[Four Corners] Scriptura?

May 22nd, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts

There is a classical dispute in the law of contracts, the underlying problem of which also bears on the doctrine of sola Scriptura.  Can one really look to an authoritative text alone without at least impliedly resorting to extrinsics during interpretation?

Suppose you enter into a contract to purchase a home from a seller, and at some point the other party refuses to sell, claiming that a term of the contract allows them out of the deal.  If you disagree with their interpretation of the disputed clause, and take it to a judge, what should he consider in resolving the matter?  Should he only consider the “four corners” of the contract that you and the seller signed (i.e., nothing beyond the written page itself), or should he also consider extrinsic (“parol“) evidence, such as testimony that the seller assured you orally that the clause meant the opposite of what he now claims?

Deed of Property

The underlying issue, then, is whether courts can consider something more than the contract, when the parties are bound only by the contract document they signed.  The traditional position has been that only the written contract could be considered by the courts, not testimony about oral promises made outside of the writing.  This is sola pactum, if you would.  But a rift started to emerge in the courts, prompted, as is often the case, by bad cases and clear scoundrels benefiting from a ‘bright-line’ rule.

A fairly philosophical view appeared: a contract is never in fact interpreted by its four corners alone because every judge’s mind comes pre-loaded with normative or interpretive biases.  Anyone reading it would filter the words on the page through their own preexisting understanding of language, or of the matters being agreed upon in contract. Specialty terms from a particular field related to the contract (e.g., construction terms) may have a different meaning to the contracting parties than they would to a lay judge.  Language is never a perfect medium for underlying thought, it seems.

Analogously, if our authority for faith and morals is the Bible alone, may we look only to the four corners of Scripture, or do we admit extrinsic sources to our interpretation as well? Some will insist upon a negative answer: “no book but the Bible, no creed but Christ.”  

The Reformer opposed to ‘biblicism’ will be quick to note that his authority is sola Scriptura interpreted with the church.1  That is, some measure of deference to others’ interpretations or to a traditional vein of interpretation is due.  This view, which I admire for its humble respect for tradition, is the analog to the liberal trend in contract law admitting extrinsics.  But in choosing our extrinsics, in selecting whose or which traditional vein’s interpretation receives our deference, we, like judges and anyone else handling text, do not start with an interpretive tabula rasa.  We add our own extrinsic every time we filter a text through our mind, and that filter will differ greatly from, say, the filter of a 2nd century Greek Christian.

How is the term sola proper when it is not [Four Corners] Scriptura, but Scriptura + Interpretive Extrinsics?

  1. See, e.g., here. []
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  1. Hey Tom,

    I appreciate your hermeneutical point concerning context. I don’t think that this is a problem for Protestants, though. If we grant, as do traditional Protestants, that the text of Scripture refers to extra-textual reality, then it follows as a matter of course that extra-textual considerations factor into biblical interpretation.

    I notice, however, that when you move to consider these extra-textuals (we can call them E.T.), you turn more inward, to the interpreter , than outward, to the referents of the text:

    A fairly philosophical view appeared: a contract is never in fact interpreted by its four corners alone because every judge’s mind comes pre-loaded with normative or interpretive biases. Anyone reading it would filter the words on the page through their own preexisting understanding of language, or of the matters being agreed upon in contract. Specialty terms from a particular field related to the contract (e.g., construction terms) may have a different meaning to the contracting parties than they would to a lay judge. Language is never a perfect medium for underlying thought, it seems.

    I wonder whether this implies an infinite regress of interpretive ambiguity.

    In your own example, the judge’s decision will inevitably be expressed in an oral or written text. This cannot be interpreted within the “four corners” of his legal declaration alone, since every lawyer’s, plaintiff’s and defendant’s mind “comes pre-loaded with normative or interpretive biases.” Thus, his sentence must be appealed to some higher court in order to be properly understood and executed. Of course, the decision of that court must then be relieved of its inherent ambiguities (endemic to language) by some other extrinsic standard, and so forth, ad infinitum.

    Of course, we could just say that, after all, hermeneutics is politics, or praxis (giving a new twist to the metaphor of the word of God as a sword). So long as the judge makes a decision, and enforces that decision (police-wise), it doesn’t matter if anyone understands anything. But since we are looking for understanding, such a “solution” to the problem of interpretation really will not do.

