Sola Scriptura and Christian Charity

by Rhyne Putman

Recent debates regarding the use of extrabiblical tools such as Critical Race Theory (CRT) have caused a firestorm in some corners of Baptist life. I’ll admit I haven’t spent much time reading the primary sources of CRT, so for the moment, I will gladly withhold judgment on its value as an “analytical tool” or its evil as an insidious and “godless ideology.” But I will also go out on a limb and say the vast majority of Baptists who are critiquing it on social media probably haven’t read much of it either. They are following the lead of people they trust, which I can appreciate. Yet even the people who support the use of CRT “tools” shun the ideology as a whole. I respect people on both sides of this feud. I want to learn more about it, but I see a larger debate looming in the background.

This debate, like many others in counseling, apologetics, church leadership, etc. usually comes down to a larger (and often unaddressed) debate over the meaning of the post-Reformation slogan sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”). I, like most evangelicals, would like to think myself an advocate of sola Scriptura. What do I mean by the phrase? I mean

  • that Scripture alone is the standard by which Christian belief and practice is measured.

  • that Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience.

  • that Scripture provides everything we need to know about our salvation and the obedient Christian life.

The sufficiency of Scripture is a precious tenet we must defend, especially in a pluralistic culture that denies the uniqueness of Christian revelation and the exclusivity of the gospel. But I also believe this tenet is one of the most misused and misunderstood doctrines in evangelicalism today.


Reclaiming the Reformation Position on Sola Scriptura

Confusion about the sufficiency of Scripture abounds. Some seem to suppose that when the Reformers said sola Scriptura, they ruled out any and all use of tradition—and by extension, any form of reasoning not explicitly detailed in Scripture. Some have labeled this form of uncritical or naïve biblicism solo Scriptura or nuda Scriptura (naked or bare Scripture).

Of course, a closer examination of the Reformers’ work on this subject makes it plain that they did not oppose tradition in and of itself, but a particular version of tradition that sees it as an equal authority to Scripture (what historian Heiko Oberman labelled Tradition II). For the majority of church history, tradition was seen as the interpretation of Scripture (what Oberman called Tradition I). Good tradition was merely a faithful interpretation of Scripture, preached in the churches, shared in evangelism, and collected in the theological tradition of the church. Only in late medieval theology did it take a dangerously different shape: Tradition was not seen as the interpretation of revelation but seen as revelation itself (Tradition II).

So, sola Scriptura as originally put forward by the Reformers was not a criticism of tradition per se, but a criticism of a dangerous and unhealthy version of tradition that elevated it to or above Scripture. The criticism of Tradition II by the Reformers is not unlike the evangelical criticism of Word-Faith theologies today that elevate the “special revelation” received by its proponents to the level of normative authority in the life of the believer. The Reformers certainly didn’t practice nuda Scriptura. They loved the tradition that went before them. They had much to appreciate in Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas—or most theologians whose name began with ‘A.’ They believed the ecumenical creeds were concise and helpful explanations of Christian doctrine.

To be fair, most involved in the present debate about the sufficiency of Scripture don’t practice nuda Scriptura with respect to tradition. Most of the Baptists in this debate seem to agree tradition is valuable in so far as it reflects Scripture well. Tradition can have a kind of authority over believers, the same way a pastor or group of elders have authority. But this authority is derivative of biblical authority, not primary.


Scripture as the Only Source of Knowledge?

Yet evangelicals can gravitate toward another form of nuda Scriptura when they reject any and all engagement with non-biblical resources. In the debate over biblical counseling and Christian psychology, some reject all mental health categories or descriptions that originate in secular psychology. I empathize with this impulse, especially given the sexual ideologies that drive so much of the field today. But just because I disagree with the American Psychological Association on terms like ‘gender’ and ‘sexual orientation,’ doesn’t mean I cannot agree with them on certain diagnoses like attention deficit disorder, depression, and a number of other emotional ailments.

As I understand it, sola Scriptura is not a denial of the value of other sources for Christian knowledge (especially regarding things related to the world created by God). It is a statement that all those other sources must be measured by the only revealed standard, which is the Bible. Scripture is the supreme source of knowledge and the only norm by which other sources are read. It alone is inerrant and infallible. But this recognition does not preclude engagement with ideas or tools outside of Scripture or a Christian worldview.

