A Distinction in Principle between Sola Scriptura and Solo Scriptura

Tim Troutman over at the Roman Catholic blog Called to Communion wrote:

The Reformed claim to believe in Church authority but they subject that authority to their own private interpretation of Scripture and thus their self-view of Church authority is no different in principle than the Protestant who would explicitly state that his only authority is his private interpretation of Scripture. That’s what the article demonstrates. If someone disagrees they need to say so and start out with something like this: “There is a principle of distinction between sola and solo scriptura and it is this:” (and then go on to explain what that principle is).

But if they do not do that or something very similar, then they do not refute the article and don’t really engage it. In 349 I gave two very explicit examples of what a refutation would look like. So far, nothing has looked like that at all.


I answer:

Tim is mistaken about how the article can be refuted. He is correct that one way to refute the article would be to use the format he mentioned: “There is a principle of distinction between sola and solo scriptura and it is this:” (and then go on to explain what that principle is). However, there are other ways to refute the article, such as by demonstrating that the article is unfounded or that the article is self-defeating. Those sort of refutations of the article have been offered (both by myself – here, for example – and by others.

Yet, lest he continue to assert that no refutation has been offered according to his preferred form:

There is a principle of distinction between sola scriptura and solo scriptura and it is this: respect for subordinate authority.

Scriptures teach that the elders are overseers (Act 20:28 Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.) and that they are to be accorded special dignity (1 Timothy 5:1 Rebuke not an elder, but intreat him as a father; and the younger men as brethren; & 1 Timothy 5:19 Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses. ). This respect, of course, is not without limits. An elder can be accused by a plurality of witnesses (1 Timothy 5:19), an elder can be entreated when in error (1 Timothy 5:1), and there will be false teachers that will come in (2 Peter 2:1 But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. ).

Submission to the elders of the church is part of a Christians overall duty to submit to authority to authority (Romans 13:1 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. & Titus 3:1 Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work,). Indeed, even the civil authorities in an ungodly empire are called ministers of God:

Romans 13:1-7
Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: for he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

Indeed, Jesus himself commended human authority to his disciples (Matthew 23:1-3 Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, saying, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.”) However, this submission to human authority was rightly understood by the apostles to be tempered by a higher duty toward God (Act 5:27-29 And when they had brought them, they set them before the council: and the high priest asked them, saying, “Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, “We ought to obey God rather than men.”)

The elders, like the civil magistrate, are ministers of God (1 Thessalonians 3:2 And sent Timotheus, our brother, and minister of God, and our fellowlabourer in the gospel of Christ, to establish you, and to comfort you concerning your faith:). They accordingly ought to be obeyed and respected, so long as obedience to them does not conflict with obedience to God.

There is one further parallel that must be made. Obedience to parents is repeatedly emphasized in Scripture:

Exodus 20:12 Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.

Deuteronomy 5:16 Honour thy father and thy mother, as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee; that thy days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with thee, in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.

Micah 7:6 For the son dishonoureth the father, the daughter riseth up against her mother, the daughter in law against her mother in law; a man’s enemies are the men of his own house.

Malachi 1:6 A son honoureth his father, and a servant his master: if then I be a father, where is mine honour? and if I be a master, where is my fear? saith the LORD of hosts unto you, O priests, that despise my name. And ye say, Wherein have we despised thy name?

Matthew 15:4-6
For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death. But ye say, Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; and honour not his father or his mother, he shall be free. Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.

Matthew 19:19 Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

Mark 7:10-13
For Moses said, Honour thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death: but ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free. And ye suffer him no more to do ought for his father or his mother; making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.

Mark 10:19 Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honour thy father and mother.

Luke 18:20 Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother.

Ephesians 6:2 Honour thy father and mother; (which is the first commandment with promise;)

Colossians 3:20 Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing unto the Lord.

Yet even the divinely commanded obedience to father and mother is tempered by a necessary trumping obedience to God (Ephesians 6:1 Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. & Matthew 8:21-22 And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead. & Luke 9:59-60 And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God.)

Now the Roman Catholic church does not deny that the authority of parents and kings are subordinate to the authority of God. Furthermore, the Roman Catholic church (at least in theory) affirms that God is a higher authority than the church. Thus, this principle of distinction between sola scriptura and solo scriptura ought to be understandable, at least, to the Roman Catholic reader.

Finally, and this is where the refutation extends beyond simply stating the principle of distinction and explaining it, the sola scriptura position is the position that best fits our present circumstance. Our elders are men. They are not incarnations of the Logos – they are not divinely inspired prophets. They are teachers and pastors. They are owed submission and respect, but not absolutely. Even the apostles (who were sometimes divinely inspired prophets) were not given absolute respect (Acts 17:11 These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so. & Galatians 2:11 But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed.).

