"Who says?"

In both friendly conversations and while reading blog comments from theological opponents (Roman Catholic epologist types), I’ve heard the objection to sola scriptura lately that under it, individual interpretations of scripture can be responded to with the objection “who says?”

I think in the end this is a misleading question. Consider other ancient texts like Josephus’ Wars of the Jews, or Homer’s Iliad. In cases like these texts, the fact that a historical scholar trained in reading ancient languages and in the historical contexts of those documents says the document says x is sufficient ground to believe them. They do not need the backing of a religious authority to commend belief on the part of non-experts.

In a situation where scholars disagree on documents such as that, the only way a consensus can come is by continuing the same process that created the divergent conclusions: grammatico-historical exegesis. In those cases, there is no putative religious authority to appeal to to solve the dispute. They simply must revisit the facts and see who has misconstrued them until they come to consensus.

When you ask, “Who says?” who is right in such a disagreement, the answer is really: “the text they are interpreting.” We need to remember that a text is itself a communication from a person, and communications are not infinitely elastic. They have definition and form (and thus the formal/material sufficiency distinction in Newmanesque theories about scripture and doctrine misconstrue the issue from the start; all communications implicitly already have form). In a dispute over what a communication says, ultimately the only way to resolve the dispute is to read again more carefully, to try our best to conform our minds to the form of the text.