    Also, notice that the claim that “language is never a perfect medium for underlying thought” is itself expressed by language. So it seems that you think that language is at least an adequate medium for underlying thought. Else why bother writing this? And if I have a medium adequate to my purpose (expressing underlying thought), why carp about it not being “perfect”?

    Of course, language is not self-contained. Propositions (embodied in sentences) refer to extra-linguistic reality, and all that we know about the referents of any given text should be brought to bear upon our interpretation of that text. In this sense, I advocate a “beyond the four corners” hermeneutic. Its just that I think that the “Interpretive Extrinsics” are in the first place objective, as in first principles of reason (including interpretive reasoning), such that those extrinsics that are merely relative to the interpreter do not preclude objective, and correct, interpretation.

    I think that there is an argument to be made for the necessity of tradition as an objective interpretive standard. But I do not think that this argument can be built upon the premise of an inherent ambiguity of texts deriving, at least in part, from the subjective and otherwise relative standpoint of the interpreter. Some “Interpretive Extrinsics” are objective and transcendental. Protestant, Catholic, Greek, Latin alike are privy to these extrinsics, and inevitable imply them in interpretation. This no more invalidates the principle of sola scripture than does the use of paper and ink.

  2. Last sentence should say,

    This is no more inconsistent with the principle of sola scriptura than is the use of paper and ink.

  3. Disclaimer: I’m a former Evangelical Protestant who entered full communion with the Catholic Church some years ago.

    My Evangelical friend and I have been discussing these issues recently, and he seems to hold the belief I did as an Evangelical when confronted with the kind of question you pose: The Bible is not subject to interpretation; in the essential matters of the faith, the Bible is sufficiently clear to be understood without differences in interpretation. Therefore, sola scriptura holds because we can know what the Bible teaches on essential teachings through a “plain” reading of the Scriptures. The non-essential teachings can be disagreed on without threatening one’s salvation, so it’s okay if the Bible can be interpreted differently for the non-essentials.

    This argument is appealing and contains some truth. However, it has several flaws, which I am sure you are aware of.

    For one thing, it requires some thing extrinsic to the Bible to determine what, exactly, are the “essential” teachings and which are “non-essential”. The Biblical authors did not clearly preface their statements with (Essential Teaching Begins Here). One person could decide one thing is essential and another not, and another person disagrees; it is based on their weighting of Biblical teachings.

    Secondly, as we all know, faithful Christians differ in interpreting even teachings that most consider essentials or at least highly important: what does baptism do or not do? what is the Eucharist? what must I do to be saved? when does a person receive the Holy Spirit? etc.

    The reality is that we all have some extrinsic interpretive tradition that influences our reading of the Bible, forcing us to come up with (often elaborate and unplausible) interpretations of passages that seem to contradict our tradition’s teachings.

    In my experience, against the reality, most Evangelical Protestant Christians deny that there is any interpretive authority involved.

    The Catholic Church acknowledges that there is an interpretive authority and further claims that Christ gave His Church this teaching authority, the Magisterium.

    In practice Protestants accept some interpretive authority, even if it is their own personal opinion as influenced by their particular Protestant tradition.

  4. Andrew & Devin,

    It may be helpful to keep in mind the real (ontological) distinction between words on a page, and communication with a living person. The former is not necessarily the latter. Fr. Kimel, in his sola scriptura thread, quotes from Chesterton’s “Why I am a Catholic,” where Chesterton writes:

    [The Catholic Church] does not, in the conventional phrase, believe what the Bible says, for the simple reason that the Bible does not say anything. You cannot put a book in the witness-box and ask it what it really means. The Fundamentalist controversy itself destroys Fundamentalism. The Bible by itself cannot be a basis of agreement when it is a cause of disagreement; it cannot be the common ground of Christians when some take it allegorically and some literally. The Catholic refers it to something that can say something, to the living, consistent, and continuous mind of which I have spoken; the highest mind of man guided by God.

    Chesterton is pointing out the real difference between a person and a book; the former can be put in the witness-box, and the latter cannot. And that’s why a book cannot replace a living magisterium, and why a book requires a living magisterium.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  5. The connection between the rule against “parol evidence” in contracts and scriptural interpretation is interesting. Here’s where I think the connection is limited. The parol evidence rule in contracts was not developed because parol evidence was not helpful in determining the parties’ true intent. It almost certainly is. Instead, it was developed, and still stands, to prevent simple contract disputes from turning into huge undertakings with depositions of dozens of witnesses and the introduction of thousands of pages of documents all to help the court understand what the parties “really” meant.