Even Jesus himself, though he could have insisted on his divine prerogative, opened his ministry to Scriptural examination (John 5:39 Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me. & Matthew 11:2-5 Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples, and said unto him, “Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?” Jesus answered and said unto them, “Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.” & compare Isaiah 35:4-6 Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, even God with a recompence; he will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing: for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert. & Luke 24:25-27 Then he said unto them, “O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?” And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.).

The Scriptures, after all, are the very word of God, not the private interpretations of men (2 Peter 1:20-21 Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.) Furthermore, the Scriptures are both formally and materially sufficient (2 Timothy 3:15-17 And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works. )

Accordingly, not only is there a principled distinction between sola scriptura and solo scriptura, but sola scriptura is distinguishable from (and superior to) an unbounded submission to the successors (real or alleged) of the apostles. I’m aware of Bryan Cross’ objections to this distinction and I’ve answered them (here – where I demonstrate that his objection amounts to a denial that there can be subordinate authority).


17 Responses to “A Distinction in Principle between Sola Scriptura and Solo Scriptura”

  1. prettythingsbyrose Says:

    All I can say is, very well said.

  2. John Says:

    Bait and switch going on here.Is the discussion about interpretation of scripture – i.e. dogma, or is it about church discipline?The Catholic accusation was about "private interpretation of Scripture", but the response is about discipline and obeying your parents.TF, if you want this to be an on-topic defence, you will have to sign up for elders being some kind of authority on the topic at hand, which is interpretation of scripture. Are you willing to do that? If so, tell me how it works.And while I have seen attempts to distinguish sola and solo scripture, this would be the worst ever, since this article is about discipline, which supposedly sola (and solo) scriptura do not address. Of course all attempts to distinguish them are pretty hopeless in my experience, so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised.

  3. Turretinfan Says:

    John:That is an interesting claim (i.e. that all I've presented is an argument for authority with respect to discipline).a) It is interesting, because if you are right, then the Scriptures support the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox positions even less than RC and EO apologists usually try to claim.b) But, of course, it is myopic at best to think that discipline isn't based on interpretation of Scripture – at least in communions that care about interpreting Scripture.-TurretinFan

  4. natamllc Says:

    I would only note from this:::>"….Indeed, Jesus himself commended human authority to his disciples (Matthew 23:1-3 Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, saying, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.")…".Jesus is the very seat of Moses and gave Moses the authority to speak those things they bid them observe.Is it any different today? "No"!

  5. John Says:

    OK TF, do you want to claim these scriptures give warrant to elders authoritatively interpreting scripture, or not?No use arguing both sides against the centre now, take a firm stance.

  6. bkaycee Says:

    natamllc, should read the post he is commenting on. http://turretinfan.blogspot.com/2009/12/distinction-in-principle-between-sola.html

  7. Turretinfan Says:

    John:I'm not sure how my stance that elders have subordinate authority (which entails interpretation and application) any more firm than it is.-TurretinFan

  8. John Says:

    OK, so tell me how the authority of the interpretation of your elders overrides your interpretation as an individual. You will submit your interpretation to them? If so, how does that work if they suddenly become Baptist? If not, how are they an authority since you don't submit to them?

  9. Turretinfan Says:

    You tell me, John: what would you do if the pope suddenly became baptist?Isn't that a dumb question? So also, yours.

  10. John Says:

    Err.. I'm not Roman Catholic, but judging from history probably Roman Catholics would obey him.I guess you have no answer, huh?

  11. Spencer Fields Says:

    TurretinFan,Good post. I do think you have proved the point that there is a principled distinction between sola scriptura and solo scriptura in regard to authority of ministers in the church, but I do have this question: are you in any way saying that ministers in the church can speak authoritatively so that private judgment from Scripture is not needed? And if not, and private judgment is still needed to evaluate everything they say, then doesn't that mean that the principled distinction between sola and solo only extends to respecting a person's authority with regard to discipline, and not teaching?Pax Christi,Spencer

  12. Turretinfan Says:

    Spencer:Yes, this post doesn't address that particular question.Private judgment is an inescapable reality of being human, but I'll give your question some more thought and perhaps produce or more careful response.-TurretinFan

  13. Andrew Suttles Says:

    TF -You might as well give up. Until you inform the Romanist antagonists here that you surrender the role of the Holy Spirit to a fallible institution and until you hand the Crown of Christ to a fallible man, they will not be satisfied with your answers.Romanists believe the Bible to be unintelligible and are offended if anyone dares pretend to understand it. Why? This is the real question. I Cor 2:10-14: But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

  14. Anonymous Says:

    respect for subordinate authorityHow does one identify the 'subordinate authority' to respect/submit to?

  15. Turretinfan Says:

    Anonymous:a) one reads the Bible and learns that these subordinate authorities are elders.b) one uses the Bible to distinguish false teachers (who preach another gospel than the apostles did) from true teachers (who preach the same gospel).c) other general Biblical principles of prudence also apply (the elders should be those that speak one's language, are located generally in one's area, and so forth)- TurretinFan

  16. Pianoman Says:
  17. Pianoman Says:

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