A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Five Hundred Years – Now What! Part IV: Scripture Alone, Part Two
October 19, 2017
While the Reformation emphases on grace alone, faith alone, and Scripture alone are equally important, they benefit us differently. The first two disclose what God has done for us and what God requires of us, while sola scriptura teaches us more broadly who God is, who we are, and how to inhabit the world in which God has placed us. Each depends on the other, yet of the three, sola scriptura is most foundational, since it is in the deep rich soil of Scripture that Reformation understandings of grace alone and faith alone are rooted. Apart from Scripture how would we know of the grace of God extended to us in Jesus, and of God’s invitation to respond in faith that this grace is truly for us?
In a happy coincidence of history (or maybe it wasn’t so coincidental at all), the Reformation’s emphasis on sola scriptura arose on the heels of the invention of the printing press that made possible the broad public distribution of the Scriptures. The Reformers busied themselves from the outset translating Scriptures (which the people had heard in Latin, a language they didn’t understand) into the vernacular. The emergence of popular literacy was also a critical feature of the Reformation. Now people “in the pew” could read the Bible for themselves.
Roman authorities saw in this development both a theological danger and a threat to their power. The danger was that people without theological training could make Scripture say whatever they wanted it to say (as though those with theological training didn’t do the same, but I digress). Theologically unlearned people could get crazy ideas from fragments or isolated threads of Scripture. And of course they were right. The threat was that if the people had direct access to Scripture, they may no longer revere the priestly functions of the church.
The Reformers did not do away with the priestly function, but broadened it to encompass all believers (more on that next week). And they didn’t leave Scripture to be interpreted willy-nilly by individual whim. Still, when everyone has equal access to the Bible, the church loses control on how it gets read. That is one of the prices the Reformation paid in getting the Bible into everyone’s hands.
Consider three fundamental safeguards against idiosyncratic readings of Scripture:
By putting Scripture in the hands of the people in the pew, the Reformers sought to increase their faith, rather than scatter it. Consider the people of Berea, one of the cities in which Paul announced the message of Jesus on his missionary tours. According to Acts 17:11-12, after hearing Paul they checked out together whether his message had biblical warrant, something that marked them as “more receptive” than those who merely took Paul’s word for it.
Paul, the fountainhead of Christian theology, was educated in the best scholarship of his day. (Acts 22:3) Ever since, Christian understanding has been shaped by rigorous study. The Reformers doubled down on the importance of learning ancient languages and schools of thought. It is no accident that Geneva in Calvin’s day birthed the modern university as we know it. This is the environment in which the Reformers’ sola scriptura was established.
One way to assure that we read the whole of Scripture (not just our favorite texts) is to follow a comprehensive lectionary. Calvin insisted that preaching be rooted in continuous reading of both Testaments. According to second-century writer Justin Martyr, from its earliest days the Christian community read together the words of Scripture (our Old Testament) and the memoirs of the apostles (our New Testament).
The Reformers teach us to interpret Scripture’s more obscure passages in light of its clearer teachings. Moreover, responsible interpretation weights the importance of biblical teachings by the frequency and trajectory of their occurrences in Scripture. By these standards, Israel’s ancient ceremonial law is not as significant as its moral law, as expressed in the Ten Commandments and affirmed repeatedly throughout Scripture. By the rule of trajectory, the ancient teachings of avenging justice (an eye for an eye) are superseded by later teachings on mercy, something Jesus underscores in Matthew 5:38-42. Are the things that matter most to our faith and witness strongly supported by the weight and trajectory of Scripture?
Perhaps you have noticed that I seek in these letters regularly to cite Scripture as the foundation of our faith and life. I do so as an heir of the Reformers who underscore the singular significance of Scripture as the foundation of all we do and say as the Christian community.
Yours in searching the Scriptures,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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