Archive for August, 2016

by Fred W. Anson
At what point does recontextualized music drift into syncretism and/or compromise?

Once a year the Los Angeles Bonaventure hotel that I pass through on my way into work gets overrun by the Self Realization Fellowship (SRF). For those unfamiliar with the SRF here’s a quick synopsis:

Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) is a worldwide spiritual organization founded by Paramahansa Yogananda in 1920 and legally incorporated as a non-profit religious organization in 1935, to serve as Yogananda’s instrument for the preservation and worldwide dissemination of his writings and teachings, including Kriya Yoga. Yogananda wrote in God Talks With Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita that the science of Kriya Yoga was given to Manu, the original Adam, and through him to Janaka and other royal sages.

Self-Realization Fellowship continues to disseminate Paramahansa Yogananda’s teachings following his stated Aims and Ideals. SRF publishes Yogananda teachings of home-study lessons, writings including Autobiography of a Yogi, lectures, and recorded talks; oversees temples, retreats, meditation centers, and monastic communities bearing the name Self-Realization Order. It also coordinates the Worldwide Prayer Circle, which it describes as a network of groups and individuals who pray for those in need of physical, mental, or spiritual aid, and who also pray for world peace and harmony.

SRF is based at Mount Washington in Los Angeles, California, which is the international headquarters for SRF and for Yogoda Satsanga Society of India (YSS). YSS was founded by Yogananda in 1917 before he came to America. In countries outside the Indian subcontinent the organization is known as Self-Realization Fellowship.1


A shot looking into the gift shop that the SRF sets up at the LA Bonaventure Hotel each year.

That’s the long version, the short version is this: It’s Hinduism. Or, more precisely, according to Elliot Miller of Christian Research Institute (CRI) it’s, “a kind of New Age Hinduism in Christian garb.”2 So once a year for about a week, I wander through this strange hindu-land on my way to pick up my lunch on my way to my job in the building next door. And as I do, when I’m not quieting praying, this is what I sing:

Let me fulfill thy will
Let me fulfill thy will

Oh Lord Supreme, Supreme
Let me fulfill thy will
Let me fulfill thy will

Oh Lord Supreme, Supreme
Let me fulfill thy will
Let me fulfill thy will

Oh Lord Supreme, Supreme
Let me fulfill thy will
Let me fulfill thy will

Let me fulfill thy will
Come by my side

Let me fulfill thy will
Come by my side

Let me fulfill thy will
Come by my side

Let me fulfill thy will
Come by my side

Let me fulfill thy will
Come by my side

Oh Lord Supreme, Supreme
Let me fulfill thy will
Let me fulfill thy will

Oh Lord Supreme, Supreme
Let me fulfill thy will
Let me fulfill thy will

Oh Lord Supreme, Supreme
Let me fulfill thy will
Let me fulfill thy will

Of course anyone who was a Jazz Fusion aficionado in the seventies will tell you that I’m singing, “Eternity’s Breath, Part 1” by the Mahavishnu Orchestra3 from the 1975 album “Visions of the Emerald Beyond”. Of course I’m not singing it to Vishnu as the original artists were, I’m singing it to the only true God – the God of Israel, Yahweh Elohim. I’m singing it to the only true Lord, my Lord, Jesus Christ.

However, this song was written to neither. The composer and founder of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, John McLaughlin, was a disciple of Sri Chinmoy and a Hindu.4 As McLaughlin explained in a 1982 interview:

By the time I was 27, I’d already started doing Hatha Yoga and doing mind and breathing exercises. I felt more capable mentally, but I had this feeling I was being tuned up but not being played very well, which relates to what we were talking about a while ago. I felt the need to learn from somebody who really knows.

I arrived one evening at a meditation featuring Sri Chinmoy and he invited questions. I thought, “Great, this is the first time anyone has ever invited questions,” so I said, “What’s the relationship between music and spirituality?” and he said, “Well, it’s not really a question of what you do. It’s what you are or how you are that’s important because you can be making the most beautiful music sweeping the road, if you’re doing it in a harmonious way, in a beautiful way.” It sounds so simple, of course, but it was everything I wanted to hear and I felt I should stay with him, which I did for five years.5


John McLaughlin working his craft with the Mahavishnu Orchestra around the time that Eternity’s Breath was recorded.