    Where there are ambiguities on the face of the document, parol evidence may be admitted. The judge has to know what he’s enforcing, after all. But it is not admissible to contradict any terms in an integrated document–even if that evidence is relevant to the parties’ true intent.

    That is why I think the corellation is limited. Human justice is only concerned with process, and so imposes such limits as the parol evidence rule. The pursuit of knowing God is not so limited. We might even say that such an end justifies the means. Of course, the question then becomes one over the authentication of the sola scriptura premise. If that rule is of God, then how can we claim to know him by allowing other sources to have equal or greater authority?

  6. There is a distinction between a person and a text. There is also a distinction between a spoken text and a written text. But the words and propositions formed thereby do not differ whether spoken or written, or whether the author is present or absent, living or dead. These are what must be interpreted.

    We all know the value of being able to ask someone, “What do you mean by …?” What I am emphasizing is (a) the unavoidability of the task of personal interpretation, (b) that idiosyncrasies or other relativizing factors that we bring to the hermeneutical task do not preclude objective personal interpretation of texts, and (c) this is because some of those factors that we bring to personal interpretation are transcendental and unavoidable for all interpreters, hence, objective. Some biases are good biases because they are true.

    This is perfectly consistent with everything Tom said. I just wanted to focus on objectivity in hermeneutics.

    One of the reasons that I am Catholic is that the Catholic Church alone can and does speak with complete, though delegated, authority on matters of faith and morals. The need for this voice is especially palpable when doctrine is disputed. Yet even the living Magisterium speaks by means of texts, which must be interpreted.

    I appreciate Tim Kowal’s points (presuming that I understand his text[!]). I happen to think that the premise of sola scriptura is both false and hermeneutically inferior to the Catholic position, not because of anything intrinsic to the subjective aspect of exegesis, but because the premise erects a theological parameter which excludes parts or aspects of the divine word (hence it is false), thus occluding their perception of the context of that divine word which they do receive (thus sola scriptura places Protestants at a hermeneutical disadvantage). I am, of course, referring to the full revelation of Christ Jesus as vouchsafed to, and preserved by, the Church in Holy Tradition.

    In effect, Protestants consistently read the Bible out of context by refusing to recognize (for what it is) something “beyond the corners” that is deeply relevant to the text at hand: the Word of God in unwritten tradition.

    So I agree with the main thrust of Tom’s post. I just wanted to hone in on the objective extra-textuals, such as first principles and church tradition. The former are compatible with sola scriptura, the latter, obviously, is not.

  7. Dear Andrew,

    I meant to observe first that an old debate in contracts had a valid application to the doctrine of sola Scriptura. Second, I meant to note that as the strict rules against considering any evidence outside the four corners of the contract loosened, a view appeared that extrinsics are always inherently involved, as the mind of the interpreting judge comes pre-charged.

    I find the categorical tool useful; the biblicist is easily placed in the four-corners camp (so no extrinsics allowed). I grew up so influenced by people from this camp that I had effectively adopted it, but as I grew in my Reformed faith, I realized that the classical Reformed position was not four-corners only (we tried to interpret ‘with the church’). The analogy to contracts helps me to see that for a very long time I had been admitting a variety of extrinsics even though I would have rejected that I should have done that. So this post was an observation more than an argument.

    Cateogorical tool aside, and here I might have blurred issues in my blog post, I think both camps (biblicist and non-biblicist) need to address whether or the extent to which the pre-charged interpreter’s mind is an extrinsic. Is it ever the ‘Bible alone’ when a 19th century Englishman is going to read the biblical prescriptions and proscriptions for sexual morality as having a very different meaning than would a 21st century American or Thai person?

    You said: “I think that there is an argument to be made for the necessity of tradition as an objective interpretive standard. But I do not think that this argument can be built upon the premise of an inherent ambiguity of text…” I agree on the necessity of tradition, and I did not mean to premise this argument on the inherent ambiguity of texts. I am not with the text-can’t-be-objective camp I described, but think it is a view that a robust doctrine of sola Scriptura should be equipped to address.

