The importance of sola scriptura can be seen when men who thought they held to it begin moving away from it, and express their newfound objections. Of course, which road they are traveling will say a lot about the consistency of their arguments. So, let’s say you are headed down the road for Rome, or Constantinople, or, if you lack that kind of spine, Canterbury. You have an entire set of doctrines you want to embrace but you know, deep down inside, there is no way on earth the New Testament teaches these things. It’s just too obvious. So you have to crack the door open for these doctrines, and the wonderfully nebulous, never to be actually defined or documented in history, concept of tradition is always there to help you out. Everyone has claimed it. Goodness, there are lots of formerly very conservative Reformed folks who are singing the praises of the “Great Tradition” today (even using the capitalized forms!) so why not? From Irenaeus onward just slap the ol’ tradition label on it and all will be well.
So one such pilgrim along the way mused recently that if you hold to sola scriptura, you are holding to…a tradition! Well, again, tradition is a nebulous term that can be made to fulfill so many useful functions! So he decided to do the well-worn canon run. Every Roman Catholic apologist has his own version of it, I assure you. So this one spins it this way: if you believe in sola scriptura, that entails a “stopping point” for revelation. This is a deep insight indeed! I mean, aside from the Mormons (and even they stopped doing the almost daily revelation thing a long time ago), everyone actually agrees that revelation has ceased. Rome agrees (even though with such dogmas as the Bodily Assumption she cheats a good bit), the East agrees, etc. And of course our would-be traveler might want to consider the fact that revelation ceased (as everyone agrees) for four hundred years before Christ without any angels descending from heaven shouting, “That’s it, guys, we will let you know when things get going again later!” The prophecies were in place, and there was no more need for further revelation until the time of fulfillment began. Is that a “tradition”? No, it is just a recognition that God gets to determine the times and mechanisms whereby He gives Scripture. And when He completes giving us exactly what is sufficient for life and godliness, His work is finished. That does not require a “tradition” to define or explain. Unless, of course, you demand some kind of external attesting authority for Scripture to be Scripture, like, say, an organization, a magisterium of some sort. But, there was no such organization that defined the end of the period of revelation before Christ. If our pilgrim tries to come up with a Jewish magisterium he has to deal with the reality that the Jews never accepted the Apocryphal books as Scripture (in case he should be forced to do so), and even then, much of the details were worked out after the time of Christ, which doesn’t work for his scenario.
So our traveler on the road to some kind of submission to something other than Scripture puts it this way: “Why stop at the Gospels and Epistles? Like, seriously, why?” Now please realize that the question is itself an argument. It is asking for an external authority to define the canon, only it is doing it in a rather sneaky fashion. It cannot be enough that God is free to give us what He wants us to have in the fashion He chooses to do so, in the timeframe that is part of His decree. No, we need something more, and that something will be offered, of course, by three dozen groups, but especially by the Big Boys, all of whom are offering along with Scripture their interpretational authority and a whole BOX full of doctrines and beliefs and practices that the Apostles never, ever dreamed of! But hey, you get to answer speculative questions with full certainty! Isn’t that worth a few candles and visits to the priest to get your sins forgiven?
Of course, the problem is, all that has happened is the line has been moved back without anyone noticing. The hard questions about ultimate authorities are just as valid in Rome, or Constantinople, as anywhere else. I mean goodness, look at the poor Roman Catholic today! He is stuck with Francis as Pope—the Francis who has clearly stated that having various religions is in fact God’s purpose and plan (and don’t even try to read that sentence in a Reformed context, since Francis is as far from that realm as can be). See, there is always a price attached to that “tradition.” If it is Constantinople’s version, you are truly stuck, like a fly in amber, in the 7th and 8th centuries, with little hope of going forward, or, for that matter, backward to a more primitive (and biblical) time. In none of these situations do you have the option of reformation, for you have already subjected the voice of the Bridegroom to the authority of the Bride. All denials of sola scriptura lead to a monologue between the authoritative group and…itself.
So be careful and mark out those who are intent upon inviting others along on their journey into captivity to that which is not God-breathed. It is one of the most pernicious temptations out there. It can be at times obvious in its pleadings, but, as we are seeing today, sometimes it clothes itself in the banners of the Reformation itself! But think careful, look closely, and do not be quick to accept the offered treats.