In church on Sunday our pastor was distinguishing between what he called “closed-hand” issues (what C.S. Lewis might have termed Mere Christianity, the essential doctrines of the faith) and “open-hand” issues (points that aren’t clearly taught in Scripture and about which Christians are free to disagree, like the details of the end times or evolution). I was nodding along with him, as this is familiar territory for me, expecting him to take it in a truly ecumenical Lewisian fashion, when he suddenly burst out sola scriptura as a core, essential, inarguable tenet of the faith.
I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt, and suggest that he simply meant to say that Scripture is inerrant and authoritative, the primary guide for our faith, because I don’t think any Christian group through the millennia of the Church would disagree. But what he actually said was that Scripture is the sole authority for the faith and for Christian living – and that is not Biblically taught and was not held by the Church for the majority of her existence. Logically, this makes sense. The Bible can interpreted in a million ways, some of them drastically different and leading towards widely varied ends, so as a sole authority it doesn’t seem to be very well-suited for keeping either orthodoxy or orthopraxy intact. There has to be some way to determine which interpretations are valid and which are heretical, and since Jesus is no longer living on earth to deliver those kind of judgments, it would make sense for the authorities within the Church, led by the Holy Spirit, to have that kind of authority.
If the Church isn’t led by the Holy Spirit, than to trust her authority and direction on the interpretation of Scripture would obviously be a dicey matter, no different than turning to any random person on the street and following their opinion. But we do see in the Bible Jesus promising to send the Holy Spirit to remind the apostles of everything He taught; we see the Spirit coming down with power and transforming the apostles and other believers; we see the early church following the decisions of the apostles as to which laws and traditions to live by. Was that just because they didn’t have a written Bible yet? Did all those councils and traditions and oral decisions become unnecessary once the Bible was assembled? Considering the number of heresies and divisions that have arisen in the 16 centuries since then, I don’t think so. We still need a person, or people, led by God, to clear up arguments and prevent error from creeping in to our understanding of the inerrant Word.
So please be more clear, pastor, about your terms and definitions. Please try not to exclude the vast majority of Christians throughout time and space from your tight definition of the “closed-hand” issues one must believe to be truly Christian by narrowing down the broad historically-accepted truth into your Protestant doctrine, which may or may not be true (I’d love to hear your arguments for it!) but which is most definitely not universally believed by even the great Christians of the past.