Sola Scriptura is Solitary Confinement

Solitary confinement is growing in its unpopularity as an ethical, disciplinary action. Detractors argue that it's a form of psychological torture resulting in mental and emotional breakdown. In other words, it makes you crazy. But people aren't the only victims. Because reading the Bible alone makes truth crazy too.

Evangelicalism has historically ignored this fact. Like all good Protestants, they embrace sola scriptura or "by Scripture alone." Except that they take it a step further. Evangelicals not only abandoned the historical teachings of the church as authoritative, they declared that the Bible is the believer's primary source of knowledge. I've even heard some make claims like "what other counsel does one need other than the Word of God?" This is problematic for a variety of reasons.

First, it ignores the nature of knowledge and how it is perceived. Remember that old philosophy conundrum about whether a tree falling in the woods makes a sound? That's what knowledge is like. It doesn't matter whether or not biblical truth is objective or absolute. What matters is how it is perceived, because what is a sound without the ability to hear? Likewise, knowledge doesn't matter without perception (more here).

Plato put it this way: knowledge can be divided into the sensibles (what is perceived through the senses) and the intelligibles (what is perceived through the mind). When we approach Scripture, we engage its truth with both. We read the words with our eyes or hear them with our ears, and we process them and try to understand them with our minds. Which means that the accuracy of our perceptions is dependent on the reliability of our senses and minds. It's like a dyslexic person trying to read 1 John 4:19 but misunderstanding it: "He loves because we first loved him." Maybe you don't have that problem. But trust me, if we're all fallen, we all have something.

Second, it relies on the fallacious doctrine of perspicuity (the clarity of Scripture). I've written about this before (here), so for the sake of brevity, let's imagine all of us as disabled athletes. Based on the preceding section, all of us are disabled in some capacity when we read the Bible. Perspicuity, then, is like the Special Olympics of biblical interpretation. It's like saying that even though we're all disabled, the Bible meets each of us where we are so that we can run the race fairly. But that's just not true. Reading the Bible is like asking a paraplegic to compete in a Summer Olympic triathlon. The apostle John didn't write his epistle dyslexic-friendly, so we shouldn't expect to find any handy-capable footnotes for the rest of us.

Finally, taking the Bible as our only counsel insists that hermeneutical integrity is possible. As if we weren't broken enough in our bodies and minds, Jeremiah would remind us that our hearts are quite deceptive. We're beyond delusional if we think that we never approach a text looking for the answer we want (more here). But that's why we blame the hermeneutic when someone disagrees with us. Because we refuse to accept that two different conclusions can be reached with the same interpretive framework. It's just a cheap way of saying, "it's you, not me."

Actually, it's all of us.

None of us are good at interpreting Scripture, Scripture isn't easy to interpret, and none of us are honest in our interpretations. This is why communal and historical consensus is so important. God gave us relationships and his church to help explain himself to us. And without each other, without submitting to each other's counsel, we'll only see the Jesus we want to see.


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photo credit: Trial Bay Gaol, Solitary Confiment Block, South West Rocks, NSW via photopin (license)