On Misuses of Sola Scriptura

This commentary does not have to do with the historic roots of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) but with several obvious and pertinent misunderstandings of the doctrine. Allow me to explain by general example, and then elucidate with a specific case study.

In our article on the Wisdom template and how it relates to Trinitarian doctrine we made note of how pre-NT documents provided what Hurtado called a "crucial conceptual category" into which the NT church placed Jesus as the Wisdom of God. Apparently the vast majority of readers of this article (and the slightly different version in Chapter 2 of The Mormon Defenders) have found this information enlightening.

A few, however -- mostly Unitarians, but some otherwise orthodox believers as well -- have responded along these lines:

A most recent example of this sort of thinking we found with an anti-preterist writer styled DOV:

The worst thing to do is to study a doctrine by using the writings of fallible men. A true Bible student studies every passage in Thee Infallible, Holy Word of YAHWEH Elohim dealing with a specific doctrine (Acts 17.11) and relying on the HOLY SPIRIT to teach him (I Yochanan 2.20,27). After he has put all the passages together in a harmonious consensus he can then consult commentaries, books and bishops to see if he has been given the proper understanding. The worst thing a Bible student can do is study commentaries, books, tapes, etc. to come to an understanding of a doctrine.

This is manifestly a wrongheaded approach to exegesis. Taken to an extreme it would have us hold that we cannot use Greek dictionaries to understand what the text of the Bible is saying; in this regard the inevitable result is a refuge in something like King James Onlyism. Those who take this Sola Scriptura Extremis (SSE) approach, as I call it, have never apparently worked out the implications of their insistence that we cannot use extra-scriptural material to help us understand what the Scriptures are saying -- or else have no problem being inconsistent.

That, however, is a recipe for disaster, and it is also a case of modern readers imperialistically imposing their understandings and expectations on the texts. Here again we find application for the comments of Malina and Rohrbaugh in their Social-Science Commentary on John [16ff].

The Bible was written in what anthropologists call a "high-context" society. In such societies people "presume a broadly shared, well-understood, or 'high' knowledge of the context of anything referred to in conversation or in writing." Readers were required and expected to "fill in the gap" because their background knowledge was a given. Extended explanations were unnecessary.

In contrast, we in modern America are a "low-context" society. We assume little or no knowledge of he context of a communication.

Malina and Rohrbaugh spell out a problem for sola scriptura extremists as follows: "The obvious problem this creates for reading the biblical writings today is that low-context readers in the United States frequently mistake the biblical writings for low-context documents. They erroneously assume that the author has provided all of the contextual information needed to understand it."

And that is the very trap that Sola Scriptura Extremis leads us into. It leads us to ignore things like the pre-NT documents which established the Wisdom template and engage in excessive contivances, as my Unitarian opponents did, either denying the obvious parallels or trying to impose onto the language some other meaning amenable to our ideas. Or, at best, it results in an arbitrary dismissal of the material simply because it is "not in the Bible."

The end result of such obscuratanism may vary. Some such persons may be best left alone -- their faith is in no danger. Others will find themselves experiencing greater cognitive dissonance and eventually will become the "fundamentalist atheists" who become our most strident and yet most impenetrable opposition.

It is a great mistake to take the doctrine of Sola Scriptura as though it were intended to seal the Bible in a vacuum allowing no ideas in or out. The language of the Bible, the social background of the Bible, the literary background of the Bible, are all components which affect its meaning. Short of resorting to KJV Onlyism or the reckless "personal inspiration" view which prefers some imagined private relevation from some other source over the work of scholars or those better informed, there is no consistent way to reject the use of background material to aid in its interpretation.


By way of example, a website called "Apostasy Now!" falls for the very trap of SSE that we have described above. It can be seen in these summary statements of rules for debate on subjects, in which we are told that one can only use Bible verses to argue:

THE PURPOSE OF THIS FORMAT is to reveal which position is best supported by unembellished Bible quotations.

