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Within Protestantism there is no universal definition of theology or how to understand the Bible: Anglicans have one definition, Lutherans another, Calvinists another, (insert name here), etc.

So upon what basis can Protestants insist that some teaching contradicts the Bible objectively, and not only according to their own personal understanding of the Bible (which most would admit could be wrong)?

And if all you have is your personal interpretation, upon what basis does anyone call anything a heresy, and those who hold it "heretics"? One has to be surer than 'I interpret it this way' in order to start condemning contrary interpretations with any note of seriousness.


I've heard a lot responses things like 'His sheep hear His voice,' which in the first place is able to be claimed by two contradictory sides of a matter and not be falsifiable (it essentially is saying 'well, God knows who's right, and I think it's me!'), and secondly, circularly assumes that 'His sheep hear His voice' is to be interpreted specifically in a way which means that it pertains to the interpretation of the Bible.

Similar are claims of having the 'personal guidance of the Holy Spirit,' which is similar or identical to the argument above. But again, this, while helpful to someone personally, doesn't provide a basis for say, calling others heretics based on that interpretation. Something that the New Testament says is possible.

Worst of all, I've even heard things like 'I don't even interpret the Bible,' ('I skip the stage where I have to account for my interpretation objectively altogether') which is impressive ... in a bad way.

None of these are impressive to me, and they do not withstand the most basic scrutiny.

Can any Protestant provide a sola scriptura epistemology which doesn't rely on such dubious, unfalsifiable arguments?

  • Are Jehovah's Witnesses included in the scope of Protestants here? They are also sola scriptura, and they have a sola scriptura answer to this. – 4castle Jan 28 at 1:09
  • @4castle I wouldn't expect so. They are not Protestant in any real sense IMO. – curiousdannii Jan 28 at 1:19
6

Speaking as a lifelong Protestant, I would say that in genuine Protestantism, the Head of every man is Christ. There is no hierarchy. None is above another. The greatest is as the least. But it is true that a man's gift will make room for him and spiritual men will appreciate and be voluntarily subject to others more spiritual than themselves.

I have added this edit in answer to the comment made below. It is fundamental to what Protestantism is. Otherwise the question itself becomes invalid as it is not a question that can be asked of Protestantism. (Though it could be asked of other, hierarchical bodies or of hierarchical and individualistic particles of Protestantism).

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The short answer is that if one is utterly meticulous in one's study of the scriptures - in their original language - then there will be no ambiguity, no latitude for personal interpretation, no question of opposing arguments and there will be one, single expression of truth.

It can be seen - and it can be proved by many examples - that the reason for conflicting movements in Protestantism is the untutored, undisciplined, inexact and ignorant expressing of what is advertised as 'biblical' but is in fact not meticulous enough in its expression of the word of God.

These holy scriptures leave me stunned at their accuracy, their careful wording, their staggering revelation and their consistency throughout many volumes by multiple authors over a period of, I would say, just over two thousand years.

It is staggering.

My own, personal, Protestant studies, after twenty five years of tutorage and twenty five more of personal searching, leave me in no doubt that :

Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. [II Peter 1:21 KJV]

The problem is that unholy men, who are not filled with the Holy Spirit (or even holy men who are, temporarily, swayed by nature and not spirit) speak forth things that they should not.

However even then, their peers ought to be able to correct them, as Paul corrected even the Principal Apostle Peter, to his very face, when he was to be blamed, Galatians 2:11, in a matter of Christian doctrine and resultant Christian practice, and this at a time of crisis when even Barnabas was almost carried away as well, in the dissimulation.

Had this been a Catholic situation Pope Peter would have prevailed and we would all have to be circumcised.

But Paul Protested - and quite rightly so.

For the Lord himself is above all and he says :

I will build my church [Matthew 16:18 KJV]

and he does . . . in every generation.

