I Love Gellies

Mormonism, Evangelicism and Chaos Theory

Sola Scriptura?

Gerald McDermott wrote the following in a chapter on scriptural authority.   My comments are in red. 

Sola Scriptura?
We evangelicals typically say we use only the Bible (sola scriptura) to compose our portrait of Jesus. We have criticized Mormons for going beyond the Bible to extra-biblical traditions, such as when they make assertions about Jesus based on the Book of Mormon. We pride ourselves on following Luther and called in their rejection of church traditions (such as late-medieval views of purgatory and indulgences) that were not clearly rooted in scripture. When evangelicals have debated Latter-day Saints and their doctrinal differences, we have often accused Saints of following the later medieval Catholic pattern of favoring tradition over scripture. Recently evangelical theologians have seen the importance of tradition in interpreting scripture, but generally the evangelical approach to Jesus has been, ”We teach only what the Bible teaches and refuse to accept anything outside the Bible for authority.” Since evangelicals discount the authenticity of the Book of Mormon and other Mormon scriptures, they regard Mormon use of these sources as clear violations of the sola scriptura principle. Their conclusion is that evangelicals teach only the Word of God, while Mormons mix the words of a man (Joseph Smith) with the Word of God.
But evangelicals should reconsider this presumption. It is not at all clear that we have operated exclusively by the sole scripture principle. We accept the results of the early church’s Trinitarian debates
Claiming Christ Page 17
(which took place after the closure of the canon), using, for example, the word “Trinity,” which is not found in the Bible. We tacitly accept the authority of the early creeds, such as the Council of Chalcedon’s model of the relationship between Jesus’s human and divine natures, which we believe is based on biblical testimony but which also contain words that cannot be found in the (Greek) Bible, such as homoousion. Most evangelicals in the twentieth century favored a model of justification that stressed the primacy of the forensic or legal dimension of the atonement, a model that some scholars are now claiming to be based more on sixteenth-century debates than the Bible itself. And many of us hold differing views about eschatology (life after death, the millennium, and the fulfillment of God’s final purposes for the world), none of which has persuaded a majority that it is clearly taught by the Bible-not to mention our own differences over the proper mode of baptism, what happens in the Lord’s Supper, how the local church should be governed, women’s roles in ministry, and the gifts of the Spirit. Our differences on these issues owe more to interpretive traditions than to disagreement over the actual wording of the biblical text.
Even Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), often said to be evangelicalism’s premier theologian, departed from strict adherence to the sola scriptura principle. Edwards professed repeatedly that our only authority in religion is the written text of the scriptures. But in practice he seemed to operate with the assumption that the Bible can be read only through and with tradition. For example, scholars have recently described the way, for Edwards after 1739, the real authority for theological work became, not the biblical text per se, but his imaginative construal of the story inscribed there, which he called the ”work of redemption.” This was a master narrative beginning in eternity with the Trinity’s plan, proceeding through the ”fall of man,” the history of Israel, the incarnation, and the history of the church and world, all the way until the end of the world. It was centered in the work of Christ but orchestrated by all the members of the Trinity.
This plan for redemption could not be read off the face of the biblical text, for central to the plot was the assertion that Christ was the
Claiming Christ Page 18
real actor in all of Israel’s communication with God-speaking at the burning bush, for example, and camouflaged by every appearance of “the angel of the Lord” in the Old Testament. Only through this story, as told by Edwards, could the true meaning of the biblical text be seen. Hence the watery of the flood were types of the blood of Christ,

I agree

and the cultus of the law that included “all the precepts that relate to building the tabernacle that was set up in the wilderness and all the forms, and circumstances, and utensils of it” were directed by God “to show forth something of Christ,”

I agree

These interpretations were just that–interpretations of the biblical story, by no means explicitly stated by the biblical text itself.
Edwards was following and developing a long tradition of reading the Bible typologically. Some denial and scholarly readers of the Bible agreed with this kind of reading, but not all did, because many said they could not find this taught explicitly or clearly by the Bible.
My point is that the theologian who is routinely regarded as evangelicalism’s greatest showed that he used tradition in his reading and teaching of the Bible. The text’s meaning was not always obvious but often needed help from theological tradition in order to be understood better. This was also true of the early church. The great historian Jaroslav Pelikan has observed that supporters of sola scriptura overlooking “function of tradition in securing what they regarded as the correct exegesis of scripture against heretical alternatives.” Another historian has written that ”in the ante-Nicene Church . . . there was no notion of sola scriptura, but neither was there a doctrine of traditio sola.”

