claim to hold the Scripture principle. Even some of those who advocate the ordination of women accuse those who resist this innovation of being guided not only by Scripture, but also by tradition.

In this paper I propose to touch on the principle of sola Scriptura. Careful examination of the claim reveals some ambiguity and incoherence in the way we articulate this principle. Furthermore, when the presentation of sola Scriptura current today is compared with the Confessions, a significant shift is apparent.

Pieper and the dogmaticians: Scripture as sole source and norm

The citation from Pieper’s Christian Dogmatics makes plain what sola Scriptura means as used today. Scripture is the sole source and norm of all Christian teachings. Nothing else may be added to it as source or norm. Pieper contrasts the sola Scriptura with “false sources of knowledge” and “false norms”;2 and says that those who place, for example, the consensus of the Church on the level with the Scriptures as source and norm of doctrine renounce the Scripture principle.3

To understand the notion of Scripture as sole source and norm for Christian doctrine, it might be helpful to break down that phrase into its constituent parts. What is a source? a norm? And what does the word “sole” mean in this context?

When dogmaticians speak of Scripture as the source of Christian doctrine, they mean that Scripture is the place from which doctrine is derived. Each of the teachings of the Christian church is founded on some clear passage or passages of the Bible—a sedes doctrinae, or “seat of doctrine.”4 The Lord’s Supper, for example, is founded on the accounts of Jesus’ instituting it, as recorded in Matthew, Mark, Luke and Paul. The doctrine of Christ’s deity is founded on passages such as John 1:1f.

When dogmaticians speak of Scripture as the norm of Christian doctrine, they mean that Scripture is the judge according to which all teachings and teachers are to be evaluated. When confronting a doctrinal statement, the Christian compares what it says to what Scripture says. If a statement is in complete accord with Scripture, we believe it because (quia) it is biblical. If a statement is only partially in accord with Scripture, we believe it insofar as (quatenus) it is biblical. If a statement contradicts Scripture, we reject it outright. If a statement is neither in accord with Scripture, nor contradicted by Scripture, it may be held as a “pious opinion,” but not taught as a doctrine. In every case, Scripture provides a standard and guide by which doctrine may be evaluated.

Lutheran dogmaticians tend to use the terms “source” and “norm” interchangeably. A citation from Preus’ The Inspiration of Scripture exemplifies this confusion:

"Revealed, supernatural theology is to be drawn only from the revealed and written Word of God. Otherwise our theology is false and so is our Christ. ‘The norm and standard for portraying [Christ],’ says Dannhauer, ‘is the revealed Word. If one departs from this, he portrays not Christ, but his own dreams.’"5

In the first sentence, Preus speaks of theology being “drawn from” the Word of God—which is “source” talk. But the supporting quote from Dannhauer speaks of the “norm and standard” for portraying Christ—which is “norm” talk. The citation could support the claim only if “source” and “norm” are equivalent terms.

In reading Pieper’s Dogmatics one is struck by the way that the phrase “source and norm” functions almost as a single word.6 This is no accident. Pieper says,

"It is impossible to separate these two functions of Scripture: to be the source of the Christian doctrine and to be its norm. The Holy Scriptures are the norm of Christian doctrine only because they are its only source. . ."7

Thus Pieper’s position draws a chain of consequences with three links. Because only the Bible is God’s infallible word, therefore it is the sole source of Christian doctrine. Because it is the sole source of Christian doctrine, therefore it is the sole norm of Christian doctrine. To deny any subsequent link in this chain is, for Pieper, ultimately to deny the chain’s first link. And the adjective “sole” is as crucial for the last two links as “infallible” is for the first link.

But what does that word “sole” mean? At this point one finds a deep-seated ambiguity. In some places, the word “sole” means unique. For example, Preus says:

"Of the utmost importance to all the Lutheran dogmaticians is the proposition that Scripture alone is the source of all knowledge of supernatural theology. Scripture as the principium cognoscendi stands alone, by itself, for God does not speak to us except through the Scripture. Scripture must stand alone in this respect or not at all. If it is not the only norm of doctrine, it is not a norm in the true sense of the word."8, 9

Here the phrase “alone, by itself” and the claim “God does not speak to us except through the Scripture” clearly gloss the term “sole” as “unique”. Preus says elsewhere “<i>f something is added to a principium, if something is made to condition it in any way, it ceases to be a principium.”10 This tends to be the usus loquendi of Lutheran theologians especially in polemics against Roman Catholic theologians.

