A Dialogue on Sola Scriptura Part I: An Ancient Christian and a Modern Christian

Disclaimer: Sola Scriptura in this dialogue does not refer to the classical Reformation understanding of the term, but it refers to the modern Protestant way of thinking of “me and my Bible alone.”

MODERN CHRISTIAN: You know I have truly enjoyed our many discussions on different topics such as Baptism, Salvation, and the Eucharist.  I am very curious to see what you believe about the Bible.

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: What do you mean?

MODERN CHRISTIAN: Do you believe that Scripture Alone (Sola Scriptura) is sufficient?

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Could you please clarify?  I am not quite sure I understand what you are trying to say.

MODERN CHRISTIAN: I mean that nothing supersedes the Bible.

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Sure, I agree with that.

MODERN CHRISTIAN: So, do you believe it is sufficient for doctrine?


MODERN CHRISTIAN: So you agree that the Bible is only source we can use for teaching and nothing else: not what the Fathers said, not what your priest said, but the Bible alone.

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: You mean the Bible alone and you interpreting it by yourself?


ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: I am not quite sure I can agree with that, and I am afraid that your position is quite impossible.


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ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: There cannot be such a thing as Scripture Alone.  This is because the Bible is a book. A book cannot be understood without a reader, that is, an interpreter, and the background of that interpreter can significantly affect his interpretation whether for good or for bad.  If you say you believe in Sola Scriptura, you really mean you believe in Sola Persona (the person alone, the sole interpreter).  This view, in its arrogance, says that it is elevating the Bible, but in reality it is elevating the person interpreting and his interpretation, and it merely appears that what the interpreter is saying is justified because the person is claiming that his teaching is coming from Scripture Alone, and does not bring attention to the fact that it is his interpretation alone.

MODERN CHRISTIAN: The Bible needs no interpreter.

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: If I may, I would like to shift your discussion upward to the Holy Spirit and His role in the inspiration, preservation, and interpretation of the Scriptures.  You must confess and understand that the Holy Spirit is at work, and He is higher than the Scriptures, and He is the one who inspired the Scriptures.  The Author is higher than the written work.  You must agree with that.

MODERN CHRISTIAN: I do, but what are you getting at?

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: I am getting at the fact that if a person chooses to ignore the Christian past and the Early Church Fathers who interpreted the Bible, then that person is not elevating the Bible, but that person is refusing to acknowledge and recognize the work of the Holy Spirit in the Christians who lived before us.  You are not the first person whom the Holy Spirit lived in and filled.  There have been tens of generations of Christians whom the Holy Spirit filled and lived in.  He worked in them just as He is working now.

MODERN CHRISTIAN: That is not what I am doing.  Of course I acknowledge that the Holy Spirit lived in others before us.

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: I am glad you do because with the so many modern Christians I have had conversations with, all the Christians who lived before them are simply names and dates on pages of history books.  They do not even think that many of these are examples of how to live with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  What do you think about the martyrs and confessors (those who suffered for the faith but did not die as martyrs)?  Did the Holy Spirit live and work in them?  Did they glorify God as the Scriptures teach us to do?    Did they value our Lord Jesus and His teachings higher than all as the Scriptures teach?


ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Do we know several?


ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Would you agree with me that Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, and Cyprian of Carthage were true martyrs (witnesses to Christ who witnessed to the point of sacrificing their lives for Him)?


ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: So you agree the Holy Spirit worked in them for the glory of God, and they responded to His call?


ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: So how are their interpretations of the Scriptures not correct, trustworthy, and to be followed by you who live now?

MODERN CHRISTIAN: Just because they lived true Christian lives following the Lord Jesus does not mean they had correct understanding of the Scriptures.

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Actually it does.  If you say that the Fathers got it wrong, and the generations following got it wrong, then you are saying that the Holy Spirit has not fully worked in His followers who shed their blood for our Lord Jesus Christ, which is the highest sign of love for Christ.  And not only that, but He did not work in what is so foundational for our faith, which is the correct understanding of the Holy Scriptures.