Interestingly enough, this is exactly where the LDS church was restored to, both scripture and priesthood authority.

Exegesis, doctrine, and liturgy were all lumped together under “tradition” Early church leaders operated without a clear demarcation between scripture and tradition: scripture was interpreted with the help of oral and written tradition (such as the Regula Fidei or Rule of Faith, outline statements of Christian belief that were circulated in the second century to guide biblical exegesis ), and the tradition of use in the churches is what determined which books were included in the biblical canon. Heiko Oberman calls
Claiming Christ Page 19
this “Tradition I,” the view that tradition is simply scripture properly interpreted. Oberman argues that this was the unanimous position of the church in the first few centuries.

This may end up being a truly Evangelical assumption; the exegesis of “traditional Christianity” is the right interpretation. That’s why some Evangelicals get so upset when Mormons suggest a different interpretation may be (is) more correct.

A similar notion has become a truism today in such diverse fields as philosophy theology, and literature–that it is impossible to read any text, much less the Bible, without tradition. To put it another way all of our reading is done through a filter of our own cultural traditions. There is no naked text that we can access without seeing it through the screen of traditions that we have absorbed.

And ironically enough, this alone gives Mormons ammo, because our position is that the worldview that was adopted into “traditional Christianity” is all wrong. Jesus was a Hebrew, his teachings were Hebrew. While I don’t doubt that Paul correctly brought Christianity to Greek culture, after Paul some actors changed the worldview of Hebrew Christianity to something more acceptable to Greek Philosphers, and in the act, lost the fullness of the truth along the way. The Mormon viewpoint is that the post 200 AD worldview has been the wrong one, and that it had to be restored via revelation, and that it has been.

Stones and Creeds
We often hear it said that people who live in glass houses should not throw stones, and this applies here. If evangelical use their own traditions to interpret the Bible, they should not criticize Mormons for reading the Bible and interpreting it according to Mormon tradition. Whether Mormon traditions and scriptures are authentic is another question. But the principle of reading the Bible with the help of a religious tradition-Latter-day Saint tradition or any other-is valid and unavoidable.

I am grateful for McDermott pointing this out.


June 7, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. Hi Psychochemiker,

    Thank you for inviting me to your blog! I hope we can have some good conversations. 
    This is an interesting section to quote. While I do believe in using the Bible alone for doctrine I have to admit that I am not perfect in the attempt. I come to the text with pre-conceived ideas and notions that have been influenced by my society, church background, experiences, gender, feelings, etc. It is not possible to read the Scripture in a vacuum. Church history shows that there have been patterns of interpretation that have been popular. For example, Covenant Theology which was popular (and actually continues to remain popular) has an interpretation pattern for the entire Scripture that really influences how passages are interpreted. There is an assumption from the get-go of a “covenant of redemption” made between God and Jesus that Jesus would come to the earth and be the redeemer. Two other covenants (the covenant of works and covenant of grace) are also “forced” into Scripture. All of Scripture is then interpreted from that context—leaving out the clear distinctions in time periods. Further confusing Scripture, they “read back” the church into the Old Testament passages referring to Israel. Obviously this results in a lot of confusion because many of the promises that God made to Israel were specific land covenants that would be impossible to be fulfilled in the church. The church isn’t mentioned in the OT. On the opposite spectrum is dispensationalism. I’ll give a glowing view of that since I am dispensationalist. . Basically, dispensationalism sees that God works with people through different administrations or dispensations throughout history. For example, the dispensation of innocence was Adam and Eve’s state prior to the fall. The dispensation of the law existed from Moses to Christ. I feel that this view allows the Bible to be read more clearly and understood in its context.
    I guess that was just one big, long paragraph explaining that I understand that historically Christianity has not always done the greatest job at interpreting Scripture through the lens of Scripture alone. However, I don’t want to be too hard on these people for there were great theologians and Christians among them. I guess I see a distinction between a Christian who is earnestly trying to follow the Bible alone for doctrine (I am!) and an LDS person who is interpreting the Bible through LDS Scriptures. I can’t see that you can deny that this is the case. Romans 5:12-20 seems to clearly conflict with the LDS doctrine of the fall, but instead of allowing the text to interpret itself Mormons have to look to LDS Scriptures for interpretation. To me there is a great difference between people who probably have messed up minds (I’ll admit that I’m not perfect). Yet, I don’t have other TEXTS that I am using in addition to the Bible. Mormons have additional texts and that is going to cause conflict.