Elsewhere, however, “sole” takes on a different meaning, as “ultimate.” Lutheran dogmatics does not want to deny the authoritative character of statements such as the Chalcedonian definition, or the week-by week preaching in the church. So Preus says,

"It is true that the dogmaticians say that after the time of the apostles there was no Word of God except Scripture. By this they mean, in antithesis to the Catholics and enthusiasts, that there is today no inerrant, inspired and normative Word of God apart from and in addition to Scripture. They certainly never denied that preaching was the Word of God when and because it agreed with Scripture."11

If preaching is God’s word “when and because” it agrees with Scripture, then it is God’s word in a real, but derivative, sense. But if preaching is God’s word in a real, albeit derivative, sense, then Scripture cannot be uniquely God’s word. For if Scripture were uniquely God’s word, then nothing else, not even preaching, could be God’s word.

Indeed, if the word “sole” in “sole rule and norm” only meant “unique”, it would be difficult to make sense of the traditional Lutheran claim that the Confessions are normed norms (norma normata), for in that case they could not be norms in any sense. Again, the Confessions’ many references to Fathers and Councils is counter-productive if “sole” means “unique”; why would one cite them as showing the correctness of the Lutheran view if they carried no weight in doctrinal matters in any respect?12

A further problem for holding that “sole” means “unique” is found in statements of doctrine, both in the Confessions and our dogmaticians, which have no apparent Biblical basis, at least not in terms of sedes doctrinae. Three such statements come to mind: first, the doctrine that Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus. The Latin translation of the Smalcald Articles uses the phrase “ever-virgin”,13 and this teaching was held by the vast majority of dogmaticians in our tradition even through Pieper himself. But there is no clear passage of Scripture which teaches this doctrine. Gerhard finds support in Ezekiel’s statement (Ezekiel 44:2) that that gate through which the Lord entered would be entered by no one else, and the Lord’s commending his mother to the care of John (John 19:26-27) seems culturally strange if he had siblings. But neither of these texts proves the doctrine by itself. Second, the Confessions say that Mary and the saints in heaven pray for us, while admitting that Scripture is silent on the topic:

"Although concerning the saints we concede that, just as, when alive, they pray for the Church universal in general, so in heaven they pray for the Church in general, albeit no testimony concerning the praying of the dead is extant in the Scriptures, except the dream taken from the Second Book of Maccabees, 15, 14."14

The statement that the saints in heaven pray for the Church in general is a statement of doctrine; but immediately it is granted that there is no basis in canonical Scripture for this statement.15

Third, the Confessions teach that prayer for the dead is not objectionable, and not without benefit:

"Now, as regards the adversaries’ citing the Fathers concerning the offering for the dead, we know that the ancients speak of prayer for the dead, which we do not prohibit; but we disapprove of the application ex opere operato of the Lord’s Supper on behalf of the dead. . . Epiphanius testifies that Aerius held that prayers for the dead are useless. With this he finds fault. Neither do we favor Aerius . . ."16

Melanchthon offers only patristic support for this practice, yet does not forbid it. Now if “sole” were to be understood as “unique”, it is difficult to see how our Confessions could permit any of these statements to stand. It seems rather that the Confessions here allow for churchly tradition as a source of doctrine, and see the role of Scripture as judge of that source. They are allowed to stand, not because there is Scripture teaching them, but because there is no Scripture rejecting them.

How this deep-seated ambiguity between “sole” as “unique” and “sole” as “ultimate” can be resolved is not clear to this writer. If we mean to claim that “sole” means “unique”, it would seem that we undercut the claims made for the binding nature of the Confessions and the week-by-week preaching in our pulpits, and should simply read the Bible. If, on the other hand, we mean to claim that “sole” means “ultimate,” then serious theology must engage the history and tradition of the church. We must repent of facile claims that the Bible speaks so clearly on a given topic that we need not examine Church history. The Formula of Concord: Scripture as pure source and sole norm What does the Formula of Concord say about the role of Scripture in theology? A careful examination of its words will show that Pieper’s view that Scripture is the sole source and norm of doctrine represents a subtle shift from the Formula’s position. That subtle shift has had profound consequences for the Missouri Synod since his time, and will have an ever-increasing effect if it remains unchallenged.

Pieper’s position, as noted above, may be summarized in the statement: (1) The Bible is the sole source and norm of Christian theology.

