Archive for the ‘Hermeneutics’ Category

by Fred W. Anson
Introduction
The conference on Mormonism was in full swing and the speaker had the roomful of Evangelicals in the palm of his eloquent hand hanging on every word. His main thesis? “False prophecy is like murder. It only takes one time to make a false prophet.” And so he went on and on and on, one failed Joseph Smith prophecy after another, and always ending with this repetitive point, which was thrown out like a mantra that the crowd itself began repeating: “False prophecy is like murder. It only takes one time to make a false prophet.” Does anyone see a problem here?

I did. After the conference, I sent the speaker this email:

‘”False prophecy is like murder. It only takes one time to make a false prophet.” (Speaker’s Name)

So what does that say about Chuck Smith, Hal Lindsey, and other well-known “Soothsayers of the Second Advent”? We can’t apply one standard to cults and another one to Evangelicals. The plumb line is the plumb line.

And if we let Chuck Smith and Hal Lindsay off the hook using the, “Well, they were just speculating or talking out loud not REALLY prophesying!” Then how are we any different than cultists?

I got no response.

Standards Are Standards
The problem here isn’t so much a weak argument as a double standard. For those who don’t know, the speaker’s argument was based on the biblical test for a False Prophet which can be found in Deuteronomy 18:17-22 (NKJV):

And the Lord said to me: ‘What they have spoken is good. I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him. And it shall be that whoever will not hear My words, which He speaks in My name, I will require it of him. But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How shall we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him.

And there is no denying that Joseph Smith fulfilled the requirement for a false prophet based on this criteria is there? Here’s a partial list of his failed prophecies from the neutral source Wikipedia:1

Zion in this generation: Zion and its temple will be built at Independence, Missouri, “in this generation”. (September 22 or 23, 1832, see D&C 84:2-5)

Zion built here: Promise that if the Saints are obedient in building a temple in Independence, Missouri, then the City of Zion will prosper and become glorious, and that Zion cannot “be moved” out of its place. (August 2, 1833, see D&C 97:15-20)

Missouri victory: Speaking through Smith, God says regarding Missouri: “I will fight your battles … the destroyer I have sent forth to destroy and lay waste mine enemies; and not many years hence they shall not be left to pollute mine heritage, and to blaspheme my name upon the lands which I have consecrated for the gathering together of my saints”. (June 22, 1834, see D&C 105:13-15)

Stated plainly, and Mormon apologetic spin aside, none of these prophecies were fulfilled. In 1838, due to losing the Mormon War in Missouri, Joseph Smith and the period Latter-day Saints were expelled from Missouri by Executive Order of the State Governor sealing the unfulfilled fate of all three prophesies.

And I could keep going, I’ve only given you three failed prophecies from the Missouri period of Early Mormon History that are canonized in Mormon scripture (Doctrine & Covenants). If I were to go to the Church published “History of the Church” (1856) or “Comprehensive History of the Church” (1930) the list gets even longer.

There is simply no question that if the standard is, “False prophecy is like murder. It only takes one time to make a false prophet” Joseph Smith is indeed guilty.

Joseph Smith

Standards Aren’t Standard If They’re Applied Unequally
But if we apply that standard equally and as stated on the Evangelical side of the divide then we need to add a few names to the list of False Prophets. Let’s start with these:

Hal Lindsey
Hal Lindsey is a well-known Christian teacher who’s probably best known for his books on eschatology (the study of the end times). Hal Lindsey has given several prophetic predictions that failed to come to pass. This is probably his most famous:

A generation in the Bible is something like 40 years. If this is a correct deduction, then within 40 years or so of 1948, all these things could take place. Many scholars who have studied Bible prophecy all their lives believe that this is so. … The most important sign in Matthew has to be the restoration of the Jews to the land in the rebirth of Israel. Even the figure of speech ‘fig tree’ has been a historic symbol of national Israel. When the Jewish people, after nearly 2,000 years of exile, under relentless persecution, became a nation again on 14 May 1948 the ‘fig tree’ put forth its first leaves. Jesus said that this would indicate that He was ‘at the door,’ ready to return. Then He said, ‘Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place’ (Matt. 24:34, NASB). What generation? Obviously, in context, the generation that would see the signs-chief among them the rebirth of Israel.2

Taking away 7-years for the “Great Tribulation” Hal Lindsey made an implied prediction that the rapture would take place in 1981, that is, seven years prior to the modern state of Israel’s 40th anniversary. Well, 1981 came and went and nothing happened. And 1988 (40-years from 1948) came and went and nothing happened.