All that aside, what I do know is that I love this song! McLaughlin’s incendiary but elegant guitar, Jean Luc Ponty’s soaring violin, Narada Michael Walden’s driving drums, Ralphe Armstrong’s melodic bass, Gayle Moran’s inspired keyboard work, all combined with gorgeous, tightly harmonized vocals. It’s a classic.

And I know that when I sing it I’m worshiping my God not the god of Sri Chinmoy or John McLaughlin. Further, I would go so far as to say that if there’s such thing as a Christian mantra this contextualized song is mine – it captures my deepest heartfelt desire for living my life Coram Deo (Latin for “Before the eyes of God” or “In the presence of God”), as the words so simply yet profoundly say:

Oh Lord Supreme, Supreme
Let me fulfill thy will
Let me fulfill thy will

Is that syncretism? Is it compromise? Or is it, Jesus Christ redeeming this song and taking it captive to His purposes; conquering it for His Kingdom, and; putting it under His foot? I think it is – but you tell me, for I’m only an fallen man, and prone to be deceived. Which is why I sing:

Oh Lord Supreme, Supreme
Let me fulfill thy will
Let me fulfill thy will

As originally performed on "Visions of the Emerald Beyond"

As originally performed on “Visions of the Emerald Beyond”

1 “Self-Realization Fellowship”, Wikipedia

2 Elliot Miller, “Swami Yogananda and the Self-Realization Fellowship”

3 According to Wikipedia, “Mahavishnu” means, “Mahavishnu (Devanāgarī : महाविष्णु) is an aspect of Vishnu, the Absolute which is beyond human comprehension and is beyond all attributes.”

4 As were guitarist Carlos Santana, percussionist Narada Michael Walden, singer Roberta Flack, saxophonist Clarence Clemons and Russian rock legend Boris Grebenshikov. Wikipedia explains:

“Chinmoy offered the musicians a disciplined spiritual path that forbade the use of drugs and alcohol and encouraged music and poetry as expressions of thankfulness to the Divine.

“[Carlos] Santana and [John] McLaughlin stayed with Chinmoy for a number of years before leaving. In 1973 they released an album based on Chinmoy’s teachings, titled Love Devotion Surrender. McLaughlin was a Chinmoy follower from 1970 to 1975. In 1971 he formed the Mahavishnu Orchestra, named for the spiritual name Chinmoy had given him. Santana was introduced to the guru when McLaughlin took him to one of Chinmoy’s weekly prayer meetings at the United Nations. Santana and his wife Deborah were Chinmoy followers from 1972 to 1981, and Santana said, “Without a guru I serve only my own vanity, but with him I can be of service to you and everybody. I am the strings, but he is the musician. Guru has graduated from the Harvards of consciousness and sits at the feet of God.” Santana released three albums under the spiritual name Devadip – meaning “Lamp of God”, “Eve of God”, and “Light of God” – that Chinmoy gave him: Illuminations (1974), Oneness (1979), and The Swing of Delight (1980). In 2000, he told Rolling Stone that things soured between him and Chinmoy in the 1980s. Santana emphasized that he took much that was good from his years with the guru, even though when he left, Chinmoy “was pretty vindictive for a while. He told all my friends not to call me ever again, because I was to drown in the dark sea of ignorance for leaving him.”‘
(“Sri Chinmoy”, Wikipedia)

5 Robert Fripp, “Coffee and Chocolates for Two Guitars”, Musician magazine, number 45, July, 1982

Later that night the lights were brought down and this California Ballroom was filled with 3,000 singing, dancing, chanting and meditating SRF practitioners.

Later that night, after this shot was taken, the room lights were brought down, the stage lights came on, and the California Ballroom at the L.A. Bonaventure Hotel was filled with 3,000 singing, dancing, chanting and meditating SRF practitioners.


We Agree with Moroni 8--18

“God is not a partial God, neither a changeable being; but he is unchangeable from all eternity to all eternity.”
Moroni 8:18

There was a time when Mormons agreed with Moroni 8:18. As Mormon historian Thomas G. Alexander writes, “Much of the doctrine that early investigators found in Mormonism was similar to contemporary Protestant churches.”1

Mormonism has apostatized from its own Book of Mormon, and now Christians—who don’t even believe that the Book of Mormon is divine scripture—agree with Moroni 8:18 more than Mormons do. It is a verse that we Christians profoundly wish Mormons would agree with. It is far more important of an issue than tithing, baptism, priesthood authority, or whether Joseph Smith was a true prophet. It concerns an eternal truth of the fundamental nature of God.

“Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.”
Psalm 90:2 (JST)

“Before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me.”
Isaiah 43:10 (JST)

“I am the first, and I am the last; and besides me there is no God.”
Isaiah 44:6 (JST)

Doctrine and Covenants
In what was originally read to Church membership as the “Articles and Covenants of the Church,” D&C 20:17 spoke of the God who was always the same unchangeable God: “By these things we know that there is a God in heaven, who is infinite and eternal, from everlasting to everlasting the same unchangeable God…” D&C 76:4 spoke of this same God: “From eternity to eternity he is the same, and his years never fail…”

The Lectures on Faith, which was a canonized part of D&C from 1835-1921 agreed with the Book of Mormon that God is a spirit (from the fifth Lecture on Faith, page 53.) Click on image to zoom and read.

The Lectures on Faith, which was a canonized part of D&C from 1835-1921 agreed with the Bible and the Book of Mormon that God is an eternal, unchanging, triune Being (from the fifth Lecture on Faith, page 53). Click on image to zoom and read.

Lectures on Faith
In what was originally a part of Mormon scripture, Lecture 3 of the Lectures on Faith taught, “A correct idea of his character, perfections and attributes” is “…necessary, in order that any rational and intelligent being may exercise faith in God unto life and salvation.” It goes on to quote the word of God, Psalm 90:2, “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.” The lecture then goes on to say that, “he changes not, neither is there variableness with him; but that he is the same from everlasting to everlasting, being the same yesterday today and forever; and that his course is one eternal round, without variation.”

Book of Mormon
This echoes Mosiah 3:5, which speaks of “the Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, who was, and is from all eternity to all eternity…” Moroni 7:22 also speaks of “God knowing all things, being from everlasting to everlasting…” A chapter later we learn in Moroni 8:18 that “God is not a partial God, neither a changeable being; but he is unchangeable from all eternity to all eternity.” Other passages in the Book of Mormon also reaffirm God’s eternal, unchangeable nature:

“For behold, I am god; and I am a God of miracles; and I will show unto the world that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
2 Nephi 27:23

“And I do this that I may prove unto many that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever.”
2 Nephi 29:9

“For do we not read that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever , and in him there is no variableness neither shadow of changing?”
Mormon 9:9

“And if there were miracles wrought then, why has God ceased to be a God of miracles and yet be an unchanging Being? And behold, I say unto you he changeth not; if so he would cease to be God; and he ceaseth not to be God, and is a God of miracles.”
Mormon 9:19

Mormonism Radically Changed
The Book of Mormon was published in March of 1830. Fourteen years later, Mormon theology had dramatically changed. On April 7, 1844, Joseph Smith preached his famous King Follett Discourse. In it he taught:

God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens…

It is necessary that we should understand the character and being of God, and how he came to be so; for I am going to tell you how God came to be God. We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity, I will refute that idea, and will take away and do away the veil, so that you may see. These are incomprehensible ideas to some; but they are simple…

Here, then, is eternal life—to know the only wise and true God; and you have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done before you…2

Lorenzo Snow summarized the big idea that further developed like this: “As man is God once was, and as God is man may be.”

Since then, Mormonism has never been the same. Mormons now radically re-interpret verses like Moroni 8:18 and essentially reject the original teaching that God was unchangeably God from all eternity to all eternity. Mormons are now even in disarray and confusion over whether Heavenly Father was once a sinful mortal.3

Again, Mormonism has apostatized from its own Book of Mormon, and now Christians—who don’t even believe that the Book of Mormon is divine scripture—agree with Moroni 8:18 more than Mormons do. It is a verse that we Christians profoundly wish Mormons would agree with. It is far more important of an issue than tithing, baptism, priesthood authority, or whether Joseph Smith was a true prophet. It concerns an eternal truth of the fundamental nature of God.

1 Thomas G. Alexander, “The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine: From Joseph Smith to Progressive Theology.” Sunstone 5:4; July-August 1980

2 Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 345. On June 16, 1844, Smith went on to teach that Heavenly Father has his own Heavenly Father (History of the Church, vol. 6, pp. 473-479). Also see Ensign, April 1971 and May 1971.

