“Nuda Scriptura” and the Authority of Tradition

Bible painting

Bearing down on the thesis today. But I wanted to point you in the direction of an incisive new post by Bryan Cross, relevant to what we’ve been talking about recently, over at Called to Communion: “Sola Scriptura Redux: Matthew Barrett, Tradition, and Authority.”

In it, Bryan responds to a “Reformation Day” post by Matthew Barrett of California Baptist University at the Gospel Coalition, “‘Sola Scriptura’ Radicalized and Abandoned,” which argues that sola scriptura never meant for a total abandonment of tradition, but that Protestants should value and uphold a ‘healthy’ adherence to tradition. But as Bryan rightly points out, the proposition of submitting only to the tradition that one believes agrees with Scripture actually submits tradition to one’s own interpretation of Scripture — and isn’t submission at all. As I asked a few days ago, “What authority does your interpretation have?” To presume that one’s own understanding of Scripture is the very voice of Scripture places oneself as the ultimate authority.

In the course of Matthew’s article, I happened across a term I hadn’t seen used before, one Matthew uses to describe the position many Protestants put themselves in who abandon all else but the bald face of Scripture: nuda scriptura, “bare Scripture” — which, as I’m beginning to think more and more, most aptly describes the whole concept of sola scriptura: the Emperor’s New Clothes that no one dares admit are not clothes at all, but the thin covering of one’s own self-assurance. I have yet to hear any answers offered to my challenge: If we are supposed to hold all doctrine to the word of Scripture, and reject anything not found there, why isn’t that teaching found in Scripture? Why do we not find the earliest Christians following that precept? If the Church Fathers were such faithful adherents of sola scriptura, why did every one of them accept and teach and pass on unchallenged the many “unscriptural” teachings of tradition?

The peace of Christ to you today.

The Emperor's New Clothes

13 thoughts on ““Nuda Scriptura” and the Authority of Tradition

  1. In response to your challenge, I perceive a difference between sola scriputra and nuda scriptura. There are lots of things that Christians do and say that is not found in scripture–the form of the liturgy, for example. That doesn’t make it wrong. Sola scriptura doesn’t deny those things, and even the German Evangelicals taught that only those abuses which directly contradicted the good news should be abandoned. Nuda scriptura, that absolutely everything Christians say and do must come from scripture, and everything not explicitly found in it must be abandoned, is an extreme, and I argue wrong, interpretation of sola scriptura.

    • Thanks, Ken. What do you think of those questions I asked the other day? Do they have answers? Or is there some reason why the doctrine can stand without answers to them? Am I misunderstanding something?

      I agree that there is, on its face, a difference between “nuda scriptura,” and sola scriptura. But it’s only a difference of degree. Sola scriptura, as you state it, is applied only selectively: “I will reject only those things that (according to my interpretation) contradict Scripture.” “Nuda scriptura” is the same idea taken its logical end: “If anything is contrary to the plain word of Scripture (according to my interpretation), I will reject it.” In both cases, your standard depends on your own interpretation of Scripture.

  2. You make it seem as if no Christian has any authority to interpret the Scriptures for him/herself. I am not a Calvinist – never was and never will be, and I think that while they got quite a few things wrong, the Reformers’ rejection of the so-called tradition was a good thing. Now, I think that Sola Scriptura should not have been declared as a doctrine, but rather like a pragmatical maxim or a motto, which while not present in the Bible is particularly important right now – at the time of the great falling-away. Hey, look, I interpreted that myself, but of course my claim has no authority as it was not ratified by the Catholic church or doctrine, right? I personally think that my interpretation holds more water than that of say, the infallible Pope Honorius I.

    • We must be clear what we mean by “authority.” Does the Christian have the mental faculties, the capability or possibility of interpreting Scripture? Of course. But what authority does that interpretation have? If it is only based on his personal understanding, then only the authority that the Christian himself has; or otherwise the authority of whatever he bases his interpretation on. Am I capable of interpreting historical sources, drawing my own conclusions, and arguing them? Sure — but who the hell am I, and who is going to listen to me? I don’t even have my master’s degree. Protestants treat the matter of the authority of Scripture as if it is somehow different, as if individual believers wielding Bibles have authority to teach and define doctrine, when really they have only their personal understanding.

      On what authority is the doctrine of sola scriptura based? Only on the interpretations of Martin Luther, who to be fair, was a well-educated doctor of theology. But on what authority did he base his interpretations? Even experts must base their understanding on authority. How do we know what we know? If we pull doctrines out of hats with no foundation in history or Christian tradition (by tradition, I mean all Christian doctrine and teaching that had been handed down, not big-T “Tradition”), then that doctrine must be held accountable.

      So no, your personal interpretation of Scripture has in itself no authority. If you back it up with the authority of Scripture scholars and Church Fathers, then you can say it has authority. But that authority would still be insignificant in comparison to the combined authority of all the ages of the Magisterium of the Church. Whether your interpretation “holds water” is irrelevant if it has no authority. On the other hand, whatever Pope Honorius taught out of his office as pope, ex cathedra, carries with it the authority of the Church.

  3. This helps, methinks: “HOLY Scriptures containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of Holy Scripture, we do understand those Canonical books of the Old and New testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.” (From the 39 Articles.)