Prophecy failed.

Hal Lindsey in banner art from his “The Hal Lindsey Report” website.

Chuck Smith
Following in Hal Lindsey’s wake, the late Chuck Smith (1927-2013) also predicted a 1981 rapture in several of his books. Here are scans of those predictions from those books:

From “Future Survival” (1978)

Page 17.

Page 20.

Page 21.

Page 49.

From “Snatched Away” (1976 and 1980 editions)

Page 45.

Page 23.

From “End Times” (1978):

Page 35.

Clearly, none of this came to pass.

Chuck Smith.

Harold Camping
From Wikipedia:

American Christian radio host Harold Camping stated that the Rapture and Judgment Day would take place on May 21, 2011, and that the end of the world would take place five months later on October 21, 2011. The Rapture, in a specific tradition of premillennial theology, is the taking up into heaven of God’s elect people.

Camping, who was then president of the Family Radio Christian network, claimed the Bible as his source and said May 21 would be the date of the Rapture and the day of judgment “beyond the shadow of a doubt”. Camping suggested that it would occur at 6 pm local time, with the Rapture sweeping the globe time zone by time zone, while some of his supporters claimed that around 200 million people (approximately 3% of the world’s population) would be ‘raptured’. Camping had previously claimed that the Rapture would occur in September 1994…

Following the failure of the prediction, media attention shifted to the response from Camping and his followers. On May 23, Camping stated that May 21 had been a “spiritual” day of judgment and that the physical Rapture would occur on October 21, 2011, simultaneously with the destruction of the universe by God. However, on October 16, Camping admitted to an interviewer that he did not know when the end would come, and made no public comment after October 21 passed without his predicted apocalypse.3

Harold Camping meets a supporter before his prophecy failed.

If it’s good for the goose …
So again, if we are to apply the “False prophecy is like murder. It only takes one time to make a false prophet” standard equally, then Joseph Smith, Hal Lindsey, Chuck Smith, and Harold Camping are all, without question False Prophets, aren’t they? And oh, by the way, I can keep going – there are many other Evangelicals who have also made failed prophetic predictions.

So how’s that double standard working for ya Evangelical Christian? But before you answer, please note that I’ve already heard all of the following in the past in response to this evidence, so I’ll spare us both some time here . . .

Apologetic: “They didn’t claim to be a prophet like Joseph Smith did!”
Response: How is allegedly inspired preaching and teaching not acting as God’s oracle – that is, acting in a prophetic role? Further, can you show me where in the Deuteronomy 18 where it says, “But if they meet this criterion but don’t claim to actually be a prophet, it’s cool – you can let it slide!”

Further, I was alive when all of these failed Evangelical prophecies were given and I will tell you plainly that the Evangelicals that I knew who bought into them certainly treated them like they were a prophetic word from the Lord. That’s why some of those same Christians left the faith when the predictions of Hal Lindsey and Chuck Smith failed to come to pass, becoming disillusioned not only by their failed prophet but by what they perceived as their prophet’s “failed” Bible as well. Further, since many Christians consider the rapture a more essential doctrine than the Trinity and use eschatology as their core theological integration point, such arguments tend to fall flat given the weight that many give these matters in their daily Christian lives. So, I’m sorry, but this apologetic may sound good in concept but it simply doesn’t stand up to real-world scrutiny.

Apologetic: “They were just giving their opinion.”
Response: No, problem. Then Joseph Smith was just giving his. That is, in fact, a common Mormon Apologist response to this argument. So if we accept this apologetic for the guys in our tribe, then we should accept it for Joseph Smith too, right? That was easy.

Apologetic: “These men were remorseful and repented, Joseph Smith never was and never did.”
Response: Well it is true that Camping showed remorse and repented.4 However, Lindsey never has and Chuck Smith never did.5 Further, since the standard is, “False prophecy is like murder. It only takes one time to make a false prophet” should we start letting remorseful, repentant murders out of jail? If you’re going to set the standard that high and make it that absolute then you need to be consistent, you can’t “fudge” when it’s someone from your own tribe whose head is in the noose.