As sole source, each doctrine must be founded on some clear Scriptural passage. Scripture interprets Scripture, and everything necessary to understand the Bible is contained within it. The Bible is the sole norm of Christian theology because it is its sole source.

The Formula addresses the topic of Scripture at its very beginning, both in the Epitome and the Solid Declaration. Concerning Scripture, the Epitome says:

"We believe, teach and confess that the only rule and guiding principle according to which all teachings and teachers are to be evaluated and judged are the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments alone . . .

. . . Holy Scripture alone remains the only judge, rule, and guiding principle, according to which, as the only touchstone, all teachings should and must be recognized and judged, whether they are good or evil, correct or incorrect.

The other symbols, however, and other writings listed above are not judges, as is Holy Scripture, but they are only witnesses and explanations of the faith, which show how Holy Scripture has at various times been understood and interpreted in the church of God by those who lived at the time in regard to articles of faith under dispute and how teachings contrary to the Scripture were rejected and condemned."17

This statement is noteworthy not only for what it says, but also for what it does not say. Holy Scripture, it says, is “the only judge, rule, and guiding principle.” As the sole judge, Scripture will weigh each teaching, seeking to discern its truth or falsity. Other writings and symbols function as witnesses, testifying to the faith as it was taught in their time. They also function as explanations, making plain certain aspects of Scripture which may be misunderstood by errorists. The courtroom pedigree of this metaphor is obvious. A controversy in the church is a trial. Scripture is the judge, and the writings of fathers and councils serve as witnesses. In the end, Scripture’s voice must decide the matter.

Conspicuously absent from the Epitome’s statement, however, is any reference to the Scripture as source of doctrine—sole or otherwise. We must turn to the Solid Declaration in order to see the Confessors’ view of Scripture as source of doctrine. In the Introduction, we read:

"First, we confess our adherence to the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments, as to the pure, clear fountain of Israel, which alone is the one true guiding principle, according to which all teachers and teaching are to be judged and evaluated."18

Here Scripture is plainly set forth as the sole norm of all teaching, just as it was in the Epitome. But what of Scripture as source? That idea is expressed in the metaphor of a fountain (fons). The Confessors do not say, however, that Scripture is the sole fountain, the sole source, of theology. Rather, they describe Scripture as the pure, clear fountain of Israel—a source of theology without admixture of human opinion and error, a source of theology plain and accessible to those who use it. The word “alone” in this paragraph is used to modify norm-talk, not source-talk.

Why did the Confessors not speak of Scripture as the sole fountain? It was because in the Renaissance and Reformation movements, the word fons was a technical term referring to the oral and written sources of contemporary culture. The Renaissance’s great cry was Ad fontes!— To the sources! After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the growing awareness of the Greek language and its authors brought about an increased desire to read the Greek authors, no longer through the lens of mediaeval Latin translations, but directly from the Greek itself. This desire grew stronger as the printing press made editions of classical Greek texts available on a broader basis than ever before.

First place among the fontes of theology for the Lutheran Reformers would, of couse, have been given to the Scriptures themselves. Both Luther and Melanchthon made extensive studies in and commentaries on the text in its original languages. Melanchthon saw his Loci Communes as a "commentary" on the Scriptures. Scripture was the foundation against which all other writings would be measured.19

But the fontes of theology also included other writings besides the Scriptures.20 As witnesses, these other writings were useful to demonstrate that the Lutheran understanding of key biblical concepts was nothing new, that Lutherans simply taught what had always been taught in the church. We see examples of the Confessions’ using other fontes throughout the texts in question. For example, in Article 1 of the Augsburg Confession we read, “What is understood by the word ‘person’ is not a part nor a quality in another but that which exists by itself, as the Fathers once used the word concerning this issue.”21 Again, in seeking to show that the Lutheran understanding of the Eucharist was not a novum, Melanchthon cites with approval the Greek canon.22 In his Examination of the Council of Trent, Chemnitz says:

"We confess also that we disagree with those who invent opinions which have no testimony from any period in the church, as Servetus, Campanus, the Anabaptists, and others have done in our time. We also hold that no dogma that is new in the churches and in conflict with all of antiquity should be accepted. What could be more honorably said and thought concerning the consensus and the testimonies of antiquity?" 23

