Interview with Matthew Barrett, author of GOD’S WORD ALONE: THE AUTHORITY OF ALL SCRIPTURE: WHAT THE REFORMERS TAUGHT AND WHY IT STILL MATTERS

Published on October 11, 2016 by Joshua R Monroe

Zondervan, 2016 | 416 pages

You’ve heard of the famous five Reformation solas, and now Zondervan has a new series of books on the subject. Today we focus on the newest of them – sola Scriptura: Scripture alone.

Hi, I’m Fred Zaspel, editor here at Books At a Glance, and today we’re talking to Matthew Barrett, professor of theology at Oak Hill College in London, editor of Credo Magazine, editor of Zondervan’s The 5 Solas Series, and author of the new God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture: What the Reformers Taught and Why It Matters.

Matthew, welcome – great to have you with us!

Barrett:
Thank you for having me; I’m looking forward to this conversation.

 

Zaspel:
First, tell us about your Sola series from Zondervan – the various titles (and authors) and what occasioned all this.

Barrett:
Well, the five solas, of course, are being talked about quite a bit in the last several months, in the last several years, because we are coming up on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The idea for the series is… well, there are several motivations behind it. First of all, we want to help Christians understand what the solas were and why they are so important for today. Whether you are a student or a churchgoer or pastor or even a scholar, sometimes these solas are forgotten or assumed, and in doing so we can be in danger of forgetting how important they are and relevant for the church today because many of these solas, in a variety of ways, are either rejected or modified in a way that actually can be harmful to the evangelical faith. So that’s some of the motivation behind the series. The second thing I would mention is, in light of this anniversary in 2017, we chose five different authors, each one writing on their own sola of the Reformation. They not only focus on the historical material, the history of that sola, but they then turn to look at the sola in light of its biblical and theological importance and then apply it to challenges in the 21st century.

 

Zaspel:
Tell us who the authors are and which sola each of them has.

Barrett:
Two books have released already. The first one was Tom Schreiner’s book called Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification. An outstanding book: Tom does a terrific job as a New Testament scholar looking at the biblical evidence. And the second one that’s released is by David VanDrunen – it’s called God’s Glory Alone: The Majestic Heart of the Christian Faith and Life. And mine, of course, is the third one to release. And then there will be two more, Carl Trueman’s Grace Alone: Salvation is a Gift from God, and last but not least, Steve Wellum’s Christ Alone: The Uniqueness of Jesus as Savior. So those of the five books.

 

Zaspel:
Do you know yet when the final two will be available?

Barrett:
Trueman’s book, Grace Alone, will probably release by the end of this year – December, if not January; and Steve Wellum’s book will release two or three months later around March or April.

 

Zaspel:
What is sola scriptura and how did the Reformers defend this sola within the context of the Reformation?

Barrett:
Yes; a very good question. It’s always best to start with the definition. The definition of Sola Scriptura that I give is, very simply –  only Scripture, because it is God’s inspired word; it is our inerrant, sufficient, and final authority for the church. And throughout the book I flesh out what that definition is all about. I start with the reformers, specifically with Martin Luther in Germany, and I talk a lot about how Luther came into such tension with the Catholic Church of his day. Of course, I don’t just focus on Luther; I turn to other reformers as well, such as Zwingli and Calvin among others. But if I could just focus on Luther for a second. In the late medieval period, leading up to Luther’s birth, and then Luther’s own studies, there was a growing understanding that tradition not only played an important role of authority in the church, but there was a growing belief that tradition also acted as an equal authority to Scripture. In fact, even a revealed authority, so that it, too, was part of God’s divine revelation. And by Luther’s day this thought had developed to such an extent that Luther noticed – and many of those that he was interacting with, and even debating – that tradition was viewed as infallible; much like Scripture. We all think of Luther’s posting of the 95 theses, of course, and later on his stance on faith alone and justification; however, behind that was the authority of Scripture. And that became the real issue in many of Luther’s debates. If I could just give you one particular example: Luther came into conflict with the Catholic theologian, Johannes von Eck, and Eck, in his conflict with Luther, really brought the central issue to the table. And that was: who has final authority? Is it God’s word? Or is it the Pope? And for Eck, Scripture actually received its authority from the Pope. And it’s at this point in particular (there are other debates in which this comes out) it’s really at this point that Luther understands that he has a major disagreement. He strongly disagreed with Eck. He argued instead, that Scripture has authority over popes, church fathers and even church councils; and he said the reason for this is because all of these, as important as they may be, have erred in the past at some point. He contrasted tradition and its authority with Scripture, and he said, on the other hand, Scripture and Scripture alone is inspired by God and therefore it is our only infallible authority. Then Luther said something that was extremely offensive. He said that a schoolboy with Scripture in his hand is better fortified that the Pope. You can guess that really upset Eck, as well as a number of other Catholic theologians and authorities that he would run up against.

