There were a few rallying cries in the Reformation. One of those was Sola Scriptura, or “scripture alone.” Though there are varying degrees of nuance attached to it, the generally accepted definition of sola scriptura is that it is “the doctrine that the Bible is the only infallible or inerrant authority for Christian faith…and that scripture interprets scripture.”

That is contrasted with the Roman Catholic view, quoted here from the Catechism to make sure I don’t screw it up:

The Second Vatican Council indicates three criteria for interpreting Scripture in accordance with the Spirit who inspired it.78

112 1. Be especially attentive “to the content and unity of the whole Scripture”. Different as the books which compose it may be, Scripture is a unity by reason of the unity of God’s plan, of which Christ Jesus is the center and heart, open since his Passover.79

The phrase “heart of Christ” can refer to Sacred Scripture, which makes known his heart, closed before the Passion, as the Scripture was obscure. But the Scripture has been opened since the Passion; since those who from then on have understood it, consider and discern in what way the prophecies must be interpreted.80

113 2. Read the Scripture within “the living Tradition of the whole Church”. According to a saying of the Fathers, Sacred Scripture is written principally in the Church’s heart rather than in documents and records, for the Church carries in her Tradition the living memorial of God’s Word, and it is the Holy Spirit who gives her the spiritual interpretation of the Scripture (“. . . according to the spiritual meaning which the Spirit grants to the Church”81).

114 3. Be attentive to the analogy of faith.82 By “analogy of faith” we mean the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation.

In short: scripture is to be interpreted in light of the church’s traditions. Orthodoxy has a similar belief, defining Tradition as “that which has lived on in life of the Church.”

So, for the Catholic reader, there is already an interpretive framework in place — Holy Tradition.

But for the Protestant, there is no interpretive frame work, unless you consider scripture itself to be the interpretive framework (and, perhaps you can). That leads to the problem, however, of how you ensure good, sound theology when exegeting — how do you keep people from coming up with crazy ideas after reading the Bible?

For the true Protestants (I’ll get to evangelicals in a moment), that means confessionalism. For example, the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod says this:

The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod accepts the Scriptures as the inspired and inerrant Word of God, and subscribes unconditionally to all the symbolical books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church as a true and unadulterated statement and exposition of the Word of God. We accept the Lutheran Confessions as articulated in the Book of Concord of 1580 because they are drawn from the Word of God and on that account regard their doctrinal content as a true and binding exposition of Holy Scripture and as authoritative for all pastors, congregations and other rostered church workers of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.

Likewise, Reformed churches require their pastors to teach within the bounds of the Westminster Confession, and — to stretch it a bit — the Southern Baptists require their missionaries (though not their pastors, per se) to only believe within the boundaries of their continually evolving confession.

What bothers me about this is thus: is it really true to your own beliefs about sola scriptura to say, “We believe scripture to be the only authority, but because we believe this book or document to be a proper exposition of scripture, it’s authoritative, too?”

Looking back at much of the Auburn Avenue controversy, half of the arguments about their beliefs weren’t “is it scriptural?” (half were), but rather, “is it in line with our confession?”

But at least within confessionalism there are boundaries to keep people from straying too far from the shore.

Evangelicals, on the whole, don’t really stick to confessions beyond a very non-binding statement of church beliefs that are something to the effect of “We believe in God, and Jesus is coming back soon to rapture us all.” I have personally heard a couple of preachers/evangelists say, “I am sincerely convinced that anyone who reads this Bible passage under the guidance of the Holy Spirit will come to the same conclusion I have.” I can only assume they were expressing confidence in the Holy Spirit.

But with no interpretive framework (except, perhaps, dispensationalism), people have become not only independent, fundamental Baptists, but disciples of Creflo Dollar and snake-handling Pentecostals as well.

Perhaps I have finally come to a place where I truly understand what a catch-22 is.