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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.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department 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.

11 Responses to The Sola Scriptura trump card

  1. Scott, I am new to your blog, but it seems to me the intent of the "sola scriptura" argument is not that the Bible does not apply to areas it does not specifically address, but rather that any subjective application of Bible principles by you or any other person is not inspired, and thus is subject to occasional error. Heresy can and does result when a spiritual leader preaches his own subjective application of Scripture as infallible Bible doctrine. Folks that disagree with you may not be "naive" and "disingenuous" (I'm never a fan of name-calling) they may just disagree with your subjective application of a Bible principle, which is not inspired.

  2. Hi, Daniel. Welcome.

    I certainly agree that (1) the kinds of abuses you mention exist and (2) some appeals to sola scriptura are attempts to fight such abuses.

    However, most of the contexts in which I witness appeals to sola scriptura are not against such abuses but against any desire to apply the Scripture to contemporary contexts with any level of certainty at all. It is this kind of abuse of the biblical doctrine that I am writing against.

    Thanks again for your contribution. Please stop by often.

  3. Interesting how one of the most powerful advocates of applying Scripture to "contemporary contexts" states that counselors "must learn to distinguish clearly between good advice that they think grows out of biblical principles and those principles themselves. The latter…they may enforce with the utmost authority; the former…they must present with more caution" (Jay Adams, The Christian Counselor's Manual, 16). For whatever its worth, if none less than Jay Adams would definitely caution us on the certainty of our applications of principles in Scripture, I think I will too….

  4. As will I. You will find no argument from me that we must exercise caution with our applications of Scripture. I certainly advocate that. In my book, for example, I am very clear that applications of Scripture may indeed be wrong and must be treated thus.

    What I insist upon is that discussions (and, yes, even debate) about various applications of Scripture is a must. We need to wrestle through these kinds of applications.

    It is a rejection of this kind of discussion that I write against here.

    Thanks for the helpful perspective from Adams. Supports what we're trying to do here.

  5. I don't think anyone would reject that kind of discussion wholesale. Hence why I discuss these matters with you.

    What I do reject is:

    1. The elevation of extra-biblical material over the biblical data (forming a rejection of Prima Scriptura – for lack of a better term) in said debate.

    2. Any attempts to insist that one's own (valid) applications of principles are then valid and normative for all other believers.

  6. Scott,

    I speak for myself, but I think I would have an easier time finding people who shout down their opponents with "Sola Scriptura" credible if they were defending things that were less worldly instead of more worldly. Perhaps there is a good lesson in shepherding here: if a shepherd defends his sheep-feeding habits with "I have no formal prohibitions from the Chief Shepherd against using leftovers from my private table for sheep food" is he really shepherding? Why would a pastor experiment on his congregation with music that smart and godly people mistrust?

  7. @Chris:
    You stated: "Why would a pastor experiment on his congregation with music that smart and godly people mistrust?" I would ask: Why would a pastor not feed his congregation with music that smart and godly people trust? There are good smart godly people on both sides of the debate.

    As to the feeding of scraps to sheep, I would contend (as Scott himself has contended) that the lyrics of some in the CCM movement (e.g. Gettys) are far superior to the doctrinal content in the lyrics of much that is prevalent in Fundamentalist circles. In fact, I would argue that continuing to use some of the junk from our Fundamentalist hymnals is far worse for our sheep than some of the other options out there.

    As to defending things that are "worldly," I would have to question what you mean by the statement. If you mean that I defend the use of things that are commonplace in the world (e.g. suits and ties, vehicular transportation, the internet, art, literature, and music), then you must mark me as guilty; however, if by "worldly" you refer to the objective biblically defined sins such as (1) lust of the flesh, (2) lust of the eyes, and (3) the pride of life, then you have grossly missed your mark. If the inherent worldliness of a 2/4 beat were so obvious, then why do so many good, smart, and godly people disagree on this matter? I have a hard time imagining that brothers like Bryan Chapell, CJ Mahaney, John Piper, Al Mohler, John MacArthur, etc. just don't understand what worldliness is. I only wish for a life that exemplified Christ as much as men such as these.

    If you don't like the argument to return to Scripture alone (or Scripture primarily, as I have argued), then argue on the substance. Challenge me on my presuppositions. Question me on my logic. Contend with the continuity of my points, but avoid these ad hominem arguments. No conservative that is engaged in this debate is arguing for more "worldliness," more "sensuality," or more "liberalism" in the church. These terms are all red herrings. They work well as labels for those who have been raised within the same hermetically-sealed system, but lack substance when they must be proved to those who are from outside the bubble (think of the color Red in The Village). Please do not insult us when we ask politely for some backing in Scripture.

    As to that backing, I reiterate that I am not insisting on an unfair reliance only on precepts of Scripture, but allow for application of principles where the weight of the argument lies on Scripture and where the decision remains obvious to the breadth of conservative Christianity. In other words, with only Scripture principles and precepts, and (I grant) a limited amount of cultural data, I should be able to present an argument that is quite plausible to another conservative bible-believing brother. If not, I will question the plausibility of my argument as a whole. Is this too much to ask?

  8. Phillip,

    Is your middle name Scott?

    Here's what it would look like if I were addressing you:

    I disagree with your reading of Scripture if it accommodates Getty music in church. I think you have vastly undervalued what holiness means and what the Tabernacle (among other things) teaches people about worship both formally and symbolically. I don't think you have thought through these things with a critical eye on your own sinful desires. I don't think you understand the progression of Western thought that makes your exegesis impervious to hostile criticism. You might be a right capital fellow, and I honestly have no reason to doubt that, but you have trusted your gut entirely too much on this matter, and you stand to lose a generation in exactly the same way that your mentors lost a generation. I'm not terribly worried about the technical aspects of your logic, rhetoric, exegesis, or where/whether you part your hair because your spiritual discernment meter accommodates far more than is healthy.

    I don't think you or those fellows you named have really understood why you're so irritated by anyone who would dare to question your likes and dislikes. You can forward my comment to them, you can ignore it, you can use it in a Sunday School class to indoctrinate people. I'm not out to convince you or them because we don't have anything in common that would make it a worthy expenditure.

    I could give you my reading of Scripture and you would find reasons to reject it just like I reject yours. I could give you books to read, but you probably have a busy life and a stack of half-read books on your nightstand just like I do, and you would read them with a jaded eye anyways. So we get nowhere. You might be a nice guy, and I could probably solicit a few references, but we couldn't do church together.

    If you skipped all of the above, to sum up: I wasn't soliciting your response, I was soliciting Scott's.

  9. Oops, my bad. I guess I assumed that you were contributing to an ongoing discussion in an open format (blog?). I guess I know what to do with my opinion now…. =0

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