Herding Cats on Sola Scriptura

Truly Reformed™ Protestantism suits a particular personality type: the sort of person who likes diagrams, neat handwriting, little lists of facts, mathematical formulae, and a certain kind of precision. In its own limited sphere, Truly Reformed Christianity is handy because its love of diagrams, rigorous logic, and TRVTH tends to breed apologists who are fit foils for the mad men who have lost everything except their reason, such as the New Atheists. The intense focus on either/or thinking that so dominates the binary logic gates of the Truly Reformed brain can be very helpful in answering truly either/or questions such as, “Does God exist?” So Reformed folk can be lethal in debate with the mushy thinking of New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens.

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But for precisely this reason, Truly Reformed Christianity — being a thing of diagrams, formulae, and equations — is often very uncomfortable with stuff like actual lived human experience, mystery, and the fact that the world is incarnate and not a diagram or a series of logic gates. It doesn’t know how to dance. When God zigs where the Truly Reformed Predictive Computer Model said He should zag, the Truly Reformed guy has to just go on urging everybody to stop living in the 21st century and return to the 16th, and to stop asking questions that the original Reformed brains declared to be out of bounds.

Sadly, most of the human race does not comply, and so a Truly Reformed guy has to periodically engage in the Sisyphean labor of trying to herd all the Protestant cats back into the Calvinist bag.

Case in point: the pathetic case of Pastor Bob DeWaay, who tries to get Evangelicals to stop noticing sola scriptura is preposterous in an article titled, “Why Evangelicals are Returning to Rome: The Abandonment of Sola Scriptura as a Formal Principle.”

Why is sola scriptura so crucial? Well, because if Protestants don’t make that absurd anti-biblical doctrine the center of their theology, then they are liable to not think exactly as DeWaay does, and that can lead to all sorts of mischief — much of it heretical or, worse still, Catholic!


What kinds of mischief? Well, for starters, there’s all that touchy-feely stuff of Robert Schuller who, in his revolt against a Christianity of Diagrams, constructs a Christianity of Feelings. Schuller writes:

Where the sixteenth-century Reformation returned our focus to sacred Scriptures as the only infallible rule for faith and practice, the new reformation will return our focus to the sacred right of every person to self-esteem! The fact is, the church will never succeed until it satisfies the human being’s hunger for self-value.

The Sacred Right of Every Person to Self-Esteem is the sort of thing that sets Calvinist teeth on edge. After all, as Garrison Keillor notes, Calvinist Puritans came to this country seeking the freedom to be harsher with themselves than English law allowed. A 21st-century religious culture all agog for the simplistic cult of Self-Esteem is one not likely to thrill people still in love with the 16th-century simplistic cult of Total Depravity.

But that’s just the birth of the Truly Reformed Blues, for the Second Reformation is also hailed by Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Christianity as something so formless you don’t even have to be Christian to be part of it. Warren’s reformer is the “man of peace,” and he doesn’t even have to be a Christian. In fact, he (or she) “could be a Muslim, but they’re open and they’re influential and . . . that’s going to bring the second Reformation.”

Time was, of course, when to be Protestant was to proudly boast that you were carrying on the One True Faith of the Apostles against the papists who had been tossed out of the Vineyard. It’s hard to maintain this scenario when the 21st-century heirs of the Reformation are hailing Muslims as co-heirs of the Reformation and insisting nobody ever gets tossed out of the Vineyard of Inclusiveness. That gives guys like DeWaay headaches.

So does still another menace to Truly Reformed thinking: C. Peter Wagner’s “New Apostolic Reformation.” Wagner’s a charismatic who sometimes says nice things about Catholics. Worse, as DeWaay complains, his “thousands of apostles and prophets in his movement have shown as little regard for sola scriptura as any non Roman Catholic Christian group apart from the Quakers and . . . [t]hey show little or no concern for sound, systematic Biblical exegesis.”

Of course, St. Francis of Assisi showed little or no concern for sound, systematic Biblical exegesis, either. The same is true for a great many giants of the Christian tradition. But this is not likely to mollify DeWaay, for whom systems are the sine qua non of Christianity, and for whom there is no difference between the Catholic Magisterium standing in direct succession from the apostles and some self-appointed guy who thinks the Holy Spirit is giving him daily prophetic downloads.

Similarly, Emergent Christians disturb DeWaay because they have as much repugnance for DeWaay’s little systems of order as he has zealous love for them. So the Emergents are rebuked by DeWaay for their failure to adhere to Christ’s clear command, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples: that you embrace sola scriptura, evidential and presuppositional apologetics, and foundationalist systematic theology.”