3 See

JST = The Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible (aka “The Inspired Version”)

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The Difference a Vowel Makes
"Communion of Saints" (stained glass window)

“Communion of Saints” (stained glass window)

by Keith A. Mathison

The twentieth century could, with some accuracy, be called a century of theological anarchy. Liberals and sectarians have long rejected outright many of the fundamental tenets of Christian orthodoxy. But more recently professing evangelical scholars have advocated revisionary versions of numerous doctrines. A revisionary doctrine of God has been advocated by proponents of “openness theology.” A revisionary doctrine of eschatology has been advocated by proponents of full-preterism. Revisionary doctrines of justification sola fide have been advocated by proponents of various “new perspectives” on Paul. Often the revisionists will claim to be restating a more classical view. Critics, however, have usually been quick to point out that the revisions are actually distortions.

Ironically, a similarly revisionist doctrine of sola Scriptura has arisen within Protestantism, but unlike the revisionist doctrine of sola fide, the revisionist doctrine of sola Scriptura has caused very little controversy among the heirs of the Reformation. One of the reasons there has been much less controversy over the revisionist doctrine of sola Scriptura is that this doctrine has been gradually supplanting the Reformation doctrine for centuries. In fact, in many segments of the evangelical world, the revisionist doctrine is by far the predominant view now. Many claim that this revisionist doctrine is the Reformation doctrine. However, like the revisionist doctrines of sola fide, the revisionist doctrine of sola Scriptura is actually a distortion of the Reformation doctrine.

The adoption of the revisionist doctrine of sola Scriptura has resulted in numerous biblical, theological, and practical problems within Protestant churches. These problems have become the center of attention in recent years as numerous Protestants have converted to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy claiming that their conversion was due in large part to their determination that the doctrine of sola Scriptura was indefensible. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox apologists have been quick to take advantage of the situation, publishing numerous books and articles devoted to critiquing the doctrine of sola Scriptura. One issue, however, that neither the converts nor the apologists seem to understand is that the doctrine they are critiquing and rejecting is the revisionist doctrine ofsola Scriptura, not the classical Reformation doctrine. In order to understand the difference, some historical context is necessary.

Unknown Artist, "The Great Cloud of Witnesses" (20th Century)

Unknown Artist, “The Great Cloud of Witnesses” (20th Century)

Historical Observations
Part of the difficulty in understanding the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura is due to the fact that the historical debate is often framed simplistically in terms of “Scripture versus tradition.” Protestants are said to teach “Scripture alone,” while Roman Catholics are said to teach “Scripture plus tradition.” This, however, is not an accurate picture of the historical reality. The debate should actually be understood in terms of competing concepts of the relationship between Scripture and tradition, and there are more than two such concepts in the history of the church. In order to understand the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura we must understand the historical context more accurately.

The Reformation debate over sola Scriptura did not occur in a vacuum. It was the continuation of a long-standing medieval debate over the relationship between Scripture and tradition and over the meaning of “tradition” itself. In the first three to four centuries of the church, the church fathers had taught a fairly consistent view of authority. The sole source of divine revelation and the authoritative doctrinal norm was understood to be the Old Testament together with the Apostolic doctrine, which itself had been put into writing in the New Testament. The Scripture was to be interpreted in and by the church within the context of the regula fidei (“rule of faith”), yet neither the church nor the regula fidei were considered second supplementary sources of revelation. The church was the interpreter of the divine revelation in Scripture, and the regula fidei was the hermeneutical context, but only Scripture was the Word of God. Heiko Oberman (1930-2001) has termed this one-source concept of revelation “Tradition 1.”1

The first hints of a two-source concept of tradition, a concept in which tradition is understood to be a second source of revelation that supplements biblical revelation, appeared in the fourth century in the writings of Basil and Augustine. Oberman terms this two-source concept of tradition “Tradition 2” (Professor Oberman had many gifts. The ability to coin catchy labels was apparently not one of them). It is not absolutely certain that either Basil or Augustine actually taught the two-source view, but the fact that it is hinted at in their writings ensured that it would eventually find a foothold in the Middle Ages. This would take time, however, for throughout most of the Middle Ages, the dominant view was Tradition 1, the position of the early church. The beginnings of a strong movement toward Tradition 2 did not begin in earnest until the twelfth century. A turning point was reached in the fourteenth century in the writings of William of Ockham. He was one of the first, if not the first, medieval theologian to embrace explicitly the two-source view of revelation. From the fourteenth century onward, then, we witness the parallel development of two opposing views: Tradition 1 and Tradition 2. It is within the context of this ongoing medieval debate that the Reformation occurred.

