Conservatism and Sola Scriptura

The goal of this series is to present a view of Sola Scriptura in relation to tradition and church authority that is biblical, Reformed, and practically beneficial. The secondary goal, and also as an aid to the overall argument, is to present political/social Conservatism as it relates to Sola Scriptura, tradition, and church authority. Thus, this four-part series will consist (1) in a definition of political/social Conservatism, (2) a definition Reformed doctrine Sola Scriptura vis-a-vis tradition and authority, (3) An argument for Reformed Conservatism: a philosophical union of modern Conservatism and Sola Scriptura.

Being a Conservative means, in part, that you revere the deliverances of the customs handed down by our fathers. Custom, as I use it here, refers to traditions which are passed from one generation to the next. They can be contained in institutions, families, or entire societies. Scruton, the foremost philosopher within contemporary Conservatism, argues that custom teaches us how to act in circumstances without which clearly demarcated rules of interaction would be non-existent (Scruton, An Introduction to Conservatism). We should do our best to uphold customs handed down by our fathers unless there is an explicit reason to reject them. In other words, not “having a reason” for keeping a custom is not enough. You must have an adequate reason to reject a custom, something greater than your own personal preferences (a standard like Scripture, political order, or the dignity of persons).

Yet Conservatives also believe in the limited nature of government; Lord Acton taught that absolute power corrupts absolutely. It has been a part of the Calvinistic tradition to insist upon the distribution of powers in various spheres in order to limit this evil (Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism. Ch. “Calvinism and Politics”). In the church, Calvinists believe in a plurality of elders, not a Pope. Pertaining to the state, we refuse absolute Monarchies or Dictatorships. Thus modern Conservatives, following the example of the American revolution, insist upon certain fundamental “rights” which are, in part, designed as a check to the powers that be (i.e. the government). If you recall, the freedom of speech is primarily the freedom to criticize the exercising of unjust powers (not just to speak your mind). The right to bear arms is, primarily, an amendment intended to ensure the rights of persons to associate against an encroaching government through militias (not just to defend your own life).

It has been a part of the Calvinistic tradition to insist upon the distribution of powers in various spheres in order to limit evil.

This means also that within the context of conservation, individual liberty is valued. Within modern Conservatism, the individual is free to exercise his own gifts, graces, and beliefs. His freedom is endowed to him not on the basis of arbitrary self-ownership, but because of the dignity placed upon him by God. His liberty is primarily enhanced, not curtailed, by the cultural and political inheritance he has received from his fathers in custom. Custom and inheritance provide the man with a necessary resolution to the problems of decision paralysis and social non-mobility. There is, therefore, a Conservative doctrine of fundamental rights based on a common human nature and historical/legal/filial/political inheritance. Though differing in gifts and stature, we are all alike men endowed with inalienable dignity. We share a fundamental equality based upon a common nature which should express itself as a form of equality: equality before the law.   

In this regard there is simultaneously a rejection, within modern Conservatism, of the Marxist dogma of equality of outcome. Whether economic or social, Marxism is the belief that the government must seek to “control” the economic and social “quality of life” of its citizens through an ever-increasing expansion of state-control (See Scruton, An Introduction to Conservatism). Marxism would violate the principle of limited government, treating the state like a god. Thus, with due attendance to the horrors of Marxism in humanity’s recent past, Conservatism angrily and ardently resists Leftism and Fascism alike. Therefore within Conservatism, this natural and inherited freedom is not primarily the libertine freedom to rebel against the authorities that be, commit disorderly vices, or attempt to rebuild society from a foundation of sand (like Sanders, Occasio-Cortez, the French Revolutionaries, or the critical theorists); rather, it is a freedom that stands “from within” its own society. Its idea of freedom is based fundamentally on the idea of the inherent dignity of human persons, and a reverence for the inheritance received from our forefathers (the former is called natural law, the latter common law). Surely our liberty is a liberty unbinding — yet it is not unbound.

What does such a strong doctrine of both liberty and tradition have to do with Sola Scriptura and the Liberty of Conscience? Everything. The principles of Conservatism are helpful analogues to how a Christian should regard the inter-relation between Scripture, tradition, and ecclesiastical authority; in a word, the Conservative principles that are exemplified through empirical evaluation of the revelation of God in nature and providence are consistent with the principles we should utilize in our approach to the revelation of God in the Scripture, particularly in reference to tradition and church authority. These principles, to reiterate, are as follows: (1) custom is good, though not absolute, (2) absolute power corrupts, (3) in general it is easier to change something existent than to destroy and build an entirely new thing (or, reformation is preferable to revolution). And, I will add, (4) the belief that the personal appropriation of a culture, and a natural love for it, provides the right context for criticism of that culture, system of thought, and movement (See Wilson, A Case for Classical Christian Education).

As I close, I want to reiterate the basic form of the argument as to why I believe Sola Scriptura and empirical/historical Conservatism are a match made in heaven (literally). God has given us Scripture within the same context that he has given general revelation — creation and providence. Thus the principles deduced from the one are applicable, as an analogue, to the other. If adherence to custom, due reverence for authority, and a respect of one’s own culture are general laws which tend to result in the  flourishing of persons in the realm of nature, then it should be no surprise that they are also operative in the realm of grace as manifest in Scripture (in this case they are analogous). In the next article, I will argue that these general principles of Conservative are analagous to the general rules pertaining to the interplay between Sola Scriptura, tradition, and church authority. Church authority should be revered, but can be critiqued by Scripture and sound reason. Scripture cannot be interpretted from a cultural/social “neutrality.” And from the firm foundation of reverence and respect for our tradition can we begin to reform it.

Patrick Steckbeck

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Patrick Steckbeck is a graduate of Reformation Bible College, earning a B.A. in Theological Studies. He is currently pursuing an M.A. in Philosophy, specializing in Aristotle and Aquinas. He is the founder of The Reformed Philosopher.

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