January 2017 Credo

Having celebrated Reformation Sunday some weeks back, I find it appropriate to write on one of the chief slogans that encapsulates the essence of what the Reformation was about—Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). I offer the following theses for our consideration (the reader should be glad to know it is 5 and not 95 theses!)

  1. Sola Scriptura is first and foremost a theological claim: Scripture is the divine discourse of the self-communicative God to his people

A proper grasp of Sola Scriptura, I believe, begins with an assertion of the following theological claim: Scripture is the divine discourse of the self-communicative God to his people.

In turn, this theological claim involves two other key doctrines, that is, our doctrine of God and our doctrine of Scripture.[1] God is seen as the God who desires to communicate, to speak with His people. And Scripture is seen as the text used by God to be the viva vox Dei (living voice of God) to address the people and generate faith and obedience.[2]

This, I submit, is the basic theological claim underlying Sola Scriptura that imbues the slogan with its sense of authority in the first place.

  1. Sola Scriptura is recognizing what God is intending with Scripture within the divine economy of salvation: as a covenant document to draw the church into covenantal relationship with God.

The above notion is verified in three ways.[3]

In terms of its content, Scripture depicts the history of God’s covenantal relations to humankind, including all the divine communicative acts (promises, warnings, commands, consolations etc.) that witness to what God was doing in Christ. In terms of its form, Scripture sets forth the terms and conditions of this very covenantal relationship itself. And in terms of its effect, to encounter the words of Scripture is to encounter God himself in action, supremely in his making of a covenantal promise to us.[4]

Sola Scriptura reminds us that Scripture alone is sufficient to bring about this covenantal intention of God. Hence, Scripture should rightly be conceived as a divine covenant document before an ecclesial constitution.[5]

  1. Sola Scriptura, more than a principle, is a canonical practice of the church

At its core, Sola Scriptura is best regarded as a practice, specifically, a Spirit-enabled church practice in reading, understanding and using Scripture in the church in a certain way.[6]

In line with a dramatic or theatrical analogy, there are two ways that the church can ‘perform’ the ‘script’ (Scripture). The first, an ecclesial performance interpretation, is where the interpretative community (the church) authors and directs. The second, a divine authorial-centered performance interpretation, is where the interpretative community receives, responds and enacts. Of the two, the latter corresponds to the practice of Sola Scriptura.[7]

In saying this, however, I am not presuming that the church can have an immediate and unmediated access to God’s Word removed from the interpretive context or interpretive tradition she finds herself in. Stated differently, in the language of the famous philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, the church’s performance—in this case her reception and response to the canonical script—always occurs out of a tradition or ‘historically-effected horizon’. It is pure naivety to say that one can approach a text ‘a-horizontally’.[8]

Rather, in practicing Sola Scriptura, I mean this: the church’s interpretation and performance is always subject to potential correction from the canon. Practicing Sola Scriptura means not collapsing the text (of Scripture) into the tradition of its interpretation and performance.[9]

In Gadamerian language again: Sola Scriptura refers to the radical alterity of the scriptural texts that confront us as the Word of God.[10] It means respecting the otherness of this other horizon in the dialogue and allowing it to do its work of critique rather than quickly neutralizing it through dissolution within the fusion of horizons.[11]

  1. Sola Scriptura is a spirited-canonical practice of Jesus Christ before that of the church

Granted the above that Sola Scriptura affirms Scripture as canon, then canon itself is ideally first viewed as a performance (by God) before it is viewed as a script designed for further performance (by the church).

This means that it is precisely because Scripture as canon is first and foremost a performance of what God was saying and doing in Jesus Christ that it serves as a normative specification of how the church is to carry on saying and doing in Jesus Christ.[12] In other words, Sola Scriptura is firstly viewing the canonical discourse in itself as an instance of the triune God’s ‘performance’, and then correspondingly as a script that calls for an appropriate and corresponding ecclesial response.[13]

In fact, a deeper examination reveals Jesus Christ himself as the preeminent canonical ‘performer’. Jesus comes and shows to us how the Scriptures should be read: he reads the parts in light of the covenantal whole and the whole in light of the Christological center that he is (Luke 24:44, John 5:39–40).[14]

In this way, Jesus establishes the preeminent canonical practice to be ‘of him’ in the sense that the practice is about him and it is his own practice. Jesus Christ is thus both the material and the formal principle of the canon, its substance and its hermeneutic respectively: ‘substance’ in that the Word inscripturated is about the Word incarnate, and ‘hermeneutic’ in the sense that the Word incarnate teaches us how to read the Word inscripturated.[15]

