The Holy Scriptures are of great importance to all of the faithful in Christendom, but are perhaps especially valued within the ranks of Protestant Evangelicals who hold to what is called Sola Scriptura, which means “Scripture alone”.
This is a doctrine which was forged in the fires of the Reformation. But is the modern conception of sola scriptura consistent with what the Reformers themselves were fighting for?
Understand that the intention of the Reformers was not a break from Rome, but rather a return to what they saw in the early Church. They felt as though Rome had departed from the catholic faith in several key areas and they wanted to bring her back. At least, that’s the way things began.
Sola Scriptura. What does it mean?
Influential evangelical site gotquestions.org, explains: “Traditions are valid only when they are based on Scripture and are in full agreement with Scripture. Traditions that contradict the Bible are not of God and are not a valid aspect of the Christian faith.”
This doctrine then, is to be seen as a safeguard for orthodox belief and practice.
What could be wrong with that? Nothing that I can see. And, if I’m reading the Reformers correctly, this is exactly their intention. The Scriptures are to be honored as the word of God himself. Any belief or practice that is not firmly supported by the Scriptures, beneficial as it might be, cannot by any means be thought of as essential to the Christian faith. The Bible contains “all things necessary to salvation”. And anything which contradicts the Scriptures ought to be hastily discarded.
The dialogue continues: “Sola scriptura is the only way to avoid subjectivity and keep personal opinion from taking priority over the teachings of the Bible.”
At first glance there are very few problems, if any, with such a statement. Who doesn’t want to read the Scriptures objectively? Of course! We all do. We all want to know exactly what the Bible teaches and to structure our lives accordingly. We are all genuine in our expression of the faith and in our desire to adhere to the teachings of Holy Scripture.
The problem with the above statement is that it assumes that “the teachings of the Bible” are somehow self-evident. That anyone in any context should be able to pick up a copy of the Bible and discern its objective truth; and that all who truly put themselves to this task – laying down their own subjectivity and submitting themselves to the Scriptures – will find themselves in full agreement. After all, if you disagree, it’s not me you disagree with, it is the word of God himself!
How has that been working out for us?
There are over 30 000 denominations of Christians who all agree that “Scripture alone is authoritative for the faith and practice of the Christian” and who all disagree on what it is exactly that the Scriptures are saying.
Let that sink in for a moment.
There are over 30 000 denominations of Christians who all agree on “Scripture alone” and who all disagree in their interpretations of Scripture.
Obviously, sola scriptura has not done away with subjectivity as claimed. In fact, it would seem to be quite the opposite. Historian Brad S. Gregory, in a book titled “The Unintended Reformation” states “Protestant pluralism derived directly from the Reformation’s foundational truth claim. The assertion that scripture alone was a self-sufficient basis for Christian faith and life . . . produced not even rough agreement, but an open-ended welter of competing and incompatible interpretations.”
This problem has not gone away. There seems to be almost as many interpretations of the Bible as there are Christians; and in our post-enlightenment individualistic mindset, we all feel justified in firmly planting our feet and dogmatically insisting that our interpretations are the right ones.
S c h i s m
I do not believe that this is Christ’s intention for his Church. Nor do I believe that this is what the Reformers themselves initially intended or envisioned. This rather seems to me to be a vile distortion of one of God’s most precious gifts to his People. How is it that we feel so free as to wield God’s holy word like a weapon against our own brothers? How is it that in our zeal for the Scriptures we forget the most basic commandments that they contain?
We are not enemies.
Part of being convergent is being unapologetically evangelical, and as such I whole heartedly affirm the centrality of the Scriptures for Christian life and doctrine. However, the modern practice of divorcing the apostolic message (Scripture) from the apostolic community (Church) is unbiblical and unorthodox. The Scriptures do not stand in isolation. They do not interpret themselves. Theology is not an independent endeavor.
One of my favourite subjects is the Arian controversy. I tend to consider things in very black and white terms, so it came as a bit of a surprise to me to discover that Arius himself was actually genuine. For whatever reason, I just assumed that he knew he was wrong and was fighting against the Church out of …I don’t know, spite or something? The reality is, Arius was actually convinced of his position! And no less true, is the fact that he arrived at his position by way of the Scriptures. Arius and Athanasius, (the two principle combatants) were both using the Scriptures to support their wildly divergent views about the nature of God.
Why, at the end of the day, did Athanasius emerge victorious? Principally, it was because he not only supported his position with Scripture, but because he could demonstrate that his position was in harmony with the Apostles and the early Church and Arius’ was not. His interpretation of the Scriptures was not only his interpretation, it was the Church’s interpretation. The Church’s understanding of God has always been Triune, whether or not it has been articulated in those terms. Father, Son, Spirit. Three co-equal and co-eternal persons in one being. Arius’ denigration of the Son, though a biblically tenable position if one were to take the Scriptures in isolation, was found to be heretical and the orthodox understanding of the Trinity was preserved.
If we desire, as Jesus desires for us, to be one even as he and the Father are one (John 17:21), we should know that much sacrifice will be required of us. We will need to learn how to listen to one another again. We will need to learn how to really learn from one another. We will need to value our brothers more than we value being right. We will need to, at times, lay down our own interpretations of the Scriptures where they are found to be subjective and to submit to our fathers and leaders; to receive the inheritance that is “The Great Tradition” from where the Scriptures themselves originate. Without the Church, there is no New Testament, there is no canon of Scripture, the gospel itself is inaccessible. The Scriptures are a gift from God to his One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church.
The word of God is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path (Psalm 119:105). If we could stop arguing about who gets to hold the lantern, perhaps the Lord would be gracious enough to allow us to finally take a few more steps down the path of our corporate sanctification and towards his triumphant return.