Peter Leithart wrote a nice defense of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura (Latin for “Scripture alone”), which is part of the 5 solas of the Protestant Reformation. Sola gratia (“grace alone”), sola fide (“faith alone”), solus Christus (“Christ alone”), and soli Deo gloria (“for the glory of God alone”). He put it in the context of God’s relationship with the church and showed how it applies to his preaching as well. Here are some key excerpts:
Sola scriptura is a theological claim. It is Christological: It says that Jesus is Husband of His Bride, and still speaks to her. As Barth understood, sola scriptura is about the Lordship of the Lord of the church. All Christology is also ecclesiology, and so is sola scriptura: It says that because Christ is Head of the Body, He directs the Body, as and by Word. It is also, as my colleague Toby Sumpter pointed out recently to me, pneumatology: It means that the Spirit speaks to the church not merely through her.
It means that tradition is not the church talking to herself, but God talking to the church and the church talking back. To affirm sola scriptura is to acknowledge that tradition is prayer. To affirm sola scriptura is to say that tradition is liturgy. To affirm sola scriptura is to affirm the primacy of dialog over monologue.
Sola scriptura, despite the apparent import of the word “sola,” doesn’t claim that Scripture is the only authority. Scripture itself affirms the validity and real authority of other authorities: Obey your leaders (Hebrews 13), and the brother who refuses to listen to the church is treated as a tax collector (Matthew 18). But the Reformers followed the example of Jesus, who challenged Jewish tradition with an appeal to the written text (Matthew 15:1-6; Mark 7:1-13). Jesus argued that the Pharisaical tradition (or some thread of that tradition) taught that it was legitimate for children to give money to God rather than caring for aging parents. Jesus refuted them by saying that their tradition nullifies Scripture. Scripture is Jesus’ trump card. He doesn’t point to alternative threads of Pharisaical tradition (though he doubtless could have). One might say, for Jesus Scripture has final authority to judge the legitimacy of tradition. One might say, sola Scriptura.
Paul taught the same in 2 Timothy 3:14-17. Paul reminds Timothy of the people who taught him Scripture. But Paul speaks of Scripture as a “God-breathed” text, which, one might assume, makes it quite different from other texts. In the final clause of the passage, Paul tells Timothy that the Scripture is useful to equip the man of God “for every good work.” Is there a good work that Scripture fails to equip us for? Paul says No. Is there a good work that is not in some fashion an application of Scripture? Paul says No. That’s the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture in a nutshell. That’s sola scriptura….
Of course, of course, of course: When we talk about Scripture correcting the church, we are talking about people reading and studying Scripture and coming to the conclusion that a traditional belief or practice violates Scripture. Of course, that process is subject to all the dilemmas and pitfalls of any interpretation. But then the question again becomes a question of theology proper, not simply of Scriptural authority. Suppose God wants to correct a corruption in His church. Is He able to speak to it? Can God’s voice break through to rebuke and correct and train in righteousness? Can our traditions muzzle the Lord of the church? Can He by His Spirit speak independently of, and against, the tradition? Is tradition a conversation, a liturgy of antiphon and response, or is it the church’s monologue? Is Jesus Lord of His church? Or has the Head been absorbed into the body?
See his whole post for, among other things, his appreciation of the Roman Catholic tradition and the reforms that have taken place within it.
I think that in part Leithart’s post was part of the on-going conversation about the resignation from the Presbyterian Church of America of Jason Stellman (who unsuccessfully prosecuted Leithart in a PCA presbytery for deviating from the Westminster Confession). You can see Stellman’s letter here. Stellman lost confidence in sola fide and sola Scriptura. Here’s what he said about sola fide:
Regarding Sola Fide, I have become convinced that the teaching that sinners are justified by a once-for-all declaration of acquittal on God’s part, based upon the imputation of Christ’s righteousness received by faith alone, is not reflective of the teaching of the New Testament as a whole. I have come to believe that a much more biblical paradigm for understanding the gospel—and one that has much greater explanatory value for understanding Jesus, Paul, Peter, James, and John—is one that sets forth the New Covenant work of the Spirit, procured through the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ, as internally inscribing God’s law and enabling believers to exhibit love of God and neighbor, thereby fulfilling the law in order to gain their eternal inheritance (Rom. 8:1-4). While this is all accomplished entirely by God’s grace through the merits of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, it is at the same time not something that occurs through the imputation of an external and alien righteousness received through faith alone. Rather, as Paul says, God’s people are justified by a faith that works through love—itself the fruit of the Spirit—and with God’s law inscribed on our hearts and minds we sow to the Spirit and reap everlasting life (Gal. 5:4-6, 14, 16, 22; 6:8).
Here’s how Doug Wilson responded to Stellman on this issue:
With regard to sola fide, he is quite right to see the very narrow position he was nurtured in as contrary to the teaching of the New Testament. The righteousness of Jesus Christ is imputed to sinners, and the instrument of a God-given faith is what receives that gracious gift. But the gift received is that of living faith, breathing faith, loving faith, the only kind of faith the living God bestows. It is sola fide, not nuda fide. Stellman was wrong to identify his previous narrow view of sola fide as the doctrine of sola fide itself.
You can see Leithart’s more direct response to the matter here.