 

Zaspel:
That’s excellent background – thanks. What led to the abandonment of sola scriptura in the centuries after the Reformation?

Barrett:
Well, there are many things that led to its abandonment. Probably the first thing I would point to is the rise of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment period is really the reign of autonomous reason. There is such a contrast from the 16th century to the centuries that come after it. In the 16th century, Reformation theology, including Sola Scriptura, had taken root in Western Europe and this becomes evident in numerous Lutheran and Reformed confessions that assume, or sometimes affirm Sola Scriptura, the formal principle of the Reformation. But by the time you get to the 17th century, you start to see changes. There are new theological winds that start to blow; and major doctrines that were affirmed by the Reformers and the Reformed tradition that came just after them are starting to be questioned and rejected. And by the 18th century, you have an entirely different understanding of Scripture. When you look at Germany or Switzerland, these were territories that were previously devoted to Lutheran and Reformed theologies and now they have fallen under the sway of Enlightenment philosophy. So, what is that? It is often called The Age of Reason for a reason. Reason was elevated to such a high level that reason, instead of the authority of Scripture, now became the deciding voice. And some elevated reason so high, that man was to turn to reason in his own intellectual capabilities; even in rejection of God’s word. So reason became the authority; man became very autonomous; and God’s word was placed under the authority of reason or, in some cases, it was rejected altogether.

Now, after the Enlightenment, you have the rise of (and here I am, of course, painting with a very broad brush) but you have the rise of Protestant Liberalism. And there are many individuals that waved the Protestant Liberalism banner. I would say, if we were to point to one of them who is sort of a father of Protestant Liberalism, it would be Friedrich Schleiermacher. And Schleiermacher does something very interesting. In one sense he adopts much of Enlightenment thought, but at the same time, he is critical; and where he paves a middle way is in elevating experience, even religious experience. While the Enlightenment elevated reason, Schleiermacher comes along and he places religious experience over, and sometimes above, special revelation as our Christian authority. So you begin to see, slowly but surely, through these different movements, you begin to see the abandonment of Sola Scriptur.; So that by the time you get to the 20th century, you have Protestant liberalism in full swing with figures like Harry Emerson Fosdick. You know he delivered that very passionate, very powerful sermon in 1922: Shall the Fundamentalists Win? Here he is questioning many evangelical doctrines: the virgin birth of Christ, substitutionary atonement of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, miracles – but also the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. And this is another story, but in response to Fosdick you have J Gresham Machen, who defends the authority of Scripture in his book, Christianity and Liberalism, and shows that Scripture not only can be trusted, but it can be trusted because God himself is the author and God is a trustworthy God.

 

Zaspel:
Do you go over all this history in your book?

Barrett:
Yes. The book is devoted into three parts. The first part, God’s Word Under Fire Yesterday and Today, is a history of Sola Scriptura. It begins with the Reformation, with Luther, and then it moves into the modern era with the Enlightenment, liberalism and those who defend it, orthodoxy and the Christian faith. And then it transitions into the present period and looks at the influence of postmodernism. In the other two parts of the book: Part two, God’s Word in Redemptive History, and Part three, The Character of God’s Word and Contemporary Challenges, there I look at what Scripture itself has to say. Both from biblical theology, looking at the storyline of Scripture, and then looking at the attributes of Scripture: authority and inerrancy, clarity and sufficiency.

 

Zaspel:
How is this an important issue for us today?

