“Sola Scriptura” Does Not Mean “Scripture Is the Sole Authority”
Christian Smith—a prolific sociologist widely read by evangelicals—has been wading into theological waters of late. One of his recent books is an extended argument against evangelical “biblicism” (his thesis is that biblicism—even of a more sophisticated kind represented by Packer, Carson, and the like—is intellectually impossible given the reality of “pervasive interpretative pluralism”). For interaction with this book, you could look at Scot McKnight’s blog, who thinks the book is a “must-read” addressing “the biggest challenge evangelicalism has to face.” Or see Kevin DeYoung’s review, who thinks the book is inconsistent and built upon significant caricatures.
A recent convert to Roman Catholicism, Smith has also just published a book on how to go from being a good evangelical to a committed Catholic. (Be on the look out for Chris Castaldo’s excellent review in a forthcoming issue of Books & Culture.)
Peter Leithart picked up on Smith’s misunderstanding of sola scriptura:
Step #47 [in Smith's 95 steps to move from evangelicalism to Catholicism] is to “realize that the doctrine of sola Scriptura is itself not biblical but, ironically, is received and believed as a sacred (Protestant) church tradition.” A neat bit of jiu jitsu, but the next sentence makes one suspect that he’s played dirty: sola Scriptura is the belief that Christians have “the Bible alone and no other human tradition as authority.” Later, he challenges his readers to find biblical passages that teach that “Scripture or the written word of God is the sole and sufficient authority for Christian faith.”
Now, I imagine that there are people who believe sola Scriptura as Smith describes it, and Protestants have always insisted that Scripture is a sufficient revelation of God’s will for us (cf., e.g., WCF 1.6). But neither the Reformers nor their heirs concluded that Scripture is the “sole” authority, nor did they deny the relative authority of human teachers. (If Calvin believed the Bible was the “sole” authority, why so much effort and time devoted to reading Augustine and Chrysostom?) As Smith himself points out, the Scriptures themselves point to human teachers and leaders who are to be honored as authorities. Smith is also correct that the New Testament writers encourage Christians to honor apostolic traditions. No argument there, but that’s because Smith has missed the point.
The argument is not about “sole” authority but “final” authority.
You can read the whole thing here.