The final step in the equation is to recognize that in inaugurating this key canonical practice, Jesus also commissions this practice in that the apostles and the church are to interpret Jesus after the way He himself did.[16] The sending of the Spirit is to ensure the efficacy of this specific hermeneutical and canonical practice of Jesus in the church and in her tradition. Tradition, seen in this light, is hence the church faithfully passing on and continuing these canonical acts effected by the Spirit, rather than ‘inventing’ new acts under the name of the Spirit.[17]

  1. Sola Scriptura is finally a declaration of the clarity of Scripture as recognized within the community of faith

To summarize: Sola Scriptura does not negate tradition, but it does allot tradition a secondary role by designating it with a ministerial rather than a magisterial authority. As Kevin Vanhoozer aptly states it: “Tradition plays the role of moon to Scripture’s sun.”[18]

Sola Scriptura proclaims there is a gauge or criterion to measure the faithfulness of tradition, and extending further, even the work of the Spirit in tradition. For Sola Scriptura is ultimately a confession and declaration of the perspicuity or clarity of Scripture within the community of faith.

This is a clarity effectuated by the preeminent hermeneutical practice of Jesus himself and continued by the Spirit within the church’s tradition. Concurrently, it is this clarity that enables Scripture to serve as an incessant and simultaneous criterion and check on tradition.

The clarity of Scripture is rightly not independent of tradition or the work of the Spirit, but the clarity of scripture does affirm the otherness of the text in critiquing our interpretation and in shaping tradition such that it is best defined as “loving deference towards the words of Holy Scripture,”[19] and as a “holy attentiveness.”[20]

Ultimately, Scripture, with her clarity, forms, checks and directs the church’s interpretation, and performance. And that, I believe, is what it fundamentally means to uphold Sola Scriptura today.



Rev. Edmund Fong is currently an Associate Minister in Adam Road Presbyterian Church. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Systematic Theology on the theology of the great German theologian Karl Barth. Happily married to Mei and blessed with 3 children, Edmund enjoys watching movies and running when he’s not found either reading a good book or writing his dissertation.

 


Notes

[1] Kevin Vanhoozer suggests that what he calls our ‘first theology’, that is, our first principles in doing theology, derives from a correlation of these two doctrines. See his “First Theology: Meditations in a Postmodern Toolshed,” in First Theology: God, Scripture & Hermeneutics (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 15–41.

[2] David S. Yeago, “The Bible,” in Knowing The Triune God: The Work of the Spirit in the Practices of the Church, ed. James J. Buckley and David S. Yeago (Grand Rapids; Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2001), 49–93, in particular p. 66, states it memorably: “It is this discourse, what is said in these writings, textually fixed in just this fashion, which the church knows as the ‘divine discourse’ of the Holy Spirit” (emphasis his).

[3] This basic idea forms the main argument of chapter 4 of Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 115–150.

[4] Timothy Ward, Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 2009).

[5] Vanhoozer, Drama, 133.

[6] Ibid., 32, 153.

[7] Ibid., 165–185.

[8] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Second, Revised Reprinted Edition (London; New York: Continuum, 2006).

[9] Vanhoozer, Drama, 152.

[10] Amos Yong, Spirit-Word-Community: Theological Hermeneutics in Trinitarian Perspective (Aldershot; Burlington: Ashgate, 2002), 313–314.

[11] Mark L.Y. Chan, Christology From Within And Ahead: Hermeneutics, Contingency and the Quest for Transcontextual Criteria in Christology (Leiden; Boston; Koln: Brill, 2000), 145.

[12] Vanhoozer, Drama, 152.

[13] Ibid., 184.

[14] Ibid., 220–224.

[15] Ibid., 195.

[16] Ibid.

[17] As Vanhoozer highlights in Ibid., 194, this should not be taken to mean that the Spirit is subordinated in the midst of this. Instead, there is rightly reciprocity in the Son-Spirit relationship. Jesus enables the Spirit’s coming, but from a Spirit-Christology perspective, the Spirit also empowered Jesus to be who He was and to do what He did. The impetus rather, is to recognise the order and pattern set forth in Scripture, that “the one ministered to by the Spirit during his earthly ministry becomes, in his exalted state, the one whom the Spirit ministers” (emphasis his).

[18] Vanhoozer, Drama, 210.

[19] Yeago, “The Bible,” 69.

[20] John B. Webster, “Biblical Theology and the Clarity of Scripture,” in Out of Egypt: Biblical Theology and Biblical Interpretation, ed. Craig G. Bartholomew et al., 1st ed., vol. 4, Scripture and Hermeneutics Series (Milton Keynes; Grand Rapids: Paternoster; Zondervan, 2004), 374.