Wednesday, May 20, 2009

[Four Corners] Scriptura?

There is a classical dispute in the law of contracts, the underlying problem of which also bears on the doctrine of sola Scriptura.  

Suppose you enter into a contract to purchase a home from a seller, and at some point the other party refuses to sell, claiming that a term of the contract allows them out of the deal.  If you disagree with their interpretation of the disputed clause, and take it to a judge, what should he consider in resolving the matter?  Should he only consider the "four corners" of the contract that you and the seller signed (i.e., nothing beyond the written page itself), or should he also consider extrinsic ("parol") evidence, such as testimony that the seller assured you orally that the clause meant the opposite of what he now claims?   

The underlying issue, then, is whether courts can consider something more than the contract, when the parties are bound only by the contract document they signed.  The traditional position has been that only the written contract could be considered by the courts, not testimony about oral promises made outside of the writing.  If we wax theologic, this is sola pactum, if you would.  But a rift started to emerge in the courts, prompted, as is often the case, by bad cases and clear scoundrels benefiting from a 'bright-line' rule.  

A fairly philosophical view appeared: a contract is never in fact interpreted by its four corners alone because every judge's mind comes pre-loaded with normative or interpretive biases.  Anyone reading it would filter the words on the page through their own preexisting understanding of language, or of the matters being agreed upon in contract.  Specialty terms from a particular field related to the contract (e.g., construction terms) may have a different meaning to the contracting parties than they would to a lay judge.  Language is never a perfect medium for underlying thought, it seems.

Analogously, if our authority for faith and morals is the Bible alone, may we look only to the four corners of Scripture, or do we admit extrinsic sources to our interpretation as well? Some will insist upon a negative answer: "no book but the Bible, no creed but Christ."  

The Reformer opposed to 'biblicism' will be quick to note that his authority is sola Scriptura interpreted with the church (see here).  That is, some measure of deference to others' interpretations or to a traditional vein of interpretation is due.  This view, which I admire for its humble respect for tradition, is the analog to the liberal trend in contract interpretations admitting extrinsics.  But in choosing our extrinsics, in selecting whose or which traditional vein's interpretation receives our deference, we, like judges and anyone else handling text, do not start with an interpretive tabula rasa.  We add our own extrinsic.  And like the specialty terms in contracts worsening the problem of four corners alone for judges, specialty terms, period-specific terms and the like, in the Bible worsen the problem when attempting to interpret Scripture without the influence of pre-loaded biases.

How is the term sola proper when it is not [Four Corners] Scriptura, but Scriptura + Interpretive Extrinsics?


Devin Rose said...

My Evangelical friend and I have been discussing these issues recently, and he seems to hold the belief I did as an Evangelical when confronted with the kind of question you pose: The Bible is not subject to interpretation; in the essential matters of the faith, the Bible is sufficiently clear to be understood without differences in interpretation. Therefore, sola scriptura holds because we can know what the Bible teaches on essential teachings through a "plain" reading of the Scriptures. The non-essential teachings can be disagreed on without threatening one's salvation, so it's okay if the Bible can be interpreted differently for the non-essentials.

This argument is appealing and contains some truth. However, it has several flaws, which I am sure you are aware of.

For one thing, it requires some thing extrinsic to the Bible to determine what, exactly, are the "essential" teachings and which are "non-essential". The Biblical authors did not clearly preface their statements with (Essential Teaching Begins Here). One person could decide one thing is essential and another not, and another person disagrees; it is based on their weighting of Biblical teachings.

Secondly, as we all know, faithful Christians differ in interpreting even teachings that most consider essentials or at least highly important: what does baptism do or not do? what is the Eucharist? what must I do to be saved? when does a person receive the Holy Spirit? etc.

The reality is that we all have some extrinsic interpretive tradition that influences our reading of the Bible, forcing us to come up with (often elaborate and unplausible) interpretations of passages that seem to contradict our tradition's teachings.

In my experience, against the reality, most Evangelical Protestant Christians deny that there is any interpretive authority involved.

The Catholic Church acknowledges that there is an interpretive authority and further claims that Christ gave His Church this teaching authority, the Magisterium.

In practice Protestants accept some interpretive authority, even if it is their own personal opinion as influenced by their particular Protestant tradition.

Thos said...


Since we go way back, I'll ask a favor. You're comment is excellent; would you mind re-posting it on I put this blog post up there, with a small amount of fine tuning. Wider audience. Thanks!

Peace in Christ,