The synoptic problem and sola scriptura.
When one refers to the “Synoptic Problem,” one is endeavoring to address a fundamental question in Scriptural textual criticism: “What is the best explanation for the textual similarities and differences between Matthew, Mark, and Luke?”1 How one determines a solution to this supposed problem discloses the source of one’s faith. After glancing at the Synoptic Gospels themselves, one can immediately notice the varied structures and forms of each account. There are differences in subject matter and the ordering and wording of pericopes which comprise each Gospel. These differences have led to the formulation of varied hypotheses in order to understand the stylistic and thematic divergences.
The hypothesis and authentication of the “other sources” is significant in the discussion of Jesus’s historical tradition and teaching, especially as it relates to the formation and criticism of the Synoptics. The modern scholastic explanations suggest that the Synoptics were either independently composed from a common source or that they were “literarily dependent on each other.”2 Whether it is the theorized “Q” document or an orally transferred Ur-Gospel or some other Aramaic collection of Jesus’s sayings, there remains a significant speculative notion to the literary solutions to the “Synoptic Problem.”
This runs in direct contrast, however, to the biblical testimony of its authorship. The apostle Peter writes in his second epistle, “Above all, you know this: No prophecy of Scripture comes from the prophet’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the will of man; instead, men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:20–21). From this, one is made to understand that the biblical authors were not merely influenced scribes who meticulously copied and pasted messianic pericopes and facsimiles indiscriminately. “The language of Scripture is the language of the Spirit,” asserts F. W. Krummacher.3 As a ship is carried along by the wind which fills its sails, these penman were divinely inspired and visited by God’s own Spirit in order to craft a volume of divinity and deliverance. This was not an enterprise of human volition. Rather, it was the scheme of God alone to dispatch his “good deposit through the Holy Spirit who lives in us” (2 Tim. 1:14). So writes Arno Gaebelein:
The men who were used to communicate prophecy spoke from God; they were moved by the Holy Spirit. For this reason the pernicious school of destructive criticism has always aimed at the prophetic Word, for if they concede that there is prophecy, they acknowledge their defeat.
The abundance of man-made theories regarding the inspiration and construction of the Scriptures allow for the subtle advancement of fiction in the realm of spiritual truth. Man’s incessant requirement for proofs and evidences for the derivation of Scripture are in actuality devious systems by which divine truth is explained away and rationalized. If it can be explained away, then it is just as easily discarded and disregarded as the guide for life. The literary theorem of “Q,” the Ur-Gospel, and the like function more like forced solutions to an imaginary problem.
The supposed “Synoptic Problem” is, in fact, no real problem at all for the genuine Christian. Notwithstanding the scholastic debates that revolve around solving a problematic necessity to determine the authority and provenance of God’s Word, a disciple’s a fundamental belief that “all Scripture is inspired by God” (2 Tim. 3:16) does not demand human corroboration. The precipitating force behind one’s adherence to and belief in Scripture rests not in man’s veracity of its provenance or construction but in the authority and sovereignty of God alone. A firm belief in sola scriptura proceeds from a resolute adherence to sola fide. Confidence in Scripture alone is facilitated by faith alone; no amount of man-made theories can verify or vivify God’s Word as the galvanizing force “pure and undefiled religion” (James 1:27).
A. D. Baum, “Synoptic Problem,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 2nd edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013), 911.
Baum, “Synoptic Problem,” 913.
F. W. Krummacher, The Flying Roll: Free Grace Displayed (New York: M. W. Dodd, 1841), 170.