THE PREMISE OF THIS FORMAT is that whatever doctrine cannot be plainly demonstrated by unembellished Bible quotations does not have the support of the Bible.

In other words, if the Bible CAN'T SAY IT FOR YOU without your explanations, the Bible wasn't saying what you want it to say.

The state of mind evidenced here speaks for itself. How did this person ever learn to read the Bible and understand what the words meant in English? They clearly needed "explanations" of some sort to even read what it said, so wherever one starts, this is a self-defeating premise.

But the most serious expression of this difficulty is better demonstrated in an article hosted by the site titled "MIDRASH: THE CAMEL'S NOSE" in which the author, Richard Engstrom, uses midrash as an example of "extra-Biblical knowledge that one cannot gain from the Bible itself," speaks derisively of scholars, and claims it is "one of the latest fads among the exponents of the Hebrew Roots Movement."

It may be indeed, but the concept has been recognized by Bible scholars -- to answer his implicit question -- for longer than Hebrew Roots has been around. Those who desire background on this issue are directed to Miller's item here for instruction. Our purpose is only to show how Engstrom wrongly dismisses the application of this knowledge for reading and understanding the Bible.

Engstrom frames this as a matter of, "if the camel is allowed to stick his nose in the tent, before long, the whole camel will be in the tent." In other words, he sees this understanding as a threat like many see liberal Christianity -- allowing in dangerous concepts one at a time and producing a domino effect.

It must be admitted that midrash IS dangerous as a concept -- for specifically, those who are tied to such positions as KJV Onlyism and anachronistic, decontextualized "plain readings" like those advocated above. It is inconceivable to such persons that there is any depth of meaning to the Bible beyond what they read in English. Engstrom is no KJV Onlyist that can be seen, but does uncritically align himself with what he calls the "Protestant system of interpretation" which he sets as the guideline above "the Jewish system of interpretation (midrash)" -- a rather stunning irony given the Bible's origins as a document written overwhelmingly by Jews, about Jewish persons and their activities, mostly in a Jewish setting and society. Protestants as such were 1500 years future at least.

Engstrom says: "Next, we are asked to consider how pleasing to God it would be if we would just observe a few of the feasts of the Old Testament...Having gone that far, it is only another inch away to have an altar of incense in your own church, and while you're at it, why not blow a shofar to announce the beginning of the next revival?"

Somehow I hardly find the threat of a shofar to be that difficult to fear -- aside from being logically a non sequitur. Engstrom raises the spectre of wearing prayer shawls and variations on the spelling of Yeshua, but really, the excesses of Hebrew Roots persons are no reason for swinging the pendulum of resistance as far as possible in the other direction.

Observation of these festivals as a matter of education is nothing objectionable -- Paul clearly had no bone to pick with his fellow Jewish converts who continued to observe the Law privately as a means of honoring their faith or of being "good neighbors" to Jews targeted for evangelization (as his willingness to have Timothy circumcised shows).

But so it goes, and after more warnings over Hebrew Roots excesses, we get to where Engstrom takes on someone of scholarly worth, one Jacob Prasch, who has written an article on midrashic interpretation and the NT. Engstrom has ought against Prasch, for he has a "stated agenda to reintroduce into Christendom the Midrashic system of Biblical interpretation" and "judges the Protestant system to be deficient and fundamentally flawed."

Engstrom and others in his favor should be aware from the start that I am far more sympathetic to Prasch on this matter. Knowing the Bible through first-century eyes seriously challenges traditional Protestant (and modern) understandings of TULIP, as well as numerous layman's understandings of Scripture -- though none in a way that will get you condemned in eternity, we must add.

From here, Prasch's statements, as used, will be in italics; Engstrom's response in bold italics, and mine in normal print. Our comments will be selective and fair - there is no need to belabor every point made, especially as Engstrom's comments will become repetitive in nature.

"The clearest set of guidelines in Midrash are the Seven Midroth attributed to Rabbi Hillel, the founder of the Pharisaic School of Hillel, where Rabbi Shaul (St. Paul) was educated as a rabbi by Rabbi Gamaliel, the grandson of Hillel."