    Comment by Stephanie | June 10, 2009 | Reply

  2. Bummer, my smiley faces didn’t show up. Its not that I didn’t try…..:)

    Comment by Stephanie | June 10, 2009 | Reply

  3. Thanks for coming to comment.
    I’m going to try a smiley. 🙂

    Comment by psychochemiker | June 11, 2009 | Reply

  4. LOL. I guess it works for just a chosen few. 🙂

    Comment by Stephanie | June 11, 2009 | Reply

  5. Stephanie,

    I find Romans 5:12-20 to be an interesting choice on your part. I don’t really see how this conflicts with LDS view of the fall. As a result of one man’s actions, sin entered the world. As a result of Christ’s actions, the possibility for eternal life entered the world. We believe it, same as you. Now there are details about the fall (not stated in Romans 5) about which we disagree, but I don’t see Romans 5 contradicting what I believe about the fall.

    (That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of verses that we interpret through the lens of the DC or Book of Mormon)

    On another note – even though you personally may not be reading texts other than the Bible to get your worldview, there are many texts that have shaped the existence of the worldview you picked up from Evangelical Christianity (some of these texts are mentioned by McDermott).

    Comment by tomchik | June 13, 2009 | Reply

  6. I would be more than willing to examine areas of my life that don’t line up with the Bible. In fact, if you know of specific beliefs of mine that are unscriptural, please point them out to me. More than anything else I don’t want to arrive at heaven and find that I have been in error in my application of Scripture. I think the thing that I am having a hard time understanding is the nebulous accusations of clinging to creeds or extra-Biblical texts. Are there specific texts to which you are referring? Or to which McDermott is referring? I will grant you that I do have commentaries that I use. Some of my favorites are Matthew Henry, Adam Clarke, Darby, and Albert Barnes. However, these commentators are kind of across the board and don’t interpret Scripture the exact same way. Furthermore, I rarely use them when studying the Bible unless I am really confused about a passage. In the end it is left to the student of the Bible to pray and try to discern exactly what the text is saying. As far as creeds go, you had mentioned that you heard a lot of “creedal language” or something like that in the Evangelical churches you had attended. If it is so I would be interested to hear the exact wording of those phrases that you heard. Like I mentioned before, I don’t think mainline Evangelicals are familiar with the creeds.

    I think what I meant in referring to Romans 5:12-20 was that the LDS interpret this passage in light of the other LDS Scriptures. For example, in my copy of “Preach My Gospel” the section entitled “Agency and the Fall of Adam and Eve” (p. 49-50) has a Scripture Study box with a number of key passages. They include Genesis 1-3; 2 Nephi 2; Moses 2-5; Alma 12:22-34. No mention is made of Romans 5:12-20. To me this says that the missionary is instructed to interpret the fall through the lens of the BOM and Pearl of Great Price instead of through the New Testament.

    Comment by Stephanie | June 14, 2009 | Reply

  7. Oops. Sorry Tom, I thought it was PC that had posted. Please disregard the comments that don’t make sense. 🙂

    Comment by Stephanie | June 14, 2009 | Reply

  8. Stefanie:
    While “you” personally may not live by creeds, most Mormons, (including myself), have the most interreligious interaction with people who claim we aren’t Christians because we don’t interpret the Bible through the creeds. As an example, use the “list of facts Mormons won’t tell you” that BJM refuted.

    1. MORMONS WON’T TELL YOU that they believe ,,, your Christian creeds are abomination to God.

    Comment by psychochemiker | June 14, 2009 | Reply

  9. Well those people are just dumb then, plain and simple. 🙂 I would like to apologize on behalf of them. While I haven’t encountered any myself I do believe you that there probably are folks out there that cling to the creeds. I know that some protestant churches use a very liturgical and traditional style of worship and it may that some individuals from those types of churches that are espousing this view. I can’t really say I know though because I haven’t met any myself.

