Theological Interpretation & Sola Scriptura—Is it even Possible?

Guest Post: Ben Witherington III

I was talking the other day to a person who had come from a ‘Word Only’ Christian Church.  These folks take the Bible alone as their authority—even the Holy Spirit has no independent voice in these circles, nor does the church and its traditions.  What is perhaps most striking about this extreme example of sola Scriptura is the lack of awareness by its practitioners that they themselves are violating this shibboleth all the time when it comes to theology and praxis.  For example, ‘Word only’ folks most definitely have a rather developed theology of baptism which cannot be found in detail in the New Testament.  Even more ironically, the theology they have of the New Testament being Scripture is not fully grounded in the New Testament itself.

For example, nowhere in the New Testament itself is there a canon list which delimits what is and should be included in the NT corpus and what books should be excluded.  Canon lists are external to the corpus of the NT itself.  There are of course many other examples that one could cite to make this point, but this one must suffice.   If ‘sola Scriptura’ means the Bible only as an authority for the church, then there are inherent problems that ensue.  If it merely means that the Bible is the final norm, the final authority of faith and practice, that is another matter entirely.  The latter approach does not rule out theological and ethical development of thought beyond, but consistent with, what is in the canon.

In my recent two volume work, The Indelible Image, (Inter Varsity Press)  I have argued at some length that what we have in the New Testament is theologizing and ethicizing into specific situations. In other words, what we have is the doing of theology and the doing of ethics.  We do not have any systematic theology books in the NT or any ethics compendiums in the NT.  All of the 27 documents in the NT are purpose-driven, to use a now well-worn and hackneyed phrase.  One conclusion that one has to draw from this is that responsible theological interpretation, like responsible ethical interpretation of the NT, requires development beyond what the Scriptures say, precisely because what is in the text is ‘partial and piecemeal’,  there is an incompleteness to it.

Take for instance the theology of Scripture itself, or even the theology of the Trinity or a theology of baptism.  What you find in the NT is raw data with which one can construct a viable theology of a three-personed God or a viable theology of the inspiration and authority of these NT books or a viable theology of baptism, but I use the word construct advisedly.  There will need to be development beyond what is said in the text if one is to have anything like a full orbed theology of any one of these subjects, and we could say the same about a whole host of ethical subjects as well.

The Greek Church Fathers understood this fact perfectly well which is why, for example the first great Christological council, in Nicaea in 325 transpired even before the church had generally agreed on these 27 books as the exclusive documents in the New Testament. In other words, it was clear to them that the doctrine of Christ had to be amplified on the basis of the apostolic sources, had to be spun out further, had to be developed into a full treatment, if there was to be an adequate understanding of this doctrine.  Of course it is true that the Nicene Creed had to then be checked by and normed by Scripture itself, especially when it came to notions like the immutability or impassability of God, but nevertheless, just the having of such a council showed that these theologians understood that Scripture never stands entirely alone, and indeed it needs some development, some amplification and clarification.  But this of course raised the issue of the relationship of Scripture to later tradition, and indeed it still raises that issue today.

What needs to be recognized even by the ‘Word Only’ folks, is that it is never, and never has been, a matter of Scripture or tradition, but always a matter of both/and.  Here however is where I would part company with non-Protestants.  I agree with my old mentor Bruce Metzger and other Protestant scholars that the church does not have the final authority, for faith and practice, the Bible does.  I agree further with Metzger that the church did not so much form the NT canon, as it simply recognized it under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And what this means for me, when it comes to responsible theological or ethical interpretation is that the inspired traditions in the text must necessarily have the final say and be the norm when we are evaluating the theology and ethics that goes beyond the text.