    I am not sure that mere reference to extra-textuals is the out you describe for sola Scriptura adherents. Try a narrow definition of ‘extrinsics’ here – those serving as a kind of authority. A contract could describe “grapes,” but a judge could still stay within the four corners of the contract to determine the binding intent of the parties. But if party X could persuade the judge that party Y orally assured him those were to be Barbera grapes, then some other authority than the text was used. Likewise, if a theologian could present evidence from other ancient Greek texts to convince my elders that “and upon this Rock” refers to Peter’s confession, and not to Peter himself, our conclusion is based on Scripture + extrinsic.

    Peace in Christ,
    Tom

  8. Dear Devin,

    Thank you for commenting. You are right to note one likely evangelical response: the Bible is clear on its face, so not really interpreted, for the essentials of the faith. I have little to add to your sound observations. I wish that more evangelicals realized the extent to which their (our?) understandings of faith and morals rely upon the roots of their “vein” of protestantism. My (Reformed) pastor delivered a fabulous sermon last week on the Lord’s Supper, and made it clear that our view descends from John Calvin. There was no mistaking that Calvin interpreted, and we follow what we believe to be his valid interpretation. This is so helpful to the greater discussion of Christian unity!

    It occurs to me that the Westminster Confession might lead to the there-is-no-interpretation-in-essentials view: “…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.” (WCF at I.VIII.)

    Peace in Christ,
    Tom

  9. Dear Bryan,

    You said of people and books, “the former can be put in the witness-box, and the latter cannot. And that’s why a book cannot replace a living magisterium, and why a book requires a living magisterium.”

    But not so fast! The Chesterton quote is helpful to my analogy, because the contract dispute relates to its evidentiary completeness. In effect, the contract is put in the witness box (on the stand). The issue is whether to put another person or text up there to qualify or rebut certain of its terms. So if the Bible is on the stand, is it complete enough to testify to us what we need to believe or how we need to live, or are other texts or people put ‘in the box’? Precisely the categorization I was hoping to draw out in this post.

    The scholar arguing from the ancient Greek text which helps interpret “and upon this Rock” is another something on the stand, another authority beside the text four corners of the Bible.

    Which leaves me with my question: how is the term sola proper when it is not [Four Corners] Scriptura, but Scriptura + Interpretive Extrinsics?

    Peace in Christ,
    Tom

  10. Dear Tim,

    Good to have your comment, thank you! I agree that the connection between contract law and sola Scriptura has limits. But in categorizing between *text alone* and *text + other authority*, I think it is an apt analogy. Reasons why aside, the courts came to say: “four corners only” (no parol evidence!). So what is interesting is how both the courts and Christians have handled an authoritative text where looking beyond its borders was verboten.

    The rule permitting parol evidence to clear up ambiguities is, as I recall from class three years ago, a later development in the law of contracts. I hope I am not mistaken. As a development, it too sheds light on the discussion, and how the courts resolved a problem with the strict approach.

    “Of course, the question then becomes one over the authentication of the sola scriptura premise. If that rule is of God, then how can we claim to know him by allowing other sources to have equal or greater authority?”

    I would really love to hear more from you about what you mean here. I can “know” God in spite of misapprehending certain of his “rules,” even major ones, no? Or is sola Scriptura the sine qua non of knowing God (in which case I would ask, how did people know God before that doctrine came into being?)? And since I can’t help myself (because this has been my own difficulty with sola Scriptura for a few years now), what authority gave us the rule of sola Scriptura?

    Peace in Christ,
    Tom

  11. Tom,

    I think that reason is an extrinsic filter/authority could be consistently admitted by Protestants committed to sola scriptura. The latter is not, as I understand it, a hermeneutical position concerning how texts should be interpreted. It is a statement about religious authority. Granted, the hermeneutical questions come popping in almost immediately.

    It seems to me, however, that one could use whatever extrinsic filters/authorities he has, including the ones he can’t help using, in order to discover the meaning of the text without claiming that those hermeneutical principles enjoy the same kind of authority as does the text being interpreted.

    I know that there is a strong fideistic strain in Protestant theology, such that sola scriptura is made to imply that hermeneutics (extrinsic authority) is unnecessary. But I was trained by Protestants who are not fideists, and they were able to make the distinction between the authority of faith (sola scriptura) and the authority of reason (including reasonable principles of interpretation).

  12. I suppose that, in the framework suggested in your post, we are meant to proceed thus: Scripture is our “contract”; within that contract is an “integration clause” governing what other writings or conduct may inform which terms within Scripture; and whether those other writings or conduct resolve ambiguities, or whether they add terms, or whether they contradict terms within Scripture.

