Is Sola Scriptura, the Infallible Doctrine, Enough?
The Protestant Reformation
Exactly 500 years and 26 days ago, Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of a Catholic Church and accidentally sparked the Protestant reformation. Ever since then, the concept of Sola Scriptura (scripture alone) has been a cornerstone of many Protestant denominations. It is the idea that the Bible is the only unerring source of divine revelation. In order to understand the truth of God, everybody needed to read and believe the Bible for themselves. The recent invention of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press made that possible.
Prior to Luther, the Church was the sole interpreter of divine revelation. It was comprised of fallible men, some of whom were corrupt, who told the people what to believe and why. At the time, only the nobility was literate, the common masses had no way to interpret scripture for themselves. Having a magistrate within the church to explain theology was merely a matter of practicality. After the printing press, invented in the previous century, the populace had reason to become literate. It is worth noting, the first book ever printed on the press was the Gutenberg Bible. Printed in Latin, Luther translated it into German, thereby making it even more accessible to the public.
Ironically, the scriptures themselves do not teach the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.
For the first time in history, people could study the Bible on their own and discover Biblical truths for themselves. Originally the church objected to Luther’s presumptuousness; if the laity could interpret scripture, then they could also misinterpret it. This could lead to all manner of heresy by the uninformed and under-informed alike. And to be sure, it certainly has had those who have misconstrued its words and meaning. One need only to look to the Millerites, Oneida community, Jonestown, Branch Davidians, and other radical sects to see the dangers of misinterpreting the Bible. However, by and large, the Protestant community feels that a deeper understanding of Biblical content and context is worth the risk of fringe factions. By engaging in Bible study, one can develop a deeper appreciation and more intimate relationship with both the Bible and God.
It is hard to find fault with that logic, and difficult to argue the results. 500 years later; most of the world is literate and the Bible is the best selling book in history, with well over a billion copies in existence. Though Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation, it was never his intent to do so. He wanted the repair what was broken within the church, not break away from it completely. However, once the wheels had been set in motion, it became an unstoppable juggernaut. Before much time had passed, new denominations had spread like wildfire. The pendulum had completely swung away from “the Church” and all papal authority. If it was in the Bible; then it was truth, if it wasn’t in the Bible; it wasn’t worth reading.
Ironically, the scriptures themselves do not teach the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. 1 Timothy 3:15 refers to the church as God’s household and “the pillar and foundation of truth.” This idea is confirmed in Ephesians 3:10 when Paul writes that the church is the manifold wisdom of God. Meanwhile, John 20:30 mentions the occurrence of miracles recorded elsewhere that aren’t written in his book. In fact, there are several references throughout the New Testament of events and miracles not found in the Old Testament. Clearly, they had written records and oral accounts of history to which we don’t have access. None of this takes away from Biblical authority, however. God preserved His Word for thousands of years because He wanted us to examine it, feel it, and understand it. A fact that was well understood by the early Protestants.
Faith alone and scripture alone is all one needs for salvation.
Protestantism, Anti-Intellectualism, And The New World
By the 18th and 19th centuries, cultural shifts began to emerge. The highly educated clergy of the Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Puritans were at odds with revivalists of the 1st and 2nd Great Awakenings. As the United States began to expand westward, pioneers found themselves alone in the wilderness away from both schools and churches-- though usually with no shortage of saloons. Education was of little use on the new frontier, and therefore was a frivolous waste of energy. Revivalists and circuit riders catered to that mentality. In the past, literacy was seen by the Protestants as the pathway to salvation. If one can read, then they can interpret scriptures for themselves and find the grace of God. Education was of the highest Christian duty. However, by the 18th century times had changed, education was no longer as important. The revivalists had to convince skeptical frontiersmen the truth of the Word of God without alienating them.
This was a goal they were able to achieve by convincing them that they didn’t need book -learning to understand God. Faith alone and scripture alone is all one needs for salvation. Though likely unintentional, this led to to an eventual clash between the educated clergy and the uneducated ministers. Ultimately the learned clergy were outnumbered, they lost the battle. By convincing the populace that the only thing they needed was the Bible and faith, the revivalists were able to shape the narrative of the entire country. Ignorance became the mark of faith and education and intellectualism were seen as the stumbling block in one’s Christian journey.
Sola Scriptura became the norm in religious circles and was bolstered by the culture of anti-intellectualism prevalent in the United States. Where it may have won the culture wars, one must question whether or not it actually “won.” There is no doubt that we are saved by grace and not works. God’s salvation is for all mankind, regardless of social status, education, income, politics, or anything else that may divide a nation. One needn’t have a Ph.D in theology to experience the saving grace of a loving God. And it cannot be overstated that the Bible is the Word of God. However, it raises the question of whether or not one can fully appreciate the Bible if their study begins and ends with the singular tome.
Further study may not be needed for salvation, but it is helpful for those who wish to grow in their Christian walk. Seeking information from extra-biblical sources in no way detracts from the Holy Word of God, nor does it make God’s saving Grace any less real.
Study That Goes Beyond The Bible
It is a very common misconception that the Bible is a book. The Bible is not a book, it’s a collection of 66 different books each written for a different purpose. This does not take away its status, but it is important to understand for those who wish to fully recognize its meaning. The Bible was written thousands of years ago. It plunged the reader into a foreign culture in an ancient time which can be confusing for some, and a daunting chore for others. Many of the outdated customs don’t make sense to modern readers who have no basis for comparison or comprehension. The Bible was written by people who understood the importance of the social norms, locations, or even the phraseology used, therefore the authors saw no need for further explanation. With no other well to draw from, modern readers will remain ignorant of some of the intent and meaning behind the words.
Moreover, the Bible is long. Many people who mistake it for a book sit down in Genesis with the intention of reading straight to Revelations. They typically give up somewhere in Leviticus. Without a better understanding of ancient Jewish society, the Bible can be a difficult read. Without understanding the laws and customs of surrounding cultures, one may not appreciate how and why Jewish law was different. Without understanding Jewish culture, it can be difficult to know why Jesus said or did some of the things He did. Further study may not be needed for salvation, but it is helpful for those who wish to grow in their Christian walk. Seeking information from extra-biblical sources in no way detracts from the Holy Word of God, nor does it make God’s saving grace any less real. We are saved by faith alone, but our journey merely begins with salvation, in no way does it end there.
The Bible allows everybody to have equal access to God and interpret scripture for themselves. While this can obviously be seen as a great good, it has also led to the formation of countless denominations, sects, and unfortunately, even a few cults. With the exception of the aforementioned cults, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It enables many people to find the church that most closely aligns with their own interpretation of scriptures. Unfortunately, this can also lead to people cherry- picking the Bible. It’s human nature to seek out the parts of the Bible that we’re the most comfortable with, but it can come at a cost. If we’re not stretching our minds in an effort to understand all parts of the Bible, then of what benefit is Bible study? Seeking beyond the Bible, trying to comprehend the difficult or even controversial verses can be the antidote to Biblical cognitive dissonance. It can create a fuller and more well-rounded relationship with scriptures, and perhaps even strengthen your walk with God.
Using the Bible as a starting point is commendable, but don’t let your study end there. God gave us a fully developed and complex brain so that we will use it. God knows that no matter how smart we may be, we will never truly understand Him or His mysteries. That’s no excuse for us to rest on our laurels, however, as He has provided us with a wealth of information, just ours for the taking. We should strive to continually seek His will, His Word, and His truth. It’s an important part of our lifelong walk with God. Sola Scriptura is fine, but why limit ourselves when there's such a big world out there that can help us better understand our Lord and Saviour?
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© 2017 Anna Watson