He begins his presentation of midrash by letting us know of his intimate knowledge of the subject and personalities involved. The only problem with the experts he presents is that (excepting Paul the apostle) they are all exponents of the Pharisee's school of interpretation that Jesus repudiated. Paul the apostle is now being called "Rabbi Paul": a title never assigned to him in the New Testament.

It is an equivocation to say that Jesus "repudiated" the Pharisee's school of interpretation in this context. It is clear that Jesus repudiated specific Pharasaic interpretations of the law, but it is also clear that he did not repudiate the foundational methods of use that the Pharisees used. In terms of practice, Jesus matched the Pharisees and other Jews method for method. (Miller's article linked above offers extensive parallels and examples of Jesus using the same techniques, as well as other NT writers.) While they ended up in a different place, they used the same vehicle to get where they were going.

"Midrash makes heavy use of allegory and typology to illustrate and illuminate doctrine, but never as a basis for doctrine. It sees multiple meanings in Bible texts found in strata, but this is very different in certain fundamental respects from the gnostic and Alexandrian uses of figurative interpretation associated with Philo and Origen, reflecting more of Hebraic, rather than Helenistic philosophical world-view and view of theology."

In other words, Jacob would recommend Midrash because it is superior to the Alexandrian and gnostic hermeneutic? BUT WAIT A MINUTE: what in the world do these things mean? Does Alexandrian refer to the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament translated in Alexandria)? Does it refer to certain heretics that once lived in Alexandria? But…..aren't most Old Testament quotations in the New Testament taken from the Septuagint? Weren't those heretics completely repudiated at the Council of Nicea? …and what does Prasch mean by Gnosticism? How many of you who are reading this can tell us exactly what Gnosticism is? Quite simply, Gnosticism is an archaic word for mysticism. But what is mysticism? Mysticism (in it's Christianized form) holds that the plain and universal (i.e. the Bible) cannot be understood rightly without a prior knowledge of something which is neither plain nor universal. Gnostics insist that you cannot understand the Bible unless you know "their secret" first. But for most of you, isn't this Midrash being presented to you as the "secret key" of "right interpretation" that you NEED and don't yet have?

Engstrom is confused, to put it mildly. Prasch does not "recommend Midrash because..." of any such thing as stated; he merely says it is different from gnostic and Alexadrian methods from which the mistaken might be tempted to draw a parallel. "Most" OT quotations are NOT taken from the LXX; see here. The comparison of midrash to some "secret key" is erroneous and requires little comment, other than that it is an merely a form of ad hominem. such that Engstrom may as well use on those who suggest studying Greek and Hebrew, or Biblical culture, as a "secret key" to better understanding the Bible.

What made Gnostic beliefs "secret" was a refusal to reveal to any but the initiated. What makes things like midrash "secret" is a patent refusal to study in earnest among widely available resources..

"Midrash interprets prophecy as a cyclical pattern of historical recapitulation (prophecies having multiple fulfillment), with an ultimate fulfillment associated with the eschaton, which is the final focal point of the redemptive process."

The fact that Jacob presents this as a new concept is astounding. Multiple and partial fulfillments of prophecy have long been noted amongst Christian Scholars. This is, from my perspective, the most troubling aspect of midrash, in that the significance of prophecy as predictive and destined for a very specific and literal fulfillment, is diminished under the idea that prophecy is essentially a description of cyclical patterns of spiritual realities. Is this not how so-called "Replacement Theology" came into being? Is this not how the future Millennium was replaced by the then present dominion of the Holy Roman Empire once upon a time? Is this not how the post-Christian Jews re-explained the "Suffering Servant" of Isaiah 53, so that they didn't need to admit that Jesus LITERALLY fulfilled those prophecies?

Prasch hardly present this as "new". It is hard to see how the significance of prophecy is "diminished" (other than that it may diminish Engstrom's preferred view) or how this relates to "Replacement Theology" or the Holy Roman Empire.