  • 1
    Thanks for your response. However, it doesn't say anything I actually disagree with, and so does not constitute an answer to the question I asked (please don't take that as ungrateful, but a statement of fact.) You have said proper study of Scripture always leads to the correct interpretation, which no one disputes. My question is about who judges which interpretation is that proper interpretation (essentially)—the epistemological question. Your answer seems to be essentially equivalent to, or at least close to, the 'His sheep will hear His voice' criterion above. – Sola Gratia Jan 27 at 19:50
  • 2
    I think this us entirely theoretical argument. While a perfectly holy man studying the scriptures with perfect meticulousless and with perfect linguistic knowledge might be guaranteed to always reach the correct conclusion, in real life there is no person like that. Thus there is no way to determine which of many interpretations is correct. – DJClayworth Jan 27 at 21:42
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How can Protestants authoritatively declare something as wrong or heretical under Sola Scriptura?

Actually, we have a perfect example in Jesus. Jesus, when he lived on earth as a man, constantly quoted the scriptures of the Old Testament as a way to rebuke the errors of His days. Even as a child, who "grew, and waxed strong in spirit" Luke 2:40, the rabbis and priests at the Jewish temple were astonished at His understanding and answers. And as He "increased in wisdom and stature" Luke 2:52, the people "marvelled, saying 'how knoweth this man letters having never learned?'" John 7:15.

With "it is written", Jesus rebuked with authority the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, and the traditions established by the rabbis and priests as heretical (even though the Jewish priesthood was actually a system established by God at the time!). The fact that He defeated Satan with "it is written" at the temptation, sheds light on the plain authority of the scriptures.

"To the law and the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them (Isaiah 8:20).

The situation is still the same today. The same Spirit that gave inspiration to erring men to write scripture that is inerrant, give also the wisdom to other erring man to interpret scripture with authority. I would wager that it was the Spirit of God that led the reformation and us out of scriptural darkness, and if we had met Luther, or Wycliffe, or Huss, or Zwingli or even Calvin, today we would be able to discern the Spirit of God in them and the authority with which they spoke. They cared not for their own lives for the sake of truth, and many were persecuted by the established authorities and laid their lives down at the stake. Of course, light is progressive, after centuries of spiritual darkness (where the Bible was essentially closed to the laity), it is not possible for one person to have rediscovered all the light in one lifetime. This is why we have progressive truths presented by holy men like Wesley and many more, all of which present the Bible as the basis of their faith. The reformation had presented to the world an open Bible, unsealing the precepts of the law, and reigniting Isiah 8:20.

The fact that we have differing denominations today who all claim sola scriptura is simply the result of freedom of conscience. And just because we differ now, does not mean the Spirit of God will not call together all who truly seek the truth in the future. "Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins" Rev 18:4. It also does not mean that, we can't have the proper authority to rebuke error through the scripture. We look to Jesus as the example, "he that is is spiritual judgeth all things" (1 Cor 2:13). Nor do we need to lay out pages of procedure on how to judge something is against scripture, it did not exist in Jesus' time either.

Finally, the Bible is clear in Revelation that, despite the differences, God will always have a remnant on earth who live according to the truth revealed. These people keep keep the commandments of God (which is found in scripture) and have the testimony of Jesus.

"the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus" (Revelation 12:17).

  • I recommend reading the book "The Great Controversy", the first half details very touchingly the journeys of the Reformators, and quotes "The History of the Reformation" by D'Aubigne extensively. – Beestocks Jan 28 at 15:41
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Disclaimer

I’m trying to grasp your question and for fear of being told off in the comment section I’ll turn my comments for clarification into an answer. If I misunderstood your question in light of my answer I apologize in advance.

Analyzing Calvinism

Firstly I found it peculiar that you included Calvinism alongside denominations.

I’ll try to illustrate my response with Calvinism why I would call Calvinism heretical and not merely a matter of conflicting opinions among Christians.

[I’m no Calvinist, certainly not an Arminian (a sub-branch of Calvinism, Arminius was a devout Calvinist as he wrote so much himself and thus a false dichotomy), nor a Traditionalist. I hold a view that currently doesn’t actually have a title but is common. Maybe you could call me a non Calvinist with respect to this subject.]

The measure I would use for Calvinism is, does it align with Scripture or not. And it doesn’t, in fact it contradicts Scripture.

