By In Culture, Theology, Worship

Does ‘Sola Scriptura’ Mean What You Think It Means?

“This is the only book I need,” says the evangelical, holding up his Bible. “We don’t recite creeds at my church,” says another, pointing to hers. Anyone who has spent much time in low-church Protestant circles will be familiar with these Bible-only sentiments. But how well do they square with the Reformation idea of Scripture alone? Is this what the Reformers meant?

Last week, I wrote about conversion theology and the “sinner’s prayer,” both of which I think have badly distorted the popular understanding of Sola Fide, or “faith alone,” one of the five doctrinal slogans that define the Protestant Reformation. Now I want to turn our attention to a myth about Sola Scriptura, a stance often described as the formal, or underlying cause of Martin Luther’s dispute with Rome.

A Dispute Over Authority (‘Says Who?’)

At the Diet of Worms in 1521, under examination before Emperor Charles V, Luther famously refused to recant his criticisms of abuses within the Roman Catholic Church. “Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scripture or by plain and clear reasons and arguments,” he told Johann Eck, “I can and will not retract, for it is neither safe nor wise to do anything against conscience.”

Here we find the principle of Sola Scriptura in germ form. Luther’s political and ecclesiastical betters had demanded that he renounce his writings, not on the basis of an argument about the truth, but on an appeal to authority–that of the pope and of the Roman magisterium (church teaching authority) more broadly. Luther’s private reading of Scripture had led him to conclude that numerous practices common in his time were contrary to the Gospel of Christ, and he was willing to take a stand on that reading, even if he appeared to be the only one doing so. Thus, he responded to his examiner’s appeal with a counter-appeal to a still higher authority: the Word of God.

As apologists on both sides of the schism have correctly recognized, the Reformation boiled down to a dispute over authority. But as it would become clear in the decades that followed that providential day in Worms, Luther was not denying any religious authority, per se. Instead, he was asserting a hierarchy of authorities that differed from the one espoused by his opponents. He did not deny the importance of bishops, councils, princes, or theologians–he merely placed Scripture above them, and in a position to rebuke them. But why?

Me and My Bible

To understand, we need to look at the opposite error, so prevalent today among evangelicals. This is the idea that the Bible is the only legitimate source of authority in the life of the Christian, and that learning from any other teacher or expert is tantamount to following the doctrines of men, rather than God.

Sometimes called “solo scriptura,” this belief is often confused with the genuine article, both by adherents and critics. The idea that the canonical books of the Bible are the only important, profitable, or even authoritative sources of doctrine and practice in Christianity has become a kind of unspoken creed among many evangelicals. You’ll hear it especially early in conversations about the ecumenical councils, or about any theologian whose name is associated with an “-ism.”

In practice, what solo scriptura amounts to is an insistence that every person reinvent Christianity from scratch by his or herself, and that every person is equally competent to do so. But a reader at any level of learning should be able to see that Scripture itself doesn’t support such a view:

He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things. And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers,  to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Ephesians 4:11)

Paul here endorses his own office–that of apostle–along with prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers, all of whom are charged to “equip the saints for the work of ministry.” In other words, they carry teaching authority in matters of doctrine and practice. We should be learning from them, rather than restricting our time in Scripture to solitary study.


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