In terms of Is. 53, Engstrom is confused as he was above referring to Jesus and the Pharisees. Both Christians AND later Jews arrived at their views with the same methods -- but like any method at all, even "plain reading," it can be misused. Thus this is not "obviously an attempt by traditional rabbinicism to evade the mountain of predictive prophecy that was fulfilled in Christ," as Engstrom states. The attempt is in the direction taken with the method, not the method itself.

Note now this statement by Engstrom that suits the SSE paradigm:

Considering the purely empirical evidence of the providence of God, let me remind you that He has seen to it that the Christian Bible is everywhere and generally available to anyone - He has not seen fit to make the Midrash generally available. Hence, God Himself did not deem it necessary or even sufficiently helpful in our understanding of Scripture.

False. Information on this subject IS generally available; Engstrom is simply unaware of the available resources. Books like Longenecker's Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period are only a phone call, a mouse click, or a bookstore away. No, it is men who have decided in their arrogance that it is not "necessary or even sufficiently helpful in our understanding of Scripture." And meanwhile one may as well object that Greek lexicons and Strong's Concordances are not "generally available".

"Something went wrong in the early Church; it got away from its Jewish roots. And as more Gentiles became Christians, something that Paul (in Romans 11) warned should not happen, happened. People lost sight of the root."

First of all, it is impossible for ANY student of the Bible to miss the significance of our "Jewish roots". This is absurd. The entire Old Testament constitutes Hebrew History, and I would be willing to bet that most Christians are more familiar with Jewish History than they are of the history of their own nation. and the New Testament has always said that we who are saved, now belong to the commonwealth of Israel.

Engstrom has unreasonably posited knowledge of "Hebrew history" as something capable of getting us inside the culture, mindset, and methods of the Hebrew people. That we "belong to Israel" is a soteriological truth but hardly imports any knowledge into us.

Second of all, if there has been a diminution of attention to Jewish culture, traditions, or hermeneutic principles, the "fault" can be laid to the charge of Jesus and Paul. Jesus said: (Mat 23:38) Behold, your house is left unto you desolate. Would you think from this statement of our Lord, that He was advocating that we should look to the Pharisees for instruction in the Faith?

Matt. 23:38 is spoken specifically to the city of Jerusalem and because of its rejection of Jesus' prophetic message, and has nothing to do with interpretive methods, customs, culture, or mindset. If anything, Engstrom is himself interpreting this statement "midrashically" -- applying it to areas that the text does not in any way address.

Paul, in his epistle to the Galatians, discredited the Judaizers, and furthermore leveled a curse against them or anyone who preached any Gospel that was different from the Gospel that he preached. Paul even rebuked Peter for being a respecter of persons in his Jewish sympathies (Gal. 2:11-18).

Engstrom is far off base here: Midrash and other interpretive techniques are not a kerygmatic message. It is not a "gospel". Once again Engstrom ironically does a "midrash" of his own to support his point. (Engstrom also has an erroneous view of Peter vs Paul.)

No, not once do we read that Jesus or any of the apostles recommend that we resort to the traditions of the first century Jews for training in biblical interpretation or righteousness. Jesus, Himself, denounced the Pharisees' handling of the Scriptures, and said that they were guilty of: (Mark 7:13) Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.

Here again Engstrom confuses the vehicle used for the destination arrived at. Further on he fallaciously argues that since we have been told that we no longer need to respect Saturday as the Sabbath, this means that we have been completely severed from all Jewish roots of our faith. This is a case of falsely generalizing from a particular.

"Midrash uses typology and allegory-symbols-in order to illustrate and illumine doctrine. For instance, Jesus is "the Passover Lamb". The symbolism of the Jewish Passover perfectly illustrates the doctrine of atonement, but we never base the doctrine of atonement on the symbolism. The symbolism illustrates the doctrine, which is itself stated plainly elsewhere in Scripture."