Apologetic: “They were speaking as a man, not as a prophet.”
Response: Seriously? Did an Evangelical Christian really just say that? (And yes, they have – many, many times as a matter of fact.) Are we Evangelicals, Mormons now? That’s the standard Mormon apologetic against the Deuteronomy 18 test when it’s applied to Joseph Smith, friends! After all, isn’t this really just a more succinct way of saying, “They didn’t claim to be a prophet like Joseph Smith did”?

And this is what I’ve found so interesting whenever I expose this weak argument to those in my own tribe: All of a sudden Evangelicals start using exactly the same arguments for our guys that Mormons use for Joseph Smith and their guys. Double standard anyone? Hypocrisy anyone? Beam in eye anyone?

And, yes, I realize that this point I have probably stepped on quite a few Evangelical toes. However, sore toes aside, I would suggest that there is a better way to apply this standard, that maintains the integrity of the Deuteronomy 18 test, while simultaneously vindicating Lindsey, Chuck Smith, and Harold Camping as the true but flawed and misguided Christian brethren that they are, and that condemns Joseph Smith as the False brother and Prophet that he is. Please keep reading.

“We’re not quite dead yet!”

The Stronger Argument
Here’s an interesting thing: For a group of people that constantly criticize Mormons for their chronically bad hermeneutics, we Evangelicals have been guilty of bad exegesis of the Deuteronomy 18 False Prophet test by cherry picking it and quoting it out of context. Please consider the passage in its full and complete context:

“When you come into the land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For all who do these things are an abomination to the Lord, and because of these abominations the Lord your God drives them out from before you. You shall be blameless before the Lord your God. For these nations which you will dispossess listened to soothsayers and diviners; but as for you, the Lord your God has not appointed such for you.

“The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear, according to all you desired of the Lord your God in Horeb in the day of the assembly, saying, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, nor let me see this great fire anymore, lest I die.’

“And the Lord said to me: ‘What they have spoken is good. I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him. And it shall be that whoever will not hear My words, which He speaks in My name, I will require it of him. But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How shall we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him.
— Deuteronomy 18:9-22 (NKJV)

So the first thing that we see when the “test” is presented in context, that there are, in reality, three criteria for a False Prophet in the passage, not just one:

  1. The true prophet won’t speak to God’s people in the name other gods in order to get them to follow those gods. 
    (who speaks in the name of other gods”
  2. The true prophet won’t use divination. 
    (“… these nations which you will dispossess listened to soothsayers and diviners; but as for you, the Lord your God has not appointed such for you”) 
  3. The true prophet’s predictions of future events will come to pass.
    (“…when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him.”)

The Messianic clause in Deuteronomy 18 – verse 15 to be precise.

As former Dallas Theological Seminary, now Charismatic Christian Leader and Teacher Jack Deere, explains:

Deuteronomy 18:15-22 is frequently understood as referring to a succession of the prophets from Moses onward who would never make a mistake in their predictions. Several contextual factors militate against this interpretation. First, Moses did not say that God would raise up a line of prophets, but rather a prophet (v. 15). Second, Moses claimed that this future prophet would be like me (v. 15). Moses was not simply a prophet who foretold the future. He was the theocratic founder of Israel’s religion and the mediator of the Old Covenant. The qualifying phrase “like me” leads us to expect someone who is also a covenant mediator. Third, the epilogue to Deuteronomy, chapter 34, which was written in the time of Joshua or later, specifically states:

Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, who did all those miraculous signs and wonders the LORD sent him to do in Egypt—to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land. For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel (Deut. 34:10-12).

This means that not even Joshua was on a par with Moses, even though God promised to be with him as he was with Moses (Josh. 1:5). The significance of Deuteronomy 34:10-12, according to Patrick Miller, is that “one can hardly see 18:15-22 in terms of a continuing line of prophets through Israel’s history. The only way to resolve the tension between chapters 18 and 34 is to project into the future the announcement that God will raise up a prophet…” (Deuteronomy [Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990], 156-57; author’s emphasis). Fourth, this was how the passage was interpreted in Judaism (see Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976], 263, n.20). Fifth, in the New Testament both the Jews and the apostles understood this passage to refer not to a line of prophets, but to the Messiah (John 1:21, 25; 6:14; 7:40; Acts 3:22-26). Thus the context and later biblical interpretation favor the messianic interpretation of Deuteronomy 18:15.

