Are You Flying Solo?

Below is a short presentation I wrote this year for a discussion group I attend locally from time to time. I do not attempt to answer everything here or address objections. Idont-know-if-flying-solo-or-forever-alone specifically designed this piece to facilitate discussion so as to allow various objections to come out in due course. I did write it as part of a larger argument because I think it gets to the heart of the matter concerning Reformation disputes. That is, the argument is not over epistemological issues (how can we know the correct interpretation of scripture?) but rather normative issues (what interpretation of scripture is binding or obligatory?) So I think that framing the matter in this way helps to clear away much of the confusion over the Reformation’s formal distinctive that is left untouched by most discussions of this topic. I hope you find it profitable.

Are You Flying Solo?

By Perry C. Robinson © 2017

            The doctrine of Sola Scriptura is one of two fundamental principles of the Classical Reformation traditions (Lutheran and Reformed). It is the formal principle of those traditions. [1] This is just to say that Sola Scriptura characterizes and structures all of Classical Protestant theology.

The doctrine of Sola Scriptura historically faces a number of objections. Sola Scriptura is said to be unbiblical or unexpressed in the biblical corpus, Sola Scriptura is unworkable, etc.  Here I want to focus on a specific objection to Sola Scriptura and the reply given to it by its defenders.

The objection comes in a variety of forms. Popularly, it is expressed by saying that Sola Scriptura makes every person their own pope or it makes the Bible a wax nose. Each person functions as their own authority with the Bible alone, disregarding all other ecclesial authorities. This falls afoul of any plausible biblical portrait of ecclesiology.

The now somewhat standard reply[2] is that Sola Scriptura does not eliminate all ecclesial authorities and doesn’t amount to making every person their own pope, but preserves a place for ecclesial authority relative to the individual Christian. The objection turns on confusing Sola Scriptura (SS1) with Solo Scriptura (SS2). SS1 places scripture as the highest formal and material authority with subordinate ecclesial authorities, such as pastors, synods, etc. Each of the subordinate authorities is fallible, whereas scripture is infallible. SS2 by contrast posits no subordinate authorities (either they are weakly unnecessary or strongly precluded) for the individual Christian. No ecclesial authority can bind or obligate the individual Christian on SS2. In this way, it is argued that the objection to SS1 turns on a strawman, confusing SS1 with SS2.

To see if this reply is successful, we need to take a look at an essential constituent of the concept of Sola Scriptura (SS1). SS1 has a variety of conceptual parts, ideas that make up the entire idea. One of those constituents is the Doctrine of the Right of Private Judgment (DRPJ).[3] Not often discussed, this is an essential or necessary constituent of SS1. I formulate the DRPJ roughly in the following way.

DRPJ: Any Christian individual is ultimately obligated to adhere to belief X, if and only if they judge (determine, assess, etc.) that belief X is scriptural.

The DRPJ can be seen to be expressed in the following sources.

“Your Imperial Majesty and Your Lordships demand a simple answer. Here it is, plain and unvarnished. Unless I am convicted [convinced] of error by the testimony of Scripture or (since I put no trust in the unsupported authority of Pope or councils, since it is plain that they have often erred and often contradicted themselves) by manifest reasoning, I stand convicted [convinced] by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God’s word, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us.”

Martin Luther @ the Diet of Worms, 1521.

“Although in the external court of the church every private person is bound to submit to the synodical decisions (unless he wants to be excommunicated), and such judgment ought to flourish for the preservation of order, peace and orthodoxy, and the suppression of heretical attempts; it does not follow that the judgment is supreme and infallible. For an appeal may always be made from it to the internal forum of conscience, nor does it bind anyone in this court further than he is persuaded of its agreement with the Scriptures.”

Francis Turretin, Institutes of Enlenctic Theology, vol 1, pp.161.

“What Protestants deny on this subject is, that Christ has appointed any officer, or class of officers, in his Church to whose interpretation of the Scriptures the people are bound to submit as of final authority. What they affirm is that He has made it obligatory upon every man to search the Scriptures for himself, and determine on his own discretion what they require him to believe and to do.”

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, p. 184.

So, on SS1 Luther is only ultimately obligated to assent to any given doctrine, if and only if, he judges it to be scriptural. That is, his conscience plays an ultimately normative role here. To say that some faculty functions in an ultimately normative role is to say that one is bound or obligated to assent to the judgments of that faculty without exception.

What is crucial to notice is that SS1 and SS2 both share the thesis of the DRPJ. The only difference is that SS1 has or allows for subordinate secondary authorities (depending on how strongly or weakly one glosses SS2).[4] Furthermore, on SS1 secondary authorities are not ultimately normative. That is, they bind the individual to a limited degree. What degree is that? On SS1, a secondary authority can bind the individual’s conscience to assent to a belief, unless the individual judges that the authority is wrong. In which case, the normative power of the secondary authority is trumped.[5]

It is also important to notice that adding secondary authorities as SS1 does, doesn’t weaken or alter the DRPJ in any way. One way to help get a hold of this point is to imagine two political scenarios. Imagine Country A which has a supreme court and many other subsidiary courts, and Country B, which has only a supreme court and no subsidiary courts.  The fact that A has subsidiary courts and B does not, leaves the existence and ultimate legal normativity of a supreme court in both scenarios untouched.

Another way to think of it would be to imagine two countries C and D. Both countries leave the final judgment of what each law means and how far it extends to each individual citizen. But country C has many subsidiary courts below the authority of each citizen and country D does not. If any citizen of country C thinks the judgment of a court is wrong, he can appeal to his own judgment to override it. C therefore has steps one must pass through that D does not, but the locus and nature of ultimate legal normativity is the same.

Adding subsidiary authorities doesn’t make a substantial difference relative to the ultimate normativity of each individual’s judgment. Adding more pen-ultimate authorities below that of the individual conscience doesn’t touch the ultimate normativity of the individual’s conscience. That is, there is no substantial or principled difference between SS1 and SS2. And this is because they both endorse and entail the DRPJ.

Consequently, the only real authority on SS1 and SS2 is that of the individual conscience. Any appeal to scripture by an individual is an appeal to an interpretation of scripture and an interpretation of scripture that someone judges to be normative. Hence all judgments relative to scripture on both SS1 and SS2 are at bottom, appeals to the ultimate authority of individual consciences and nothing more.

So the question is, Are you flying Solo?


[1] The material principle being the doctrine of Sola Fide.

[2] This has been articulated by Keith Mathison’s The Shape of Sola Scriptura, 2001

[3] Please note that the DRPJ is a distinctly Protestant thesis. Whatever members of other traditions do when they form judgments, it doesn’t constitute a case of Private Judgment properly speaking.

[4] What I mean here is the following. If SS2 allows for but doesn’t require any secondary authorities, then SS1 and SS2 are prima facia conceptually closer. If on the other hand, SS2 precludes any secondary authorities, then SS1 and SS2 are prima facia conceptually more distant.

[5] This usage, of course has no relation to the current President.