When the medieval context is kept in view, the Reformation debate over sola Scriptura becomes much clearer. The reformers did not invent a new doctrine out of whole cloth. They were continuing a debate that had been going on for centuries. They were reasserting Tradition 1 within their particular historical context to combat the results of Tradition 2 within the Roman Catholic Church. The magisterial reformers argued that Scripture was the sole source of revelation, that it is to be interpreted in and by the church, and that it is to be interpreted within the context of the regula fidei. They insisted on returning to the ancient doctrine, and as Tradition 1 became more and more identified with their Protestant cause, Rome reacted by moving toward Tradition 2 and eventually adopting it officially at the Council of Trent. (Rome has since developed a view that Oberman has termed “Tradition 3,” in which the “Magisterium of the moment” is understood to be the one true source of revelation, but that issue is beyond the scope of this brief essay).

At the same time the magisterial reformers were advocating a return to Tradition 1 (sola Scriptura), several radical reformers were calling for the rejection of both Tradition 1 and Tradition 2 and the adoption of a completely new understanding of Scripture and tradition. They argued that Scripture was not merely the only infallible authority but that it was the only authority altogether. The true but subordinate authority of the church and the regula fidei were rejected altogether. According to this view (Tradition 0), there is no real sense in which tradition has any authority. Instead, the individual believer requires nothing more than the Holy Spirit and the Bible.

In America during the eighteenth century, this individualistic view of the radical Reformation was combined with the rationalism of the Enlightenment and the populism of the new democracy to create a radical version of Tradition 0 that has all but supplanted the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura (Tradition 1). This new doctrine, which may be termed “solo” Scriptura instead of sola Scriptura, attacks the rightful subordinate authority of the church and of the ecumenical creeds of the church. Unfortunately, many of its adherents mistakenly believe and teach others that it is the doctrine of Luther and Calvin.

"The true rule is this: God's Word shall establish articles of faith, and no one else, not even an angel can do so." (Martin Luther, Smalcald Articles II, p.15)

“The true rule is this: God’s Word shall establish articles of faith, and no one else, not even an angel can do so.”
(Martin Luther, Smalcald Articles II, p.15)

The Reformation Doctrine of Sola Scriptura
To summarize the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura, or the Reformation doctrine of the relation between Scripture and tradition, we may say that Scripture is to be understood as the sole source of divine revelation; it is the only inspired, infallible, final, and authoritative norm of faith and practice. It is to be interpreted in and by the church; and it is to be interpreted within the hermeneutical context of the rule of faith. As Richard Muller observes, the Reformed doctrine of sola Scriptura did not ever mean, “all of theology ought to be constructed anew, without reference to the church’s tradition of interpretation, by the lonely exegete confronting the naked text.” That this is the Reformation doctrine of Scripture, tradition, and authority may be demonstrated by an examination of the reformers’ writings, only a sampling of which may be mentioned here.

Martin Luther is well known for his declaration at the Diet of Worms: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God.” Many point to this statement as evidence that Luther rejected Tradition 1, the teaching of the early church, but other factors must be considered before coming to such a conclusion, namely, the historical context of this statement and the fact that Luther said and wrote much more on the subject. As simply one example, in a 1532 letter to Duke Albert of Prussia about the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, Luther wrote the following:

This article moreover, has been clearly believed and held from the beginning of the Christian Church to this hour – a testimony of the entire holy Christian Church, which, if we had nothing besides, should be sufficient for us. For it is dangerous and terrible to hear or believe anything against the united testimony, faith and doctrine, of the entire holy Christian Church, as this hath been held now 1,500 years, from the beginning, unanimously in all the world. Whoso now doubted thereon, it is even the same as though he believed in no Christian Church, and he condemneth thus not only the entire holy Christian Church as a damnable heresy, but also Christ himself and all the apostles and prophets.

