By Practicing Solo Scriptura
To fail to recognize that we are actually doing theology all the time and especially when reading the Bible is one aspect of what it means to practice solo Scriptura. In essence, we may define solo Scriptura as the belief that we do not need the assistance of the church, the creeds, and teachers throughout history in order to rightly understand the Bible. The practitioner of solo Scriptura thinks that he is not bringing any preconceived notions to his study of the Bible. He believes that simply studying the Word of God on his own is sufficient to guide him into all truth.
Sola Scriptura, on the other hand, says that while the Bible is the only infallible authority for the church, believers actually need the help of subordinate, fallible authorities to understand divine revelation rightly. Creeds, theologians from the present and past, and one’s local church all provide useful guidance in understanding the Word of God. They provide a way for us to measure the accuracy of our private interpretations of Scripture. Christ has promised to be with His church and to guide His corporate people in the understanding of His truth (Matt. 28:20; Eph. 4:11–13). Among other things, that means that He does not speak in a code that only a few can understand, and He does not grant insight to us as individuals that He fails to give to other people. If we think we have discovered something new in Scripture, it is probably not true, and it is probably not a new error either.
As Protestants, we have to think carefully about the right of private interpretation and how we as individuals relate to the wisdom of the church. The story of the Reformation is sometimes told as a story of rugged individualism, of individuals who came to independent conclusions and who resisted error because they had the courage to stand for the truth when no one else would. Certainly, many of the Reformers reached points at which they felt as if no one was standing with them, but they also recognized that they were, in fact, not really teaching anything new. Martin Luther advocated for justification by faith alone and for Scripture as our only infallible authority, but others came to the same conclusions as he did independent of his work even though Luther’s personality shaped the Reformation decisively. And Luther and others came to these conclusions by recognizing that the final authority of Scripture does not mean other subordinate authorities have nothing to teach us. In fact, one of their criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church was that it is not catholic—universal—or ancient enough. The Reformers appealed to the church fathers, medieval theologians, and earlier creeds to show that it was the papacy that had struck out on its own, not the Reformers.
By Listening Only To a Select Few
God has gifted His church with a variety of teachers, each with a unique style of teaching. Usually, we will find ourselves gravitating to particular teachers because their style and manner are particularly suited to our individual personalities. In one sense, there is nothing wrong with this. It is good to follow those who offer the greatest help to us in understanding God’s Word. The problem comes when we listen only to those select few and never venture outside our favorite set of teachers.
Following only one or a few teachers can shape us in unhealthy ways. The fact is, we need to hear from many different sound instructors. Paul tells us that God has given to the church “apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers” so that we may grow to maturity (Eph. 4:11–16). Note the Apostle’s use of the plural. One Apostle was insufficient for our instruction, so God gave us Peter, Paul, James, Jude, Matthew, John, and several others. One prophet was not enough, so God gave us Elijah, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Malachi, Amos, Elisha, Micah, and several others. The Apostolic and prophetic offices have passed away, but our need for more than one or more than a few men in the other offices have not. Listening to many sound teachers, both those who are well known and those who are not, means that we will benefit from the strengths of the many and not only from the strengths of a few.