We may now show clearly the difference between the Formula’s doctrine of Scripture and Pieper’s. Pieper’s doctrine, as mentioned above, is summarized:

1. The Bible is the sole source and norm of Christian theology.

But the Formula’s doctrine of Scripture may be summarized:

2. The Bible is the pure source and sole norm of Christian theology.

In Pieper’s view, “sole” tends to be understood as “unique;” in the Formula’s view, “sole” tends to be understood as “ultimate”—as witnessed by the numerous citations of the Fathers and Councils scattered throughout the Confessions,24 as well as Melanchthon’s careful examination of church history on such topics as confession. In the Formula’s view, the Fathers have a useful role as witnesses to how the truth of Scripture was proclaimed in subsequent ages. Pieper’s view of Scripture’s relation to the Fathers reminds one of Ralph Cramden’s exchange with his bemused wife Alice: “Alice, I’m king around here; and you—well, you’re nothin’!” With a smile, Alice replies, “Well, Ralph, I guess that makes you the king of nothin’ then!”

In a sense, Pieper himself recognizes the sola as ultimate, not unique, when he refers to the Symbols as a norm, “but not by themselves (absolute), but only in a certain respect (secundum quid), namely, a derived norm, because the doctrines confessed in our Symbols are confessed in Scripture.” 25 Now if the Symbols are norm in relation to Scripture and us, then the Scriptures must also be norm in relation to the Symbols and us. For when one member of a relation is a relative term, so must be the other.

Pieper distinguishes ministerial use of reason (usus rationis ministerialis) from its magesterial use, rejecting the latter but affirming the former in the interpretation of Scripture.26 Why could a similar distinction not be made with respect to the Fathers and Councils of the Church? It would seem that, in affirming a role for man’s reason but rejecting any role for the fathers, Pieper elevates the reason of the current individual interpreter above any and all previous interpreters. This is a subtle form of the error which C.S. Lewis calls “bulverism.”

Implications of a return to the Confessions’ view

What practical difference does it make to call Scripture the pure, clear source and not the sole source of theology? To begin with, it allows the testimony of the history and authors of the church to carry its proper weight. Peter Fraenkel’s book Testimonia Patrum demonstrates how crucial it was for Melancthon to show the “pedigree” of Lutheran teaching. Melanchthon took great, ongoing pains to study the Fathers of the church, both eastern and western. So also did the other confessors, as is evident by the Catalogue of Testimonies they compiled and added to later editions of the Book of Concord. While the Epitome rejects placing patristic writings on the same level as Holy Scripture, it also sets forth a positive role for them. They function as witnesses, showing how the doctrine of prophets and apostles was preserved in subsequent ages.

In addition, by allowing for sources of theology other than Scripture, we provide a check and balance against our own thoughts, ideas and speculation concerning the Holy Scripture. Scripture itself is the norma normans, the norming norm; these other writings are the norma normata, the normed norm. Over against Scripture, they are normed; but over against us, they are norm. Rightly understood, our recognizing church tradition as a source of theology does not deny the sufficiency of Scripture; it denies the sufficiency of the interpreter. It would seem naïve to deny the effects of the Fall at the point where a theologian is seeking to understand the Word. Especially when interpreters differ, the voice of tradition would seem to be relevant.

How would a return to the Confessions’ principle that Scripture is the pure source and sole rule of doctrine help us in the present crisis? With respect to the service of women in the church generally and their ordination more specifically, it would allow the two thousand year history and experience of the church to carry its full weight in rejecting this novum. With respect to the wholesale adaptation of secular and Reformed notions of doctrine and practice, it would provide a clear basis on which to examine critically these recent innovations, allowing us to keep what is useful and reject what is harmful in them. Those who claim sola Scriptura in the loudest voices do not practice it in reality; they supplement it with the latest Reformed theological notions or, what is worse, the current fashion in psychology or sociology.

As I write this, on my desk is an icon of Mary holding Jesus. Perhaps in this case, a picture is worth thousands of words in illustrating the relationship between the Church and the Scriptures. Just as God’s Son was born of Mary, so God’s word came through the Church. Just as Mary points to her Son, so the Church points to Scripture which proclaims Christ. And just as Christ is to be found in the embrace of his Mother, so Scripture can only be understood rightly within the embrace of the community through which God gave it to us.

End notes:

1 Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics (St. Louis: Concordia, 1950) I.3; hereafter cited as CD.