    • Also, from the Westminster Confession, Ch. 1:

      IV. The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.

      V. We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it does abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.

      VI. The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

      • Thanks for the comment, but I’ve read and considered these statements. They do not answer my questions. Yes, it’s fine and good to say that Scripture is your ultimate authority, and that its testimony depends wholly on God, that its meaning is accessible and understandable to all in Scripture, etc. But the corollary of declaring that the individual can interpret Scripture is that scriptural authority is subject to the individual. How can it be any other way? The very fact of so many thousands of disparate Protestant denominations attests to the absolute inadequacy of the individual to interpret Scripture with any sort of certainty or authority.

        The peace of the Lord be with you.

        • “The very fact of so many thousands of disparate Protestant denominations attests to the absolute inadequacy of the individual to interpret Scripture with any sort of certainty or authority.”

          Hi. I’m no Bible expert, but I just have to say this: Amid the apparent diversity of denominations in line with the Protestant tradition, all adhere to the most important doctrines of salvation, which is by the grace of God alone (Sola Gratia), and justification by faith alone (Sola Fide) in Christ alone (Solus Christus).

          I think that the disparity of denominations—which is due to varying interpretations in minor doctrines, but not the major ones, some of which I just mentioned—is not sufficient to invalidate the adequacy of an individual to interpret Scripture.

          • Hi. Thanks for the comments, but I disagree. No, “all Protestants” don’t adhere to the same basic doctrines about salvation. If they did, they would have basic unity and would be able to worship together. Various Protestant sects may appeal to the same fundamental principles, “buzzwords” of the Reformation, but they have radically different interpretations about the meaning of these principles and about the mechanics of salvation itself. For example, what “sola fide” means to a Calvinist — generally a total “monergism,” God working alone without any requirement of human effort at all — is completely antithetical to what a Lutheran or Arminian or Wesleyan believes about “sola fide.” These sects’ beliefs aren’t compatible, unless you are willing to gloss over their differences as “minor doctrines.” What you term “minor doctrines” are nonetheless significant enough to rend the Body of Christ. These divisions are fundamental to Protestantism, dating back to the first and second generations of the Reformation. Zwingli disagreed fundamentally with Luther, and Calvin disagreed fundamentally with both, to the extent that each denounced and denied communion with the other. This fragmentation and division has only continued and intensified. The various Protestant traditions have fundamentally divergent interpretations of Scripture in key passages and doctrines.

            Moreover, you ignore the most basic fact of Protestant disagreement with the broader Christian tradition. Why should it be any comfort at all, any assurance of correct doctrine, if some Protestants may agree with one another, if they disagree with every other Christian, with the earliest testimonies of the faith, with the Church Fathers, with the consensus of historic churches in both the East and West, in essential matters? The most troubling thing about Protestant division is not that they are divided from other another, but that the Protestant Reformers assumed the authority to themselves to separate from the established Church and found their own churches.

            Regarding the hermeneutic principles you reference: Subjectivism is inherent in the fundamental premise of “sola scriptura,” in holding that an individual has the authority to “interpret Scripture for himself.” Individuals, as subjects, inevitably have a subjective interpretation. Yes, of course there are some elements of the text, as the article presents, that are cut and dried, where a particular interpretation is objectively right or wrong: parts of speech and functions of grammar sometimes fall into this category. But ancient Hebrew and Greek are rather esoteric as tongues go; only a relative few know anything about them, and only studied biblical scholars can even claim the expertise to interpret even these “cut and dried” aspects of the texts with any authority at all. Other aspects of the text — understanding historical context, the intention of the author, or the meanings, usage, and connotations of words — are inherently, unavoidably subjective. If even renowned biblical scholars, exegetes, and theologians have endless debates and fundamental disagreements about the meaning of a text, what hope is there at all for anyone by himself to “interpret Scripture rightly,” to have a truly objective reading? Without a solid ground of authority, every claim at a “right reading of Scripture” — especially a claim that depends on the individual’s powers of interpretation — is subjective.

            If you haven’t read my series on “Struggling with Sola Scriptura,” by the way — in which I engage the concept of certain biblical scholars, and especially the Church Fathers, having “actual authority” at interpreting Scripture — I would like it if you would.

            One more thing I’d like to add: You present that the “disparity of [Protestant] denominations” nonetheless upholds a fundamental unity of belief and interpretation in fundamental Protestant doctrines. As a former Protestant who still holds that my Protestant brethren are true believers in Christ, I believe that these “fundamental Protestant doctrines” are not so unique to Protestantism nor so opposed to Catholicism as many a Protestant polemicist would present. Catholics affirm, just as wholeheartedly as Protestants, that salvation is by grace alone and by Christ alone. Even a concept of justification by faith alone is consistent with Catholic belief with certain stipulations (for example, that this doesn’t exclude the role of the Sacraments). So, if you can gloss over the wide differences among Protestants in understanding these “solas,” could you extend your umbrella a little further to admit the validity of Catholic belief? We all, after all, affirm the same Lord, the same grace, the same salvation.

            The peace of the Lord be with you!

        • How do Prots differ from the many thousands of disparate Catholic sects, orders, opinions that attest to the absolute inadequacy of the Church to interpret Scripture with any sort of certainty or authority?

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