‘Scripture Alone’ Does Not Mean What You Think It Means

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“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.

The Voice of God

What becomes, then, of Luther’s protest? It’s not difficult to imagine his critics urging precisely this passage in response to his criticism of the church. “Paul said to listen to the apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers, Martin,” they might have replied. “He also said to ‘Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.’ It’s time to lay aside your objections, Martin, and submit to the authority of the pope, who sees no problem with the sale of indulgences and other such practices.”

But here is where Luther’s hierarchy–and the true doctrine of Sola Scriptura–come in. He and the later Magisterial Reformers did not see Scripture as the only authority in the life of the church, but as the final authority in the life of the church. Scripture–as the written special revelation of God without error–was for them the only communication about God which always bore His signature. To hear Scripture read, they believed, was to hear the voice of the Almighty as Moses heard it on Sinai or as the apostles heard it during the Sermon on the Mount. When we read Scripture, we are reading a document authored and preserved by God, Himself. This places it in a class of authority utterly without equal. For what man or angel could speak with authority equal to God’s?

In sum, Sola Scriptura is really “Solus Deus.” It is precisely the claim that popes, councils, bishops, shepherds, teachers, or theologians cannot claim to speak for God simply by virtue of their office. They are subject to God’s Word as contained in His written revelation, just like anybody else.

It is also a claim that the canon of such revelation is closed. The prophetic and apostolic charism–imparted by the Holy Spirit–has ceased. No one can write new books and add them to the Bible, nor can anybody claim to speak with authority on par with Scripture.

This, of course, is one of the great differences between Protestants–who believe that Scripture contains the full deposit of faith–and post-Reformation Roman Catholics–who believe that the deposit of faith is found partly in Scripture and partly in unwritten Tradition. It is on the basis of this oral Tradition, passed down from bishop to bishop in a succession purportedly going back to the twelve apostles, that ecumenical councils and the pope can claim to speak with authority equal to that of Scripture, and thus equal to that of God. The value of such dual authority, in the Catholic’s mind, is that it guards against misinterpretations of Scripture, and gives the church the teeth necessary to formally quell error.

And here, the Catholic critic of the Reformation might raise a compelling objection: If the only final authority for Christians is Scripture, doesn’t this really mean the only final authority is the individual Christian’s interpretation of Scripture? Doesn’t Sola Scriptura deteriorate into total subjectivity?

Not All Authorities Are Infallible

In an important sense (but only a sense) the answer is yes, followed by a smile and another question: “So what?”

When anyone learns a truth, it’s ultimately up to that individual to accept or reject it. We all live with this reality every day. Physicists can tell us that matter and energy are interchangeable, and even give us the formula that describes this interchange. But ultimately, it is up to each individual to understand and accept this fact. I can read in a medical textbook what cancer cells look like, how doctors detect them, and what criteria they use to diagnose the various stages of the disease. All of this information may be 100% correct–without error. But it’s still up to me to read it, to correctly understand it, and to place my faith in those who wrote that information down, without any reservations or unconscious reinterpretations.

In short, there is no cutting out the middle man when the middle man is me. All communication–even divine communication–is mediated by my own fallible faculties and intellect. Whether I’m reading Deuteronomy or Unam sanctam, I am ultimately responsible for correctly interpreting it and applying it to my life. No one can zap truth directly into my brain.

The human authors of Scripture, themselves, were an exception to this rule. According to historic Christian doctrine, the Holy Spirit so worked in their minds, hearts, and pens as to harness their individual humanity while communicating what He intended to communicate, without error. But almost no one–Catholic or Protestant–believes God does this for individual believers today, at least not as He did for the authors of the Bible. Catholics believe the pope can speak without error under certain circumstances, but the problem still remains: How can we know we’ve correctly understood him, when we ourselves are fallible? The Catholic reading an “infallible” papal encyclical is in precisely the same predicament as a Protestant reading a Pauline epistle.

None of this means fallible interpreters and authorities aren’t potentially useful to the church. Again, Luther’s hierarchy applies. Our everyday experience confirms that there is such a thing as authorities who can guide us without absolutely binding our consciences, or claiming to be infallible.

When I visit my doctor and he tells me that I’m at risk for heart disease, or that I have low vitamin D, or that my biopsy tested positive for cancer, I face the choice of whether or not to believe him. I would be an idiot not to believe him, or at least take him seriously enough to get a second opinion. But crucially, this does not mean he is infallible. Doctors can and have been wrong, and I may find on getting that second opinion that the first doctor’s test was a false positive. But he still has authority–the very real authority of a trained expert–over my life and health. And the more such authorities agree, the greater the burden on me becomes to accept their diagnosis. Indeed, at a certain point, I have what philosophers call “moral certainty.” I am obligated by the sheer weight of evidence to act on the authority of fallible men.

Scripture: The Norming Norm

For Protestants seeking to affirm with Martin Luther the uniqueness and centrality of Scripture, while also taking theologians, councils, and pastors seriously as authorities in the faith, this distinction is invaluable. It also highlights the excruciating place in which Luther found himself in 1521. On his reading of Scripture–plus his understanding of church history and the writings of the early fathers–he was willing to stand against all other legitimate religious and civil authorities and refuse to violate his conscience when he saw a conflict between God and his human teachers.

Contrary to evangelicals today who insist all anyone should want is a Bible, the Reformers did not teach that every Christian is free to reinvent Christianity. Luther would tell us what a grave and terrible thing it is to defy the authorities set by God over us. But he would also tell us that our consciences should only be finally and fully captive to Scripture, and good reasoning from Scripture. Sola Scriptura means just one thing: No one is above or beside God. And anyone who contradicts Him is wrong.

Further reading: “Scripture Alone,” R.C. Sproul

 

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