2 CD I.195.

3 CD I.203.

4 What constitutes “clarity” is an important question, but one beyond the scope of this paper.

5 Robert Preus, The Inspiration of Scripture, (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1957), pp. 3-4.

6 For example, at CD I.203 he speaks of “those who place the consensus of the Church on the level with the Scriptures as source and norm of doctrine;” at I. 211 he warns against those who discard “this sole source and norm of the Christian doctrine;” and at I.212 he says, “Whoever appeals to the Church, tradition, the Pope, etc., as source and norm of theology apart from and alongside Scripture, is likewise appealing to human authorities.”

7 CD I.62.

8 Preus, pp. 4-5. In support of the last sentence, Preus cites Aristotle (though I have been unable to find such a statement in Aristotle). Preus himself expresses some concern about this reliance on Aristotle; see e.g. Preus p. 210.

9 Note also the confusion of source-talk and norm-talk in this citation. In the first sentence he speaks of Scripture alone as the source of all knowledge of supernatural theology; by the last sentence he concludes that if it is not the only norm of doctrine, it is not a norm in the true sense of the word. This confusion of source-talk and norm-talk may also be seen in Schlink, Theology of the Lutheran Confessions (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), p. 27 (emphasis mine): “The sole norm for dogmatics is the Holy Scripture of the Old and New Testaments. All dogmatic statements must be derived from God’s revelation in his Word.”

10 Preus, p. 7. In CD I.365 Pieper even makes the claim, “All historical and chronological data which are needed to the end of time for the correct understanding of Scripture are furnished by Scripture itself.”

11 Preus, p. 23.

12 Schlink, op. cit. p. 17, says in answer to this question: “The church fathers are quoted because of their consensus in Scripture exposition. . . Thereby the Lutheran Confessions by no means place the church fathers on a level with Holy Scripture, but they place the fathers’ exposition of Scripture next to their own.” This misses the mark, however, for the Confessions cite the fathers to show the correctness of the evangelical point of view. Necessarily, then, the fathers are viewed as authoritative with respect to the controversies being dealt with.

13 SA I.iv.

14 Ap. XXI.9 (emphasis mine). On Mary praying for the Church, see Ap. XXI.27.

15 If someone wishes to claim that this statement is mere “pious opinion” and not doctrine, he must show this distinction from the Confessions themselves, and show that the Confessors understood this particular statement as such.

16 Ap. XXIV. 94, 96.

17 FC Ep, Introduction, paragraphs 1, 7, 8.

18 FC SD, Introduction, paragraph 3.

19 See Peter Fraenkel, Testimonia patrum: The Function of the Patristic Argument in the Theology of Philip Melanchthon. (Geneva: Librarie E. Droz), 1961.

20 Compare Fraenkel, pp. 148-149: “In his reply to the Council of Trent and to its decree of April 1546, Melanchthon can go so far as to group Scripture and the Creeds as perspicuous ‘fontes’ and to distinguish them from all interpretation.”

21 AC 1.4, emphasis mine.

22 Ap 24.88, 93.

23 Examination of the Council of Trent I.258 (emphasis mine). Chemnitz offers a falsifiability test here, not a verifiability test. That is to say, the presence of a doctrine in the early church does not prove it to be correct; but its absence proves it to be false. Nonetheless, the consensus of antiquity does function in the role of judge here, since it excludes new teachings. Is this an inconsistency on the part of Chemnitz, or must we re-evaluate in what sense Scripture is called “sole” norm? Furthermore, apply this test to issues today. Consider the contemporary teaching that Mary had other children after Jesus. Given that the entire ancient church rejected that teaching, what might Chemnitz say of the contemporary view? Again, given the complete absence of any established role for “prophetesses” in the ancient church, what would Chemnitz say of a study of the biblical office of prophetess, to see what implications it might have for us today?

24 Schlink, op. cit. p. 17, notes “The introduction of patristic quotations by means of ‘similarly,’ ‘the same,’ ‘not only . . . but also,’ occurs again and again.”

25 CD I.358. Remarkably, Pieper attaches a footnote to this remark which seems to show exactly the opposite of what he says above. He cites Chemnitz’ Loci, which says “And so we also say that we accept Scripture in the sense which is delivered to us in the true and proved Symbols of the ancient Church” (emphasis mine). The citation from Chemnitz certainly seems to limit our reception of Scripture according to the Symbols, not the other way around.

26 CD I.196-200.

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