    (I understand I am in the company of mostly non-adherents to sola scriptura. You may assume that I am something of a faint-hearted adherent to sola scriptura.)

    In answer to your query, “what authority gave us the rule of sola Scriptura?” I had assumed that, given the above, that at all times we are starting from Scripture, the “contract” or “writing” from which we make our preliminary determination of whether the term in question was contemplated in the writing, and/or whether it is ambiguous. In other words, thinking of your query in a contractual framework, we always know that when there is a valid written agreement, properly formed (offer, acceptance, consideration, absence of other defects to formation, such as fraud, mistake, misunderstanding, etc.) its terms will be presumed to govern.

    And am I mistaken to believe that Catholics do believe in at least a form of sola scriptura? I have heard defenses of supplication to the saints and confession, which suggest that they do not contradict Scripture. Thus, there seems an implicit acknowledgment that such practices may at most add or clarify, not contradict. Does this not suggest an understanding of the primacy of scripture? And is that not at least a form of sola scriptura?

    How do we “know” God before sola scriptura? I suppose the same way that, conceptually, parties have an agreement (i.e., a meeting of the minds) before they put the terms into an agreement. The signing of a written agreement is just a shorthand, a proxy used for legal purposes (because how is a court otherwise to know when that ephemeral meeting in the parties minds took place?). In the more limited legal construct, the parties might actually agree to something slightly different than what the writing says, due to reasons I gave, or that Andrew Preslar gave. And they can go ahead and behave differently if they choose, so long as they keep in mind that only the behavior described in the writing may be enforced, and if they deviate, they can be found liable for breach.

    In the faith context, I suppose one might say that folks can behave pursuant to the terms of their personal understanding of and relationship with Christ. Or, if a community of believers agree on a practice or series of practices, all the better, perhaps. But to the extent those practices are not grounded in the writing, they seem to be somewhat freewheeling. Of course, perhaps it does not matter because, who is the judge? In this case, it is God alone. But to the extent practitioners of “parol” beliefs seek to defend those practices to other followers of the writing, they will encounter conflict. (And so they have!)

    The last point is clutch. Law, including contract law, is an approximation. It makes no pretenses of getting at the parties’ actual intent. This is why, among other reasons, I describe my self as a faint-hearted sola scriptura advocate. But the reason why I am still an advocate is because, sola scriptura at least provides a touchstone from which we can test things to determine whether it is from God. Ultimately, I have no say in another’s relationship with Christ. But my presumptions must lie in the text of the Scriptures. Otherwise, I fear I would find myself on a very unpleasant slippery slope to a sort of relativism.

    I am out of town until Monday evening, so my apologies in advance for my lack of participation until then.

  13. Tom:

    Is it ever the ‘Bible alone’ when a 19th century Englishman is going to read the biblical prescriptions and proscriptions for sexual morality as having a very different meaning than would a 21st century American or Thai person?

    I want to focus on your use of the word “meaning” here. I do not think that biblical commands have different meanings, say, one for a Victorian sailor and another for a Thai banker. I do think that these commands, univocal in meaning, admit of various applications (or no application).

    For example: “Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” (oft repeated in Moses) means the same thing “for me” as it did for the Exodus generation; namely, do not boil the offspring of a female animal in the milk of its maternal progenitor. Now, this proposition is not at all difficult to understand. It might be hard to tell why God gave such a command, but that would speak to the significance of the proposition, not its meaning. Also, it might not always be clear how this command applies (Does a cheeseburger violate the precept?) or to whom it applies. (May I eat a cheeseburger, even if Joshua could not?) But the meaning of the command has not changed in the least.

    Also, it is possible to arrive at a fuller apprehension of the one meaning and often multi-layered significance of any proposition or set of propositions, as made evident by Our Lord’s teaching on Scripture, the Apostolic tradition, and subsequent developments of Christian doctrine.

    I am not implying that it is always easy to discover the meaning of texts, especially legal texts (!) and ancient Koine letters (cf., 2 Peter 3.16). But it is possible, and in fact we discover the meaning of all kinds of texts all the time. I think that many of our hermeneutical difficulties pertain more to the significance (the why question) and application (how and whom questions) of a text (particularly ancient texts, or in cross-cultural cases) than to its meaning.

