Sola Scriptura? It’s Complicated
by Rich Hannon | 28 November 2022 |
Seventh-day Adventists have historically self-identified as the “people of the book.” That phrase is meant to convey the idea that we take the Bible as our sole rule of faith and thus would diligently study scripture to uncover its truths. Indeed, Adventist Fundamental Belief #1 states, in part:
“The Holy Scriptures are the supreme, authoritative, and the infallible revelation of His will. They are the standard of character, the test of experience, the definitive revealer of doctrines, and the trustworthy record of God’s acts in history.”
This is intended to capture an idea expressed by the term “Sola Scriptura,” which is Latin for “(by) scripture alone.” It’s the view that church doctrine and practice must be based only on the Bible – the foundation principle of the Protestant Reformation. And also understood to be in contrast to Catholicism, which holds that doctrine may be based on both scripture and church tradition. But the reformers argued that tradition had, over the centuries, polluted genuine Bible-based doctrine.
It’s entirely consistent, then, that Adventism, believing itself to be the “remnant church” (and thus heirs to the Reformation), would adopt a Sola Scriptura platform, which also implies we are the antithesis of a Catholic, tradition-affirming church.
The Fundamental Complexities
Adopting Sola Scriptura as a belief is one thing; putting it into practice is another. The fundamental problem is more encompassing than biblical interpretation.
There are two universal issues that can compromise any communication. First, the author(s) might convey ideas imprecisely, so what is intended doesn’t properly get said or written. Second, irrespective of how well ideas are expressed by an author, listeners or readers can misunderstand the material.
With the Bible we tend to downplay the first potential problem. And those who hold to inerrancy try to completely eliminate it. Officially, Adventism doesn’t take the inerrancy position. There are serious problems if you attempt to hold the Bible to such a standard.
But, as quoted above, Fundamental Belief #1 uses the word infallible, which sounds a lot like inerrant to me. And no matter what the church belief says, authors – even inspired ones – might be subject to human limitations. So considering whether there is sub-optimality in message creation should not be summarily dismissed. Indeed, one of the more important (and relatively recent) assessments of biblical material is to consider how the nature and extent of an author’s world view might impact how the ideas are crafted. To assume we can correctly read the Bible with our “modern eyes” is just that – an assumption. And one that ought not to be “baptized” into being a part of Sola Scriptura.
But even if one presumed that the entire Bible was dropped from heaven without passing through human minds, the readers can still misunderstand. This should be self-evident. One only has to recognize all the doctrinal differences that historically have been generated from a common source. And, beyond these different official theologies, there is an even wider and sometimes quite flakey collection of views offered by individual Christians. People have varying backgrounds, interpretive skills, and biblical literacy. But that doesn’t stop them from voicing opinions, irrespective of any such limitations. And sometimes these opinions are delivered with great passion and certainty. So there are genuine potential transmission problems, from God as originator, to humanity in general.
Then there is the substantive issue of canon formation: how this collection of writings we call the Bible was assembled and given inspired status. The choice of 66 books is not agreed upon across the breadth of Christendom. Anyone who even superficially investigates the history of which writings made the cut will recognize that it was a protracted process fraught with complication. I think there is a tendency to gloss over this by choosing to affirm that God was behind, and in control of, the choices for inclusion and exclusion.
And personally, I’m also willing to take this by faith. But that’s the point. It’s a faith-affirmation and one implemented via church tradition. So a too-simple view, wishing to contrast Sola Scriptura against tradition, should minimally realize that canon formation was a coalescing of decisions made by the early church.
Adventism and Ellen White
Then there is the reality of a subculture’s doctrinal preferences. Various denominations formed because there was something(s) in the realm of Christian doctrine or practice that the founders felt needed emphasis or correction. With Seventh-day Adventism it was – surprise, surprise – the Sabbath and the Second Coming, as starters. So church founders embedded these twin priorities into the denominational name. And, as any Adventist likely knows, the church has additional prominent factors shaping both its beliefs and culture. But driving and dominantly overshadowing every other influence is the life and ministry of Ellen White. She is literally the Ellen-phant in the room.