    As a believer, the Bible is so important to me. I do believe that it is “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16), that it endures forever (1 Pet. 1:25, Matt. 5:18, Isa. 40:8), that it is a weapon against the enemy (Eph. 6:17), that it searches out the heart (Heb 4:12), that it purifies (Eph 5:26), and that it gives hope (Rom 15:4). I suppose it could seem to some looking on that Evangelicals hold too high a view of the Scripture, but the Bible itself speaks of “loving the law” multiple times in Psalm 119. At least two times Scripture it is described as a type of food, “Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart: for I am called by thy name, O LORD God of hosts” (Jer. 15:16), “I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food” (Job 23:12). Jesus chastised those who used tradition (I think that creeds would apply here) in place of the law, “For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men” (Mk 7:8) and “Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition” (Mk 7:13). Most importantly however, the Scripture was given so that we might believe! The apostle John writes, “And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name” (John 20:30-31).

    Anyway, thats this Evangelical’s take it. 🙂

    Comment by Stephanie | June 14, 2009 | Reply

  10. I meant take on it. I really should re-read before posting.

    Comment by Stephanie | June 14, 2009 | Reply

  11. Stephanie,
    I understand that they’re dumb. What I’m learning (slowly), is that they all don’t define the Evangelical movement. They’ve just been so loud, it’s been hard to hear you all over it. That’s why we Mormons have been confused about this issue.

    Comment by psychochemiker | June 15, 2009 | Reply

  12. PC and Tom,

    I actually had to go look up the Nicene Creed when I first started having conversations with LDS because they were constantly bringing up the point that we relied on the creeds and I couldn’t understand what they were talking about. I’ve always attended Bible-believing churches and I even went to Bible college so you would think I would be highly indoctrinated with the creeds. Now, I’ll admit that after I looked it up it did contain some familiar phrases and I didn’t really have any major disagreements (except for the point that seems to imply that water baptism remits sins).

    I was concerned, though, after I did that post “Are Creedalists Christians?” that I somehow gave the impression that I relied on the creeds. I hope it didn’t come across that way. If so, I wanted to clear that up. I’m just as clueless about the creeds as the next average Joe Christian out there and I am happy to renounce any part of any creed that can be demonstrated to be unbiblical.

    If LDS started viewing their traditions the same way I think we would suddenly find a TON of common ground. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? 🙂

    Comment by Jessica | June 15, 2009 | Reply

  13. Jessica and Stephanie,
    There’s something more I’m trying to get at. I’ll do another post on interpretations. I’m obviously not doing a very good job of getting the idea in my head out in a logical manner.

    FWIW Jessica, It’s probably much more of the colorful persons I linked to, Jack countering, that teach Mormons that Creeds are so important. One of my friends, who started investigating about a year ago, knew nothing of the creedal definition of God until she started taking the discussions explaining the Mormon belief, and then she nwent to ask her pastor “what she should believe. Creedalism” Naturally, the pastor told her she should believe the creeds, and not her “own interpretation of the Bible” nor the “Mormon teachings.” Before she had the discussions, her understanding of God was naturally closer to the LDS understanding. Then it became more protestant. Since then she’s become converted and was baptized last November. That’s completely anecdotal.

    I don’t think I want Evangelicals to have to “give up” their traditional understandings, just a little more tolerant of other people’s traditional that contrast one’s own acanonical traditions.

    Comment by psychochemiker | June 16, 2009 | Reply

  14. As a writer and a social scientist (who is also a Latter-day Saint), I am concerned about a trend that I have observed in this comment thread and also in the assertions of Bible-based faith made by people I’ve met and become friends with as I visited various Protestant churches with my husband, who is not LDS.

    People keep saying they only interpret the Bible according to their own experience with that text, and are not influenced or molded in their interpretations by any external traditions.

    It can be very difficult to even recognize for oneself when one is being moved to interpretation by any particular tradition or combination of traditions.

    We learn traditional interpretations as we learn language — I mean, we learn them together. We learn to interpret language and text based on the meanings that are used by the other people we come in contact with. There is no textual meaning outside of the social network. There is no language without someone else to communicate with.

    All language is a series of symbols that refer to aspects of reality. However, since we cannot get inside one another’s brains or even totally access the reality we seek to describe, all language is only an approximation of reality. We agree together what texts mean. If there were only two people writing or reading a text and they could not agree on its meaning, that text could not carry meaning between those individuals.