The second-generation Lutheran scholar Martin Chemnitz (1522-1586), writes along similar lines in his Examination of the Council of Trent:

This is also certain, that no one should rely on his own wisdom in the interpretation of the Scripture, not even in the clear passages…. We also gratefully and reverently use the labors of the fathers who by their commentaries have profitably clarified many passages of the Scripture. And we confess that we are greatly confirmed by the testimonies of the ancient church in the true and sound understanding of the Scripture. Nor do we approve of it if someone invents for himself a meaning which conflicts with all antiquity, and for which there are clearly no testimonies of the church.

Another of the magisterial reformers who addressed this issue was John Calvin. In the 1559 edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, for example, he writes:

In this way, we willingly embrace and reverence as holy the early councils, such as those of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus I, Chalcedon, and the like, which were concerned with refuting errors-in so far as they relate to the teachings of faith. For they contain nothing but the pure and genuine exposition of Scripture, which the holy fathers applied with spiritual prudence to crush the enemies of religion who had then arisen.

And further:

We indeed willingly concede, if any discussion arises over doctrine, that the best and surest remedy is for a synod of true bishops to be convened, where the doctrine at issue may be examined.

To sum up the traditional Protestant view, the words of the nineteenth-century Reformed theologian Charles Hodge (1797-1878) are appropriate:

Again, Protestants admit that as there has been an uninterrupted tradition of truth from the protevangelium to the close of the Apocalypse, so there has been a stream of traditionary teaching flowing through the Christian Church from the day of Pentecost to the present time. This tradition is so far a rule of faith that nothing contrary to it can be true. Christians do not stand isolated, each holding his own creed. They constitute one body, having one common creed. Rejecting that creed, or any of its parts, is the rejection of the fellowship of Christians, incompatible with the communion of saints, or membership in the body of Christ. In other words, Protestants admit that there is a common faith of the Church, which no man is at liberty to reject, and which no man can reject and be a Christian.


“The reformers’ appeal to ‘Scripture alone,’… was never intended to mean ‘me alone.'”
— Keith A. Mathison

The Revisionist Doctrine of “solo” Scriptura
In contrast with the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura, the revisionist doctrine of “solo” Scriptura is marked by radical individualism and a rejection of the authority of the church and the ecumenical creeds. If we compare the statements made by advocates of “solo” Scriptura with the statements of Reformational Christians above, the difference is immediately evident. It is also important to observe the source of this doctrine in early America. As Nathan O. Hatch notes, the first Americans to push the right of private judgment over against the church and the creeds were unorthodox ministers.

The liberal minister Simeon Howard (1733-1804), for example, advised pastors to “lay aside all attachment to human systems, all partiality to names, councils and churches, and honestly inquire, ‘what saith the Scriptures?'” In his own effort to overturn orthodox Christianity, Charles Beecher (1815-1900) denounced “creed power” and argued for “the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible.” The universalist minister A. B. Grosh (d. 1884) declared in a similar way, “In religious faith we have but one Father and one Master, and the Bible, the Bible, is our only acknowledged creed book.”

The radical American version of “solo” Scriptura reached its fullest expression in the writings of the Restorationists as they applied the principles of Democratic populism to Enlightenment Christianity. In 1809, the Restorationist Elias Smith (1769-1846) proclaimed, “Venture to be as independent in things of religion, as those which respect the government in which you live.” Barton Stone (1772-1844) declared that the past should be “consigned to the rubbish heap upon which Christ was crucified.” Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) made his individualistic view of Scripture very clear, declaring, “I have endeavored to read the Scriptures as though no one had read them before me, and I am as much on my guard against reading them to-day, through the medium of my own views yesterday, or a week ago, as I am against being influenced by any foreign name, authority, or system whatever.” As the Reformed Princeton theologian Samuel Miller (1769-1850) rightly observed, “the most zealous opposers [of creeds] have generally been latitudinarians and heretics.”

Why “Solo” Scriptura Must Be Rejected
The revisionist doctrine of “solo” Scriptura has become so entrenched in the modern church that many Protestant Christians today will sympathize more with the sentiments of the liberal and sectarian clergymen quoted above than they will with the teaching of the reformers. The doctrine of “solo” Scriptura, however, is as problematic and dangerous today as it was in previous centuries. It remains unbiblical, illogical, and unworkable. Here I will address some of the more obvious problems.

