One of the foundational theological convictions of my life and ministry is the principle of Sola Scriptura, the biblical doctrine that Scripture is the only infallible authority of Christian faith and practice. Directly related to this conviction is my belief in the sufficiency of Scripture: the truth that in the Scriptures, we have every divine word needed to live a life that honors God. As Paul puts it so memorably in a letter to his student, Timothy: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17, italics mine).
Briefly in this post I want to address what I believe to be a common misunderstanding and errant application of the principles of Sola Scriptura and the sufficiency of Scripture, specifically as these principles relate to the role of human teachers in the life of the church.
Over the years I’ve encountered a number of well-meaning Christians who believe in the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, but who apply these truths in an unbiblical way. These Christians make it seem like they believe teachers of the Bible are somehow not necessary to a Christian’s spiritual maturity. They often don’t like to read Christian books and are not really interested in what others say about the Bible or about what a passage in the Bible means. Many of them don’t like to attend groups and studies that are focused around a book written by another man, because they believe that only studies that study the Bible directly are worth their time. They are of the “no creed but the Bible” crowd.
Again, many of these Christians have honorable intentions. They acknowledge the authority of the Bible and want for it to have its rightful place as the final and ultimate authority of their faith. And in this desire, I am right there with them. But, I think their resistance against human teachers is actually an illogical and unbiblical position.
It is an illogical position, because “no creed but the Bible” is itself a creed. Carl Trueman explains:
“Christians are not divided between those who have creeds and confessions and those who do not; rather, they are divided between those who have public creeds and confessions which are written down and exist as public documents, subject to public scrutiny, evaluation, and critique; and those who have private creeds and confessions which are often improvised, unwritten, and thus not open to public scrutiny, not susceptible to evaluation and, crucially and ironically, not subject to testing by scripture to see whether they are true or not.” (Carl Trueman, The Creedal Imperative)
And ironically, not even the Bible advocates such a position. For instance,in the words of the Apostle Paul, when Jesus ascended to his Father, he gave gifts to the Church; gifts like “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastor-teachers”; people who are given to the church to “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,” which they do (at least in great part) by explaining the Word of God to the people (Ephesians 4:11-13).
Consider also the urgency with which Paul exhorts Timothy to “preach the word” in 2 Timothy 4:1-5. You get the sense in that passage that Timothy’s faithfulness in preaching is absolutely essential to the health of the church there in Ephesus.
And then there is the praise Paul gives to the church at Rome, rejoicing that they are “filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another” (Romans 15:14). Notice how being filled with all personal knowledge [of God] is in no way opposed to giving and receiving instruction to one another in the church. The two go hand in hand.
Certainly there are a myriad of other passages that we could consider, but hopefully my point here is clear. The Scriptures in no way demean the role of human teachers in the spiritual growth of the church, but in fact honor that role.
The “no creed but the Bible” position is actually a mistreatment of the biblical doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Some have put a label on this position, calling it the principle of “Solo Scriptura,” the idea that the Bible is not merely the only infallible authority of our faith and practice, but is the only authority, period. The problem is, as Keith Mathison has pointed out, that “if a proponent of solo scriptura is honest, he recognizes that it is not the infallible Scripture to which he ultimately appeals. His appeal is always to his own fallible interpretation of that Scripture.”
The result of this is an extremely individualistic reading of Scripture that gives far too much weight to personal and private interpretations of the Bible. And when this happens, people begin listening not to the true voice of God in the Bible, but themselves.
Which means, not only is the position not logically possible, it is not biblical at all, and ironically elevates the opinions of men to a level of ultimate spiritual authority – the very problem that Sola Scriptura is meant to protect us from. The simple fact is that “no creed but the Bible” is actually a creed in and of itself that goes against the direct teaching of the Bible.