Thanks, Brad for your thoughtful comments. I appreciate some of your criticism, though I think you’ve misread me on a couple of points. Also, I hope this continues the conversation to some extent with Josh.
Let me suggest several principles for thinking about the catholic doctrine of sola scriptura.
1. In an important sense, the doctrine of sola scriptura is really nothing less than an unfolding of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. We confess every week that the Holy Spirit is “the Lord and Giver of Life… who spoke by the prophets.” It is the Holy Spirit who speaks in Scripture, in the Church, in tradition, through creation, in groanings which cannot be uttered. Peter says that Scripture is the result of holy men being moved by the Holy Spirit (1 Pet. 1:20-21). While the written Scriptures are themselves a permanent and unbreakable record of the Word of God, I would certainly agree that there is a kind of imprecision in the doctrine of sola scriptura, there is a certain unpredictability in the way truth and light emerge in the history of the Church. But I would want to argue that this is one of its greatest glories. The Spirit is not bound by our tidy categories. The Holy Spirit is not frustrated by our attempts to bottle and distribute his blessings. The Spirit is like the wind, Jesus says, it blows where it wishes. This does not mean that there is nothing certain, but it does mean that we walk by faith here just like everywhere else and not by sight. This means that the doctrine of Scripture is not a science, a pseudo-rationalistic enterprise wherein theologians and pastors and laymen may put words under a microscope under certain fixed conditions and following certain prescribed methods arrive at a certain, infallible conclusion. The doctrine of Scripture is the study of a person, it is the dogma of the Holy Spirit. Sola Scriptura in its fullest sense means submission to the third person of the Trinity as He leads us into all truth.
2. As Mathison and many others have pointed out, sola scriptura is not antagonistic toward tradition, but rather it insists that faithful tradition be grounded in and consistent with the Scriptures since they are from the same source: the mouth of Christ and the apostles and prophets. And should there be conflict, our appeal must be to the law and the testimony. The early Church fathers clearly taught this, and many RCs and EOs (I think) would happily affirm this as well. This also means that time is an important part of our doctrine of scripture. More on this below.
3. St. Vincent famously quipped, “Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.” But this itself is qualified by St. Vincent who recognizes that there may be a disease or infection that works its way into a large portion of the church such that the orthodox and catholic position becomes a minority. Vincent says to “cleave to antiquity,” and one would assume that this includes ultimate recourse to the Scriptures themselves. The point here is to establish the fact that the “catholic” position on any given subject, while it is ordinarily a universally held position, may sometimes be so distorted or lost or subverted that it actually becomes a minority position, and St. Vincent urges us back to the law and the testimony, back to the apostles, back to the fathers, back to the sources, back to Christ and His Spirit.
4. The Church is the body of Christ, and Christ is her head. Ever since Pentecost, when the Spirit was breathed into the Church and she became a living being, we have been commissioned to be Christ for the world. The Church as the Bride, and animated by the Bridegroom’s Spirit, is authorized to be Christ. We are not identical with Christ, but we share His Spirit, and we have become one flesh in his flesh and blood. This means that what the Church proclaims in union with Christ is to be the Word of Christ. And thus the question becomes what has Christ declared over the last 2000 years. We all agree that the words of Scripture are the words of Christ. But what about beyond that? Again, we all agree that the canon is closed, the apostolic foundation of the Church has been laid once and for all. But the Church has continued to grow up into Christ. Our actions, speech, understanding, practice, etc. is being perfected by the indwelling Spirit. Our world is being hovered over, and the old, degenerate creation is being fanned into the new, regenerate Jerusalem. But again, where is the authoritative voice of Mother Kirk to be heard? In the sea of competing words, whose is the Shepherd’s voice? One of the fundamental problems with isolating the vox dei to councils, the ordained clergy or (worse still in my view) one member of the ordained clergy is that this ignores the fact that all have been given the Spirit. All have been made priests and kings to God. And while this does not justify some kind ecclesiastical democracy or anarchy, it does mean that there needs to be more humility and openness in the process of discerning the Spirit.