    Which is, of course, why we all value the Holy Spirit, since we depend on Him to teach us pure truth and interpret scripture for us. I rely on the Spirit every day for this, and the comments in this thread appear to indicate that the other commenters do as well.

    However, I respectfully suggest that there must be some limitation to what the Holy Spirit can teach us at any one point. There must be some point across which the Spirit cannot go to teach us; otherwise, all of us who are sincerely seeking Jesus would agree on what the truth about God and reality actually is.

    We don’t yet agree. Even within traditions such as Protestantism or Mormonism, there is constant negotiation of the meaning of our sacred texts as they relate to our everyday life.

    The Prophet Joseph Smith said that “When you climb up a ladder, you must begin at the bottom, and ascend step by step, until you arrive at the top; and so it is with the principles of the gospel — you must begin with the first, and go on until you learn all the principles of exaltation. But it will be a great while after you have passed through the veil before you will have learned them” (The Teachings of Joseph Smith, ed. Larry E. Dahl and Donald Q. Cannon 1997, p. 519).

    I include this quote, not to assert the Prophet’s authority, but to introduce an idea. Whether we all agree with the authority of the quote or not, Joseph Smith is describing a basic human process that is also described by social and zoological scientists: the learning process. What we know about that process so far is that human beings and animals can only understand what we and they have been prepared by prior experience to understand. This principle appears to be fundamental to all thinking beings in God’s creation.

    This principle is also at the foundation of the LDS focus on faithful works as a necessary foundation to spiritual growth. How can we come to know Jesus (learn His way) if we do not keep His commandments (walk His way)?

    We accept and are deeply grateful for the reality of the grace of Christ. But we as mortal human beings cannot fully comprehend the truth of Christ as we are. We must learn of Him a little at a time, as we choose to take those steps that allow the Holy Ghost to teach us.

    I have said that there must be some point across which the Holy Ghost cannot go to teach us. I don’t mean to say that that is a fixed point, universal in its position within the human mind; rather, I suggest (again, respectfully) that God will not force the human mind, as it says in the old hymn.

    Even in our deepest, most sincere searchings of scripture, we can only understand what we are prepared to understand.

    As we keep reading, praying, listening to the Spirit, and trying to make our walk before Christ more and more acceptable to Him, we make ourselves able to learn more of truth. That happens as we live His truth as far as we know it — suddenly, we are able to interpret our experience with new eyes, as the Holy Ghost guides and teaches us.

    But, apparently, that learning still happens little by little, and within the context of our own ability to comprehend.

    Any sacred text is not more nor less than a sacred series of symbols, which, nevertheless, can only refer in our understanding to that which we can agree on. The text is what we who read it make of it, as we associate with other human beings and with the Holy Spirit. That is why we who are faithful can interpret the same text so differently.

    We are always, always, always being influenced by what we have learned in the past.

    There is no pure reading of text, even with the help of the Holy Spirit.

    There are only progressively more pure readings of the text, as we make ourselves ready to receive them.

    Anyway, that’s my experience.

    (PC, I am concerned about your use of the word “ammo.” How can we possibly be on the same side — that of Christ — if we are stockpiling ammo against one another? How is that dialogue? I know you probably didn’t mean it to sound aggressive, but I think it is better to choose words that do not carry a warlike connotation.)

    Comment by timnah | June 26, 2009 | Reply

  15. Hi Timnah, and thank you for your very insightful comment. I need some more time to digest it a bit. 🙂

    Maybe you’ve forgotten just how sharp my edges are. “Ammo” is hyperbole. If Evangelicals continue to assert that they don’t interpret, then this statement is ammo. My ammo isn’t against Evangelical Christianity, my ammo is against Evangelical Christians who INSIST that they do not interpret, and INSIST that only they can get it “right.” I never quite learned to be as charitable as you were to others who attacked your beliefs. 🙂

    Comment by psychochemiker | June 26, 2009 | Reply

  16. I’ve found a charitable approach is significantly more persuasive. I find the potential for me to be successful at persuasion to be a powerful motivator to my personal diplomacy.

    So I’m not so naturally charitable after all, really. I just really want people (including me) to step back from the self-deluding behaviors we all grew up with or learned as we entered a religious life. There is honest seeking, and there is seeking to crush others’ views. My charitable persuasion is an attempt to avoid crushing and being crushed.

    Comment by timnah | July 10, 2009 | Reply

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