Sola Scriptura is the idea that scripture is the only authority for doctrine and for resolving questions of faith. It’s common in protestant sects, but it’s also embraced by fundamentalist-minded Latter-day Saints and Mormons. Our version of sola scriptura manifests itself in conversations like these:
Church leadership: we are announcing a new policy on accessing church computer systems in meetinghouses.
Critic: I don’t see any revelation in the scriptures on that! Show me in the D&C where we have a revelation on church computer systems!
The sola scriptura paradigm derives its appeal from 2 really common falsehoods. The first is the idea that scripture is self-interpreting, and the second is that scripture is our only source of revelation.
When I say “self-interpreting,” basically, that’s the notion that when we read scripture, we know exactly what it means.
But in reality, when we read scripture, we make all kinds of judgments, some of which are very subjective:
- What was the author’s intended meaning?
- Did the author of this passage have a specific audience in mind, or were they teaching a generally-applicable principle?
- What is the genre of this passage, and how does that affect questions of meaning? (ex: poetry, commentary, history, satire, polemic, allegory)
- Is the principle here limited to a specific time and place?
- Is the meaning of the passage affected by the translation? Are there other translations that are more accurate?
- Are there other passages in scripture that affect the meaning of this one?
These are questions that determine our interpretation. And we’re all doing interpretation, whether we are aware of that fact or not.
Protestant sects make all kinds of conflicting claims about what is “biblical” versus “unbiblical,” and their conflicts come from the fact that they make different choices in their interpretation.
Latter-day Saints and offshoot groups don’t speak in terms of “biblical” or “unbiblical;” when we have adopted our own version of sola scriptura, we talk about whether things are “scriptural” or “unscriptural.” Those terms are useful, but only to an extent.
The major criticism of protestant sola scriptura is the fact that it itself is not biblical. It’s a later invention that is assumed to be biblically justified, but that is just an assumption held by people who hold to sola scriptura and then cherry-pick biblical passages to support their view.
Similarly, the idea held by some current and former Latter-saints that everything in the church needs to be “scriptural” is an idea that is itself not scriptural.
For example, one of the dumbest criticisms of our commitment to follow the prophet is the idea that following the prophet is not scriptural. “Scriptural” is almost always in the eye of the beholder (or interpreter). We know from scripture that prophets have always been followed or rejected. Sometimes following the prophet has involved literal physical pack-up-and-move following, as in the case of Moses and Joseph Smith; other times it has meant giving heed, following their counsel and directives as authoritative, but not necessarily walking around with them. Both Isaiah and John the Baptist had disciples, people who followed where the prophets went and learned from them in a teacher-student relationship.
Saying “I don’t see the phrase follow the prophet in the scriptures” just means that you are not very good at interpreting scripture.
In general, saying “I don’t see ____ in the scriptures” is not a gotcha, because canonized scripture is not our only source of revelation. But here are some other things that are not said in the scriptures:
- Personal revelation is more authoritative than prophetic revelation
- The scriptures are the final authority on everything
- The scriptures are infallible
- My interpretations of scripture — my decisions around its intended meaning and applicability — are more valid and authoritative than interpretations of the prophets and other people
- My ability to discern true revelation versus counterfeit revelation, is superior to the discernment of the current prophet and the governing councils of the church
None of these assumptions are found in scripture, and yet they are held by a lot of people who criticize church leadership for decisions that critics deem to be “unscriptural.”
We have never been sola scriptura, and we never will be. For good reasons.