AOMin_Banner SermonAudio_Banner RYM_Banner DesiringGod_Banner

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Book Review of Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the Bible, ed. Don Kistler

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book for free in .pdf format from Reformation Trust, and am told that I will receive a free hard copy upon completion of a thoughtful review. They have also asked for a review at

This is a multiple-contributor book explaining and defending the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura, "scripture alone." This is the idea, as confessed by the early church and recovered by the 16th and 17th-century reformers, that Scripture is the only final and infallible authority for the Church in matters of life and doctrine. It does not teach that there are no other authorities for the Church or for individual Christians, nor does it teach that individual Christians can come to an accurate and whole understanding of Scripture apart from the rest of the body of Christ. It does not depreciate history or the great traditions of Christianity.

Rather, it seeks to exalt the written Word of God to its proper place as the unique self-revelation of the one triune God, the center of which is the self-revelation of God in Christ the Son, in history. The Word is unique as "God-breathed," infallible and without error in anything it asserts. Therefore all tradition, experience, and other sources of truth claims must be measured by God's perfect written Word in the Old and New Testaments.

In my estimation this book accomplishes what it was seeking to do. It is fairly strong in its definition and qualification of the doctrine of sola scriptura. It is strong, if relatively brief, in its handling of the most common objections from Roman Catholic theologians and apologists. That includes objections in the areas of canon, the witness of early church fathers, the proper interpretation of NT passages about "tradition," as well as exposing a number of inherent problems in the Roman Catholic position itself. In the way of negative critique, I only have a couple of nit-picky things to say, and I'll reserve them for the end.

The book opens with a foreword by Horton, who suggests that the book is aimed as much at Protestants who are tempted to capitulate to the claims of Rome (or Eastern Orthodoxy), as it is aimed at challenging Roman Catholics themselves. I did note one editing issue here, in the .pdf format I received at least: the verse cited as Romans 1:18 is actually 1 Corinthians 1:18, although the two passages are thematically related.

Next is a preface by Bickel, who suggests that the Church ought to be unified around truth, after the model of the Trinity. It is better to be divided for truth's sake, than to be united in error. When in comes to the central truths of the faith like the place of Scripture and the precious doctrines of the gospel, I am in full agreement here.

Chapter one, written by Godfrey, is called "What is Sola Scriptura?" In it, he lays out basic categories, definitions, basic Roman Catholic objections, and basic Protestant answers to said questions. This chapter functions almost like an overview for the rest of the book in its brevity yet relative thoroughness. I'm particularly happy with the emphasis here of interpretation of Scripture belonging in the Church, in community with other believers.

After some introductory remarks, Godfrey speaks first of Moses giving the Law, and how the people were to hear it and heed it, apart from any "authoritative" interpretive institutions (priests and prophets merely applied the Law; the Law itself was clear enough to understand and obey). Then he gives some exegesis of 2 Timothy 3-4, emphasizing how even though Timothy had received much oral apostolic tradition, still he is repeatedly pointed toward the Scriptures as that which will make him wise for salvation and equipped for every good work.

Then Godfrey quotes Augustine, talks about Jesus' victory over temptation in the wilderness through reliance on Scripture, and then moves to answer (very well, in my opinion) common Catholic objections, such as:

1) Other revelation than that which is inscripturated can be referred to as the "Word of God" (answer: yeah during the apostolic age, but not today, revelation having ceased);

2) "tradition" is clearly important according to the early church and according to Scripture itself (most important answer: usually in the early church fathers, "tradition typically referred to the standard interpretation of the Bible with their community, and we Protestants value such traditions," the key point being: "tradition" did not historically refer to extra revelation apart from that given in Scripture);

3) "Scripture, Church, and Tradition" are together the authority (answer: functionally for the Roman Catholic Church, since the Church both determines what is Scripture & "sacred Tradition" as well as interprets it, the Church itself becomes the final authority. Note the words of Pope Pius IX at Vatican I: "I am tradition." Also, the reformers found obvious contradictions between Scripture and official tradition, as well as between various official traditions of the Church);

4) Infallible Church authority is necessary to establish a canon of Scripture (answer: then how did the Church function before AD 382, or 1546, for that matter, when the Roman Church dogmatized its canon? The same can be asked about the Jewish canon of Old Testament Scriptures, for which there was not an official statement for hundreds and hundreds of years. Canon is not a matter of official Church declarations, but is self-authenticating and recognized passively by the people of God as a whole);

5) Just look at Protestant disunity (answer: we must compare Roman theory with Protestant theory, not Roman theory with Protestant practice. Rome is not actually unified theologically the way it claims. Moreover, Paul himself predicted divisions in the Church, and these divisions make it all the more necessary to have an external, objective standard like Scripture by which to solve disagreements, whereas Rome's claims to infallible authority here become very circular and unhelpful).