The fundamental problem with “solo” Scriptura is that it results in autonomy. It results in final authority being placed somewhere other than the Word of God. It shares this problem with the Roman Catholic doctrine. The only difference is that the Roman Catholic doctrine places final authority in the church while “solo” Scriptura places final authority in each individual believer. Every doctrine and practice is measured against a final standard, and that final standard is the individual’s personal judgment of what is and is not biblical. The result is subjectivism and relativism. The reformers’ appeal to “Scripture alone,” however, was never intended to mean “me alone.”

The Bible itself simply does not teach “solo” Scriptura Christ established his church with a structure of authority and gives to his church those who are specially appointed to the ministry of the word (Acts 6:2-4). When disputes arose, the apostles did not instruct each individual believer to go home and decide by himself and for himself who was right. They met in a council (Acts 15:6-29). Even the well-known example of the Bereans does not support “solo” Scriptura (cf. Acts 17:10-11; cf. vv. 1-9). Paul did not instruct each individual Berean to go home and decide by himself and for himself whether what he was teaching was true. Instead, the Bereans read and studied the Scriptures of the Old Testament day by day with Paul present in order to see whether his teaching about the Messiah was true.

In terms of hermeneutics, the doctrine of “solo” Scriptura is hopeless. With “solo” Scriptura, the interpretation of Scripture becomes subjective and relative, and there is no possibility for the resolution of differences. It is a matter of fact that there are numerous different interpretations of various parts of Scripture. Adherents of “solo” Scriptura are told that these different interpretations can be resolved simply by an appeal to Scripture. But how is the problem of differing interpretations to be resolved by an appeal to another interpretation? All appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretations of Scripture. The only real question is: whose interpretation? People with differing interpretations of Scripture cannot set a Bible on a table and ask it to resolve their differences. In order for the Scripture to function as an authority, it must be read and interpreted by someone. According to “solo” Scriptura, that someone is each individual, so ultimately, there are as many final authorities as there are human interpreters. This is subjectivism and relativism run amuck. The proponents of “solo” Scriptura rightly condemn the hermeneutical tyranny of Rome, but the solution to hermeneutical tyranny is not hermeneutical anarchy.

The doctrine of “solo” Scriptura also faces historical problems due to the fact that it cannot be reconciled with the reality that existed in the first decades and centuries of the church. If “solo” Scriptura were true, much of the church had no standard of truth for many years. In the first century, one could not walk down to his local Christian bookstore and buy a copy of the Bible. Manuscripts had to be hand-copied and were not found in every believer’s home. The first books of the New Testament did not even begin to be written until at least ten years after the death of Christ, and some were not written until several decades after Christ. Gradually some churches obtained copies of some books, while other churches had copies of others. It took many years before the New Testament as we know it was gathered and available as a whole. Even then, it too was hand-copied, so it was not available in the home of every individual Christian. If the lone individual is to judge and evaluate everything by himself and for himself by measuring it against Scripture, as proponents of “solo” Scriptura would have it, how would this have possibly worked in the first decades of the church before the New Testament was completed?

"Christians do not stand isolated, each holding his own creed." Charles Hodge

“Christians do not stand isolated, each holding his own creed.”
— Charles Hodge (1797-1878)

One of the most self-evident problems related to the doctrine of “solo” Scriptura is the question of the canon. If one is going to claim that Scripture is the only authority whatsoever, it is legitimate to ask how we then define what is and is not “Scripture.” Proponents of“solo” Scriptura claim that Scripture is authoritative but cannot say with any authority what Scripture is. The table of contents in the front of the Bible is not itself an inspired text written by a prophet or an apostle. It is, in a very real sense, a creed of the church declaring what the church believes to be the content of Scripture. One way to illustrate the problem “solo” Scriptura faces in connection with the canon is simply to ask the following: How would “solo” Scriptura deal with a modern day Marcion? How, for example, would a proponent of “solo” Scriptura argue with a person who claimed that the real New Testament includes only the books of Luke, Acts, Romans, and Revelation? He can’t appeal to the church, to history, or to tradition. A self-consistent adherent of “solo Scriptura” would have no way to respond to such a view because, as one such consistent adherent informed me in personal correspondence, it is the right and duty of each individual Christian to determine the canonicity of each biblical book by and for himself. This is the only consistent position for a proponent of “solo” Scriptura to take, but it is self-defeating because it destroys any objective notion of Scripture. One cannot appeal to the biblical authority of Romans, for example, if each believer determines for himself whether Romans is in fact to be considered a canonical and authoritative biblical book.

