The Hermeneutic Impossibility of Sola Scriptura



One of the key problems with sola Scriptura is its failure to be able to provide, in principle, a sustainably authoritative hermeneutic, for at no point does the fallible reader of Scripture ascend beyond fallibility. Certainty, beyond a mere willfulness, must remain elusive. To attempt to counter this problem, one of the principle supports of sola Scriptura is the doctrine of the clarity or “perspicuity” of Scripture, that, according to the Westminster Confession, states (Chapter 1:7):


“All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.”


In other words, the essentials of salvation, such as the full divinity and humanity of Christ, the Trinity, the nature and scope of the Atonement, Justification by Faith, the relationship of Faith and Works, of Law and Grace, and all the basic doctrines necessary to salvation, are so abundantly clear from Scripture that no extraordinary means are necessary to understand them (though perhaps not to a “saving understanding,” as the section prior to that which was quoted could be said to imply). A careful look at this doctrine, however, is that it is not merely a claim about the clarity of Scripture, but about the reading and understanding of Scripture; it is about fallen man’s ability to read and understand the sacred truths of Scripture without any extraordinary support.


As will be argued, the problem with Sola Scriptura is thus not centered on the authority of the Scriptures, but the authority of any given interpretation of the Scriptures, for (1:10):


“The Supreme Judge, by whom all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.”


In other words, all being submitted to Scripture, no decree of council, no Church Father (“ancient writer”), no doctrine formulated by men, can have any authority, intrinsic or bestowed, but only the Holy Spirit “speaking in the Scripture,” which is inexorably to mean: as read, interpreted, and understood by fallible man. Careful observation will note that, since according to Reformed dogma all individual readers are in principle fallible, the assertion of the Bible’s unequaled authority is emptied of its force, and the Holy Spirit’s right guidance unverifiable, for fallible man cannot be removed from the interpretive equation. The question thus remains: Which fallible man is doing the examining and determining, and by what principle should he or his cohorts be trusted to be interpreting truly and on behalf of the Holy Spirit? What principle cause for trust can be given to any one his readings? In other words, by what principle ought someone believe, say, Athanasius or Augustine, Luther or Calvin, Sammy or Johnny? What guarantees their trustworthiness? Or proves their untrustworthiness? Since man is fallible, and even “the purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error” (25.5), then what guarantees that the Holy Spirit is really guiding any of them aright?


One could argue that Luther and Calvin are Scriptural, but this answer brings one right back to the dilemma of, “Says who?” Who, other than fallible readers, declares that they are Scriptural? Why should one believe the report that they are Scriptural? On what basis is the appeal being made? If fallible readers state that they are Scriptural, and then points at Scripture in order to prove it, then the same holds for Arians and Unitarians, for they also argue for their position by pointing to Scripture. The appeal then collapses back onto the assertion of some fallible individual interpreter, where the individual interpreter is consequently made the arbiter of authority and of orthodoxy, the discerner of the Holy Spirit.


Other than oneself, no one else can be hermeneutically trusted, and even self is considered suspect. According to this view, the hermeneutic authority doesn’t rest in the Church, and is in principle denied because Reformed thinking paradigmatically and dogmatically stands upon Scripture Alone. For example, no reference to the Church Fathers could carry any type of binding authority, and the extreme conditional acceptance of any other person’s reading of Scripture is always filtered through the “isolated” and individual arbiter of truth: “Do I agree that they are Scriptural? Am I persuaded?” Thus the notion of perspicuity fails, for nothing is finally clear because no one is clearly trustable, and appeals to the Holy Spirit’s infallible guiding of fallible readers does not overcome the trust problem. Persuasion is all that is left, and since the interpreting individual is inextricably bound up with the trust problem at all points, even if hypothetically he were correct, in principle no one could ever be sure. What is more, the historic and complex debates regarding Christian doctrine have demonstrated amply that core doctrines regarding the essentials of salvation – such as the divinity and humanity of Christ, the three co-equal Persons of the Trinity, to name only two issues – have been anything but easy to resolve.


For example, if two men, say a Reformed and an Orthodox Christian, both present a reading of Scripture or some theological proposition, then a third man must ask, “Why ought, or how can, I trust either of you?” Since according to his paradigm Tradition carries no real authority, the Reformed Christian will begin pointing to Scripture, and seek to persuade based on his ability to synthesize targeted Scriptural verses, and thus appeal to the third man’s feelings and intellect, so as to convince him that his reading is the right one. This situation, however, describes a closed loop between the two men and Scripture. The appeal is founded on that individual Reformed Christian’s personal skill with handling Scripture, and in principle no adding to the number of fallible Reformed Christians in this scenario will help because at each point the appeal is to the persuasive skill of the person pointing to the Scripture. Since neither Church nor Tradition can in principle be trusted, nothing beyond individual persuasion and personal conviction can in principle be had. The question, “Why should I believe you?” therefore cannot be answered except by appealing to the limited and admittedly fallible skill of the Reformed expert and the impressibility of the one being persuaded. Considering how many are converted to various heretical movements, whether by intellectual, emotional, or mystical persuasion, the notion of trusting that one is in the true Church is not securely founded beyond the personal persuadedness.