White wrote voluminously, providing authority to many Bible-derived theological positions. These emphases elevate the underlying supporting biblical passages in ways that likely wouldn’t have occurred without her. Thus there is the question of whether that elevation is appropriate or has skewed what might otherwise be the Bible’s internal hierarchy of theological importance. Most obviously, throughout Adventist history the church has promoted the importance of eschatology. Sometimes to the detriment of core Jesus-principles one should embody from reading about his ministry.
Support for some doctrine was undergirded using a proof-text methodology. I think this tendency was more a function of the state of theology-formation in 19th-century Christianity generally, and not merely an Adventist approach. But, as time passes, critiques of methodology should mandate a re-visitation of both denominational theology formation and priorities. Yet there has always been resistance to such considerations, due significantly to whether a position received support from Ellen White.
Even more central to Adventism’s biblical understanding and “Sola” purity is Ellen White’s direct, focused commentary found in the five-book set Conflict of the Ages. For members who hold her in high esteem, these books constitute a wrapper surrounding the Bible, amplifying story details and giving emphases to the base material. Thus it is unsurprising if such extensions circle back to become surreptitiously canonized by osmosis. Now let me be clear. I am not trying to disparage these books. Far from it. I have read them with appreciation. Moreover, any commentary that elaborates on Bible stories and themes will carry this type of risk. The difference is the degree of authority entrusted to White by official Adventist belief, embodied in Fundamental Belief #18: “The Gift of Prophecy.”
The role of Ellen White in Adventism’s dance between Sola Scriptura and tradition is complex, due to the somewhat ambiguous designation of her authority. As noted above, a mingling of presuppositions can infuse exogenous belief into what is considered “Scriptura.”
One of the problems ships encounter over time is the buildup of material on the hull. It can be chemical, like lime deposits, or biological, like barnacles. Periodically it becomes necessary to clean this off in dry-dock, else the ship’s speed is degraded and eventually the integrity of the hull itself is compromised. A term for this is encrustation.
Encrustations occur in our biblical understandings when beliefs get added over time that aren’t directly or adequately derived from the source material. Ellen White constitutes a convoluted example, due to ambiguity in defining her inspiration for Adventists. But every time a preacher “riffs” on a Bible story or maxim there is embellishment. This is done both innocently and for good homiletic purposes. But it does add detail not present in the source.
Trusted authority also plays an outsized influence. Believers have their favorite preachers and authors. Their expositions are extensions to the scriptural meaning, with trustworthiness ostensibly derived from fidelity to the source. But sometimes that trust is too freely bestowed and this commentary merges back into what is considered biblical. Sola can be compromised if, minimally, the believer fails to recognize this. But it’s obviously much worse if the ideas such authorities express are not actually in accord with revelatory truth.
So – It’s Complicated
Years ago I was involved in an online forum where we were discussing some of these ideas. One participant got quite upset with me. He felt I was denigrating the Bible and made the analogy that what I was suggesting was the equivalent of God’s word being like clean straw fed through a donkey’s digestive system, with dung coming out the back end. He didn’t see me addressing the issue of complexity, necessitating caution. He thought I was claiming that what was left, when the reader accessed it, had become worthless, adulterated waste. Of course, this is not what I was trying to say – then or now. Ironically, that interchange exemplified the communication problems under discussion here, albeit without inspiration at issue.
What I am suggesting is that the idea of Sola Scriptura is aspirational, and the issues I raise suggest the need for humility, as we may be simplistically thinking we form our doctrines purely on a biblical basis, when we don’t. I’m not seeking to generate doubt, but to iterate toward a level-headed balance in how we create, hold, and modify our foundational beliefs.
Rich Hannon is a retired software engineer. His long-standing avocations include philosophy, geology, and medieval history.