Friday, October 17, 2008

What a difference a letter makes!

Sola scriptura, "Scripture alone," was one of the rallying cries of the Protestant Reformation. Reacting against the Roman Catholic belief that equal authority lies in both written Scripture and in the papacy, the reformers were adamant that the Bible alone was to be the source and norm for all matters of belief and practice. When the pope started issuing documents with teachings contrary to Scripture, such as purgatory and the merit of indulgences, it has to be rejected. All authority lies in God's Word alone.

The reformers were also big proponents of what is called the "priesthood of all believers." It was not only the educated clergy who had access to God's truth through the Holy Spirit; the same Spirit indwells all who trust in Christ and illuminates for them God's Word (1 Corinthians 2:10-16; 1 John 2:20-27). There are no necessary clergy-laity distinctions, because all who are hope in Jesus are equal members of his body, living in communion with him (Galatians 3:26-29). The Catholic leaders of the time taught--and I believe that they, to a degree, still practice--that laymen don't need to concern themselves with personal reading of the Bible. After all, only the pope and his cardinals can rightly know and explain it.

But do modern evangelicals believe in sola scriptura (Scripture alone)? Or has it been bastardized into solo scriptura (Scripture only)?

Let's face it: there are way too many denominations today. The number is in the tens of thousands, and it's growing daily. People church-hop and change between traditions; denominations split; and divisiveness, discord, and disunity are a persistent cancer in the Protestant branch. To what do we owe this? I think it could be a notion of solo scriptura.

In an effort to protect the Bible as the sole and infallible authority over the church, many evangelicals (chiefly within the Anabaptist tradition, although not limited to them) began to work from a belief that the Bible was the sole authority whatsoever. Nothing or no one has any authority except for the written Word. This sounds good in theory, because it appears to exalt the God-breathed Word and its ability to speak through the power of the Holy Spirit to each individual believer. As a result, many well-meaning Christians may now say that they have absolutely no need for someone else's creeds, confessions, or catechisms. After all, no authority lies in others' (outdated? dusty?) theology. The Holy Spirit speaks to me when I read my own Bible. As a corollary, church traditions and denominations are cast off or even looked upon with suspicion. They're often seen as a hindrance to the rule of God's Word in his church or a deceptive trap that lures people away from a personal, intimate relationship with God and down the slippery slope toward institutional religion.

Of course, I may be employing a bit of hyperbole, but I bet that this view of solo scriptura sounds pretty familiar, even the norm. But is it right? Is it safe? Is this what the reformers and--gasp!--the Bible actually have in mind?


Ted M. Gossard said...

Actually, Andrew, Menno Simons and the early Anabaptists soon learned what you were saying, and the necessity to adhere to the creeds.

Your point in general is well taken, and I think spot on. This has been a weakness at the onset of the Anabaptist and restorationist movements within Protestantism.

I agree with Scot McKnight that we must read the Bible along WITH tradition, not THROUGH tradition. The church and tradition gives us many important things, such as the creeds, writings of church fathers such as Augustine, etc., but they have gotten things wrong as well. The church is the pillar and foundation of the truth as a channel I would think, but the church is certainly not infallible.

Thanks for the thought stimulating post.

Ted M. Gossard said...

In my quick post this morning I mention you. I really do appreciate your tone and spirit in how you share the truth in Jesus.

Andrew said...

Ha! Now I know I'm finally on the right track, when I can critique an Anabaptist and have him agree and not be offended!

Larry Peabody said...

Maybe "solo scriptura" explains why so few evangelical believers have shown any interest in studying church history.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Thanks. Well, there is quite a change going on in evangelical theology, and alot of that has to do with getting back to all the good preceding the Reformation or for some, the beginning of fundamentalism in the United States. Some might call that post-reformation, post-evangelical, but it certainly does not mean no longer appreciating the important truth received through the Reformation.

There are Mennonites today who value highly the creeds and even prayer books, I believe. Though living in Calvinist country here, I'm not around hardly any Mennonite at all, except for a lady at work who married a Mennonite guy- and a Mennonite lady who married a Baptist! ha. Really I'm not either full bred or pure Anabaptist. My dad was a WWII veteran, and though I may be basically Anabaptist, I'm not sure my paradigm at this point lines up completely with them, and frankly I don't worry about that, as I try to follow Jesus in loving God and being true to Scripture in fellowship with the church in mission in the world. Of course all traditions have a spectrum of belief and it's not as cut and dried, often, as some might think.