The Orthodox Christian, on the other hand, appeals to something much broader than his own personal skill at reading and synthesizing Scripture. He appeals to the whole Church’s reading together with her unbroken, historic, and living Tradition. In short, the Church has a hermeneutic authority that is impossible to the Reformed Christian. The fallible man is compensated for by the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. It is therefore the collective witness of Christ’s Orthodox Church, the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15), that is the source of appeal, and so her wisdom is transpersonal and rooted in Christ Himself who founded it and promised that the gates of hell shall not prevail over it (Matthew 16:18).


If one cannot trust the Church, one cannot yet then trust the Reformed Christian, for at no point does his hermeneutic have any authority beyond his personality. If he is outside the Church (however he might conceive of it) then he is of course no Christian, but even if he is in the Church, then it makes no difference for him as regards his hermeneutic, because as a member of a fallible Church he still has no personal hermeneutic authority. His reading can never escape the gravity well of his personality. Between the two, the Reformed and the Orthodox, it is therefore the untrustworthiness of the Reformed position that ultimately defeats him. It is unsustainable to simply keep pointing to the Scripture when the finger doing the pointing appeals only to his own skill at pointing. The pointing finger becomes the elephant in the room. That is why, in order to escape the bounds of the fallible ego, the Church’s hermeneutic authority must be presupposed in all Christian inquiry and persuasion, because the Scriptures themselves demand the presence of the Church as, together, having synergistic authority. In short, the Church is an epistemic precondition of the hermeneutic act, and consequently of authoritative, orthodox theology.


Thus, with the foregoing in mind, it is noteworthy that regarding the Orthodox position it is not a Council qua Council that is authoritative in the Church, but the Church itself speaking in a council. There have been false councils, and so the appeal to a Council’s decision is not to the Council per se, but to the voice of the Holy Spirit rooted infallibly in the ontology of the Church, within which the Council was made to happen and through which He came to speak. It is therefore the Church, considered mystically since as Bride she is ontologically rooted in Christ Himself and thus cannot be a merely human institution, that must and does have the hermeneutic authority to rightly divide Scripture. Thus the appeal of the Orthodox Christian is to the very Bride of Christ. She is the proper interpreter of Scripture, and speaking as the Body, whether through Councils or approved Fathers of the Church, she defeats the individualistic appeals of the Reformed communities who paradigmatically stand in constant judgment of the Church, Christ’s Bride, and so outside of her. Since to stand in judgment of something is to stand outside of it, the Reformed communities are in very principle outside the Church considered as such, placing themselves outside of her, for she is ever put in the dock.


An authoritative text requires an authoritative mechanism of transmission in order to be delivered with any certainty. This step is missing in the doctrine of sola Scriptura. Sola Scriptura simply posits a perfect text, but hermeneutically speaking it is rendered impossible to approach authoritatively, for one can never really trust, in a philosophical sense, that one either has the proper text or that one has the right reading of it. The text becomes isolated behind a wall of untouchable perfection – for everything else is reduced to human opinion. The problem with this is that the claim that it is a perfect and authoritative text ends up becoming mere opinion, for there is no personal or ecclesial authority lending anything to the claim that Scripture is authoritative. Yes, the text is perfect and authoritative, but without the Church one cannot claim its perfection with any certain authority. There might be any number of Christians who share that opinion, but the fact that, according to sola Scriptura, authority is not implicitly granted to the Church therefore renders the claim’s ascendency beyond opinion impossible in very principle, no matter how many people may agree with the opinion that it is perfect and authoritative.


The Church, however, being the pillar and ground of the truth (1Timothy 3:15), is the authoritative delivery mechanism for the Scriptures, bringing them to the people of God. The impossibility of the contrary leaves no real option, for otherwise the text of Scripture is doomed to all manner of division and heresy as there is only vying opinions about a so-called infallible text. But who gives the authoritative text? God, yes. But who does God give it to? The Church. And the Church receives it and passes it down, which is to say “traditions” it. Without the Church’s authority, what comprises the right interpretation of Scripture is constantly and irresolvably open to debate, division, and subdivision. God, however, does not deposit His Scripture in an unworthy vessel. Just as Christ is a “scandal of particularity,” so the Church is a grace-protected extension of this “scandal,” one which extends itself through history via disciplic apostolic succession, which is to say an unbroken organic continuity of Orthodox Christians throughout history. If Christians can affirm that Christ really did die and rise again, that He created the world out of nothing, then it is no stretch to affirm the historical reality of the unbroken and historically contiguous Orthodox Church.

One comment

  1. I’m glad you posted this, Fr. Joshua. I am reminded of Martin Luther and John Calvin anathematizing each other over the right meaning of the Eucharist. If Scripture is so clear on the essentials, why were these intelligent men disputing the nature of something so important as the Eucharist?

    Liked by 1 person

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