Sola Scriptura: The Best Doctrine Jesus Never Heard of (part three)

I began working through the implications of sola scriptura about a week ago here. After giving myself a little bit of space to think through it more fully, I wanted to dive into the first question on my list. I hope that answering these questions will help point us toward a more useful version of sola scriptura for the church today:

What kind of documents do we find in the Bible and how are we to understand them?
What kind of authority was the Bible meant to have?
Who determines what the Bible has to say?
What is the Bible’s role in the church today?

And so we move on to the first question:
What kind of documents do we find in the Bible and how are we to understand them?

Most are well aware that the Bible has letters, narratives, historical accounts, poetry, apocalyptic, oracles, and wisdom writing. While there is a consensus on this, I am not so sure there is a consensus on how to interpret each genre, or even on which genre each book of the Bible fits into. For example, is Genesis a straight narrative, or are there poems woven into it, especially the creation story? Dare I even mention where the heck Revelation fits in?

And so we have a bit of a mess. We hold the Bible to be completely authoritative, but we aren’t even sure what genre some of its books fit into. And even if we do know the genre, how do we relate the stories to today. For example, in the Old Testament narratives such as Abraham’s, we find that Abraham, the father of faith,` does some rather remarkably faithless things (Sarah and Pharoah for instance), while surprising us with his boldness at other times.

The Bible does not offer a commentary. It just reports the story. The same can be said for books such as Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. They never tell us exactly what we’re supposed to do. The stories simply relate how God deals with his people in the midst of their faithlessness. Perhaps the only books that explicity give instructions are the Epistles in the New Testament. We have been very careful implement everything we can from these letters, save for the teachings on head coverings, but I may be ahead of myself already.

It is curious to me that we can safely read the commands of God in the Old Testament and assume that it was another time, another culture, another people. We certainly learn a lot about God and his people from the Old Testament, but we hesitate to apply its commands straight to our lives. Of course some want to drag out laws from Leviticus about tattoos or whatever suits them in order to gain control over others (oops, ahead of myself again), but for the most part, the church today does not find direct commands about conduct or church order in the Old Testament. While it certainly is the “old covenant”, it’s still very fascinating that we rarely ever look to the Old Testament, save perhaps Proverbs, for rules about conduct and order.

On the other hand, when we hit the Epistles, we are stuck to the authority of the Epistles. Women can’t teach, church must look like “ABC and D”, here’s the list for elders, here’s the list for deacons, yes there aren’t women on them are there, here’s how you handle conflict, here’s how you handle heresy, and so on.

We instantly change our approach to the Bible when we hit the Epistles. We treat them as if they were written to us. We assume that when Paul promises a certain people that God will supply their every need, we can post it over our desk and claim it as a personal promise. We imagine ourselves as THE audience, the recipients of the letters who are bound to obey them. Even the Gospels themselves are not approached in such a literal manner as the Epistles.

And all of this in the name of authority and sola scriptura. If the Bible is our authority, we have to find the parts that speak to us in such a way. Since no other part of the Bible speaks so directly to us, so we think at least, as the epistles, we pour over them again and again. We extract rules, procedures, and authority.

What would happen then if we approached the Epistles in a manner similar to our approach to the rest of the Bible? What is we treated them as true and faithful accounts of what God has been up to throughout history. They show how God and his apostles planted churches and spread the Gospel. They are lessons to us about God’s dealings with people. But they are NOT direct messages to us, per se. They are messages to the Corinthians, Romans, Galatians, etc. They are instructive and authoritative still, but not in the same way as we thought.

I would venture to say that we have these Epistles not as blue prints for us, but as records that tell us how God works. And if we view the whole Bible in a somewhat consistent light, telling us how God is restoring creation to himself in relationship, then we may be getting somewhere. Now the entire book is on equal footing with itself. No one part stands as THE authority for us today. All have equal relevance.

And so we are now perhaps ready to talk a little more about what kind of authority the Bible is supposed to have.

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2 thoughts on “Sola Scriptura: The Best Doctrine Jesus Never Heard of (part three)

  1. nate hulfish

    A couple of years ago, I basically swore off Paul in my teaching. Not because Paul’s writings weren’t part of the canon, not because Paul didn’t have some interesting things to say, but because I was so dang tired of Paul being the end all, be all authority on the life of the Christian. To my friends I said things like "We shouldn’t listen to Paul…I don’t even believe Paul was a Christian" just to get a reaction – to push conversation. In the meantime, I taught through 1 and 2 Peter. I taught through 1 John. I taught through the Sermon on the Mount. I taught the kingdom of God (the topic we find Paul teaching in Acts 28:31). I taught through Mark.

    Avoiding Paul for that period of time caused me to put Paul into better perspective. Having come back to Paul in recent weeks (teaching an overview of Colossians), I have been able to approach his writings in the way that you suggest – as a teacher and recorder of God’s working with and through people – not as the end all, be all authroity on our present lives.

    An approach to all of Scripture with this perspective has greatly impacted me and my teaching – Paul is no longer the authority – God is (imagine that).

  2. Ed Post author

    Paul wasn’t a Christian . . . must be the new perspective on Paul. Ha!

    Good thoughts on getting the discussion going and detoxing from Paul for a period of time. I must say that I find it so fascinating to see how much authority we grant to Paul at the expense of other parts of the Bible. It’s primarily a matter of balance in my eyes.

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