Regeneration precedes Faith

For instance Calvinism’s “regeneration proceeding faith”. It is unScriptural and illogical. It places the emphasis on being The elect as a qualifier and not one’s faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ. It claims that first a person is regenerated/born again and then they can believe. This is necessary because of other doctrines Calvinism holds to be true and they build on each other, Scriptural intergrity is sacrificed in favor of the presupposition.

But Scripture says in many verses that faith proceeds regeneration while there are no verses, none, that support Calvinistic doctrine which demands regeneration to precede faith.

“yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” ‭‭John‬ ‭5:40‬ ‭

Notice first you come to Jesus (an act of faith or through faith) then you have life (regeneration/born again). There are many many verses.

Method

So essentially the method would be start with passages of Scripture that have clear simple understanding or classic passages of Scripture. Then approach and interpret passages in the Bible that are more obscure (difficult to understand) in the light of the clear passages. And afterwards any presuppositional understandings that originate outside of Scripture like Calvinism, which is philosophical and draws it’s roots from Augustinian Manichaean Gnosticism will be exposed as heretical and non Scriptural.

One should never approach Scripture attempting to validate their presuppositions.

But if you start with a presupposition, you allow a philosophical presupposition to color the obscure interpretations of a text, those passages that are not understood very easily and this in turn reinterprets the clear and classic passages of Scripture in light of the presupposition.

The context is not the clear passages of Scripture but the philosophical construct. Without realizing it, you have redefined words/Scripture to fit a doctrine rather than developed a doctrine to fit Scripture.

“and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” ‭‭2 Corinthians‬ ‭5:15‬ ‭ESV‬‬

The word all no longer means all but is changed to mean the elect. Likewise John 3:16, Jesus didn’t die for the world (all) but for the elect and thus simple understanding of clear passages are reinterpreted through the new definition of obscure passages facilitated by the presupposition coloring of the obscure passages. Presupposition therefore trumps clear Classic Scriptures. Or extraBiblical philosophy trumps Sola Scriptura and that is heresy making for bad hermeneutics and exegesis.

So that’s how I would critique is a doctrine, philosophy and/or presupposition is heretical or Biblical. Start with clear Scripture -> interpret obscure Scripture -> clarify or eliminate presuppositions

Heresy occurs when this approach is reversed.

(I don’t want to turn this answer into a refutation of Calvinism so I’ve limited my answer to one/two examples.)

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OP: How can Protestants authoritatively declare something wrong or heretical under Sola Scriptura?

First of all, one must be very clear about the definition of Sola Scripture (SS). It is the belief that scripture is the sole rule of faith and practice. One must understand that. If one doesn't, then answers (or downvotes about this answer) will reflect that short coming.

To apply this belief, let's take something easy. Let's say you go to church and the priest says "to be saved, you must eat fish on Fridays and if you don't, you'll go to hell forever". This, the priest intones, is de fide (of the faith, without which you go to hell).

Now, how do people know if this belief is true or not? Under SS, it is easy to determine. Where in scripture is this teaching? Ahh, it can't be found. Therefore, I declare it is wrong and heretical under SS.

If this example sounds a bit trite, then one may review history and find plenty of egregious doctrinal errors that those of scripture PLUS XYZ follow that one may also compare against the belief of sola scriptura as the rule of faith and practice.

Apparently more examples are warranted.

SS is the sole rule of faith and practice.

Shall we play guitar or not? Shall we have a pope or not? Shall we have 7 spouses or not? None of those examples on the surface has anything to do with your salvation. But, if someone says, you have to play electric guitar or an organ in your church to be saved, what does SS say? If someone says you have to submit to the Pope of Rome to be saved, what does SS answer? If someone says you have to have a tri-fold hiercharcy in your leadership to be saved, what does SS say? If someone says you can't work on the Sabbath, what does SS say? If someone says you have to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, what does SS say?

If someone says your baby must be water baptized to be saved, what does SS say? If someone says you must believe that Mary was born immaculate to be saved, what does SS say? If someone says, you must believe Jesus Christ was born of a virgin to be saved, what does SS say?

So again, how can a Protestant authoritatively declare some presumed salvific issue wrong or heretical under SS? It is because a Protestant would say SS is the sole rule of faith and practice.

