‘Scripture alone’ needs to be understood in a particular, technical light. Protestantism was not crudely fundamentalist in that it did not (at this stage) teach a literal inspiration or verbal inerrancy; indeed its attitude to the canon would scandalize many today. Neither was it radically democratic in offering the Scriptures to anyone without restraint. ‘Scripture alone’ makes sense only if one bears in mind that (a) the phrase connoted a conscious desire to oppose parts of ‘tradition’ that was seen as pernicious; and (b) that ‘Scripture’ for the Protestants meant ‘Christ’, and ‘Christ’ meant their version of the Gospel message. ‘Scripture alone’ was handmaiden both to their polemic and to their theory of salvation. (Cameron, 171)
Let me add a few facts and clarifications to Cameron’s statement. Protestants dig tradition only when it doesn’t say something that which they view as pernicious. Hence why no Protestant values slavery any more and why my dad thinks the idea of the real presence of Jesus in the eucharist is meaningless for today. (No, I have been successfully avoiding arguments with him although today, I noticed a book one of our family friends had brought over entitled Why Wesleyans are not Fundamentalists and I wanted to know what it was about and my dad was brought into the conversation to explain how Wesleyans read the Bible with the concept that one must have the Holy Spirit.) Any way, what this particular chapter of Cameron’s book discusses is what sola scriptura meant. Ironically, it’s something that Catholics nor Protestants really get well but reading the chapter I was shaking my head saying, “Uh huh, yeah, oh my…that was exactly my experience with Protestant sola scriptura!”
What Cameron addresses in this chapter is that in order to accurately interpret the scripture one must be a) a sufficiently trained professional in reading and exegesis of scripture or in some closely related field (sorry dad, engineering doesn’t count! ;p –but someday I’ll be sufficiently qualified to!), b) one must be inspired (hence, have the Holy Spirit or Christ in you (this one was always taught to me so I thought myself plenty qualified for this but then kept getting bullied around by the other Protestants)), and c) one must read it in light of Christ (something everyone claims to do).
As we know, the problem with this model is that it becomes the guy with the Ph.D., Th.D., S.T.D., J.C.D., S.T.L., M.Div., J.C.L., D.Phil., M.Th., S.S.L., S.S.D., etc., beating up on the guy who has only a B.A. or something like that despite the fact that he read another person with one of those degrees who had actually had the Holy Spirit inspiring him! So basically, Bart Ehrman can’t read the Bible but Kent Hovind can? Or someone else with a relevant degree who is completely wrong vs. an agnostic scholar who might be partially right.
This can lead any one to becoming frustrated. “But you said any one with the Holy Spirit could interpret the Bible!” “But you need to embrace the proper hermeneutics from the right Biblical scholar/theologian!” “But the apostles weren’t educated!” “They had the Holy Spirits!” “Who has the Holy Spirit?” “Christians do, of course!” “I’m a Christian!” These were basically my exact same frustrations in the Protestant camp with sola scriptura. I could see painstakingly, more and more, that sola scriptura was only just a scam for one Christian denomination to say to another, “I got the whole thing figured out!” Uh, no.
Euan Cameron’s statement is actually correct. The phrase “sola scriptura” or any other sentence beginning with “If you believe the Bible…” is nothing more than a polemic that is thrown out. However, sola scriptura is definitely a lot more than a polemic. It’s an attitude toward the Bible that one possesses. This attitude is using the Bible as a polemical device. There are plenty of people who struggle with using the Bible as a polemical device and they range from all different religious traditions. Sola scriptura, or this attitude toward the Bible, has been condemned as heretical by Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians. I hesitate to add liberal Protestants to this list because it seems they actually do like to use the Bible as a polemical device in order to bash inferior conservatives. Likewise with a lot of Protestants out there. Until we stop using the Bible as a polemical device to make ourselves superior to another, we are using it as a polemical device.
Sola scriptura is heresy. Snuff it out!
P.S. I should note that I am not condemning Biblical scholars or Biblical theologians who have been academically trained to read and interpret the Bible so long as they are doing it in a right matter, not being chained to their own personal convictions (though we all have them), not being chained to someone else’s convictions, and have acknowledged that most of it is an hypothesis at best. I am also certainly not against higher criticism which seeks out to explain how the Bible was put together. This is actually a really intriguing study to find out which books were in the original Bible and how it developed overtime. However, both Biblical scholars and Biblical theologians need to remember that they’re job is not circumscribed by beating lay people over the head with the Bible (something my New Testament professor was excellent at!) but rather it is about sharing with others your knowledge and convictions.
Cameron, Euan. The European Reformation. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.