You cannot have correct belief and way of life based on an incorrect understanding of the Scriptures.  That’s like saying I gave you a manual to build a shelf, or to prepare a cake, or to build an engine, and you understood it incorrectly, yet you build the shelf, prepared the cake, and built the engine correctly.  That is ridiculous.  The same holds true if you say the Martyrs and Fathers lived in Christ, but they understood the Bible incorrectly, and their interpretation was wrong.  You’re really telling me they built the engine correctly but they understand the manual incorrectly.  That is nonsense.  Do you see how your view of Sola Scriptura does not add up?  You must have a trustworthy interpreter of the Scriptures.  It cannot be Scripture Alone.  The interpreter’s role must be acknowledged.  These martyrs I listed, left interpretations of the Scriptures for us, and they showed the highest love for our Lord Jesus Christ by shedding their blood for Him.  They read the manual and understood it correctly, and because they did, they applied in their lives correctly.  What do you have to say to that?

MODERN CHRISTIAN: Uhh… uhh… I don’t believe that they had the correct interpretation of Scriptures.

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Really?  You have no evidence though.  However, let me point out something else for you then.

Three of those men that I listed: Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna were the disciples of the Apostles.  Clement was a disciple to both Peter and Paul the Apostles and is mentioned by name in Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians 4:3.  Ignatius was a disciple to both Peter and John the Apostles, and Polycarp was a disciple of John the Apostle.

They received the faith by the preaching of the Apostles; they learned the Scriptures and the faith from them; they learned how to live in and follow Christ from them; and they were appointed by the laying on of hands and entrusted to be the bishops of the Christian communities they served by them.  There can be no doubt that these offer the most sound interpretations of the Scriptures in the whole of Christianity’s past, present, and future.  What happens when the interpretations of Scripture by modern Christians are different?

MODERN CHRISTIAN: Just because a person was taught by the Apostles does not mean they faithfully held to what the Apostles taught.  The Church Fathers did not correctly interpret the Scriptures in the way the Apostles meant.

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: Yet, your generation of Christians who believe in Sola Scriptura understand the Scriptures in the way the Apostles meant?  You who are two thousand years removed from the Apostles.  What is your evidence?


ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: The Holy Spirit lived and worked in them too, and they brought more glory to God than you, and they have served as an example to Christians of all following generations how to live a life following God.  They bore the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22).  You remember our Lord said, “By their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:20).  You are not making much sense.  Listen to yourself.

By the way, let’s focus on the three Fathers that I mentioned and do not blanket all the Church Fathers together.  Don’t overgeneralize.  That is a logical fallacy.

MODERN CHRISTIAN: Ok, sorry by the way.  I do admit now that that is a logical fallacy.  I will focus on those three.  Just because they are the more ancient does not mean they are correct.  Time is not standard by which we identify the correct interpretation of Scriptures.  That is a logical fallacy too; that is called an Appeal to Tradition (in the sense of just because it is ancient, then it is correct).

ANCIENT CHRISTIAN: I never said that just because they are ancient means that they are correct.  I agree with you, time is not the standard by which we identify the correct interpretation of Scriptures.  What I said is that they knew, and learned from, and were appointed by the Apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ.  The Apostles under the guidance of the Holy Spirit appointed trustworthy men to continue shepherding the Christian flock.  Part of their appointing was a ministry of teaching since they became bishops, as Paul the Apostle wrote in 1 Timothy 3:2, that bishops must “be able to teachand also “God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers” (1 Corinthians 12:28), and also “He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers” (Ephesians 4:11).

My point is not one of time, but one of knowing, learning from and being appointed by the Apostles to hold fast, preserve, and continue what our Lord Jesus began and entrusted to the Apostles.

In addition, their interpretations of the Scriptures agreed with each other even though the three men did not have much contact with each other.  One lived in Italy, another in Syria, and the third in Asia Minor.  The fact that there is agreement between the three bishops bears witness to the continuity of the teachings of the Apostles, and not simply the interpretation of men.  It also shows that our Lord Jesus’s promise, “I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18) has been faithfully kept.  In addition, it also brings to attention another of His promises, when He said, “I will not leave you orphans” (John 14:18).  Earlier in John 14, in the same context, He promised us saying, “I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever— the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:16-17)These Christians when they lived in the Way of Christ, which includes their interpretation of the Scriptures, show that His promises have been faithfully kept and are true.  If you say that they lacked correct understanding of the Scriptures, then you are saying that our Lord Jesus’s promises have not been kept, and since the very beginning at that.

