Reformation Day Post: A Reflection on Sola Scriptura
I’m frequently a witness to theological online discussions, and I have noticed that very few people understand what the Reformers meant with the principle of Scripture alone. One man consistently argued that there is no such thing, because even the Reformers referred to the theologians who had gone before them. He is neither Roman nor Orthodox, but the pastor of a non-denominational, charismatic church.
Throw in a reference to a confession or catechism, and people almost always consider you to have lost the game at that point.
In other words, sola scriptura has come to mean that you try to read and interpret the Bible entirely on your own, at times, even discounting your own prior knowledge. However, this is a gross distortion of the doctrine.
Well before the time of the Reformation, Rome had come to a sceptical position on the perspicuity of Scripture — that is, they believed that the lay people absolutely cannot understand Scripture on their own. Against this, the Reformers believed that everything a person needed to know for salvation could be clearly understood from Scripture on one’s own — without the Church as a mediator.
In his Outlines of Theology, A.A. Hodge wrote the following:
10. In what sense do Protestants affirm and Romanists deny the perspicuity of Scripture?
Protestants do not affirm that the doctrines revealed in the Scriptures are level to man’s powers of understanding. Many of them are confessedly beyond all understanding. Nor do they affirm that every part of Scripture can be certainly and perspicuously expounded, many of the prophesies being perfectly obscure until explained by the event. But they do affirm that every essential article of faith and rule of practice is clearly revealed in Scripture, or may certainly be deduced therefrom. This much the least instructed Christian may learn at once; while, on the other hand, it is true, that with the advance of historical and critical knowledge, and by means of controversies, the Christian church is constantly making progress in the accurate interpretation of Scripture, and in the comprehension in its integrity of the system therein taught.
Protestants affirm and Romanists deny that private and unlearned Christians may safely be allowed to interpret Scripture for themselves.
In his answer, Hodge makes clear two points: First, that what is necessary for faith and salvation may be understood by anyone. Second, that the individual alone is not the sole interpreter of Scripture — he refers to the role of the Church. As my theology professor put it, we interpret Scripture within the community of faith, being aware of who has gone before.
And this is where our confessions and catechisms come in. Scripture is the full, complete, and wholly sufficient rule of faith and practice, but our confessions are the interpretation of Scripture by those who have gone before us. Battles over the divinity of Christ, Pelagianism, and just about every heresy you can imagine have been fought — and won. Our confessions are testimony to that — we may point to the Canons of Orange for a systematic refutation of Pelagianism. We have no need to re-invent the wheel, as it were, every time a supposedly “new” issue appears. To do so, is to ignore history, and as a student of history, I find it dreadfully irritating when people do just that.
But our confessions give us more than a history lesson. Cultures around us change continually, and the Church is tempted to go along. But when the cultural adaptations go too far, she loses her distinctives. We can see this in the watered-down teachings of the seeker sensitive movement, in the loss of truth of the emergent church movement. Amongst Reformed churches, when the confessionalism goes, the character of that local congregation (or denomination) changes — and never for the better. We can see this in the battles fought at Princeton Theological Seminary in the beginning of the 20th century. The battles Machen and other conservatives were forced to fight against the modernists were the result of a loosening of Princeton’s hold on the confessions. Today, we can see the results of this in the present state of the PCUSA.
The Reformers returned to the Church the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture. The cost of bringing the Bible back to the language of the people was paid by the blood of martyrs such as William Tyndale. We must never under value our ability to read the Bible on our own. But let us also not forget what else the Reformation churches gave us: our confessions. Sola scriptura does not leave the individual to flounder alone, but instead, it allows the individual to be placed in a community of faith to read and interpret Scripture after those who have gone before. The individual reads the Bible in the Church, which, when you consider the exhortations in Hebrews and other New Testament epistles to not forsake the gathering of the believers and to encourage one another in love and good deeds, is just as it was meant to be.
(This post is part of Tim Challies’ Third Annual Reformation Day Symposium — check the link for more Reformation Day reflections and postings.)