Soli Scriptura…sorta kinda

How often “Biblical” concepts, ideas and practices don’t require the Bible never ceases to amuse me.

The crème de le crème being that soli scriptura (scripture alone) is, itself, a traditional inheritance (sort of like the fact that “by faith alone” is only found once in the Bible and it’s in a passage teaching that salvation isn’t by faith alone).

But while I may smirk at the irony, it doesn’t bother me because I know why I hold to Scripture alone being the authoritative teacher for life and the church and why salvation comes through faith alone.

So my mind wanders to not what we teach, but how we teach.

What I encounter most often is students whose topical understanding far and away exceeds their scriptural understanding. Practically, this makes sense. We all think topically so it’s just easier to teach topically than exegetically –especially to highschoolers.

But this begs the question, how do we transition from systematic to Biblical theology when the base-level assumptions (that is, the subconscious expectation of how the study is suppose to be conducted) is entirely topical?

There are two, long standing adages driving this dilemma: (1) first impressions are lasting impression and (2) the medium is a message.

If we begin teaching a student with “Here are 3 verse that teach about this subject”, there is no getting that first impression back. From that point on, the student sees verses and subjects rather than units of thoughts in coherent bodies of work.

Then that first impression becomes the Bible study method. Granted it’s caught, not taught, but it’s still caught.

For instance, what is caught by a student when, in an effort to teach about the inspiration and infallibility of scripture, we hand them a systematic, rather than a Bible?

Doesn’t 2 Tim. 3:16 make a lot more sense in a chapter written by Paul rather than a chapter written by Grudem, Erickson, Ryrie, Boice, or Geisler?

If we begin teaching students to think Biblically by studying topically, I wonder if we’re doing a major disservice to them and the church of 10 years from now.

I should mention that I don’t object to topical study. I do quite a lot of it. But it seems to me that the quality of your topical study depends on the bed of (con)textual understanding that it rests in. In other words, if you don’t know what the Bible says by itself, you won’t be able to find the topical content you’re looking for.

And this is not at all a question of whether or not we should do Biblical theology instead of systematic theology. It’s a question of where we begin.

So I’m left thinking about my students: isn’t starting students on systematics condemning them to a life of battling topical assumptions every time they try to study a passage? Or is it simply a recognition that we all think topically to begin with, so we might as well get our questions answered and use that as the catalyst for deeper Bible studies.

2 thoughts on “Soli Scriptura…sorta kinda

  • May 16, 2011 at 11:05 pm
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    I think we should begin with Bible stories at a young age, but maybe that’s just because that’s the way I was taught. People remember stories much better than they remember topics.

    I was taught Bible stories and “Awana” verses from before I can remember. It wasn’t until high school that I really learned to study topically. Now, I feel like I have a super well-rounded theological education: I can discuss theology topically by pulling from the Scripture verses and stories I learned when I was young.

    I guess my point is, a first impression may be lasting, but it’s certainly not the only impression – or the only lasting one.

    Now, if someone’s starting fresh as an adult or young adult, maybe they should start by reading the Bible. But maybe that’s just my experience talking; I have a degree in literature, not theology, after all.

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