To end this chapter, Godfrey refers to the majestic Psalm 119 and the noble attitude of the Bereans of Acts 17, who tested even direct, apostolic oral teaching according to the Scriptures.

The next chapter is by James White, and he takes on the question of sola scriptura and the early church. First he contrasts a statement from Cyril of Jerusalem, which speaks highly of Scripture compared to other sources of authority/revelation, and contrasts that statement with a paradigmatic statement from the Council of Trent. Then White treats some important passages from early church father writings, from both Irenaeus and Basil. The heart of White's argument is that the use of the word "tradition" in these passages does not even come close to bearing the weight that many Roman Catholic apologists want to place on it: in Irenaeus, in context, it refers to obvious biblical truths like monotheism and the coming of Christ; in Basil it refers to early Christian practice and piety--and indeed some practices with which the Roman Church would not even agree! Moreover, White points out that Basil makes claims elsewhere that sound very much like the assertion of sola scriptura.

The third chapter is written by Sproul, wherein he tackles the thorny issue of the canon of Scripture. He makes a distinction, quoting his teacher Gerstner, between the Roman Catholic view of the canon as an "infallible list of infallible books" versus a "fallible list of infallible books." He goes on to briefly critique the Roman Catholic claim to infallibility, noting the problem that individuals still must interpret the so-called "infallible" teachings of the Church, and will inevitably do so fallibly.

Sproul makes the same point that Godfrey did above, namely, that there was a functioning "canon" prior to formal church councils declaring a list of books: just consider the OT Scriptures and their function during the apostolic era; also note the NT's witness to a growing recognition of the apostles' writings themselves as Scripture. Moreover, early church father quotes of the NT abound and most NT books functioned as canon from the earliest days of the post-Pentecostal Church.

Sproul also deals briefly with the question of the OT apocryphal books and gives several traditional Protestant arguments against including them as canonical: 1) while some Hellenized Jews included the apocrypha with their OT writings, there is no evidence to show most Jews regarded the deutero-canonical books as authoritative; 2) the books are never quoted by Jesus or the apostles as authoritative (although alluded to obliquely a couple of times in the NT); 3) Christ's typical threefold division of the OT ("Law, Prophets, Writings") affirms the traditional Jewish canon; 4) Scripture itself points to a unique prophetic silence in the era between the testaments.

Sproul summarizes the Protestant view of canon by saying (again, much as Godfrey stated) that the canon isn't created or given authority by the Church; the canon has inherent, self-authenticating authority.

After these rather typical discussions, impressively, Sproul goes on to argue that certain anti-supernaturalistic (Bultmannian) approaches to Scripture, as well as certain weak or antinomian views of Scripture, as well as certain neo-Pentecostal beliefs about new revelation continuing, are, in effect, damaging changes to the extent of the canon of Scripture itself!

Sproul's final word here on the canon is that the Church needs to trust in God's special providence for her, in that He has preserved and given to us all we need for faith and life in the 66 books of our Old and New Testaments.

Next, Derek Thomas spends a chapter describing and qualifying the nature of the authority of Scripture. He says that as a corollary of inspiration, the authority of Scripture extends to all of faith and practice, including difficult questions of ethics--for the principles of Scripture must be applied with wisdom to varying detailed situations of life. But, he says, we must always apply the authority of Scripture in the context of 1) an adequate sense of the distinctive features of various epochs of redemptive history; 2) and within proper hermeneutics.

