What the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scripture IS NOT, a unqualified interpretive license over scripture

30 Oct

From Matthew Block (a rather Lutheran perspective):

A new survey on American Evangelical beliefs reports grim news, according to an article published yesterday by Christianity Today. The first line says it all: “Most American evangelicals hold views condemned as heretical by some of the most important councils of the early church.”

The story goes on to highlight widespread confusion among Evangelicals on core doctrines like the Personhood of the Holy Spirit and the divinity of Christ. A full 51 percent of Evangelicals apparently deny that the Holy Spirit is a Person, instead conceiving of Him as “a force.” An additional 7 percent aren’t sure what to think on the subject. At the same time, 16 percent of Evangelicals think Jesus is a created being (another 11 percent were unsure), while 22 percent further believe He is less divine than the Father (with 9 percent unsure). The survey also suggests a large portion of Evangelicals hold Pelagian thoughts when it comes to the doctrine of salvation.

These are not small problems: there’s a reason these views were condemned by the early Church. So how are theologies condemned well over 1500 years ago finding a resurgence in contemporary Evangelicalism? The Christianity Today article suggests a failure in adult Christian education as one cause. Let me suggest another: these heresies are finding a resurgence because too many Protestants misunderstand the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura. Too many Christians mistake “Scripture alone” as if it were a license for them to read the Bible alone—to read it apart from other people. You know the idea: “All I need is me and my Bible.” But that’s not what it means. It means that Scripture is alone authoritative, not that your personal (“alone”) interpretation of Scripture is authoritative.

While Scripture itself is clear on matters of salvation, it nevertheless can be (and often is) misinterpreted by sinful people. Jesus Himself faced this danger when the devil suggested to him misinterpretations of the Word of God (Matthew 4:5-6). We fool ourselves if we think we are somehow exempt from this danger. Christ, of course, did not fall for the devil’s suggested misreading. Unsurprisingly, the Word of God made Flesh knows the written Word of God better than does Satan. But we on the other hand can and do fall into such error—be it error suggested by our own sinful minds, the errant teachings of others, or, indeed, by the devil himself.

Personal piety and a desire for truth are not guarantees that we always read Scripture aright. Consequently, we must rely upon our brothers and sisters in the faith to correct and rebuke us when we err, demonstrating our errors by Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16). And this reliance on brothers and sisters refers not merely to those Christians who happen to be alive at the same time as us. Instead, it refers to the whole Christian Church, throughout time. We rely on those who have gone before us. They too get a say in the matter. As G. K. Chesterton has wonderfully put it, this sort of tradition is a “democracy of the dead.”

Of course, doctrine is not itself a matter of democracy per se; we don’t (or at least ought not) vote for dogma in the Church. Dogma is a matter of truth, not popular opinion. But Chesterton’s words remind us that it is arrogant to ignore the teachings of our forefathers in the faith. They faced many of the same theological questions we do today, and their answers have stood the test of time.

Regrettably, too many churches—and this criticism applies not just to Evangelicals—operate as if the history of the Church were unimportant. Our individualistic society no doubts feeds into this “just the Bible and me” mentality. But Scripture was not given for the benefit of you or me alone. Instead, it was given for the benefit of the Church, throughout history and throughout the world. Consequently, we ought to read Scripture together as a Church. The Church as a body has centuries of experience of reading the Word, of immersing itself in the language of God. We should take it seriously, therefore, when it suggests our own individual readings of Scripture are straying from the mark.

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