Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Sola Scriptura and Theonomy

Since I am generally more concerned with political rather than theological issues (with praxis rather than poesis for you Greek buffs) I have decided to focus my Sola Scriptura submission for the Carnival of the Reformation on the application of that principle to political theory and jurisprudence. Obviously such a topic is far too vast for a blog entry, but I will limit myself to discussing the parallels between the doctrine of the sufficiency of scripture and the principles of theonomy.

First some definitions. As an Anglican, I hold to the formulation of Sola Scriptura as described in Article VI of the 39 Articles: "Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation".

Holy Scriptures containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.
By saying that I hold to this statement, I am not, of course, denying the validity of the other reformed statements on the subject. The Westminster confession is much more detailed for those that like things nailed down rigorously and I think the Belgic Confession's formulation is the cat's pajamas. But for my money, the succinctness and humility of the English reformers is a major selling point because they say exactly what needs to be said and then stop.

But, speaking of humility, the observant reader will note that the very next article "Of the Old Testatment" states:
The Old Testament is not contrary to the New; for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and man, being both God and man. Wherefore they are not to be heard which feign that the old fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the law given from God by Moses, as touching ceremonies and rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet, notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.
There is a similar discussion in Westminster (Article XIX). So any Reformational understanding of the civil state must take into account this provision that the Law of God cannot be incorporated directly. I believe, however, that a proper understanding of the principle of Sola Scriptura is the key to navigating this strait between Biblical Formalism and Enlightenment Liberalism.

Limited Scope

Note, first of all, what is not said. The most common misunderstanding of Sola Scriptura is that it asserts that the Bible is the only source of knowledge of God or, more radically still, that the Bible is the only truth. But this is clearly not what is intended. The "sola" means simply that scripture is the only necessary authority for learning what we need to be saved.

Similarly, theonomy should never assert that the Bible is the only valid source of civil law or that governments that have non-biblical laws are illegitimate. This is the surest sign of a Kool-aid drinker and has caused untold strife among the Reformed community -- and, incidentally, has given theonomy a bad name. Rather, the assertion should be that the Law of God is the best, and ultimately the only, reliable standard of justice and all human laws should be evaluated in its light.

Reason and Wisdom

Another point worth noting is the phrase "proved thereby". This is an acknowledgement that scripture must be read with wisdom and discernment in order to understand the message. There is a common expression in the evangelical community that we have "no creed but the Bible". This sounds clever, but it is actually a recipe for disaster. If we are not allowed to draw conclusions and general principles from scripture -- that is to apply our faculty of reason to it -- we will be condemned to repeat the theological errors of past generations or, at best, be forced to re-invent orthodoxy in every age. (I think this attitude among Christians is a major reason for the current distress of our culture, but a full discussion of that will take us too far off topic.)

Again there is a parallel here with theonomy. A common charge against theonomists is that we are attempting to create heaven on earth or, more sinisterly, to re-institute the Old Testament theocracy (a thing which never existed, but that is a topic for another day). I admit that there are some theonomists who talk this way, but the fact is they are as full of crap as their critics. The real goal should be to establish as just and peaceful a society as humanly possible. In the words of the Book of Common Prayer "that we may pass our time in rest and quietness" (from the Collect for Peace in Evening Prayer). To achieve such a society, of course, requires a virtuous people and wise and prudent governors in addition to Biblical principles. The clearest example of this principle is found in the reign of Solomon (*ahem* before 1 Kings 11). He had the Law, of course, but his reign was the golden age of Israel because of his further gift of wisdom.


The most important thing to remember about Sola Scriptura is that its purpose is the liberty of the Christian. We see this in Aritcle VI in the provision that whatever is not found in scripture "is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the faith". The concern of the reformers was not to state an abstract epistemological principle, but to correct a specific abuse that had crept up in the church: the multiplying of religiuos obligations and observances that were never required by God. Too often in evangelical and reformed churches this principle is seen as an end in itself; as if the purpose of worshipping God were to avoid any unbiblical practices, rather than the other way around. This back-door pharisaism is particularly ironic because it uses the very principle that ought to free us from fear as a source of anxiety -- the haunting fear that we might do something that isn't found in the Bible.

In the same way, the purpose of establishing God's law in the civil state should not be looked at as a sign of victory for our side or a glorying in the foreskins of the heathen. Rather it should be because the only true liberty comes from obedience to God and trust and respect for one's neighbor. In a just and well-ordered society, the citizen knows what to expect and what is expected of him. I personally believe that the true biblical model is democratic (on the strength of 1 Samuel 8 and the beautiful parable of Jathom in Judges 9:7-15) but, again, that is another discussion. The real crux of the issue, with which I will close, is found in Deuteronomy 4: 5-8:
See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, "Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people." What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?
I can't think of a better aspiration for civil government.

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