In the next chapter, John MacArthur speaks of the sufficiency of Scripture. He actually makes a lot of the same points here that James White did with regard to passages that speak about "tradition," although he focuses more on the NT passages rather than early church father statements. His main argument there, though, is not (like White's) that tradition almost always means central gospel truths found in Scripture as well, but rather that even in these NT texts there is no reason to believe this apostolic tradition has the kind of authority or infallibility claimed for it by Rome.

MacArthur says that sufficiency is really, at the end of the day, the main point of the doctrine of sola scriptura. And he defines it thus: all truth that is necessary for salvation and spiritual life is found in Scripture, whether explicitly or implicitly. He then finishes his chapter by referring to the Bereans of Acts 17 (again) and noting that Roman Catholic believers today would be forbidden from approaching the relationship of Scripture and apostolic tradition in such a fashion. A powerful point.

Next up is Sinclair Ferguson, in his chapter simply titled "Scripture and Tradition," which title is a bit inappropriately broad for the contents of the chapter--and this is a shame, because in my opinion the contents of this chapter are worth the price of the whole book. The focus of this chapter is on the question of the functional relationship between Scripture and tradition for Roman Catholic theologians today, with one particular theologian, Fitzmeyer, as the main example.

This chapter is absolutely amazing because Ferguson picks Fitzmeyer as a representative, well-received theologian in the Catholic community, and begins expositing his theological method, as he shows us some of Fitzmeyer's initial exegesis of crucial verses in Romans 3, and then his later comments relating his exegetical findings to later Roman Catholic doctrines. Ferguson is trying to show that it is not an unfounded admission on the part of some Roman Catholics that, "there is in our day a clear recognition in Roman Catholic biblical scholarship that there is a gulf--or at least a distance--between what the text of sacred Scripture states and the teaching of the sacred tradition of the church."

The thing is, Fitzmeyer sounds like a party-line-towing Protestant when he exegetes Paul regarding the mechanism of justification. But, as he explicitly states in his Romans commentary, it is not possible to simply identify the teaching of Scripture with the teachings of sacred tradition. Rather, there is a kind of "open" character of Scripture, such that it is subject to the traditional and dogmatic handling of the Church. So Fitzmeyer does not embrace the sola fide he seems obviously to have found in Paul. In Roman Catholicism, it just goes to show, there is a necessary, logical priority and supremacy of the Church over both Scripture and tradition.

Thus Trent declared that no one was allowed to interpret Scripture in a way contrary to either the teaching of the Church or the "unanimous consent of the fathers" (as ridiculous as an idea as that is on its own). The claim is that any conflict of dogma and exegesis is due to unfaithful exegesis (note the circularity: we must start with good exegesis, but dogma/sacred tradition delimits what the results of "faithful exegesis" can be).

Ferguson goes on to assert that Roman Catholicism is not monolithic: there are clear conservatives (who tend to hold to the more historic meanings of exclusivistic dogma), and there are liberals (who by contrast interpret sacred tradition in a more ecumenical fashion)--after all, sacred tradition itself (which is often interpretations of Scripture or of still older traditions) still has to be interpreted by the living community of faith in one way or another (remember?). Ferguson gives the example of one Geiselmann fellow who tried to interpret a statement from Trent so as to allow basically for sola scriptura. The response to him from Cardinal Ratzinger is rather telling and direct: he basically told Geiselmann he was wrong because he was bound to believe all kinds of Church dogma that could not be found in the Scriptures!

With this kind of insistence on bowing at the outset to the ultimate interpretive authority of Rome, the reformers even in their own day argued that the "gap" between the teaching of Scripture and sacred tradition was not merely a relationship of dynamic tension, but rather there was often a chasm--blatant contradictions with regard to central doctrines of the faith.

So we see with Ferguson's chapter that still today, Scripture has no functionally supreme role of authority in the Roman Church, although she gives lip-service to it as an ultimate authority alongside tradition and the magisterial proclamations of the Church/the Pope. And I would just note if a Roman Catholic apologist were to complain that Dr. Ferguson only used on example of a faithful Roman Catholic theologian going about his work and methodology, that would just give weight to the Protestant argument (based on observable fact) that Rome is unified only formally and artificially, not really. Will a Protestant be convinced of the superior unity of Rome if he dissects the theological methodology of two different, celebrated Catholic theologians?

