The Inexhaustible Problem of Sola Scriptura - a guest post by Collin Cornell

[Ed. note: Collin Cornell writes the always interesting blog, Kaleidobible, which I have featured previously on link posts here at DET. He also writes semi-regular guest posts here at DET.]

Brevard Childs’ magisterial Biblical Theology kicks off with a quote from Gerhard Ebeling’s 1955 article, “The Meaning of Biblical Theology.” Childs – infamously cantankerous – lavishes rare praise on Ebeling’s article, calling it “a major contribution” and “a classic essay” because of its helpfulness in diagnosing the deep problems then rocking the discipline of biblical theology. Even beyond its analytical power, however, Childs commends it for its positive suggestions, “[making] a valuable start toward reconstituting the field [of biblical theology]” (7). In fact, Childs envisions his own project as an attempt to fulfill Ebeling’s proposal.

Childs didn't always smile on the so-called “New Hermeneutic” school of thought associated with Ebeling’s name. In his Biblical Theology in Crisis, Childs renders this judgment: “The fundamental esoteric quality of much of the discussion [concerning the New Hermeneutic] has made the possibility of any new consensus between Bible and theology highly unlikely” (102). Besides its uniquely German obscurity, Childs also anathematized Ebeling’s and Fuchs’ appeals to the “linguisticality of being” as a “form of positivity behind the text,” in contrast to approaches that take the canon per se as the context for biblical theology.

What then did Childs appreciate so much about this article? On Childs’ read, Ebeling accurately plumbed the dereliction of biblical theology: the untenability of proposals for theological unity between the testaments and, indeed, within each individual testament; the historical artificiality of separating out the canonical writings from their ancient cognates for special treatment; and the confusion over whether or not the contents of the Bible can rightly be called “theology” (rather than “religion”).

Childs also found Ebeling’s constructive suggestions helpful. According to Ebeling, biblical theology must not only be a historical and descriptive task, but a theological and normative one, “a modern theologian’s reflection on various aspects of the Bible.” Without turning back the clock on Enlightenment discoveries about the distinctiveness of each biblical testament and each scriptural unit, a fresh start in biblical theology would re-connect these, discerning “the inner unity [within] the manifold testimony.” Above all, Childs loved Ebeling’s use of the concept “witness” or “testimony” to describe the Bible. This metaphor positions the Bible not only as “a cultural expression of ancient peoples, but as a testimony pointing beyond itself to a divine reality to which it bears witness” (9). Each of these points remained near and dear to Childs’ whole enterprise.

Before re-reading Childs this spring, I had forgotten he made such a fuss over Ebeling. In fact, I read Ebeling’s essay for this first time this past summer, and heard in it a very different concern. Amongst other things, Ebeling revisits the history of the term “biblical theology,” and makes explicit that it is, at its roots, polemical: aimed against competing forms of theology (212). “Biblical theology,” in a word, brackets “theology proper.” Though the term “biblical theology” does not occur in Reformation writings, it depends on Luther’s attack on the authority of ecclesial tradition and scholastic theology. The catchphrase “Scripture alone” contains within itself the shudder of these mighty intellectual exclusions. The Pietists of a subsequent generation would marshal “biblical theology” against the stultifications of Protestant orthodoxy, and yet later, rationalist biblical critics (some of them Pietists) would extend and complicate this contrast. At all stages, “biblical theology” was polemical, exclusionary, and critical: a jealous younger sibling to the accumulated mass of churchly reflections on subjects of divinity. Ebeling points out the self-contradictions inherent to the discipline: at once emancipated from the tradition of systematic theology, yet covetous of its normative function; critical of the history of interpretation and disdainful towards verbal inspiration, yet parasitic on the theological importance accorded by theology proper to the Bible.

Ebeling does call in his article for a renewed cooperation between theological disciplines; Childs heard this loud and clear. Childs also, like Ebeling, does not set aside the body of critical biblical scholarship. However, the posture of the two scholars varies. Childs sees critical research as basic to contemporary interpretation, a non-negotiable if perhaps regrettable horizon. But Childs’ main energies went into reuniting biblical theology with theology proper, and contemporary exegesis with the resources of the Christian past, to overcome the modern quarantine on “pre-modern” readings. Ebeling on the other hand sees “the problem of theological method posed by the Reformation” as an enduring surd, an unanswered and, importantly, still productive question (224). For him, the contradiction of biblical theology is ongoing, even irresolvable: a discipline whose own inexorable logic of abstracting the Bible from its tradition ultimately leaves the Bible as a privileged text vulnerable and unjustifiable. But for all that self-refuting history of the concept, Ebeling understands the exclusionary starting point – the Reformation sola – more optimistically.

In an era of biblical interpretation awash in the influence of Childs, and in a field enamored with the history of reception, I fear that increasingly fewer people are able defend the theological productivity of critical, historical methods, i.e., the characteristically Protestant “bracketing” of churchly readings ingredient in “biblical theology” is viewed as misguided or passé. I understand and sympathize with much that informs this intellectual moment. But still my own confidence is that Ebeling’s essay, quite beyond Childs’ treatment of it, highlights a dynamic that still deserves appreciation and exploration: namely, the unfulfilled and inexhaustible invitation of sola scriptura.



