Gerald McDermott–Evangelicals and Post Modernism Collide: Sola Scripture or Nuda Scriptura?

Yet there are troubling signs that Roger Olson and his self-styled “post-conservative” Evangelicals approach Scripture and tradition in ways that are more modernist than orthodox. They refuse to let the Great Tradition (the Catholic-Protestant-Orthodox consensus which C.S. Lewis dubbed “mere Christianity”) ever trump an individual’s interpretation of Scripture. This is what can be called nuda scriptura””the idea that the Bible is self-interpreting, needing only the Christian individual to make sense of it. In contrast, Martin Luther’s sola scriptura used the great creeds to fight for the primacy of Scripture over late medieval tradition.

Olson asserts that the Great Tradition has been wrong in the past, which just goes to show that all tradition is “always . . . in need of correction and reform.” Evangelicals should reject any appeal to “what has always been believed by Christians generally” because tradition by nature protects vested interests. The creeds are simply “man-made statements.” They all need to be re-examined for possible “revisioning of doctrine” based on a fresh reading of scripture. Nothing is sacrosanct, everything is on the table. Only the Bible is finally authoritative. But even that is too often mistaken for revelation itself, which in reality consists more of the “acts of God” in history than the words of the Bible. Post-conservatives tend to reject the idea that the actual words of the Bible are inspired, and often prefer to speak of “dynamic inspiration,” in which the biblical authors but not their words are inspired.

Read it all from First Things.


Posted in * Christian Life / Church Life, * Religion News & Commentary, Church History, Evangelicals, Other Churches, Theology, Theology: Scripture

2 comments on “Gerald McDermott–Evangelicals and Post Modernism Collide: Sola Scripture or Nuda Scriptura?

  1. Militaris Artifex says:

    This very approach (that the individual’s interpretation of Scripture must have primacy) is, IMHO, precisely what has increasingly come to rule in TEC over much of the past century. This understanding came to me in the latter half of September, 2008, while reclining on the bunk in my stateroom NOAA survey ship tied to the pier in Valdez, AK. Having come to the realization that nothing I could do with respect to my tithe to my local Episcopal parish could prevent some part of that tithe from being channeled by the Diocese to the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, thereby implicating me directly in providing material cooperation in the grave mortal sin of the murder of the unborn, I had been praying for several months that God would show me when I must leave TEC and to which part of Christ’s body on Earth He wanted me to go. That afternoon I had a (literally) blinding realization that in some fundamental sense, TEC had corporately abandoned all authority for the understanding of Scripture’s obligations upon us, its members. I couldn’t articulate the awareness that washed over me in those ten or 20 minutes, and if I thought about where I was, my sight was not actually lost, but simply overwhelmed by that realization, and its concomitants, that I was to leave TEC and seek God in Seattle’s Dominican parish to which three of his servants (two of them through comments on Stand Firm) had pointed me. It was not until March 17, 2009, that I found the words to express the understanding that had overwhelmed me those roughly six months earlier.

    In that March day’s [i]ON THE SQUARE[/i] article in [i]First Things[/i], Catholic priest and theologian Edward T. Oakes, S.J., cited a passage from Newman’s [i]An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine[/i] which allowed me the words to describe half of the understanding that had overwhelmed me that day in Valdez: [blockquote]”[i]The most obvious answer, then, to the question, why we yield to the authority of the Church in the questions and developments of faith, is, that some authority there must be if there is a revelation given, and other authority there is none but she. A revelation is not given if there be no authority to decide what it is that is given. . . . If Christianity is both social and dogmatic, and intended for all ages, it must humanly speaking have an infallible expounder. Else you will secure unity of form at the loss of unity of doctrine, or unity of doctrine at the loss of unity of form; you will have to choose between a comprehension of opinions and a resolution into parties, between latitudinarian and sectarian error. You may be tolerant or intolerant of contrarieties of thought, but contrarieties you will have. By the Church of England a hollow uniformity is preferred to an infallible chair; and by the sects of England an interminable division. Germany and Geneva began with persecution and have ended in scepticism. The doctrine of infallibility is a less violent hypothesis than this sacrifice either of faith or of charity. It secures the object, while it gives definiteness and force to the matter, of Revelation.[/i]”[/blockquote]

    [i]Pax et bonum[/i],
    Keith Töpfer

  2. New Reformation Advocate says:

    Thanks for that moving testimony, Keith. I can empathize with it, although I linger on this side of the Tiber (or Thames).

    MacDermott is on to something important, but this article is too short and simplistic to do the subject justice. The whole issue of the proper relationship of Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition is both complex and subtle, with many pitfalls for the unwary. Personally, I think both sides in the 16th century made serious errors because they misunderstood the nature of the Bible, wrongly assuming that most of the books of the Bible were written by single inspired individuals (like Paul or Moses or Isaiah), whereas one of the most important discoveries of modern biblical scholarship is that the vast majority of the Scriptures has passed through a long, complex process of gradually being shaped through a significant period of oral tradition, that has often been further complicated by a series of written editions produced by anonymous editors. The four gospels and the Pentateuch are prime examples of that. IOW, Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition aren’t different in kind, just in degree of inspiration and authority.

    Personally, I don’t like Trent’s Scriptura et Traditio much better than the Protestant principle of Sola Scriptura. I think the Eastern Church is wiser in pointing to a more integrated perspective that could be called Scriptura IN Traditio. That fits MacDermott’s emphasis on a “single source” of Divine Revelation, rather than the dual (independent) sources that Trent was often thought to be affirming (until Vatican II).

    I welcome MacDermott’s piece as a cautionary warning about the dangers of the sort of “enlightened” or progressive Evangelicalism that he rightly perceives as a Trojan Horse that smuggles in ideas that are suicidal to the Evangelical commitment to orthodoxy, since it cuts the discernment of “orthodoxy” off from the ancient authorities that clarified for us just what right doctrine is on key matters such as the doctrine of God as triune and on the doctrine of Christ as fully divine and fully human. Such paradoxical doctrines defy human logic and the ability to resolve the conundrums they raise, nor can they be PROVED beyond doubt from Scripture by itself. The Arians and Nestorians knew their Bibles too, and could quote them effectively.

    The crucial take away is that Holy Scripture is NOT self-interpreting, no matter how much Protestants, and especially evangelical Protestants, wish that it were. Fortunately, for those of us who are Anglicans, the Anglican tradition has never been committed to the erroneaous idea of Sola Scriptura. God’s Word is our primary and supreme authority (under Christ, of course), but it is most assuredly not our only one. Nor our only inspired and divinely authoritative one either (which amounts to the same thing in principle). But not all inspired and divinely given authorities are equal. The very act of canonizing a certain portion of the wider Tradition of the Church implicitly sets it apart as of supreme importance. In the Anglican language of the Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1888, Scripture is “[i]the ultimate rule and standard of faith.[/i]” The ultimate and final one, but not the only one.

    In the end, the reason why I’m an Anglican, still on this side of the Tiber, is because my assessment of the Protestant Reformation is that the Reformers, including the English Reformers, basically got the principle of Sola Fide right, but they also got the principle of Sola Scriptura basically wrong. That’s why an alternative to both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism is necessary. At least for me.

    David Handy+