Book Review: Sola Scriptura, edited by Don Kistler
Anyone who has even the most basic awareness of Reformation history will know that the Latin phrase sola scriptura means â€œscripture alone,â€ and that it is a foundational dividing point between Roman Catholic and Protestant theologies. But what exactly did the Reformers understand sola scriptura to mean, in what ways is it different from the Roman understanding of authority, and more importantly, how is the doctrine of the Reformers faring in modern Protestantism? The cast of Protestant contributors to Reformation Trust's recent reprint, Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the Bible, have done a tremendous job of answering those questions. The result is not just a book that Roman Catholics would do well to read if they sincerely want to understand where Protestants are coming from â€“ it is also, and perhaps even more fundamentally, a book that modern Protestants would do well to read if they sincerely want to know whether or not they may appropriately consider themselves the heirs of the Protestant Reformation at all. The excellent selection of contributors â€“ Joel Beeke, R. C. Sproul, Sinclair Ferguson, James White, among others â€“ is enough to warrant a presupposition of capable and stimulating writing, and in this expectation they have not failed to disappoint.
In his foreword, Michael Horton immediately affirms a point which will be well substantiated throughout the remainder of the book: â€œWhile this book has the Roman Catholic Church's view of scripture in mind when it asserts Protestantism's position, it is Protestantism that this book is trying to reach as much as Rome. We contributors lament that Rome is so aggressive in its error, yes, but we equally lament that Protestantism is so passive in its capitulation.... But this book is not simply a lamentation; it is a way forwardâ€. Perhaps, more than any other characteristic, that is what makes the book valuable. As an apologetic aid to Rome, it will doubtless have some value; but as a way forward for unknowingly errant Protestants, its value is apt to be much, much greater.
As there are only seven chapters in the book, and each contributes to the topic in a unique and vital way, it will perhaps not be out of place to give a brief summary to potential readers: the first chapter, by W. Robert Godfrey, is a foundational overview of what is meant by sola scriptura and how it differs from Roman teaching, together with a helpful analysis of some of the ways in which Catholics and Protestants may inadvertently talk past one another, and a cursory description of the testimony of the scriptures about themselves.
In the second chapter, James White gives a hugely helpful overview of the doctrine of sola scriptura in early Church history, providing along the way some clarification and context for a few of the mis-contextualized quotes from the fathers that are often slung about on both sides of the debate.
Next, R. C. Sproul takes on the whole topic of canonicity, refuting the claim of the Roman Church to have authoritatively determined the canon and addressing the question of the Apocrypha.
Derek H. W. Thomas then examines the nature of divine authority, and makes a solid case for grounding all spiritual authority in the very Word of God, above any other power.
John MacArthur contributes a chapter focused on the sufficiency and perspicuity of scriptures, dealing specifically with Catholic teaching on the inherent insufficiency of the unmediated Word, but producing along the way some material very germane to many modern Protestants whose practice likewise implies some essential insufficiency in the Word of God.
Sinclair Ferguson then delves into a discussion of the interplay between tradition and scripture in the Roman Church which is very notable for tracing out recent but little-known developments within the attitudes and perspectives of some of her outstanding thinkers and scholars.
And finally, in the Puritan-like fashion that I've come to expect from him, Joel R. Beeke, together with Ray B. Lanning, makes all of the sound theology developed throughout the book richly devotional and intensely practical. This chapter, above all others, is geared specifically toward modern Protestants, and should be read by everyone claiming the legacy of the Reformers. These two contributors do not just show what sola scriptura is intellectually, they also trace out minutely and accurately the appropriate way to respond to that doctrine, and motivate the believer to follow those instructions with a rich array of immense spiritual blessings doubtless to follow.
That overview should give any potential reader a basic feel for the focus and emphases of the book which may serve to set it apart from other similar publications. For anyone feeling the need or confronted with the opportunity to engage Roman Catholics in dialogue on the topic, it will doubtless prove to be very helpful in providing some instruction as to what the issues really are, how the points may be argued from scripture, and thanks to James White, how the Church fathers may be brought into the mix (an area in which the average Protestant will likely feel much more poorly equipped than many Catholics); and for any Protestant feeling the emptiness inherent in so much of Protestantism today, in spite of the schmoozy productions and slick entertainment within the Evangelical Church at large, the immoveable and certain foundation of the holy scriptures alone for all of life and worship, faith and practice, will be driven home with what I trust will be a liberating and soberly joyful forcefulness.
Sola Scriptura: Available at Monergism Books