The following Reformation Confessions, make it clear that sola scriptura does not that there are no other sources of revelation (nature, tradition, reason, experience, etc.), but that the Bible alones is the final authority that is binding upon all Christians (sola scriptura = primacy of Scripture). Rather, they affirm the reality of other authorities (tradition, councils, creeds, experience, etc.) and that they all must come under the authority of Scripture alone:

The Theses of Berne (1528):
The Church of Christ makes no laws or commandments without God's Word. Hence all human traditions, which are called ecclesiastical commandments, are binding upon us only in so far as they are based on and commanded by God's Word (Sec. II).

The Geneva Confession (1536):
First we affirm that we desire to follow Scripture alone as a rule of faith and religion, without mixing with it any other things which might be devised by the opinion of men apart from the Word of God, and without wishing to accept for our spiritual government any other doctrine than what is conveyed to us by the same Word without addition or diminution, according to the command of our Lord (Sec. I).

The French Confession of Faith (1559):
We believe that the Word contained in these books has proceeded from God, and receives its authority from him alone, and not from men. And inasmuch as it is the rule of all truth, containing all that is necessary for the service of God and for our salvation, it is not lawful for men, nor even for angels, to add to it, to take away from it, or to change it. Whence it follows that no authority, whether of antiquity, or custom, or numbers, or human wisdom, or judgments, or proclamations, or edicts, or decrees, or councils, or visions, or miracles, should be opposed to these Holy Scriptures, but on the contrary, all things should be examined, regulated, and reformed according to them (Art. V).

The Belgic Confession (1561):
We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and confirmation of our faith; believing, without any doubt, all things contained in them, not so much because the church receives and approves them as such, but more especially because the Holy Ghost witnessed in our hearts that they are from God, whereof they carry the evidence in themselves (Art. V).

Therefore we reject with all our hearts whatsoever doth not agree with this infallible rule (Art. VII).

Second Helvetic Confession (1566):
Therefore, we do not admit any other judge than Christ himself, who proclaims by the Holy Scriptures what is true, what is false, what is to be followed, or what is to be avoided (Chap. II).

Therefore, the historic doctrine of sola scriptura is not exclusivistic or restrictive towards nature, creeds, tradition, reason, experience, etc.

As a result, there is no "inexhaustible problem."
crob said…
William, thanks for your feedback. In some regards, Ebeling and Childs after him would agree with what you wrote: "other authorities" besides scripture do exist, and legitimately, insofar as they are normed by scripture. Ebeling and Childs, however, regard sola scriptura from a later vantage in the history of interpretation than the authors of the confessions you cite; they had to wrestle with the fact that the principle of sola scriptura, once unleashed, not only authorized the Protestant reformers' objections to received churchly doctrines, but also fueled the vast edifice of critical biblical scholarship -- whose findings often undermined orthodox Protestant doctrine, too. Gone was the doctrinal uniformity of the Bible, gone was the authenticity of biblical authorship, gone was the antiquity of monotheism, the historicity of various biblical figures, etc etc. Freeing the study of the Bible from Christian traditions of reading resulted in all kinds of surprises. In effect, critical scholarship cut off the limb it sat on: if the Bible were treated like every other book, what justified special attention to it? This is the problem of sola scriptura, despite which, Ebeling and Childs continue to maintain it.
Bobby Grow said…

Thanks for this timely post. I have just started reading Gerhard Von Rad's Old Testament Theology, but had decided even before I read this post to pick up Childs instead. I was influenced heavily by the canonical approach in my undergrad experience, but mediated through John Sailhamer's more Evangelical appropriation.

Anyway, great post!
crob said…
Bobby, thanks for reading! and godspeed as you trawl through Childs. I think you'll find him a lot richer than Sailhamer. Maybe we can expect some posts on your reading experience?
Scott Rice said…
Thanks for the post, Collin. I'm happy to see engagement with Ebeling.
Matthew Frost said…
There's nothing at all about critical scholarship that is self-defeating. I keep hearing this suggestion as though not accepting any normative modes of interpretation somehow voids the authority of the document—as if taking the texts seriously as texts written by authors, whose authority as canon is utterly secondary to their composition, somehow means we don't take them seriously as scripture. And I find it flatly insulting, every time, though I get that folks who are stuck with notions of scriptural authority opposed to critical study at some level will always be faced with this "problem." The problem, however, is not with the tools brought to bear on the texts. The problem is, on the one hand, a conflict of ideologies of scripture, and on the other hand, of personalities on both sides.
crob said…
Matt, thanks for reading. I hope I have understood your comment. Ebeling's remarks about the "self-defeating" character of critical biblical scholarship are mostly historical and descriptive. This seems (to me) hard to argue with: if the Bible is (as it is) a book like any other, then why should public research universities give money and faculty towards research on it? In fact, they often don't want to anymore. If it's not special (in some way! goodness, we don't need to insist on some theory of inspiration), why study it?

It's not that Ebeling opposes critical study. He (and the above post) represent a defense of it against more one-sidedly "confessional" approaches such as Childs. Ebeling just recognizes the "conflict of ideologies" that you mention as inherent to the volatile but productive discipline of biblical theology.

Popular Posts

So, You Want To Read Karl Barth?

So You Want to Read….Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

2010 KBBC: Week 1, Day 5

Karl Barth on Hell, the Devil, Demons, and Universalism – A Florilegium

2010 KBBC: Week 3, Day 1