Sola Scriptura

Over on his blog Liturgy, Bosco Peters (an Anglican priest in New Zealand) has an item about the notion of sola scriputra on the occasion of the Anglican commemoration of the 16th Century English theologian Richard Hooker.

For many, both historically and today, the phrase is taken at face value, as a literal statement of the role of the Bible: “scripture alone.” Peters does a good job of pointing out the insufficiency of this understanding of the phrase. It isn’t a doctrine of the ancient church, nor is it sufficient to guide our interpretation of the Bible.

The problem, however, lies not with sola scriptura, per se, but with understanding it (or rather, misunderstanding it) too literally. It must be understood that sola scriptura is a slogan. It’s birth is in polemic. It’s purpose is to make a point strongly and memorably. The mistake is to make “scripture alone” the doctrine itself, rather than to understand the phrase as pointing to a more complex and nuanced understanding of the place of the Bible in the church.

The phrase, adopted by many Protestant traditions, has it’s origins, of course, in the Lutheran Reformation. But sola scriptura (Scripture alone) was not alone. It goes together with sola gratia (grace alone), sola fide (faith alone), and sola Christus (Christ alone). They all belong together. The purpose of the Scriptures is to convey Christ to us, to bear witness to God and his relationship to his people. Our reading of the biblical texts needs the rest of all that is behind these slogans to keep it grounded in that central purpose. All too easily, people can turn “sola scriptura” into a justification of the Bible as rule book, or toward their own whims and fancies of interpretation.

For Lutherans, perhaps the clearest yet most succinct description of the role sola scriptura plays in the church’s use of the Bible in matters of doctrine and practice is to be found in the first item of the Formula of Concord. ┬áIt’s Epitome begins with this first point: “We believe, teach, and confess that the only rule and guiding principle according to which all teachings are to be evaluated and judged are the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments alone, as it is written, ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path’ (Ps. 119:[:105]), and Saint Paul : ‘If… an angel from heaven should proclaim to you something contrary,… let that one be accursed!” (Gal 1[:8]).”

Here the Scriptures are not put in the position of being the only possible and appropriate sources as we work though theological matters, seek faithful practice as Christians, and bring the Good News to the world around us. Rather, the Scriptures are understood to be yardstick against which all that is to be judged. Reason and tradition can enter our deliberations and discussions. We can certainly make use of them. But all must be tested against the Scriptures (understood with all the other “solas” in mind), for they may also lead us astray away from the central focus of our faith in Christ.

Further, it should be remembered that slogans are intended to be memorable, but not merely as a mnemonic aid. These slogans (sola scriptura amongst them) are something of a theological rallying cry. They come from the Reformation. They were born of polemic. Their purpose was to serve the reform of the Christian faith. But they must be understood in that context. The slogans advocate, but also oppose. Both are necessary parts for understanding what they might mean. Also necessary is an appreciation that the context is also polarized by the conflicts and differences, and the need to be able to carry out reform.

Sola scriptura doesn’t need to be discarded when one looks at the more complex ways in which faith, theology, and practice actually develop and function in our churches. Nor does it need to be discarded because an approach to the phrase that is too literalistic, legalistic, and minimalistic is woefully inadequate. It should be recognized that these two Latin (or English) words do not sum up the entirety of the doctrine, but really amount to stand ins.

But, perhaps the biggest problem is that Protestants (many, even most, Lutherans included, the Formula of Concord notwithstanding) have tended to see sola scriptura as about the Bible’s use. It gets taken to be about, essentially, policy and procedure. None of the other solas are about that kind of thing. They are about the believer in relationship with God. Perhaps we’ve rather missed the point.


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