Typology, allegory and symbols have been understood as literary modes in the Bible from the beginning. We never needed a new principle of interpretation to point these things out. QUESTION: is Midrash something we have always known, or is it something we haven't yet known? If it is something we have always known, then why must we introduce a new piece of exclusivist jargon, whose only final result is to nominate a new school of scholars to reign over us?

And where does Engstron think knowledge of these "literary modes in the Bible" came from? It came precisely from use of these modes in the NT, when using the OT.

To answer the question: It is something that has been "known" but whose significance has been gradually misapprehended -- as more literal methods have been piled on top of it and obscured it.

The rules of literal-grammatical interpretation of Scripture are self-evident: Before you start looking for other incidental meanings and applications, you begin by receiving the plain conveyance of the words according to all the normal rules of definition and grammar, which include the universal rhetorical devices of metaphor, allegory, simile, symbol, type, and etc.

I have now been told by two persons on TheologyWeb -- ironically, one an apostate from a fundamentalist denomination, the other a professed Christian -- that "immediate context" should always be considered first when reading the text. That is false. ALL contexts should be considered, in equity. But I think that such widely divergent ideological parties say that very same thing ought to serve as a warning in terms of where resistance to contextualization will lead.

Note as well that Engstrom refutes himself in the foot here again: Will he presume that "the universal rhetorical devices of metaphor, allegory, simile, symbol, type" were all EXACTLY the same then as they are today? Do we use the same similes in modern English as a first century native would, and would he assume this? No, actually, he wouldn't.

Ironically, even further, Engstrom admits to this:

The historical-grammatical view (by it's title) implies that a knowledge of the setting in which the words were spoken is necessary to rightly grasp the object and import of the words. In other words, only a first century Jew really knew what Jesus meant. The "grammatical" component of this system infers that figures of speech in the Bible are now detached from their original reference points, and cannot be understood without being retranslated according to the new principle of "dynamic equivalence". The "grammar" in this system does not refer to the grammar of the language to which the Bible was translated, but to the grammar of the language the translation was made from. Prasch's Midrashic system is precisely the "historical grammatical" school - for he implies that without an intimate knowledge of first century culture and Hebrew grammar, we cannot fathom the intended meaning of the words and phrases in the Bible.

So Engstrom admits that this background knowledge is necessary. Yet how can he consistently reject one (midrash) while accepting the others (grammar, language)?

The answer is, he isn't consistent -- he rejects the midrashic method based not on it not being real, but on the abuses of it by others. It does not occur to him that even grammar and language can be abused and misused to foist a misinterpretation -- is he going to abandon linguistic study becuase the JWs use grammar to argue so vehemently for John 1:1 saying, "the Word was A God"?

Indeed Engsrom continues to contradict himself even within a paragraph:

I have never read nor heard anyone propose that the riches of Scripture are confined to a single sense. This is just another blow against the straw man that Jacob has erected to do battle with. Obvious to anyone who reads it: the admonition to receive the plain wording of Scripture, is a polemic against the practice of many to evade the plain language of the Bible.

"Plain language" versus "a single sense"? The two concepts are diametrically opposed. Yes, in fact, what we do here is expose further the inability of SSE advocates to hold a truly consistent position -- none of them are truly "Sola Scriptura Extremis" for even they use some context of some sort outside the Bible -- the English language, if nothing else -- to interpret the text.

If Midrash was presented by Mr. Prasch as nothing more than worthy reading because of the many insightful expositions that can be found there, I would have no objection whatsoever to his recommendation. But, he doesn't stop there, and actually intimates that unless our principles of interpretation are abandoned in favor of Midrashic principles, that we are in danger of seriously misapprehending what our Bible intends for us to understand. Jacob says:

"By reading the Bible as literature and history, as the Humanists did, you only see part of it. The Humanists were reacting to medieval Scholasticism and the Gnosticism that much of Roman Catholicism is based upon. Nonetheless, their approach prevents people from seeing much of the depth of Scripture."