In the final, full-length chapter, Beeke and Lanning speak in practical-theological terms of the transforming power of Scripture. They emphasize that it's not enough to have academic debate about the nature and role of Scripture, but rather the purpose of having and esteeming Scripture so highly is for God to work His transformative, saving, sanctifying work in His people. They talk about four images the Bible gives for itself: a lamp, a hammer, a sword, and a seed; and they explain the significance of each image as it relates to our encounter with the Bible. They then go on to discuss the different ways in which we were meant to engage with Scripture: reading, hearing, meditating, preaching, and singing (especially the Psalms, which I really appreciated!). Toward the end of the chapter, Beeke and Lanning just focus for a while on the great centrality of the Word in the life of the Church, most especially in its being preached.

In the afterword of the book, we are exhorted to fight for the rightful place of Scripture in the Church, and reminded that we dare not either add to or take away from the written words of God.

As I said, all-in-all, I believe this is a good book which accomplished a lot. I think it would be a perfect book to introduce older high school students in the faith, younger college students, or newcomer evangelical/Protestant believers to the biblical and truly historical view of the relationship between Scripture, tradition, the Church, experience, etc. That said, I have some very minor words of critique before wrapping up this review:

1) There are advantages and disadvantages to having a multi-contributor book put together on one large, over-arching topic. One of the disadvantages is that, depending on the editing process, there may be significant overlap--and this is indeed the case, in my opinion. MacArthur reiterated a number of points already made by White in a previous chapter, and some of Sproul's points on canon were already addressed by Godfrey's chapter. The advantage, I suppose, is reinforcement and a demonstration that multiple well-known church leaders and theologians agree on these very important matters.

2) I don't think this book defined or nuanced the doctrine of sola scriptura, at least not all in one place if it did, in quite the way done by Keith Mathison in his great book, The Shape of Sola Scriptura (which I would recommend to older or more theologically-inclined college students or seminarians). In the book edited by Kistler, we do get an emphasis on the importance of the church (not as an infallible institution but as a fallible body of Spirit-indwelt and Spirit-illuminated believers reading Scripture together) as the necessary context of faithful interpretation; but we don't hear much about an early regula fidei regarding the most central truths of the apostolic gospel, which functioned as a (fallible but important) set of boundaries on scriptural interpretation. Mathison fleshes out this consideration more in his own book.

Again, though, I have to remind the reader that I am nit-picking here, for the contributors to this book do a much better job of nuancing the doctrine than many rank-and-file Protestant Christians who think sola scriptura is just about "my Bible and me and the Holy Spirit, figuring out all doctrine for ourselves."

3) Once or twice, there were a couple of statements regarding tradition and authority that are not overstatements if and only if you assume that the word "authority" is being used in the absolute sense of "final, infallible authority." For example, one time MacArthur writes, "...tradition had no legitimate place of authority in the worship of Jehovah." Obviously tradition does have some kind of authoritative role in the life of the Church, even Scripture clearly transcends it. Surely Dr. MacArthur realizes such and intends "authority" to be read as "absolute, infallible authority."

4) In the Beeke/Lanning chapter on the transforming power of Scripture, there is a passing reference made to Sabbath observance, in terms of taking up the whole day in religious and devotional activity, particularly as makes use of the Scriptures. While the Westminster Confession of Faith encourages that view of Sabbath observance, I personally do not believe that physical or mental recreation is prohibited on the Lord's Day. I believe the fundamental thing enjoined in the Fourth Commandment, apart from the necessary "holy convocation" of God's people for public worship, is rest, not the multiplication of many "works"--religious "works" though they be.

These trifles of criticism out of mind, I am very happy with this book and will be recommending it to certain members of my own local Church in the near future, I'm sure. It does a good job of giving context and foundation to the most common issues brought up in discussions of whether sola scriptura is coherent, biblical, and historical--and what it is or is not, in the first place. I find the arguments and counter-arguments for the Protestant view compelling, and they make me want to sing Psalm 119 letter by letter this week, extolling the Law, the statutes, and the counsels of God, found in His perfet, holy, inspired Word.

Thanks to Ligonier ministries for Email and Twitter updates about opportunities like this, and thank you to Reformation Trust for providing the .pdf format gratis so that I could read and review it. I hope to do similar work in the future!

God bless!

No comments: