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The Sola Scriptura trump card

Some recent internet discussions, some sprung from Ken Brown’s very fair review of my book, have once again led to all sorts of folks slapping their “Sola Scriptura” trump card down on the table, as if playing that card gives them the high ground and silences all argument.

Don’t get me wrong; I firmly believe that the Bible is our all sufficient, ultimate source of authority in all matters. There is a reason that the first chapter in both of my books (Worship in Song and Sound Worship) deals with the issue of the sufficiency of Scripture.

But there are a couple of problems with how most people use the trump card these days:

First, this common, “trump card” understanding of Sola Scripture is naive and a bit disingenuous. These same people who insist that we must not base any application of Scripture on any extra-biblical information do what they condemn every single day in their interpretation and application of the Bible. Every time one of these folks says, “This Greek word means such-and-such,” how do they know? From Scripture? No; from extra-biblical sources of information. Every time one of these folks says, “The ancient Hebrews would have thought such-and-such about this situation,” how do they know? From Scripture? No; from extra-biblical sources. Every time one of these folks applies something like “Honor the king” to our respect for the United States President, they are leaving the original intent of authoritative Scripture and making their own extra-biblical application. As others have articulated so well, the same is true when applying the bible to internet porn, crack cocaine, or paying your taxes.

In my experience, people who play the Sola Scriptura trump card do so only with issues they don’t like, such as music. But they themselves, at least in practice, understand the silliness of insisting that we can only make concrete statements about those things that are explicitly articulated in a particular chapter and verse.

Second, this common, “trump card” understanding of Sola Scriptura in no way matches the biblical doctrine itself. The common view goes something like this: if the Bible doesn’t command or forbid it, then we cannot command or forbid it. Yet the Bible itself commands us to make applications beyond what it says. For example, when listing “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19-21, Paul forbids “things like these.” In other words, he expects us to figure out other things like the things on his list that would be considered “works of the flesh” and flee them too. Other passages likewise admonish believers to discern between good and evil even when they have no explicit instructions (e.g., Rom 12; Phil 1; Col 1; Phil 4). No chapter-and-verse philosophy for Paul.

Third, this common, “trump card” understanding of Sola Scriptura in no way matches the Reformers’ views of the doctrine. You read any one of the Reformers or the Westminster divines, and each one appeals to “conscience,” “light of nature,” and other “extra-biblical” sources of information in the application of Scripture. In fact, they made their loud appeal to the doctrine of Sola Scripture in opposition to the extra-biblical worship elements which had been placed on the shoulders of the people. Their concern was not so much in what was forbidden beyond direct biblical prohibition or how the Bible was applied to areas beyond its direct statements; they were tired of Church leaders adding unauthorized worship practices to their worship.

Further, as Mark Snoeberger articulates so well here, the Reformer’s definition of Sola Scritpura argued that Scripture speaks to everything–yes, that’s right, everything. There is no realm of the Christian life that is not under the authority and profitability of the Word of God. Actually, I think that those who insist that we can make no straightforward applications of Scripture in areas about which it is silent are the ones who are limiting the Bible’s sufficiency.

It’s time we stop using the wonderful doctrine of Sola Scriptura as some kind of trump card to be played whenever someone makes what we consider an illegitimate application of Scripture.

I very rarely have people actually interact with my arguments concerning music and worship. Most often people simply throw down the Sola Scriptura trump card and act as if they’ve won the day. I would welcome intelligent debate over the applications themselves instead of insisting that the practice of making applications is wrong in the first place.

Can we not agree on the following statements?

  1. The Bible speaks with authority to every issue in the Christian life.
  2. In almost every case, we will need other information to help us apply the Bible to life’s situations.
  3. Such applications are debatable.

Lest you think I’m crazy, go back and read what John Piper himself said about this issue: “The sufficiency of Scripture does not mean that the Scripture is all we need to live obediently.”

I’d strongly encourage you to read Sound Worship (if not Worship in Song). It’s very short, and it’s free on Google Books. Read the chapters on biblical authority and musical meaning, and then tell me if I’m stepping outside the legitimate bounds of drawing applications from Scriptural principles. Or you can find the chapter on biblical authority here.

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.