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. Continue reading