If a theology cannot be shown to be a logical and coherent deduction from or implication from Scripture, or that it is consistent with all that we find in Scripture, then that theology should not itself be given any special or final authority for the church. And indeed if a theology goes flatly against some plain teaching of Scripture, so much the worse for that theology. It is not responsible systematic reflection on or grounded in the Bible.  A good example of what I am talking about, for instance, would be the notions of the immaculate conception and the perpetual virginity of Mary.  These notions are not only not found in Scripture, they seem to go clearly against numerous statements in the Gospels and elsewhere that suggest that Joseph and Mary had children subsequent to the birth of Jesus and indeed that Mary needed to offer a sacrifice for purification in the temple at one point. Both of these ideas are later theological ideas which were born out of the ascetical movement in the church, already in evidence in the second half of the second century A.D., ideas which do not pass the litmus test of a close reading of Scripture.

Sola Scriptura  is a notion often used and abused, but rightly understood, and rightly used it provides us with a norm and guide for what can, and cannot be called responsible theological interpretation, and for that matter, responsible ethical interpretation.  It would be my hope that we would all be more reflective and self-critical about the things we think are Scriptural, but often only reflect later church traditions. At a minimum we need to be able to ask and answer the question—is this idea a legitimate development or logical amplification of what we find in the Bible (for more on the inspiration and authority of Scripture see my The Living Word of God, (Baylor).


7 thoughts on “Theological Interpretation & Sola Scriptura—Is it even Possible?

  1. Thanks for the post!
    I have a somewhat more practical question. In the past year, I have found myself often encountering “word only” type churches and their members, which has repeatedly lead to my chastisement. As your post makes clear, it is apparent those churches and myself affirm two different understandings of sola scriptura.

    My question is, when dialoguing with someone entrenched in that “tradition”, what possible common ground is there to begin a civil conversation or dialectic? As I have often found them (note: I realize sweeping generalizations are unfair — this is all subjective to my experiences) unwilling to genuinely examine the matter.


  2. I think the term solo scriptura might be more adequate here. It seems that historically, sola scriptura, like in the hands of someone like Luther never mitigated the need for the “tradition” as part-and-parcel of the interpretive process.

    I liked the post though, we definitely need to emphasize the need for good theological exegesis; since everyone does, even those like you note in the body of the post (those who deny it, which I would say involves most Evangelicals, unfortunately).

  3. Hi Steven: Excellent question. I suppose you could ask them what they think the role of the Holy Spirit is in the life of the believer and why, if they do think so, it has changed so drastically since Paul described it in 1 Corinthians and Romans? If they point you to the end of 1 Cor. 13 as if the word perfect refers to the canon, you can certainly point out that the NT canon didn’t exist then, and the Corinthians could never have understood it to mean that. It refers to the end of the eschatological age when we see Christ face to face.

    Ben W.

  4. Dear Rev. Kent D. Eilers, Greetings in Christ Jesus!

    I am an independent international evangelist: My background: Systematic Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary: South Hamilton, Massachusetts: USA:
    I am very much concerned about Jesus Christ as the the Ultimate Judge on Earth: Why the Christendom world is not spending mots their time teaching about Jesus Christ the world savor and the ultimate Judge on Earth?
    Jesus Christ is inevitable! If individuals and humanity are to progress, Jesus Christ is inescapable! We ignore Him at our own wicked risk: [Acts 17: 30: Ezek 18: 30-32]:

    Athanasius-John Nkomo

  5. Thanks Dr. Witherington for your post. I have followed your teachings and have found them most instructive. I have always valued your expertise in surrounding the Text with a strong historical anchor in which it was written. On top of all of that, your writings are very accessible to one who enjoys theologizing, but is not necessarily steeped in it.

    Thanks again and God’s blessings on your work. Thanks Kent for inviting Dr. Witherington to join this amazing community of thoughtful and reflective followers of Jesus!

  6. Isn’t this the stand that Catholic church always emphasised vs. the evangelical sects. That the word of God is manifested and revealed through the Holy Spirit through out the world even today in different ways, including church traditions.

    Catholic church is rich in theology and experience, thus hoping that more and more groups converge to share understanding and agreement in love.

    Jesus is the means and the foundation of the Universe! Everything comes to pass through Him and the relationship with Jesus will come through the outpouring love of the Holy Spirit.

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