  • @SLM Please clarify your post then. You make it sounds like if someone asks "can we play electric guitars in church?" because you can't find an affirmative in the Bible, then Sola Scriptura says the answer is no. Which is not true Sola Scriptura, but is much more like the Regulative Principle of Worship. – curiousdannii Jan 28 at 6:23
  • I've expanded my answer to provide real-life examples of what some may say are salvific issues, as compared to what SS might say. – SLM Jan 28 at 18:00
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So upon what basis can Protestants insist that some teaching contradicts the Bible objectively, and not only according to their own personal understanding of the Bible (which most would admit could be wrong)?

I cannot speak for other Protestants, but when I claim that a teaching contradicts the Bible objectively, I do so on the basis that the falsehood of the teaching is a necessary inference from what is written in the Bible.

To answer this by claiming that my inference is really only my personal understanding of the Bible, and that I could be wrong, is not an argument, but is instead a refusal to even offer an argument. It's the same error that the sluggard makes in Proverbs 26:13, in that it treats the possibility of something as an actuality.

If you want me to believe that my claim about what the Bible teaches is only my own personal understanding, and is objectively wrong, you need to offer more than assertions.

  • "a necessary inference from what is written in the Bible" is just another way of saying "the correct interpretation." "If you want me to believe that my claim about what the Bible teaches is only my own personal understanding, and is objectively wrong, you need to offer more than assertions" That's not how the burden of proof works. – Sola Gratia Jan 28 at 13:27
  • Except that I will have already met the burden of proof by explaining why the position I set forth is a necessary inference from Scripture. At that point you are no longer entitled to dismiss that effort by asserting that it is only my interpretation; you bear the burden of proving that my inference is wrong. – EvilSnack Jan 29 at 2:03
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This is one of the best question to appear on this site. In my observation, the biggest problem in any Biblical theological discussion, between any debaters, is the unstated assumptions. That is, modern people are saturated in Greek (specifically, Platonic) thought and its series of "ideals" via which everything on earth is interpreted. When this is applied to the Bible we get some "interesting" results.

  • Calvinists view everything through their TULIP lens which colours their reading. Phrases like "God wants all people to be saved" are then interpreted in a special sense to mean something other than it plainly says.
  • Dispensationalists have a series of epochs through everything is interpreted and results in special pleadings for most verses to make them appear in a different light.
  • Arians (in their various shades) do something similar and make "worship" mean one thing in one place and quite another in other places.
  • Some materialistic liberals dismiss the records of miracles as pious myths of well-meaning but poorly informed (unlike us moderns) men of old. This effectively demeans the sacred record rather than letting it say what it says.
  • Higher critics go even further than the liberals.
  • Some charismatics (not all) appear to place personal revelation above the Bible just as much as other place their peculiar pre-suppositions above the Bible as more important.
  • Almost every group suffers from this disease because it is very human. So we should be rather patient with each other. Most of us do not even know we are doing it!

And so we could go on. The fact remains that Hebrew though knows nothing of platonic philosophy and so the Bible must be read as Semitic literature written at the time it claims to have been written, in the culture it was written. The phrase I hear in some of these inane discussions that betrays the biases is, "What Paul actually meant when he write that is … " !! (How would he know and have such special revelation?)

The result of all this means that some discussions do not use the same meanings of words and create new (unbiblical) word meanings that were clearly never intended. Hence people often "talk past each other" and the discussion is fruitless.

The golden rule in any discussion is FIRST - to understand the other person's point of view well enough to be able to defend it, and THEN the two sides can be more productive.

My rules for understanding the message of the Bible include:

  • Remember that God is love and is also just
  • Let the text say what it is saying
  • Use a good lexicon or two as a basis
  • use more than one translation - NEVER get stuck on one version
  • Let the writers of the Bible be both human and products of their age and customs

We are all human and so will always disagree, but let us make a better attempt to understand each other and the timeless message of the Bible.

  • Thanks for this, but it doesn't answer my question (it simply asserts 'my recommended method for interpreting the Bible'). – Sola Gratia Jan 27 at 22:53
  • Then, I am not sure how to answer your question, nor what you are asking. – Mac's Musings Jan 27 at 22:58

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