For all these reasons, their interpretations are reliable.  And if they disagree with modern interpretation, then these three bishops’ interpretations are the correct ones.  If their interpretations are not trustworthy, then whose else could be trustworthy?

Click here to read Part II.

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3 thoughts on “A Dialogue on Sola Scriptura Part I: An Ancient Christian and a Modern Christian

  1. Hi Daniel,

    Thank you for this stimulating piece.

    You have interesting approach to Sola Scriptura. It seems to me you take populistic interpretation of Sola Scriptura as the in depth and theologically-valid exposition of that doctrine because you assume that it says Bible does not need interpretation.

    As a reformed minister, I would say Sola Scriptura does not necessarily entail refusal of all traditions or rejection of ancient theologians and their teachings. It means traditions (including some ancient interpretations of the scripture) and other elements of Christian faith should be measured by the Bible or the Bible should have the highest authority if conflict between the two arises or if the tradition/ancient interpretation silences context-relevant aspects of the scripture. The past has importance but the past doesn’t have ultimate authority. The highest authority belongs to the Bible in a sense that the Bible is not purely and completely defined by the tradition and the traditions (of interpretation or any other) do not have unqualified say in our understanding of the sacred word. When it is necessary, we have to be able to reinterpret the Bible anew. If anything, Reformed churches themselves have plenty of traditions but they are willing to evaluate them in light of the Bible as context, location, age, and people change.

    Of course it does not address all the problems that come with Sola Scriptura. But it does help us set the scripture free from disagreeable elements of traditions. As to correct or incorrect interpretation of the scripture by the Church Fathers, I think every case should be evaluated individually remembering that concepts such as interpretation, correctness, text, authority, etc. change to some degree as ages pass. For example, Origen, which was Ante-Nicene father was later anathematized for his once-popular writings because some of his interpretations were not agreeable to later theologians.

    Another case of church fathers disagreeing with one another would be famous Arianism controversy and interpretation of the word “monogene” (only begotten) from the Gospel of John. In fact, within Eastern tradition there was Antiochian school of interpretation and Alexandrian school of interpretation that had some disagreements about the underlying assumptions/philosophies of interpretation. The fact that winner theologians’ positions became standard and losers’ interpretations became unacceptable does not eliminate the fact that they, too, disagreed among themselves.

    Of course, the Bible needs to be interpreted. In fact, every reading act is interpretation of text. The Bible may interpret itself here and there but that doesn’t amount much.

    As to correctness of interpretation, that’s another interesting issue to explore but I don’t want to write a long text.

    Anyway, thanks again.

    • Hi Agshin,

      I agree with you that the past does not have ultimate authority. See Part II of this Dialogue, and I address that point carefully.

      Regarding what you say, “As to correct or incorrect interpretation of the scripture by the Church Fathers, I think every case should be evaluated individually remembering that concepts such as interpretation, correctness, text, authority, etc. change to some degree as ages pass,” in part III of this Dialogue, I speak about that too. There is a consensus that you will see arises in the Fathers (if you read them). It is like a stream originating in the Scriptures and going through the Fathers. There is a continuity. If any Father says anything that is out of line from this consensus, then what that Father said should not be taken with the same weight as the other things (that are in line with the consensus).

      When you say, “when it is necessary, we have to reinterpret the Bible anew,” what do you mean here? That certainly does not apply to dogma, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Dogmas such as the Trinity, the creation of the world, the Incarnation of the Word, the Resurrection, Ascension, the Spirit of God’s work post-Pentecost, who and how people are to be ordained. That does not change. If during the time of our Lord and the Apostles, something was a sin; it is a sin today. That cannot be reinterpreted.

      Thank you for your readership. Go ahead and check out Parts II and III if you have not already done so.

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