5. If the entire body of Christ is bound together by the One Spirit (and it is), then the authoritative voice of Christ cannot be limited to one class or one office or one action of the Church. Sola Scriptura is an attempt by many throughout the centuries of the Church to articulate to greater or lesser degrees of clarity the need for an organic, personal, and patient co-mingling of the entire body of Christ. In other words, Sola Scriptura is the Spirit-guided result of the meditations, proclamations, declarations, sermons, treatises, prayers, conversations, excommunications, liturgies, and councils based on the Holy Scriptures. This means that church councils are a significant part of this conversation. This means that pastors, priests, bishops, and deacons are also significant parts of this conversation. Theologians, dogmaticians, philosophers, and other sciences contribute their part to this conversation. And even the Bereans of the world contribute to this universal meditation on the Scriptures, searching daily to see if these things are true. Sola Scriptura insists that the Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of Life, and this means that the Spirit is sovereign over the spiritual life and vitality of the Church no less than individuals. Bottling the Spirit in the councils of the Church is too obvious. Of course we should give great weight and honor to those gatherings, but we should not expect the Spirit to limit his work to those events. We should expect pastors and priests and bishops to be exemplary men, full of the Spirit, and their writings, rebukes, sermons, prayers, exhortations, and counsel should be received with thanksgiving and humility. But the Spirit is not bound to them either. The Spirit has been poured out in the entire Church, and if this is true, we should expect to be led by children. We should expect that the occasional no-name monk will be used of the Spirit to give great light to the Church. We should expect donkeys to speak and rocks to cry out and the very heavens to declare the glory of God.
6. And this leads to my last point concerning time. All of this means that patience and humility are part of this process. There will be moments in history when an Athanasius will be called to step forward in the face of great opposition and risk his neck for the truth of the gospel. That was a dark day in the history of the Church, and for all appearances Athanasius seemed to be one man against the world. Was his the catholic position, though it appeared to be the extreme minority? It most certainly was though that was not readily clear to all involved at that time. There will be other points where a council will take several hundred years to be reckoned “ecumenical,” and that’s OK. And there may be some issues upon which there really has not been a universal opinion held (though some have held their views vigorously), and those in authority need to teach according to the best of their abilities but not force issues that the Spirit has not yet solidified. And there are some doctrines or practices which may (demographically/democratically speaking) be rather universal which nevertheless are incorrect. Which is to say, there are some things in the Body of Christ which time will sort out, and if the Spirit is OK with that, so should we.
7. One of the points that I have tried to make in a number of different conversations, posts, and sermons is that we need to be thankful for the Protestant Reformation. For whatever mistakes were made, for whatever errors our people committed, the Reformers breathed life into the world. There was a spiritual cancer that had filled the Church, and the Reformation was the beginning of a great surgery wrought by the Lord of Life. The Reformation is nothing close to the last word on many subjects, but it is at least one significant contribution to the conversation. The fact that three or four no-names wrote a few books and set the civilized world on fire is no accident. The fact that ignorance and superstition were rolled back in many lands, and the fact that the gospel began to be preached with clarity, and the Scriptures were translated freely into the common tongues of the people is evidence that the Reformation was a work of the Spirit. Orphanages and hospitals and missions exploded throughout the lands of the Reformation. The arts and humanities and sciences and commerce similarly took off, filled with the exuberance of life and freedom and forgiveness. Now I would certainly contend that there is still much work to be done, and for all the blessings of the Reformation there were plenty of failures, errors, and inconsistencies. But this is part of the conversation, that co-mingling of the Body of Christ in the communion of the Spirit in obedience to the Word of God. Through the mysterious working of the Spirit, we are being led into the truth, we are being built up into that spiritual house, the dwelling of the God of heaven.
More than anything, sola scriptura is a plea for the freedom of the Spirit, openness to the working of God through his Word in numerous different ways (while seeking to prioritize them Biblically), and trusting the wisdom and goodness of the Spirit to preserve us safe and secure in the holy ark of Christendom. We need to honor our past, honor tradition, honor our fathers in the faith, love the Scriptures, and trust the Spirit for the details, trust the Spirit through the messiness of history.