A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Five Hundred Years – Now What? Part III: Scripture Alone
October 12, 2017
As I noted last week, our theology as a church includes an abiding commitment to “the Protestant watchwords – grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone” (Book of Order F-2.04). After last week’s exploration of “grace alone” and “faith alone,” we turn now to what we mean when we say we are committed to “Scripture alone.”
While Martin Luther did not say “Here I stand, I can do no other” (as is popularly assumed), here is what he did say in response to the Emperor’s demand that he recant his teachings: “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God.” Notice that it isn’t, technically, sola scriptura, but Scripture plus reason.
The Protestant Reformers believed that reason is a necessary tool for understanding Scripture rightly. It is indispensable in three interrelated quests: 1. What did the biblical writers really say? 2. How have these writings been heard by those who receive them as the Word of God? 3. What do these sacred texts teach us today about who God is, what God has done for us, and what God requires of us?
When we claim to be guided by “Scripture alone,” we are not saying that we read it apart from the company of others. Idiosyncratic personal interpretation of Scripture is utterly foreign to the spirit of the Reformers. We ignore the caution of 2 Peter 1:20 to our great peril: “No prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.” Just as the words of Scripture are more than merely human words, hearing them rightly is beyond private human capacity.
The Spirit of God is necessary for both the writing and the hearing of these texts as the Word of God. And the way the Spirit works among hearers is through them listening together, each contributing a gift of the Spirit to help the church understand what the Spirit is saying to us through these ancient texts. Practically, this leads us to read the Bible together with other books that unpack the truths the sacred texts declare.
Luther’s declaration of fidelity to Scripture was far from a declaration of interpretive independence. For both Luther and Calvin, biblical interpretation involved a rigorous dialogue with many others. Their Bible commentaries and theological treatises are loaded with footnotes citing the long history of Christian interpreters. Sometimes they agree with their interlocutors, and sometimes not, but they never close their ears to them.
A robust commitment to sola scriptura requires that we be attentive to all three of the interpretive quests mentioned above, and that we pursue each in the company of others who likewise seek to hear the Word of God rightly. Alas, these three quests have birthed three areas of academic specialty that rarely interact with each other.
Biblical exegetes competent in the languages and cultures of the biblical world pursue the first quest: What did the biblical writers really say? There are many schools within this silo, such as historical, textual, and canonical criticism, and they debate vigorously what these texts really said.
Historians pursue the second quest, studying the ways in which the sacred texts have shaped thought and life across the centuries in the many places they have been read and revered.
My own academic specialty, according to my Ph.D. diploma, is “Christian theology and ethics.” This is roughly the territory of the third quest into how these texts shape our understanding of who God is, what God has done for us, and what God requires of us today.
For the Reformers, reading the Bible rightly involved pursuing these quests together. This is the work of “plain reason” with which Luther read Scripture. It is no small task. Any purported authority, whether personal or corporate (for Luther, “popes and councils”), that fails to be governed by Scripture in this richly textured way, loses its moral authority even if it maintains institutional authority.
What was true for Luther five hundred years ago may be even more salient for us, namely that those who claim to speak for God need to be tested and tried against the great witness of Holy Scripture. We do not live in the face of monolithic religious authorities like Luther did with Rome. Many putative authorities who claim to speak for God yet shun the hard work of fidelity to sola scriptura. Beloved, we need more than ever to be immersed in the grand treasure of our Holy Book. What does that involve for us? Stay tuned.
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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