Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Review: Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the Bible

Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the Bible is a well-articulated assertion of the doctrine of sola scriptura or scripture alone, one of the pillars of the Reformation. The book contains a compilation of scholarly but accessible essays by a number of well-respected scholars and spiritual leaders from the reformed church and tradition. Their firm stance on the sufficiency of scripture exalts the Word of God distinctly against church tradition. While the book does introduce the doctrine of sola scriptura fairly and clearly, the largest portion of the book is dedicated to apologetics defending the doctrine of sola scriptura against Roman Catholic apologetics and attacking the Roman Catholic Church's exaltation of tradition above scripture. This emphasis provides illumination on the debate between Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars and on the foundational importance of believing in the sufficiency, in-errancy and authority of Scripture. The book functions primarily as an apologetic assertion and defense of sola scriptura and secondarily as a call to the Protestant church to return to the Word of God.

Sola Scriptura intends to be a clarion call to the church as well as an eloquent and sound defense of the doctrine that "Scripture alone is our authority" (p.1) and jointly that "all things necessary for salvation and concerning faith and life are taught in the Bible with enough clarity that the ordinary believer can find them there and understand" (p. 2). This intention is both needed and noble; however, the majority of the book is dedicated to combating Roman Catholic doctrines and defenses of tradition to which most Protestants are either indifferent or ignorant. While the writing is clear, succinct and interesting, most readers will enter into a debate which they are not directly invested in, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant. That said, the arguments set down guide the reader through the early church, the formation of the canon and the reformation, revealing the truth of the sufficiency of scripture in a way that is relevant (though perhaps incidentally) to the Christian who is not directly involved in the debate. A lesser portion of the book is dedicated to a defense of sola scriptura against liberalism and subjective revelation, and a still lesser portion instructs in the application of sola scriptura. This makes the book a welcome introduction to a classical doctrine and the debate surrounding it; however, a specific investigation of how Protestants set aside sola scriptura would have been more penetrating and perhaps more relevant to the casual reader.

My own reaction to the book was somewhat mixed. I found the apologetics between the two sides interesting , but my intention in reading the book was for more of a direct exaltation of scripture and its application, not an introduction to what has become a centuries old debate between the Protestant and Catholic Church. Furthermore, at least two of the authors directly state that any subjective revelation or personal hearing of God's voice or leading is a denial of the sufficiency of scripture. I absolutely disagree with this position, and I found the arguments dedicated to this subject somewhat illogical and inconsistent with the book's own definition of what sola scriptura is and is not. Dr. Sproul goes so far as to say that anyone who believes they have heard or felt the leading of God is attempting to add to the canon (the logical extrapolation is that they are consequently putting themselves under a curse) (p. 55-56). For the sake of this review I will note my objections and table them. I received this book as a review copy from Reformation Trust, and I knew the authors of the book were both highly Reformed in their theology and strong cessationists. I greatly value many of the doctrines of the Reformed church, but I am not a cessationist, and I believe that the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the character of our relationship with God and our perception of His voice is not and should not be different than what is described in the book of Acts. My only possible objections to the doctrine of sola scriptura would be an acknowledgement of the Holy Spirit's office of applying the Word to the believer's life generally, specifically and personally.

The book's final essay "The Transforming Power of Scripture" by Joel R. Beeke and Ray B. Lanning is the longest essay in the collection and without a doubt is the best. Its pure exaltation of the scripture and dynamic description of applying the Word's transforming power is a must read. The entire book is worth this one chapter. It just may be the finest succinct description of how to apply the word to both the individual and the congregation that I have ever read. While the previous chapters of the book are an important introduction, description and defense of sola scriptura, this final essay is the vital application. It functions the way I wish the entire book would have: as a spiritual spark to set the believer's heart aflame. I will cherish this essay and return to it for years to come; it alone is a more convincing defense of sola scriptura than all the rest of the scholarship, logic and debate combined. Not because the apologetics are not useful or brilliantly argued, but because they are meat for the mind rather than a flame for the heart and the spirit.

In conclusion, this book is a valuable introduction for any student of the Word, especially to those engaged  in Reformed theology or Roman Catholic debate. At its worst, the book focuses on combating a Roman Catholic audience. At its best the book challenges and engages the reader to cast their heart, soul, mind and strength into the Word of God, and this is transforming.

My thanks to Reformation Trust for providing this free electronic review copy. I was not required to give a positive review, but an honest review that was "serious, substantive and fair." In exchange for this review, I will receive a hard copy of the book.

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