But is There a Practical Difference in Solo and Sola?Nov 15th, 2009 | By Tim A. Troutman | Category: Blog Posts
In the recent discussion following Bryan and Neal’s article, which demonstrated that there was no principled difference between solo and sola scriptura, one guest conceded that there might not be a principled difference between the two, but there was a practical difference. That claim was addressed, but perhaps insufficiently, and I think it’s an idea worth discussing. If there is no principled difference between a position known to be false and a putatively true position, can there be a practical difference between them, and if so, does that justify one in holding the latter position instead of seeking a new position with a principled difference between itself and the false position?
With difficult questions like these, it is helpful to look at other examples, and I find, though many people are not comfortable with this method, it is helpful to begin with an extreme example. First, what does it mean to have a principled difference between two things? It means that the two things are actually distinct and we can know for certain, how and why they are different. But to lack a principled distinction means one of three things: a) There is no actual difference between the two things b) There is no principled distinction because the two things, by definition, would not have a principled distinction or c) There is an actual distinction, but we cannot know it. In the latter two cases, it is possible for us to treat the things as though they were different even though cannot know how they are different, but in the first case, it is false to treat the two things differently because there is no actual difference between them.
A child is distinct from an adult, but how? What is the principled difference? We could decide on a precise age as the principle of distinction, but it would be arbitrary. If we chose 13 as the exact age, there isn’t as much difference in 13 and 12 as there is between what we mean by “adult” and “child” so it wouldn’t suffice as an actual principle of distinction for the concepts that we are trying to differentiate. Why is this different from the solo/sola question? As we can affirm an agnosticism regarding the principled distinction between an adult and a child, why can’t we do the same for solo and sola scriptura while still treating them differently? Perhaps a Christian gradually grows from a belief in solo scriptura to the mature belief of sola scriptura as a child grows to be an adult, and while there isn’t any principled difference per se, or we cannot be certain of it, we can still treat the two differently. That is, there might not be an identifiable principle of distinction between the two, but there could still be a practical difference.
Is this sufficient? Before we answer that question, let’s pause to make an observation. While I was a Presbyterian, I did acknowledge a practical difference between my approach to Church authority and certain other Protestants, namely those who explicitly affirm solo scriptura. And while I eventually became convinced of a need to affirm a principle of distinction between us, I counted the difference no less real. That is, I did notice a difference in how the Reformed, and some others, approached the issue of Church authority and its relation to the scriptures, and how certain others did. But could it be that this perceived difference was illusionary in that it was either non existent, i.e. I was deceived, or that it was actual in one sense but only because it was contingent upon something else such that if that thing were altered, the perceived difference would be made transparent and I would realize that there was no real difference at all. Suppose that I saw a practical difference in attitude towards church authority between myself and certain others, but then when my particular church taught something which I strongly believed to be in contradiction with the Scriptures, I realized that I was only a member of that church so long as they didn’t contradict Scripture. Now that they have, I will leave, because I consider that church to have less authority than Scripture. As shown in the article and by Mathison himself, all appeals to Scripture are appeals to private judgments thereof, and because of this, my previous statement reduces to “I consider that church to have less authority than myself to interpret scripture.” In reality, there was no principled distinction between myself and those who believed in solo scriptura. That practical difference that I saw previously, though real in certain limited respects, was ultimately an illusion.
Let us return to the previous question of how this issue is different than the distinction between the adult and child example. Is a perceived practical difference between the two things enough to justify one in holding a position that cannot be differentiated in principle from the other position which is known to be false? The answer is no for at least two reasons.
1. The child/adult example is an example of a thing which is known, by its nature, to exist in gradual stages, and the two positions or concepts in question are, by their own definition, vague referents to the early and latter stages of its particular development. It is possible to treat two ideas as distinct without knowing an exact principle of distinction when the distinction between the two things is, in its definition, not definable in precise terms. e.g. We may not be able to identify the principled difference between a big ball and a small ball without referring one to the other; even so, we may treat these things differently without contradiction because, by definition, the question is inherently relative. This is clearly not the case with the solo vs sola question. The distinction between these two, if real, would be identifiable because the question of authority, is, by definition, one of principle.
2. Bryan and Neal’s article did not merely show that Protestants don’t know the distinction between solo and sola scriptura, or that it is in its nature unknowable; the article actually demonstrated that there is not a principled distinction. It is one thing to say that we cannot know the principle of distinction between two things and quite another to demonstrate that there is, in fact, no principled difference between the two things. Take an example where we have a reason to believe that a principled distinction actually does exist (at least in particular cases): drinking one drop of beer and being sinfully drunk. There is a point in each particular case, though we cannot know it, where one passes from an acceptable amount of alcohol consumption to an unacceptable amount. It is one thing to say: There is a principle of distinction between these two, and we can’t know it, but we can treat the two things different for all practical purposes. It is something entirely different to say: There is no principled difference between these two things. If one could actually demonstrate that there is no principled difference in these two things, then it would be impossible to drink any alcohol whatsoever without being drunk and in sin. This isn’t a stretch; some people believe this, usually the same ones who preach solo scriptura.
Logically then, since Bryan and Neal actually demonstrated there to be no principled difference between solo and sola scriptura, an appeal to a practical difference is insufficient.