Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Atheists, Scripture, and Authority

I recently came across an article entitled Using the Bible Against Christians: Sola Scriptura Atheism. The article can be read here. Part of the argument seems to be that atheists, secularists and liberals, when using biblical passages to refute or embarrass conservative (ie., orthodox) Christianity, are merely following the idea behind sola scriptura. One example of this from the article:
What struck me about all this is that these atheists and various other assorted anti-Christians were reading the Bible essentially as sola scriptura fundamentalists. In essence, they presume to claim that their own reading of the Bible is the only possible one, that their reading is also quite obvious (perspicuity), and that the Bible is the sole basis for Christian doctrine, life and legitimacy. If the Bible can be made unpalatable even to Christians, then it just shows that the whole Christian enterprise is bunk.
While it's true there are liberals, secularists and atheists who grab passages of scripture and use them against Christians, to make the claim that they are coming from a sola scriptura mindset is fallacious for one simple reason: their basis of authority. The foundational principle of sola scriptura is that scripture, as God's revealed word, is the final authority. An atheist cannot possibly say that God's word has authority without being inconsistent with their position, while secularists and liberals will find their personal opinions at odds with the authority of God's word.

The author themselves admit this when they say: "I don’t expect an atheist or any other non-Christian to believe what the Bible says to be true." If the atheist does not believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God and the sole infallible authority over their spiritual lives, then you can't say that they are coming from a sola scriptura mindset. That would be like saying my use of the Quran to respond to Islam in the negative somehow shows I believe the Quran to be divine. The author likewise admits that, rather than seeing how scripture interprets various topics, non-Christians are "looking for 'gotchas' in the Bible to throw in Christians' faces." The author even makes sound points, such as explaining to non-Christians that "not everything depicted in the Bible is commanded by God, not everything allowed by God is endorsed by God, and not everything commanded by God is meant to become an absolute, eternal rule."

His being aware of all this, how then can the author presume that atheists, secularists and liberals are reading the Bible "with a sola scriptura hermeneutic"?

What appears to be occurring here is, as often happens with sola scriptura, is a misunderstanding of what the doctrine truly is. This is especially seen when the author suggests the mindset is "the Bible’s meaning is obvious to anyone who just happens to pick it up and read it for any reason" and "that your mental context is the only needed context for proper comprehension." The tone throughout out the article is not one of sola scriptura, but what many have nicknamed "solo scriptura," or even "scripture isolated." Any one who has done a fair (and I do emphasize fair) study on the subject knows this isn't the case. While it's true that not every passage in scripture is readily understandable to the average person, it was never contrary to sola scriptura for that person to engage in careful study, examination, and research into those troubling passages of scripture. Even the author confesses that many of the so-called troubling verses used by atheists and others can be understood when seen in their context. We must confess, then, that in many of these passages where there seems to be a disagreement on interpretation, that there is indeed a correct interpretation. If a man is misinterpreting and mishandling scripture - and this can be clearly demonstrated - then the conflict is not on the matter of sola scriptura's integrity, but on the person themselves.

The author admits this at the end with "I believe that there is a true meaning to the Bible," but submits himself to "the authority of a particular interpretive community that was constituted in the preaching of the men who wrote it" - meaning, in this case, to the Eastern Orthodox Church. Herein lies a dilemma: when a person says they appeal to the interpretation of an ecclesiastical authority, does this authority (by this meaning any church authority) preach contrary to, or in accordance with, God's word? Does it interpret what scripture says, or in spite of what scripture says? That is, does it read into God's word what it prefers to see, or what so-and-so commentator has said, even if such a conclusion clearly contradicts what the verses tell us? If this is the case, then you are following what one might call sola ecclesia, and you are submitting yourself to the authority of the church and not God's word. I might add, if you find that your ecclesiastical body is turning away from scripture on many important matters of faith - in particularly the gospel - you should depart. Not from the universal church, mind you, but from that individual ecclesiastical body.

If, however, none of this is an issue, then I might say congratulations, as you are, in fact, following sola scriptura.

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