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Friday, December 11, 2009

Sola Scriptura

It's a Latin phrase meaning "the Bible alone." It's one of several "sola" statements that came to popular usage in the Reformation, five hundred years ago. Martin Luther and his cronies used these "alone" statements to define how they understood what it meant to be faithful to God and an "orthodox" (fancy word meaning "believing correctly") Christian. The other solas are:

Sola fide (faith alone)
Solus Christus (Christ alone)
Sola gratia (grace alone)
Soli deo gloria (to God alone be the glory)

But tonight I've been reading up on "sola Scriptura." There's a surprising amount of stuff on the internet about this topic, from a wide variety of perspectives. There are some fairly nasty comments about the idea of "the Bible alone" both from Roman Catholic and from other perspectives. Seems there are lots of people out there today who would like to reject the idea that the Bible alone is authoritative for Christians.

I'm reading in the context of the ELCA's sexuality statement (for the text of the statement, click here, then follow the link under "Social Statement Text") passed this summer in Minneapolis at the Churchwide Assembly in August. This document, official title Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, is near the root of the controversy driving many individuals and congregations away from the ELCA. For example, an ELCA news release today details action by the Synod Council of the Northeast Iowa Synod and the ELCA's response to this group's stand.

I was struck as I began to reread the document itself by the fact that at the very outset, "sola Scriptura" is summarily set aside. The statement says, "As Lutherans, we believe that we are justified by grace through faith. The Lutheran Confessions guide us in our understanding of justification by identifying three intersecting affirmations: solus Christus, sola gratia, and sola fide (Christ alone, grace alone, and by faith alone)" (This quote is taken from the second page of the document, in the paragraph titled "Justified by grace through faith".) You have to follow a footnote to find this statement: "Other dimensions of God's saving work, other 'solas,' also have been associated with Lutheranism. Especially in the nineteenth century, Lutherans began to emphasize sola Scriptura, although the Confessions rarely used that phrase. Luther more often spoke of the Word of God alone (soli Verbo) by which he meant fundamentally the oral proclamation of the gospel."

Well, what about it? Can we relegate Scripture alone to a later emphasis, a nineteenth century understanding, a footnote on the Protestant Reformation? Hardly. Reading Luther is sometimes difficult just because of how much he quotes the Bible. Luther certainly didn't have a wooden, fundamentalist understanding of the Bible, but he recognized it as the authoritative Word of God that tests, informs, and convicts us. His own life was filled with a passion for the Bible and for every detail of its teaching and its stories. Here's an example -- in his introduction to the letter to the Romans, Luther wrote this passionate piece:
This letter is truly the most important piece in the New Testament. It is purest Gospel. It is well worth a Christian's while not only to memorize it word for word but also to occupy himself with it daily, as though it were the daily bread of the soul. It is impossible to read or to meditate on this letter too much or too well. The more one deals with it, the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes.
Maybe the reason the Lutheran Confessions don't dwell on the idea of sola Scriptura is the same reason why a man in downtown Minneapolis can't see Minnesota. The Reformers were so immersed in their belief that the Bible was God's Word that they didn't question it. Nor did those on the other side of their disputes. Both sides accepted the Bible as authoritative; Luther claimed it as the final authority in its plain sense, while his Roman Catholic opponents claimed that the Bible was authoritative, but only when interpreted by the pope and the hierarchy of the church. Sola Scriptura didn't need a lot of defining until the nineteenth century when liberal scholars began to tear away the foundations of a biblical understanding. It's ironic that today's Christian fundamentalism grew up in response to this liberal scholarship and their claims that the Bible wasn't trustworthy.

In a sense, that's the same direction the ELCA is headed today. The argument has been offered up by professors and bishops in the ELCA that the Bible is still authoritative, but it does not speak to these sexuality issues. Yet the plain reading of the Bible on sexuality issues is pretty clear. Give someone a Bible and let them know the basic texts that deal with human sexuality and ask them what they think God wants for humanity. But the ELCA has carefully interpreted those texts that seem so clear, interpreting them in a way directly opposed to their plain sense.

If we walk away from sola Scriptura, we can still love Jesus, we can still be Christians. But I fear for the ways we'll be led astray. I can't go there. I fear for those who are excited about the ELCA's direction today. The tides of culture are so powerful and it is so easy to be swept away. At the beginning of the ride we don't think these waters could ever sweep us away from Christ -- we'll never lose solus Christus, right?

1 comment:

  1. We cannot walk away from Sola Scriptura, it is God's revelation to us. And while God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit communicate with people in a host of ways - ALL THESE WAYS must agree. (Test all spirits). If we deviate from Sola Sciptura we either add to or subtract from God's Word - and John tells us the result of that in the book of Revelation. Even Christ Himself stated that He came not to do away with scripture but to fulfill the scripture. It is not worth the risk of falling into the trap of tradition, or man's will, or worse. No slippery slope. No way that seems right to a man. Christ and the Word are One. Sola Scriptura: Something I can hang my faith upon! Thanks again.....