Nuda Scriptura rears its ugly head when we shun any appeal to counsel outside of Scripture. I see this in the criticism leveled against Matt Chandler, who when speaking about sexual abuse issues, said, “I was not trained in any of this. . . . Churches are going to be better for finding subject-matter experts and pulling them in.” The Bible has a lot to say about sexual sin, yes. But its human authorship does not directly address screening volunteers to sort out potential sex abusers or the dilemma surrounding how best to minister to registered sex offenders. Because Scripture doesn’t explicitly address this matter, I can and probably should seek outside wisdom, counsel, and experience that is consistent with Scripture. This sola Scriptura-affirming pastor has to make use of resources like Ministry Safe, which provide sound legal and practical advice for screening and training volunteers. To give ear to the wisdom and experience of organizations like this need not challenge our fundamental assumptions about biblical authority. So long as it does not directly contradict Scripture or the biblical worldview, we should receive it as potentially helpful information.


Should We Plunder the Egyptians?

The trickier question has to do with the philosophical ‘tools’ we use to assess theological and cultural issues. Should we plunder the Egyptians (Exod. 11:2–3), borrowing the tools employed by non-Christian philosophers and academicians? This question is at the heart of the debate over Resolution 9. It is true philosophical tools can have ideologically problematic backgrounds. But the genetic fallacy practiced by many forces us to assume everyone who uses the tools buys into the worldview of their originators.

For example, I recently read a blog post disparaging speech-act theory for being Marxist—a rather preposterous idea to anyone who studies the philosophy of language. It was a lengthy diatribe that made a lot of questionable historical connections and did nothing to convince me it is a problematic theory. As anyone who has bothered to take me for a class or read my dissertation book knows, I find speech-act theory to be a very useful tool for unpacking authorial intent in general hermeneutics and biblical hermeneutics. It is just a helpful way of talking about human language. Its theorists tell us that every time a person speaks or writes with words, he is doing something with those words.

  • There are words spoken or written (locutionary acts),

  • intentions (illocutionary acts),

  • and effects on the hearer (perlocutionary acts).

I am well aware that it was non-Christian philosophers who developed and first used the speech-act theory laid out above. J. L. Austin, the Cambridge philosopher who first propagated speech-act theory, was not a Christian, nor is John Searle, the atheist philosopher who further developed Austin’s work. But just because I think they are wrong in other places in their worldview doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate what they get right in their basic description of language. I could say the same thing about any other discipline or field of research.

We borrow a philosophical tool from a non-Christian source any time we talk about propositional statements, which were first spelled out for us by a pagan philosopher named Aristotle. I don’t begin to presume that everyone who talks about propositional truth buys Aristotle’s metaphysics or religious views. No one who speaks of knowledge as justified true belief—an idea taught by Plato—has to embrace the system of Platonism from which that notion first emerged. By extension, I am willing to grant patience and charity to Christian brothers who use certain tools without necessarily borrowing all the ideology that comes with them.

We run into problems when we make assumptions about our interlocutors. One way we do this is when we suppose our opponents who hold a different point-of-view see the same logical conclusions we do and choose to embrace them as dogma. For example, it would be very uncharitable to say that anyone who believes “Jesus died for all” is a universalist just because he holds that view. Two different understandings of the extent of the atonement and the application of the atonement are at work in that disagreement. But this is the same kind of thinking at work in many of these debates. I cannot presume that a person who disagrees with me on a topic sees or makes the same connections I draw from that idea.

Just because a brother disagrees with us about the value of secular psychology does not mean he embraces the sexual ideologies of the left. Just because someone disagrees with us about science doesn’t mean he embraces the materialism of atheist scientists. Just because a friend has a different view on immigration law from us doesn’t mean they support abortion, and so on and so on.



Sola Scriptura does not mean ideas found outside of Scripture cannot be helpful, but it means these ideas must be analyzed and held to the standard of Scripture. If there are things destructive or unhelpful in the way the tools are being utilized, then they should be challenged or questioned. I can see merits of the arguments on both sides of the CRT debate. I see the value in addressing the concerns of our culture with a gospel lens, but I also understand the caution of those who are afraid of an emerging twenty-first-century social gospel.

Without having read the primary sources about CRT, I will refrain making an epistemic judgment about its usefulness for the time being. (I will take the time to inform myself in the not-too-distant-future, but it is lower down my priority-list as a busy professor and pastor.) But I will be charitable and not automatically presume the worst of those who share a common confession with me. That cuts both ways here. I don’t presume the worst of my brothers who find these things valuable, and I will not paint those who oppose them as villains.

By what standard do we distinguish between good ideas and bad ones? The answer is and always should be Scripture. Yet I am willing to give anyone who believes and proclaims biblical authority and a biblical gospel the initial benefit of the doubt when entering into these conversations. It just seems like a biblical thing to do.