Also in DeWaay’s Rogue’s Gallery: Dallas Willard, Wheaton College, and the editors of Christianity Today (CT), who all commit the heinous sin of thinking one could learn something from the early Church. DeWaay inveighs against the February 2008 issue of CT:

The cover of the CT article reads, “Lost Secrets of the Ancient Church.” It shows a person with a shovel digging up a Catholic icon. What are these secrets? Besides icons, lectio divina and monasticism are mentioned. Dallas Willard, who is mentioned as a reliable guide for this process, has long directed Christians to monastic practices that he himself admits are not taught in the Bible.

Apparently, DeWaay thinks Willard should stick to using terms like “limited atonement,” “unconditional election,” “salvation by faith alone,” “total depravity,” “irresistible grace,” “presuppositionalist,” and “Bible,” since these were constantly on the lips of Jesus and His apostles. (Oh. Wait.)

DeWaay’s horror mounts as Willard dares to suggest that sola scriptura doesn’t work and is inhuman:

Willard pioneered the rejection of sola scriptura in practice on the grounds that churches following it are failures . . . . The “failure,” according to Willard is that, “. . . the gospel preached and the instruction and example given these faithful ones simply do not do justice to the nature of human personality, as embodied, incarnate.”

Willard actually believes the Scripture means it when it says that the Word should be made flesh? DeWaay’s klaxons are sounding:

The remedy for “failure” says Willard is to find practices in church history that are proven to work. But are these practices taught in the Bible? Willard admits that they are not by using an argument from silence, based on the phrase “exercise unto godliness” in 1Timothy 4:7. Here is Willard’s interpretation:

“Or [the possibility the phrase was imprecise] does it indicate a precise course of action he [Paul] understood in definite terms, carefully followed himself, and called others to share? Of course it was the latter. So obviously so, for him and the readers of his own day, that he would feel no need to write a book on the disciplines of the spiritual life that explained systematically what he had in mind.”

But what does this do to sola scriptura? It negates it. In Willard’s theology, the Holy Spirit, who inspired the Biblical writers, forgot to inspire them to write about spiritual disciplines that all Christians need. If this is the case, then we need spiritual practices that were never prescribed in the Bible to obtain godliness.

Like a doctrinaire Marxist, DeWaay’s answer to Willard is essentially, “Sure, your prescriptions to emulate the early Church may work in reality, but will they work in theory? If it’s a choice between meeting human needs and giving up my pet doctrine of sola scriptura, then we must remember that man was made for the doctrine, not the doctrine for man!”

Note the semi-permeable intellectual membrane here. Even though the Bible never says “sola scriptura,” we must “presuppose” it because DeWaay embraces this human tradition. But when Willard takes something that actually is in Scripture (namely, the command to meditate on God’s word, as in Psalms 143:5) as the basis for lectio divina, DeWaay suddenly requires the Bible to be the Big Book of Everything and insists that all which is not compulsory in Scripture is forbidden. The specific technique of lectio divina is evil because it is not “prescribed in the Bible.” One wonders what DeWaay makes of marriage, since it, like scriptural meditation, is recommended in Scripture, but nowhere does Scripture prescribe specifics on how to contract a valid marriage. By DeWaay’s logic, we are only allowed to marry in theory, not in practice.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with the spiritual disciplines Willard is rediscovering. As St. John Damascene points out, icons simply emulate what God Himself did in becoming an Icon in the person of Christ (Hb 1:3). Likewise, monasticism is simply the extension of what Jesus and John the Baptist did in the desert. Indeed, DeWaay’s entire complaint against Willard turns on the ambiguity of calling these practices “unbiblical” when they are, in fact, extra-biblical but not anti-biblical, just as the DeWaay-approved words “Trinity” and “Bible” are. Indeed, they are far more biblical than the purely human and anti-biblical tradition of sola scriptura.


That said, devotion to sola scriptura is not really the core issue for DeWaay. Rather, it is terror of the Incarnation. That’s why DeWaay’s prescription is to flee the Incarnation and return, not to the Bible Alone, but to the Sacred Diagrams and Mathematical Concepts of the Truly Reformed. To back up this exhortation, DeWaay performs an exegesis of the letter to the Hebrews that is extraordinarily strange.

Hebrews is, of course, written to exhort early Jewish Christians who were tempted to abandon the Eucharistic Sacrifice and return to the Levitical sacrifices of their ancestors. It is chockablock with references to the priesthood, sacrificial bloodshed, and the insistence that Christ has inaugurated a priesthood and a sacrifice that is superior to the Levitical priesthood. Its conclusion could not be clearer to an ancient Christian who has been hearing the words, “This is my body. This is my blood” for decades in the Christian Liturgy: “We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat” (Hb 13:10). In short, Hebrews says, “The blood of Jesus can save you, and the blood of goats and bulls cannot. So stay at Mass and stick with the blood of Jesus you receive there.”

