So just what is the difference between the reformation’s oft-repeated Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) and the American perversion of the same, biblicism or Solo Scriptura?
We have talked around this a bit, but after reading the latest issue of the Nicotine Theological Journal I was reminded of the need for a post on the subject. DG Hart speaks of those who adhere to what has become known as the Federal Vision (FV) as biblicists and says, “…reverence for God’s holy word is a good thing and study of it is the life blood of the church. But biblical study isolated from historical theology, systematic theology, and church’s confessions is unhealthy.”
That is to say that we are all part of that holy catholic Church which makes up all of God’s saints since the Fall, and it would be foolhardy to think that we could study Scripture apart from the legacy left us by them all. Why would we think ourselves able to turn to the Scriptures today, passages that have been exegeted for at least a couple thousand years by saints far greater than we, and suddenly invent new teachings that have never occured to others? Certainly we are not condemned to the erroneous teachings of those who have gone before, and even the greatest of the Church Fathers had issues with their teachings as early as they were in development. However these issues have been worked out over thousands of years through Church courts, not by proclaimation of some guy in a Bible study or online chat room.
It seems to me that Biblicism is a tendency to think that one can approach Scripture without a set of presuppositions and craft worthwhile exegesis and doctrine all alone, hence the Solo. Those in the FV have shown themselves to wear this tendency as a badge of honor, but I was raised in a fundamentalist anti-tradition steeped in the same rationalistic presuppositions.
Take my cousin for instance. Her father is a minister in the little hyper-dispensational group I was raised in (held to the standard of the three marks of the true Church graciously 1/3, realistically 0/3), but she swore up and down that she had simply come to her conclusions “from the Bible alone”. Never did she mind the fact that there had been 2000 years worth of Church history in which no one else had come to those or even similar conclusions. Nor that the preaching and teaching she was recieving, the dogmatic system into which she was being catechized if you will, were all informed by the point of view she’d adopted as her own. That didn’t matter. The only influence upon her was Scripture… what I call Solo Scriptura. She was blind to her rationalism.
Of course ignorance of one’s own system is not the only mark of the biblicist. There are the condescending attitudes toward confessionalism and our subscription to standards. Not only was she unable to recognize her own preconcieved notions about Scripture before she approached it so as to be able to criticize herself, but she was willing to villify someone who was intellectually honest enough to admit that they subscribed to such a system. Of course, in her mind that was ok because there was no written evidence (ie: Standards, Confessions of Faith, Forms, Catechisms, etc) that she maintained such a system at all in the first place.
She assumed that the intellectual assent of those who subscribe to a historic confession was evil. My alliegence, it was said outright, was to my documents rather than to the Scriptures. She condemned the idea on its face as something antithetical to the Reformation’s promise to continue to reform, “semper reformanda”.
Of course, the point that is nearly always forgotten in the “semper reformanda” crowd is that nearly all of the reformers (and their predecessors) set about the business of forming doctrinal standards and catechisms. It was assumed that without such objective and written documents outlining correct doctrine individuals and small groups would run off in a corner with their Bibles and dream up some heresies like the Anabaptists (and dispensationalists, hyper-dispensationalists, etc. later on) did.
And that gets at another unfortunate error of the biblicist. “Semper reformanda” meant ‘continually reforming unto greater conformity with the Word of God,’ not just ‘reforming cuz those Papists are too damned formal’ and ‘traditions suck’. Continuing to reform is no excuse to view novelty as an end in and of itself, for the historic understanding of the Scriptures are to be our only guide. Standards force us to police the bounds of ecclesiastical uniformity in an attempt to keep all within the corral of Biblical Christianity. Without objective and formal statements around which we may congregate, the church (as exemplified in the US) will turn into a bunch of automotons deciding how to interpret this passage and that, and creating their own little movements (the Grace Gospel Fellowship, Berean Bible Fellowship, FV, etc) as opposed to churches, which have Standards.
This is the ultimate irony of the biblicist. While he despises Standards/Forms, it is those dreaded documents that hold the greatest promise for the well intentioned hope he has for the Church; that she would remain faithful to the Word of God and to Christ her Savior. The truly sad example of this truth is seen plainly in the tradition of the Fundamenalists. Only a generation ago the mantra had been a literal(istic) interpretation of Scripture, and a tight hold upon the belief that the Bible is inerrant and infallible. Today many have fallen into the mundane mediocrity of American Evangelicalism. Inerrancy and infallibility are relatively meaningless if not offensive doctrines, the Bible and its Gospel is reduced to a set of morals on how people can be nicer or have happier lives, sermons are messages (because the minister couldn’t possibly think he has something to “sermonize” on!) and ordained ministry of word and sacrament are thought to be papal doctrines. Popular ministers are dressing down to come to church, and the only thing more informal than the worship service with its praise and worship band is the message which is one long series of amusing stories (illustrations) with a few verses tossed in to help us remember how nice God wants us to be. It is, in other words, a message from the preacher rather than a message from our Lord and Savior whose keys have been given to the Church which ordained the preacher.
And lest the biblicist forget, “the word of God which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.” My 5 year old son knows that… he memorized it in q/a #2 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, one form in our set of Standards that is meant to allow us to pass along the faith once recieved to future generations.
Praise God from whom all blessings flow for giving us His W/word, that great living and incarnate Son who dwelt among us to give us righteousness (Rom 1:17, WSC q/a #33) and to forgive our great iniquity, as well as this great revelation which points us back to Him until He returns to judge the living and the dead!