by Fr. John Guy Winfrey
I was recently asked by an old friend of mine to address sola scriptura from the stand point of spiritual pathology, or more closely to his words, what does this do to one’s soul and how does one heal that? For decades Orthodox Christians have written about sola scriptura in view of theology and authority, but I am not aware of this having been discussed in terms of spiritual pathology. I am not going to directly address it in terms of theology because I think this is well covered ground and I don’t wish to whip a dead horse. But bad theology always gives birth to bad spirituality, and therefore spiritual pathologies, and this is worth addressing albeit in a brief manner.
As a simple review, sola scriptura is the appeal to only the Bible as being authoritative at least in the Christian religion. It ought not to be confused with a love of the Scriptures, or with a belief that the Scriptures are authoritative. I don’t know any group of Christians who don’t believe the latter in varying ways. What we are looking at is the belief that the Scriptures are the only authority that is true. This is manifested in having to have “proof texts” which supposedly prove a belief or not, or demanding that everything that a church does be explicitly permitted and directed by the Scriptures.
“Proof texts” are always given using a denotative sense; in other words, the text in question must explicitly use the phrase in question. But proof texts are not evenly applied, and in fact tend to only be applied in a polemical sense — to prove one’s own practice is right, or that another’s is wrong. Proof texts are never applied to what one assumes is noncontroversial.
I note that no one has asked for a proof text that shows churches should have treasurers, or start bank accounts, or take a loan for a capital project. And yet this was a very controversial thing in the sixteenth century where there were canon laws in the Catholic Church which forbad the charging of usery (interest) and therefore enormously restricted the church’s use of the banking system. We have the Reformed Church to thank for our use of banking as we have all tend to use it today.
Nevertheless, I have yet to see any one try to justify the internal polity of one’s church community by using proof texts. Nor have I seen any one ask for a biblical justification for long established customs of various Protestant denominations, like: revivals, altar calls, and so on. There is even less biblical justification for the adoption of business marketing tools for church planting.
The point here is not whether these are bad things, but that there is no consistency about requiring biblical evidence and support for these practices. Woe betide the Orthodox (or the Roman Catholic for that matter) when the question of Confession is brought up, or the veneration of the Saints, or the change of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Even though all of these things are fully supported in the Scriptures. But they cannot be seen or understood by most Protestants because they are approaching the Scriptures with a very different lens.
I began by saying that there is a spiritual pathology that is involved with sola scriptura, and so there is. Notice that it’s use is primarily polemical. It becomes a tool used to attempt to silence others. [I must freely admit that I have seen Orthodox do this exact same thing using the writings of the Fathers. This is a sign that the Orthodox has not completely converted to an Orthodox mind (phrenoma), but has merely substituted a new data set in place of his old, and continues to live more or less with the same mind.] This pathology has several faces: fear, developing into anger, retribution, pride, self-justification, and the exaltation of one’s own mind.
We are to fear God, which means to recognize our limitedness in the face of the Infinite God. Holy Fear is not principally cowering, but trembling in awe before him. Fearing others, which causes us to strike out in anger, is gravely dangerous because it can lead to either spiritual or physical murder. Spiritual murder is beginning to live as though the other person does not exist; we have killed them in our own minds. Retribution is related because it is the retaliation for having been shown up, or been made to feel insecure, which is — of course — the handmaid of justifying oneself. All of these things amount to pride and the only antidote is the growth of the virtue of humility. Humility is learnt by fasting, almsgiving, self-denial, and very frequent repentance. If these disciplines are not familiar and in very common usage, then one can be certain that one is not growing in humility. An ecclesial body that does not speak of these things is raising spoilt children rather than Saints.
But the exaltation of one’s own mind is a pathology that is systemic with sola scriptura, because whilst this method seems so objective (basing everything on the Scriptures) it is actually essentially subjective. This is true because everyone reads the Scriptures. All Christians do: Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Orthodox Christians, Catholics, etc.
If simply reading the Scriptures would solve our problems then we would not now have 30-40,000 different denominations. The trouble, as I said earlier, has to do with the lens we use in reading the Scripture. Sola scriptura says that every one can authentically interpret the Scriptures on their own without reference to any one else. And yet those who teach this system are very methodical in teaching a very particular hermeneutical approach to the Scriptures. Hermeneutics is the method of interpretation, and is really and truly little more than “Tradition”.
The pathology of self interpretation and autocracy, is the cause of all of our culture’s and society’s ills. The technical term for this pathology is narcissism. And so we have come to the end describing the pathologies of sola scriptura. I have only suggested a few therapies for the healing of the first order of these pathologies. Healing narcissism is more technical and difficult and I would hold off on describing that therapy to another post. But be well assured that the spiritual pathology of sola scriptura is ultimately narcissism which is destructive not only to the person wounded by it personally, but to everyone with whom he relates.
The Spiritual Pathology of Sola Scriptura