  14. Dear Andrew,

    I think by “interpretive extrinsics” I do not mean reason or analytical methods, but evidence or information not contained in the bible. Think of my example that a scholar persuades my presbytery based on a Greek letter which elucidates (to him) what the rock was in “and upon this rock.” We can use reason without adding to Scripture, but if our reason considers Scripture plus evidence outside of Scripture, how does the term “sola” remain appropriate?

    The interpretive filter is a second issue I am taking up. I do not contend with what I believe is your assertion, that objective truth can by knowable and communicable by text. I am not seeking to torpedo sola Scriptura with my analogy. I do think that many sola Scriptura adherents are unequipped to understand how their filters do affect their interpretations, to the point where they are not giving an objective reading. And I think a good segment, the biblicists, would deny that these filters are even at play where “essentials” are taught in Scripture.

    Peace in Christ,
    Tom

  15. Dear Tim,

    “I suppose that, in the framework suggested in your post, we are meant to proceed thus: Scripture is our “contract”; within that contract is an “integration clause” governing what other writings or conduct may inform which terms within Scripture.”

    I think this exceeds the bounds of my analogy. I see one situation where a document is an authority over conduct, and a rule existed whereby nothing could be considered beyond its four corners to interpret it. Analogously, Scripture is a document, a text, that is an authority over conduct, and the rule of sola Scriptura arguably holds that nothing can be considered beyond its four corners in its interpretation. I see a categorical lesson from the analogy.

    I would not liken Scripture to a contract itself for a variety of reasons. First, if not foremost, it has no “integration clause;” it does not identify itself as what we treat it like. It describes as a part within it the real contract (Covenant) we are in, which is infinitely greater in richness than the books of the Bible could contain. If anything, I would liken Scripture to a Constitution — this seems to be how we need to treat it for sola Scriptura to work. But there too it does not seem to fit. It is the most oddly written Constitution I could imagine, leaving tremendous questions unanswered, and ecclesial structures uncreated.

    But going with your use of the contract analogy, Scripture cannot implicitly identify itself as the sole rule of faith, because it explicitly describes other authority. Further, I do not see evidence of “intent of the parties to be bound” by Scripture (in the sola Scriptura sense) within Scripture. The historical evidence is plain (there I go admitting other evidence) that the Church formulated a doctrine (and canon) of Holy Writ over time, even a few centuries. So we could not say that the church of 90 A.D. intended to be bound by Scripture as their sole rule of faith and morals, because we know they followed their bishops and had no biblical canon then.

    If the Catholics believe in a form of sola Scriptura, I am even further at a loss for understanding what the word “sola” means. They believe that their ‘living, breathing’ Magisterium interprets both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition in determining matters of faith and morals. So the Bible *alone* is not the sole rule of faith, even if it has a kind of primacy, especially a revelatory primacy.

    I commend your honesty about being a moderate sola Scriptura advocate. When I lost confidence in sola Scriptura because it did not have a (unified) answer for its own scriptural basis or for the basis of its canon, I felt that burden shifted to me to justify my continuing “protest” against the episcopal churches. I have not found a substitute for the doctrine of sola Scriptura in this regard.

    Peace in Christ,
    Tom

  16. Tom,

    The difference between the legal analogy and the Scripture situation, is that in the former there is a visible judge, and in the latter, Protestants deny that there is a visible judge. The Bible is in the dock, and who has the gavel? The Holy Spirit. For Catholics, by contrast, the living (visible) Magisterium (guided by the Holy Spirit according to divine promise) is the judge.

    The supreme judge by which 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 by the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. (WCF I.10)

    But because the Holy Spirit is invisible, the “Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” amounts to the empirical equivalent of “private spirits”, because an immaterial invisible gavel can bang only in each private heart. And so we have a proposed resolution to “controversies of religion” involving appeals to “private spirits”, by appealing to a method that is indistinguishable from appeal to private spirits.

    Some Reformed Protestants, as you mentioned, try to make a distinction between sola scriptura and solo scriptura. Mathison’s example comes to mind. But the problem there is that what counts as “the Church” is defined as whoever agrees with my interpretation of Scripture with respect to what constitutes the Gospel. So there is no principled difference between solo and sola scriptura.

    And there are two different conceptions of sola scriptura. One of them is that of supremacy of authority (WCF I.10), (which is ultimately about a denial of visible interpretive authority). The other is that of sufficiency (WCF I.6), (which is ultimately about a denial of extra-Scriptural Apostolic Tradition). Often the distinction between these two concepts is not kept clear.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

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