Many protestants proudly ad loudly proclaim that they follow Martin Luther’s creed: “Sola Scriptura” [“Scripture alone”]. This creed was offered up as an alternative to the traditional Roman Catholic view that doctrine is based on a variety of authorities: scripture, tradition, and Church leaders. In this sense, I agree wholeheartedly with this aspect of Sola Scriptura, but I’m afraid something more needs to be said in order to reflect how protestants do theology.
I think one would be naive to think that protestants really do theology by studying the teachings of scripture without consulting any theological tradition. But how are we to make sense of this, if protestant’s insist on using the slogan “Sola Scriptura“? One way to understand this has been proposed by Roger Olson in The Mosaic of Christian Belief. Olson suggests a helpful analogy between theology and legal interpretation. He proposes that protestants consider the Bible to be like the Constitution, and the theological tradition to be like legal precedents from the Supreme Court. When considering how to interpret the Constitution, it is insightful to draw upon Supreme Court precedents. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court is not on the same authoritative par as the Constitution, and the Supreme Court can be overruled when a more faithful interpretation of the Constitution is demonstrated.
Likewise, protestants can consistently claim that Scripture is their highest authority, while continuing to draw from the tradition theological tradition that clearly informs their theology. On the one hand, to elevate the tradition to the status of scripture is unacceptable for protestants. On the other hand, to deny that a theological tradition influences our theology is naive and frankly irresponsible. The Constitution-Supreme Court analogy roughly captures a beneficial way for protestants to do theology under the banner of “Sola Scriptura.”