If that is the case, then the false prophets mentioned in 18:20-22 may not be prophets who simply make a mistake, but rather pretenders to the place of Moses or to the messianic role. At any rate, Craigie cautions us against an inflexible application of 18:20-22. He writes,

‘It would probably be wrong to take these criteria as rules to be applied rigidly every time a prophet opened his mouth. When a prophet announced God’s coming judgment and called for repentance, it would clearly be pointless to wait first to see if the judgment actually came to pass, and then to repent (too late!). Rather the criteria represent the means by which a prophet gained his reputation as a true prophet and spokesman of the Lord. Over the course of a prophet’s ministry, in matters important and less significant, the character of a prophet as a true spokesman of God would begin to emerge clearly. And equally, false prophets would be discredited and then dealt with under the law.’ (Deuteronomy, 263)

Furthermore, there is no evidence in Israel’s history that they ever put to death a prophet for a simple mistake in a prophetic utterance. For example, when David implied to Nathan that he wanted to build a temple for the Lord, Nathan said to him, “Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the LORD is with you” (2 Sam. 7:3). But Nathan was wrong and later that night had to be corrected by the Lord (2 Sam. 7:4ff.). If someone pedantically objects that Nathan did not preface his first prophecy with “Thus says the LORD…,” it should be noted that Nathan did speak in the name of the Lord, for he said, “the LORD is with you.” Besides, would David have spoken to the prophet simply to obtain the prophet’s human opinion? Why did people consult prophets in the Old Testament if not to receive a word from God? Nathan gave a wrong word, but he was not put to death. A wrong word was not automatically classified as a presumptuous word or a word in the name of false gods (Deut. 18:20-22).6

Question: Did Hal Lindsey, Chuck Smith, Harold Camping, and Joseph Smith give predictions of future events that failed to come to pass?
Answer: Yes.

Question: Did Hal Lindsey, Chuck Smith and Harold Camping engage in divination in bringing forth their prophecies?
Answer:
No.

Question: Did Joseph Smith engage in divination in bringing forth his prophecies?
Answer:
Yes. In some cases, he used the same Seer Stone technique that he used in “translating” the Book of Mormon and portions of the Book of Abraham. That technique is called “scrying” and it is a form of divination:  

Scrying (also known by various names such as “seeing” or “peeping”) is the practice of looking into a suitable medium in the hope of detecting significant messages or visions. The objective might be personal guidance, prophecy, revelation, or inspiration, but down the ages, scrying in various forms also has been a prominent means of divination …
(“Scrying”, Wikipedia website) 

Question: Did Hal Lindsey, Chuck Smith, and Harold Camping speak in the name of other gods in order to get God’s people to follow them? 
Answer: No.

Question: Did Joseph Smith speak in the name of other gods in order to get God’s people to follow them?
Answer:
Yes. And the way that he did this was quite clever and subtle: First, he redefined who and what God was and then he spoke in the name of this newly revealed god. And not only that, as he was speaking in the name of this new god, he actually bragged about doing so:

Joseph Smith delivering The King Follett Discourse on April 7, 1844 at Spring General Conference.

‘I will prove that the world is wrong, by showing what God is. I am going to inquire after God; for I want you all to know Him, and to be familiar with Him; and if I am bringing you to a knowledge of Him, all persecutions against me ought to cease. You will then know that I am His servant; for I speak as one having authority.

I will go back to the beginning before the world was, to show what kind of a being God is. What sort of a being was God in the beginning? Open your ears and hear, all ye ends of the earth, for I am going to prove it to you by the Bible, and to tell you the designs of God in relation to the human race, and why He interferes with the affairs of man.

God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! That is the great secret. If the veil were rent today, and the great God who holds this world in its orbit, and who upholds all worlds and all things by His power, was to make himself visible—I say, if you were to see him today, you would see him like a man in form—like yourselves in all the person, image, and very form as a man; for Adam was created in the very fashion, image and likeness of God, and received instruction from, and walked, talked and conversed with Him, as one man talks and communes with another.’
(“The King Follett Sermon”, Ensign, April 1971, italics added for emphasis)

Friends, that is a very different god than the God who revealed Himself to the Children of Israel during the Exodus, the God who said of Himself just a few chapters earlier:

“Then you came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, and the mountain burned with fire to the midst of heaven, with darkness, cloud, and thick darkness. And the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of the words, but saw no form; you only heard a voice. So He declared to you His covenant which He commanded you to perform, the Ten Commandments; and He wrote them on two tablets of stone. And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments, that you might observe them in the land which you cross over to possess.

“Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure: the likeness of male or female…
— Deuteronomy 4:11-16 NKJV (italics and bolding added for emphasis) 

Not to mention the God, who Christ, echoing this passage, clearly said in John 4:24 (NKJV) is spirit, not a man: “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” That’s the God of Hal Lindsey, Chuck Smith, and Harold Camping, not the false god and exalted man of Joseph Smith.

Summary and Conclusion
Yes, there is a False Prophet here, but it’s not Hal Lindsey, Chuck Smith or Harold Camping. Was there poor judgment on their part? Yes. Bad hermeneutics? Definitely. False Teachers? Yes, I think that a case can be made for that if you want to. But False Prophets, no. They simply do not meet all three Deuteronomy 18 False Prophet tests.

Joseph Smith, on the other hand, meets all three of the Deuteronomy 18 test criteria, and is, therefore, clearly a False Prophet. There is just no question about it given the historical body of evidence. And that can be determined by fairly applying the total and complete test for a False Prophet in the text rather than cherry picking from just one part of it.

LateGreatPlanetEarthMoviePoster

The movie poster for the 1979 movie that was based on Hal Lindsey’s best selling book.

NOTES
1 Wikipedia, “List of prophecies of Joseph Smith” (retrieved 2017-08-30)
2 Hal Lindsey, “The Late Great Planet Earth” (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1970): pp.53-54.
3 Wikipedia, “2011 end times prediction”
4 As noted on Wikipedia, “In March 2012 Camping “humbly acknowledged” that he had been mistaken, that his attempt to predict a date was “sinful,” and that his critics had been right in pointing to the scriptural text “of that day and hour knoweth no man”. He then said he was searching the Bible “even more fervently… not to find dates, but to be more faithful in our understanding.”‘
(Wikipedia, “2011 end times prediction”, retrieved 2017-09-10)
5 In fact, both Hal Lindsey and Chuck Smith were strident and assertive in their defense that while naming dates is probably not a good idea, they had, really, done nothing wrong and just moved on.

In the case of Lindsey, as Charisma magazine notes:

In early 1977, when Hal Lindsey was asked by a journalist from Christianity Today what he would do if he was wrong about his end-time predictions, he responded with the following,

There is a split second’s difference between a hero and a bum. I didn’t ask to be a hero, but I guess I have become one in the Christian community. So I accept it. But if I am wrong about this, I guess I’ll become a bum.”

Though undeniably wrong about his end-time predictions over the last 46 years, Lindsey still hasn’t referred to himself as a “bum.” It’s not necessary for this to happen, yet a simple apology might be nice.
(J.D. King, “Learning From Failed End-Time Predictions”, retrieved 2017-09-10) 

And Chuck Smith, a few years later in the late Bill Alnor’s book, “Soothsayers of the Second Advent”, blamed his failed predictions on Hal Lindsay. Here’s what he said:

Page 41.

Page 42.

Endnote citation for the source for the above Chuck Smith quotations.

In fact, both continued to spin up apocalyptic scenarios that hinted at particular events happening based on current events, which never did. Yes, Joseph Smith had several failed prophecies, but, if we’re going to be honest, we have to also admit, so did these members of our tribe.
6 Jack Deere, “Surprised by the Voice of God: How God Speaks Today Through Prophecies, Dreams, and Visions” (p. 359). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Bibliography and Additional Resources
Wikipedia, “Unfulfilled Christian religious predictions”
Wikipedia, “Predictions and claims for the Second Coming of Christ”
Calvary Chapel Wiki, “Chuck Smith taught Jesus would return in 1981”
Rabbi Stanley Chester, Mosaic Ministries, “Hal Lindsey: False Prophet!”
J.D. King, “Learning From Failed End-Time Predictions”
Gary DeMar, “Before Harold Camping, there Were Hal Lindsey and Chuck Smith”

Foolish? Yes. Damnable? No.

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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.

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“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 www.modernreformation.org or call (800) 890-7556 FREE. All rights reserved.

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