But DeWaay, in his terror of the Incarnation, reads something entirely different:

The key problem for [Judaizing Christians] was the tangibility of the temple system, and the invisibility of the Christian faith. Just about everything that was offered to them by Christianity was invisible: the High Priest in heaven, the tabernacle in heaven, the once for all shed blood, and the throne of grace . . . .

But the life of faith does not require tangible visibility: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). The Roman Catholic Church has tangibility that is unmatched by the evangelical faith, just as temple Judaism had. Why have faith in the once-for-all shed blood of Christ that is unseen when you can have real blood (that of the animals for temple Judaism and the Eucharistic Christ of Catholicism)? Why have the scriptures of the Biblical apostles and prophets who are now in heaven when you can have a real, live apostle and his teaching Magisterium who can continue to speak for God? The similarities to the situation described in Hebrews are striking. Why have only the Scriptures and the other means of grace when the Roman Church has everything from icons to relics to cathedrals to holy water and so many other tangible religious articles and experiences?

Note the curiously telling confusion. DeWaay cannot distinguish between the Eucharistic blood of Christ and the blood of goats and bulls. Why? Because they are both physical and therefore (curiously) “unreal.” For DeWaay, the “real” blood of Christ and the “real” altar is an invisible abstraction, a disincarnate concept.

Similarly, the horror of the physical — in a word, of the Incarnation — suffuses all that DeWaay has to say. The entire Old Testament drama that God crowded with the physical and crowned with the Incarnation itself goes for nothing. All these things were prelude to the Real Thing, which is an Idea, not a sacrament: namely, the Truly Reformed diagrams of Justification by Faith Alone, Substitutionary Atonement, sola scriptura, Predestination, and the various other computer models that constitute Truly Reformed Christian doctrine. Any helps such as icons, sacraments, and so forth that might address us as physical incarnate beings are marks of “apostasy.” For DeWaay, the Word was made word. Period.


The problem is, once the 16th-century mood for abstraction, systematizing, and disincarnation is past, normal people cannot live in the sort of universe the Truly Reformed demands. And so the 16th-century rebel with his world of either/or Christianity has to fight a two-front war. He must both repudiate his Catholic parents and disown his Protestant children.

The Catholic, with his both/and approach to revelation, can affirm the Catholic truths that survive in the Truly Reformed tradition (there is such a thing as truth, revelation is orderly, God is sovereign, predestination is part of reality, etc.), but he can also provide what the Reformed Christian jettisoned (namely, the Magisterium and the rest of Sacred Tradition, as well as a certain comfort level with a much wider variety of human experience, both natural and supernatural, than Truly Reformed types can bear). That’s why the Catholic can account for why the books of the Bible are the books of the Bible, while the Truly Reformed can only blather about “presuppositionalism” and shout down people who ask, “But how do you know Ecclesiastes is inspired?”

Dittos for the good things that guys like Schuller, Warren, Wagner, and Emergents see. Human beings do need to know that they are fundamentally good (albeit fallen) creatures made in the image and likeness of God. They do require a purpose for their lives. We are called to apostolic work, and we are not supposed to fall into the fundamentalist heresy of Absolute Certitude about everything. All these are real aspects of Catholic teaching. But the Faith, while embracing what these folks get right, can likewise correct their crazy imbalances.

That’s why the Church can indeed welcome human wisdom when it comes from Muslims like Averroes and even pagans like Aristotle. It can affirm human dignity without affirming human vanity. It can reform its sinful members without deforming the Church into something utterly formless. It can acknowledge charisms but not pretend every spouting popinjay with a “vision” overrides the judgment of Holy Church. It can acknowledge Mystery while not living in a perpetual fog. And it can do all this while acknowledging the supreme importance of the inspired word of Scripture just as much as DeWaay does, but without falling into the anti-biblical prison of sola scriptura.

The cramped world of Truly Reformed doctrine has yet to figure out that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in its philosophy. So, for that matter, do the equally cramped doctrines of Schuller, Warren, and the Emergents. People like Willard and the Emergents have at least taken the first step of wisdom: They know that they do not know. The second step of wisdom is to acknowledge that this fact points us not to an endless Dictatorship of Relativism and agnosticism (which is simply another cramped little intellectual and spiritual trap) but to the fullness of revelation that subsists in the Catholic Church following her Incarnate Lord, fully present in the Eucharist. May we all meet one day at that Altar.


  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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