The question of the canon is not the only theological problem caused by “solo” Scriptura. Another serious problem is the fact that the adoption of “solo” Scriptura destroys the possibility of having any objective definition of what Christianity is and is not. “solo” Scriptura destroys the very concepts of orthodoxy and heresy. If the authority of the ecumenical creeds is rejected, and if each individual believer is to determine all questions of doctrine by and for himself, then the definitions of orthodoxy and heresy are completely relative and subjective. One man judges the doctrine of the Trinity to be biblical. Another deems it unbiblical. One judges open theism biblical. Another deems it unbiblical. The same is true with respect to every other doctrine. Each man defines Christianity as it seems right in his own eyes.

Finally, it must be realized that “solo” Scriptura ignores reality. The Bible simply did not drop out of the sky into our laps. We would not even be able to read a Bible for ourselves were it not for the labors of many others including archaeologists, linguists, scribes, textual critics, historians, translators, and more. If “solo” Scriptura were true, it should be possible to give untranslated ancient Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of biblical, apocryphal, and pseudepigraphal texts to some isolated tribe member somewhere on earth, and with no one’s assistance, that individual should be able to learn the Hebrew and Greek languages, read the various manuscripts, determine which of them are canonical, and then come to an orthodox understanding of the Christian faith. The reason this is not possible, however, is because “solo” Scriptura is not true. It is an unbiblical distortion of the truth.

The revisionist doctrine of “solo” Scriptura has been a source of great damage to the cause of Christ. The magisterial reformers were right to reject the early versions of it that appeared in the teaching of some radicals. Contemporary heirs of the reformers must follow the magisterial reformers here. The fight must be fought on two fronts. We are not only to reject the Roman Catholic doctrine (whether the two-source doctrine of Tradition 2 or the sola ecclesia doctrine of Tradition 3), which places final autonomous authority in the church. We must also reject the revisionist doctrine of “solo” Scriptura, which places final autonomous authority in the hands of each and every individual.

“Communion of Saints” by Elise Ritter (October 2010)

“Communion of Saints” by Elise Ritter (October 2010)

1 For more information on Heiko Oberman’s concept of Tradition 1, see his work The Dawn of the Reformation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1986), p. 280. For background information on Tradition 0, see Alister McGrath’s Reformation Thought, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell), p. 144. For other background information on “solo” Scriptura see Nathan O. Hatch, “Sola Scriptura and Novus Ordo Seclorum,” in The Bible in America, ed. N. Hatch and M. Noll, pp. 59-78. The quotation from Richard Muller is taken from his Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), p. 51. Luther’s letter to Duke Albert of Prussia is cited in Philip Schaff’s The Principle of Protestantism (Philadelphia: United Church Press, 1964 [1845]), pp. 116-117, note). Chemnitz’s quote can be found in Examination of the Council of Trent, tr. Fred Kramer, Vol. 1, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1971), pp. 208-209. The quotations from Calvin are taken from his Institutes, 4.9.8 and 4.9.13. Mr. Mathison has taken his quotation of Charles Hodge from Hodge’s Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 113-114. Comments from Nathan Hatch on the revisionist doctrine of “solo” Scriptura are taken from “Sola Scriptura and Novus Ordo Seclorum,” in The Bible in America, ed. N. Hatch and M. Noll, p. 62. The quotation from Samuel Miller is found in The Utility and Importance of Creeds and Confessions (Greenville, SC: A Press, 1991 [1839]), p. 15. For a fuller discussion on this topic, Mr. Mathison refers readers to his book The Shape of Sola Scriptura (Canon Press, 2001).

Keith Mathison

Keith Mathison

About the Author
Keith Mathison is associate editor of Tabletalk and author of The Shape of Sola Scriptura (Canon Press, 2001).

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2007 edition of Modern Reformation and is reprinted with permission. For more information about Modern Reformation, visit or call (800) 890-7556 FREE. All rights reserved.