One of the great frustrations I have encountered in my study of theology is the ambiguity of Scripture on many doctrines. Should we baptize infants or not? Is the body and blood of Christ present in the Eucharist in any real way? Does God unconditionally choose those whom he desires to save, or do we have the freedom to choose him of our own volition? What exactly does Paul mean by “speaking in tongues?” Was God’s prohibition regarding women in ministry intended to be permanently binding? What is the exact nature of “hell?” Ought we to ask the saints to intercede for us? How should we conduct cooperate worship? Can a person “lose” their salvation? What mode of church government ought we to practice? Somehow, even things as seemingly fundamental as the Trinity are often challenged on the basis of Scripture. I had a friend tell me the other day: “I’m not entirely sure the Bible teaches the personhood of the Holy Spirit.” And let’s not even get started on Eschatology…
Many people believe the Bible to speak very clearly on most if not all of these issues. Unfortunately, those people cannot seem to come to a consensus, and equally brilliant, equally devoted people with letter after letter after their names become equally convinced that the other person is wrong.
I have felt this poignantly as I sought to develop my own positions on each of these issues and many more. Time and again I would think I had come to one position or another, only to be challenged by a Scripture or theological framework I had not yet considered… or perhaps one I thought I had already considered thoroughly that took on new light. What I found was that Scripture by itself, even prayerfully considered in light of it’s cultural context (as best I knew how) could not give me clear answers to the questions I was asking. Questions I needed answered in order to find a tradition to call home, questions that would significantly affect the way I did pastoral ministry.
Even the notion of the four-legged stool, or “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” quickly became unhelpful. Scripture gave no clear answers on it’s own, reason failed me (I could rationally make an argument for almost any position), little “t” tradition was largely unhelpful because using my reason I could twist the Fathers to make them say whatever I wanted, and personal experience often seemed to contrast with all of the above.
In short, I quickly found that I could make a coherent argument from Scripture for nearly any major position on any point of doctrine. To top it off, I also found that none of these positions seemed to me more compelling than the other. I prayed fervently and asked the Spirit for clarity. It seemed he was silent.
In all this, I functionally held onto the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. The idea the the Bible alone was formally sufficient* for all matters of faith and practice. Even when I sought to use the quadrilateral, it was as a personal hermeneutical lens, if you will, always as a means to interpret the Scripture on my own. At the end of the day, all my wrestling taught me was that Scripture alone is not sufficient for all matters of faith and practice. It just isn’t.
Put differently: the doctrine of Sola Scriptura is not only self-refuting (it can’t be proved by Scripture alone), but it simply does not correspond to reality. If it did, we would have one, unified Protestant church, rather than thousands of rapidly splintering denominations. Or, as I put it to someone the other day: if absolute truth exists in Christianity, it is not found in Protestantism.
That is a bit of an overstatement, I admit. It was a statement born out of deep frustration. Some of the great truths of the Christian faith are–to a degree–empirically verifiable and, in fact, logical necessity (not to mention self-evident according to Scripture). This includes things such as the necessity of a Creator, the Virgin birth of Christ, and His Resurrection.
But in order for Christians to speak with any sort of verity on matters of doctrine, practice, or morality, there must be an authoritative interpreter of the Holy Scriptures; an authoritative arbiter of truth. That interpreter, I am increasingly convinced, is the Spirit of God, operating through the living Tradition of the church* and the successors of the Apostles* who have received through the laying on of hands the same promise of Christ given to their predecessors: “I will give you the Holy Spirit, and He will guide you into all truth.” It is the only thing that makes sense to me.*
*As opposed to material sufficiency. Material sufficient posits that the Scriptures contains the entire deposit of the Christian faith in embryonic form; all the “materials” are there for the development of Christian doctrine and practice. Formal sufficiency means that Scripture contains all necessary Christian truth, and that Scripture is clear enough so as to render the teaching of the church and Tradition unnecessary.
*Preserved and transmitted through her creeds, liturgies, prayers, iconography, and hymnody (see, for example the creed preserved for us in 1 Cor. 15:3-8, compare with 1 Tim. 2:2).
*This does not mean that individual Bishops are infallible in teaching or conduct. It does mean that when an Ecumenical council is held and the bishops speak together with one voice, we can be certain that their arbitration is in accordance with the truth.
*One interpretation of this text is that the Spirit will guide all individual Christians into all truth; opening our eyes to the true meaning of the Scriptures as we come before God with the proper heart and intention. If this is so, then when Christians ask for light regarding disputed texts and do so with genuine desire to know what is true, then the Spirit should teach us essentially the same things. Or, at least, the things he reveals to us should not contradict one another; truth is by necessity exclusive. This is not the case however, and well-intentioned Christians continue to seek the guidance of the Spirit on disputed matters (e.g. homosexuality, election/predestination), and continue to come to contradictory conclusions. I deem this reading insufficient due to the fact that it simply does not correspond to reality.
The alternate reading is that Jesus promises the Spirit will guide the Apostles specifically into all truth, directing them as they write letters, arbitrate disputes, refute heresy, re-interpret the Old Testament, institute worship, forgive sins (Jn. 20:21-23), plant churches, and work out the implications of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ on the ground in real time. It follows that the very same anointing would be conveyed to their successors, as the fledgling church’s need for the Spirit’s guidance in matters of faith and practice would not cease with the end of the Apostles’ lifespans. We see this understanding affirmed by many of the early Fathers of the church as well, some of which were personally acquainted with–and presumably taught by–the apostles themselves (see, for example, Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3:3:1).