Barrett:
Well, I actually think it’s quite important. We might be tempted to think, especially as evangelicals, that the authority of Scripture is something that is assumed and that we don’t have to worry about, but I would beg to differ. There are many challenges today to the authority of Scripture. If I could name just a couple of them, first I would say, we see a challenge within evangelicalism itself. Many evangelicals would argue that Scripture is infallible but not inerrant. So they would say the main message of Scripture is true and they would use the word infallible there, but then they would say that beyond that, into some of the details, especially the historical details, it is not inerrant. It is not fully accurate. This is one major challenge in the 20th century. In previous generations infallibility and inerrancy were not set against each other; they were held hand-in-hand. In fact, infallibility was used as an even stronger term than inerrancy to mean that Scripture is not even capable of erring. But in the 20th century, we’ve seen this argument come through that Scripture can be infallible, but it cannot be inerrant. So I think it’s really crucial that evangelicals today recognize this argument that is popular in circles and know how to refute it – to argue that all of Scripture is not only inerrant but infallible. And that means that not only does it not err, but it is incapable of erring. So there’s a challenge, I think, today with the truthfulness of Scripture. There is also a challenge from postmodernism. Now I know someone might say, Haven’t we gotten past postmodernism? Isn’t that a thing of the past? Well, in some senses in some intellectual circles it may be; but, actually, I would argue that we are still feeling the effects of it, especially in churches. This is often the case, isn’t it? You have a movement that starts with the Academy and then, even though the Academy moves on, it is still trickling down into pews and into classrooms, even. I think this is still happening today. Postmodernism argued that truth is relative and so has a strong emphasis on relativism and this has many consequences for biblical authority. Is Scripture our final authority? Is it the word of God? Or is it merely one voice among many other voices out there in the culture or in other religions? So postmodernism still today presents a challenge both at an academic level, but also in the church. It seeps in to how people think.

If I could mention just one more, I would say that a more recent challenge that I think highlights the relevancy of Sola Scriptura today is the questioning, not only of the Bible’s historicity, and by that I mean the accuracy of what the Bible says and affirms, but also, some today are questioning the Bible’s morality. In other words, in past centuries if the Bible was questioned, it’s inerrancy would be questioned by raising issues as to whether there is really a historical Adam or whether Matthew actually wrote his gospel, etc. etc. However, today, what we are seeing is some going even farther and questioning whether the ethics laid out in the Bible, say, by Moses in the book of Exodus for Jesus himself in the Gospels, whether these ethical principles should actually be followed or abandoned. And some today are advocating that some of the morality of the Bible is actually quite skewed and immoral and, while we may want to follow some of the Bible’s teaching, other parts of the Bible need to be abandoned and even corrected. So those are some of the challenges that I think evangelicals face today, though many others could be mentioned.

 

Zaspel:
How is Sola Scriptura sometimes misunderstood or misapplied today?

Barrett:
Well, it’s often misunderstood. If I could take us back to Luther, who we began with, I would say that Luther is often misunderstood. He trumpeted the authority of Scripture; and he trumpeted Scripture as our final authority. He saw Scripture as the very voice of God. However, that did not mean that Luther disregarded tradition and sometimes that’s assumed. In fact, Luther had a very high place for tradition. He acknowledges himself that he was very dependent upon the fathers; though there were some medieval theologians he did not like. Luther scholars and historians have shown that Luther in his interpretation of Scripture was very indebted to many church fathers and he relied on them in his interpretation of Scripture and even in many of his writings. But where Sola Scriptura should be defined accurately for Luther, is in making the statement that, while tradition should be valued and while it is even an authority, it is a ministerial authority. It is not a magisterial authority. And that distinction was key for Luther; as well for Calvin and Zwingli and the others. In case listeners are not familiar with that distinction, what that means is that tradition is a servant, in fact it is even a hermeneutical servant. It helps us to interpret the word of God. So we are always standing on the shoulders of others. However, as important as tradition is as a hermeneutical guide, it’s not infallible. That authority belongs to, Scripture. So we can only say that Scripture is our magisterial authority. Now in the 20th century, I think that evangelicals often missed this point. If you think back to someone like Alexander Campbell; he has this famous statement where he says, “I have endeavored to read the Scriptures as though no one had read them before me. And I am as much on my guard against reason today, through the medium of my own views yesterday or a week ago, as I am against being influenced by any foreign name, authority, or system, whatever.” That’s quite a statement. And I think, in a number of ways, evangelicals, whether they realize it or not, sometimes buy into that approach. And so they think Sola Scriptura means the abandonment of tradition altogether. Well, what this does, it actually takes us back to the Enlightenment. It elevates the individual and so it makes our interpretation of Scripture THE authority, the supreme Judge, and instead of it being Scripture alone, it really is me alone. And I think this is a serious mistake and something that we need to avoid. I think tradition is our friend. At the same time, we have to keep that in balance because only Scripture is our infallible source of written divine revelation. So again, it comes back to that ministerial/magisterial distinction.

 

Zaspel:
Very good.

We’re talking to Matthew Barrett, author of the new book, God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture: What the Reformers Taught and Why It Matters, the newest in Zondervan’s The 5 Solas Series. It’s an excellent, contemporary treatment of the subject that you’ll want to have in your library.

Matthew, thanks for talking to us today.

Barrett:
Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure to have this conversation.

Buy the books

God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture: What the Reformers Taught and Why it Still Matters

Zondervan, 2016 | 416 pages