But is There a Practical Difference in Solo and Sola?

Nov 15th, 2009 | By | 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.

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  1. For me, the practical difference was a partial respect for church authority. As a Reformed Christian I believed that truth was best arrived at in community with believers. Both those alive and those who have passed on. But I didn’t do so consistently. I supported the reformation which had violated that principle very dramatically. So what happens when you take a Christian principle and you make a few exceptions to it? The correct term for that is sin. That seems a little harsh but it was true. I believed the Catholic principle but I didn’t follow it when it got hard. I was not unprincipled. I was just failing to live up to my principles.

    I believed certain things were infallible. For example, the immorality of abortion. I knew no matter what happened that abortion was and always would be immoral. So I was willing to accept that something, even something not explicit in scripture, could be revealed as infallible truth. I would never have used the word “infallible” but that is what I believed. How could it be known? It came from the church. But precisely how did it come from the church? It did not depend on majority opinion. It was settled. But what was the process that settled it? It was impossible to be precise.

    So, as a Catholic, I am simply being more clear and more consistent about principles I already accepted as a Reformed Christian. The solo position was as far from me as the alcoholic is from the occasional drunk. That is, the distance was huge in my mind by likely not that far in reality. It is the same sin. It is just a matter of how often once commits it.

  2. Nathan: I agree with you that some Protestants practice Solo Scriptura instead of Sola Scriptura, but that does not prove anything about the relationship between two. When one develops a private interpretation of Scripture that he will not submit for correction by Church leaders, he is by definition not practicing Sola Scriptura (cf. 2 Pet. 2:20-21; Heb. 13:17).

    There is no question that different interpretations of Scripture exist in both the RCC as well as in Protestant Churches. As others have indicated on this thread, all agree that there are essentials and non-essentials. On another post I started a list of some non-negotiables about affirming who God says He is (in order to obey the first commandment), Paul’s description of what is “of first importance” regarding Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus’ statement that “only one thing is necessary” (that is, to be His disciple), and “teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.” When you say that some Protestant Churches lists of essentials differs, what must be asked is: 1) do any of them leave out any of the non-negotiables that all orthodox Christians have always, everywhere, believed (to borrow from St. Vincent of Lerin’s description of the Catholic faith)? 2) If not, have they added anything that is inconsistent with the Gospel, as the Galatians did? In either case, the church would be teaching “another Gospel” and should be avoided. How does one determine these things? By reviewing Church history in light of Scripture. To correct a common misunderstanding: Sola Scriptura does not forbid references beyond Scripture, it merely submits for correction anything that is not consistent with Scripture. “Thy Word is Truth” and the principle of non-contradiction is operative.

    On the question of the secondary authority of the Church under Sola Scriptura:

    You assume that Protestants cannot recognize the Church based on Scripture, and therefore the secondary authority of Church leaders is not valid. I beg to differ. Scripture teaches that the Church is comprised of all who “are of God’s household, having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together is grown into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (Eph. 2:19-22). The principle of unity according to the Apostles Paul and Peter is Christ Himself (cf. 1 Pet. 2:4-10).

    The Church encompasses the sheepfold comprised of all who are Christ’s sheep, as Jesus Himself taught: “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them … and no one shall snatch them out of My hand” (cf. John 10:27-29). Further, as Paul taught: “In Him, you also, after listening to the message of the truth, the gospel of your salvation – having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise” (Eph. 1:13). What is the Church? The assembly of those called out [the literal meaning of ekklesia] by God as Christ’s disciples, sealed with the Holy Spirit.

    How does one recognize the Church from what is not the Church? By adherence to the teaching of the Apostles and by the observance of Christ’s commands (as noted above). Can one know these things from Scripture? Of course, as Irenaeus wrote that for the future, Scripture “is the foundation and pillar of the faith.” I would suggest, further, that any definition which excludes anyone from the Church whom Christ Himself defines as His sheep is faulty.

    Finally, I do not understand why anyone cannot accept that there are many branches connected to the true vine. Paul wrote to the several “churches of Galatia” and commended not only “all the churches of the Gentiles,” but also house-churches (Philemon, cf. Rom. 16:5). The principle of unity is Christ Himself, the head and the cornerstone of His Church, wherever it meets visibly (cf. Matt. 18:20).


  3. lojahw,

    You wrote:

    When one develops a private interpretation of Scripture that he will not submit for correction by Church leaders, he is by definition not practicing Sola Scriptura (cf. 2 Pet. 2:20-21; Heb. 13:17).

    I’ll let others respond to the rest of your post. Just one question: how does this not describe Martin Luther’s behavior to a tee? Your claim here makes it sound like Luther proposed sola Scriptura while acting in a way inconsistent by definition, on your own showing, with sola Scriptura.

    in Christ,

    1 Cor 16:14

  4. lojahw,

    Does you definition of Christian include any m0ral teachings? You post seems to include anyone who self-identifies as a disciple of Christ. There are a lot of liberal Christians who accept abortion, gay marriage, premarital sex, etc. Would you say these are all Christians as long as they say the right things about Jesus? Is there any moral line that cannot be crossed?

    Your attempt to spell out minimal doctrinal requirements is a start. I do think you are going to get a lot of disagreement about these matters. Is there any way of resolving this? Is every Christian supposed to flesh out the essentials and non-essentials on their own?

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