Engstrom says Prasch "intimates" that modern principles are best abandoned and Prasch says no such thing at all. He says you "see only part of it" and intimates only that midrashic interpretation adds greater DEPTH -- in other words, because of "the many insightful expositions that can be found there".

The oft quoted Reformation formula "Sola Scriptura - Sola Fide" admits to no need for a Jewish hermeneutic or an historical perspective. Prasch's intimation that the Reformers' solution to the errors of those times was that the Bible ought to be read as "literature and history" characterizes those Reformers as impotent fools who had no idea what the problem really was.

As a matter of fact, they had little idea that they were doing anything wrong -- not because of foolish impotence, but because of their distance from the text's contexts in time and culture. Engstrom erects a straw man and knocks it down -- and also read Sola Scriptura unwittingly as SOLO Scriptura, even as he admitted above a "need" for perspective in things like grammar and language.

"God will unveil it in His way and in His time. And that will be done step by step. The first step is going back to reading the Bible as a Jewish book, instead of as a Greek one."

Another brick in the wall: Now you are being notified that unless you learn Midrash, you don't have a gnat's chance of ever understanding apocalyptic prophecy. Furthermore, He has already informed you that you cannot understand Midrash without being educated in Judaism and Hebrew. So here we are: We need Jacob Prasch to expain all these things to us, since he is the only expert on these matters that we know about. Watch Out! The camel's nose is already in the tent, and if you look you can see all those camels lining up behind him.

This is overtstatement. Nothing is said here about "understanding apocalyptic prophecy" (though background knowledge of Jewish apocalyptic lit DOES aid in understanding Revelation). And yes, we DO need someone like Prasch, but he is far, far from the "only expert" -- offhand I mightr name Longenecker, Vermes, Moore, Ellis, France, etc. -- four of five of them Christians, at least three of them Evangelicals.

We'll close with a look at one example of how Prasch explains midrash use in the NT, and how Engstrom responds:

Thus, (Hosea 11:1) When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt, is a prophecy, where the son that was called out of Egypt is no longer a predictive prophecy fulfilled in Christ alone, but just one of those things that keeps happening over and over again throughout history: Abraham came out of Egypt, Israel came out of Egypt, Jesus came out of Egypt, and we who are saved, came out of Egypt. Thus says Jacob Prasch:

"Very plainly, Hosea chapter 11 is talking about the Exodus, about what happened with Moses. In its grammatical-historical context, it is talking about the Exodus, not about the Messiah."

It plainly does not matter what Hosea thought he was talking about. What matters is what the Holy Spirit was talking about. It did no violence to the text here to see the word, "son" as a figurative reference to Israel, UNTIL this was fulfilled by the Son of God. Such is the nature of prophecy that many things are hidden right on the surface and in the plain language of the prophecy. So it can be seen, and has been seen by many Protestant theologians that Israel's coming out of Egypt was a typical or partial fulfillment of this prophecy; they didn't need something called midrash to bring this to their attention.

Does not matter? Of COURSE it matters, and the irony of it all is that Engstrom's interpretation is itself a "midrash" on Hosea 1:11 -- and he fails to see yet again that the original "midrash" done by Matthew was what inspired those "Protestant theologians" in the first place.

In conclusion -- Engstrom repeats the "threat" of insidious influence, and remarks of midrash: "...I must denounce because it smacks of nothing less than the error of priest-craft, in which he presents himself as the expert that we need to learn from before we can rightly understand our Bible."

In so saying Engstrom sets himself against an intelligent faith, against scholarship, against truth and honest inquiry, and replaces it all with a vague threat of "...the Apostasy of Christendom wherein the foundations of our Faith are being systematically called into question and then destroyed."

No indeed: It is by these means that our foundations may be supported; whereby rather, apostates (as we know of many among atheists today) do emerge for lack of knowledge. Attitudes like Engstrom's, and the practice of Sola Scriptura Extremsis, do more to contribute to apostasy than even the likes of Madalyn Murray O'Hair.

-JPH