Today’s topic: things that sounded great until afterwards. Here are some actual newspaper headlines that meant well, but went badly.

  1. Diana Was Still Alive Hours Before She Died
  2. Police Say Man with No Arms and No Legs is Armed and on the Run
  3. Bugs Flying Around with Wings are Flying Bugs
  4. Homicide Victims Rarely Talk to Police
  5. Statistics Show that Teen Pregnancy Drops off Significantly After Age 25
  6. Federal Agents Raid Gun Shop, Find Weapons

One of the great doctrines of the Reformation was Sola Scriptura. It sounded like such a good doctrine, but then something went askew. Sola Scriptura says that we are bound, not to councils, traditions or any opinions of men, but only to Scripture. Hence, Sola Scriptura, Scripture Alone. The Westminster Confession of Faith (1:6) says it this way (I’ve underlines the important parts):

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life,  is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men.

The Confession is actually making three statements here.  Scripture is clear; Scripture is sufficient; and Scripture is the supreme authority over the church (the Bible stands over both reason and tradition). Luther’s famous statement at the Imperial Diet of Worms (1521) is a perfect illustration of Sola Scriptura. Luther said:

“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God.”

 Now, don’t misunderstand me. There is a lot (A LOT) of good in Sola Scriptura. If I told you that God told me that, in order for you to get into heaven, you had to give generously and often to my off-shore bank account, I hope you would protest loudly that the Bible never requires such a thing of God’s people. That’s a perfect use of Sola Scriptura (but if you want to be safe and would like my account number, just call and I will be happy to provide you with all the deposit details). See, Sola Scriptura is a good thing. And without it, the Reformation would never have happened. Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer explains:

The legitimacy of the Reformation stands or falls on Luther’s judgment that Scripture alone contains all things necessary for salvation, communicates them effectively, compels one’s conscience, determines doctrinal truth, and commands the church’s allegiance above all other earthly powers and authorities, including councils and popes.

The underlined part of that sentence tells us why Sola Scriptura was necessary. In the Middle Ages, councils and popes determined what the Bible was saying and what it required of us. Now, the good news here was that there were basically only a handful of differing opinions on what the Bible was saying. The bad news was most of those opinions were wrong. Then, the Reformation came along and made it so that everyone could interpret the Bible for themselves (which is good), and they did (which is bad). As a result, instead of having a handful of differing opinions, there were thousands of them! Long before the Reformation (actually in the 5th century), a Gallic monk, St. Vincent of Lerins, wrestled with this whole issue. Should we allow everyone to interpret the Bible for themselves or should we hand over that responsibility to the Church. He wrote:

“Some may ask, since the canon of Scripture is complete and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation? For this reason: because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters.”

And there is the rub. Sola Scriptura (along with the priesthood of all believers) allows everyone (everyone!) the right to interpret Scripture for themselves, Now, that would be fine if everyone had that right, but didn’t use it; but they do. As a result, according to the 2010 Atlas of Global Christianity, there are at least 38,000 different denominations in the world, each one believing that they have the best and most correct interpretation of the Bible. How could that be? Because while Sola Scriptura was based on the belief that the Bible was so clear that anyone (anyone!) could understand it and while I sympathize with that view, I am just not so sure it is as simple as that. I know saying something like that can get you excommunicated or even executed (whichever comes first), but let me explain by making three points.

First, Sola Scriptura is hiding something. The truth is that it is impossible to believe in Sola Scriptura for the simple reason that the Scripture we believe in is never alone. It always requires interpretation. Underline “always.”  In fact, say “always” three times. Sola Scriptura makes it sound like we believe that God’s Word stands above us in all matters of faith and practice, but it hides the fact that what often stands above us is our interpretation of God’s Word. Now, at this moment, I am not saying that we always twist Scripture to make it say what we want; rather, I am saying that what we think Scripture says, determines what we do. If Scripture says greet one with a holy kiss (like it does repeatedly, Rom. 16:16, 1 Cor. 16:20, 2 Cor. 13:12, 1 Thess. 5:26 and 1 Peter 5:14), we feel compelled to pucker up. And so it is with all sorts of Biblical imperatives unless we can think of a good reason not to do so. Here’s the point: Understanding what the Bible is saying is all interpretation, all the way down.

Second, most people don’t believe in Sola Scriptura and instead believe in “Our Sola Scriptura.” In other words, most of us believe that Scripture clearly says what we believe (and that everyone else is wrong). George Bernard Shaw said it best: “No man ever believes that the Bible means what it says: He is always convinced that it says what he means.” How many people have you known who have gladly provided you with an interpretation of a verse that they absolutely believe is clear, sufficient and authoritative that you are absolutely sure is off-the-wall goofy and wrong? To me, it happens a lot. Now, technically, we could argue that it is not Scripture that is at fault here, rather it is us, but that just makes Shaw’s point for him. We believe in “Our Sola Scriptura”—our interpretation of Scripture alone is our authority and ought to be the authority for everyone else, too.

Third, most people who do believe in Sola Scriptura prefer that over Sola Interpreting. All of us pick up four or five keys to interpreting the Bible when we first get serious about our faith, but rarely do we press on and become skilled in interpreting the Bible. Søren Kierkegaard once said, “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.” It is the same here. People demand the freedom to interpret the Bible the way they like as compensation for the freedom to learn how to properly approach God’s Word with skill, wisdom, humility and grace. See, Sola Scriptura works great when we all agree on what Scripture says; but when we disagree, most of us are content to a) throw stones at our enemies, b) retreat to an enclave of people who think just like us, or c) pray for the salvation of those heretics. Few of us humbly invite people who differ from us into conversations so that we can listen to how they arrived at their position and fewer still truly examine how we came to the conclusions we did. Here’s the point: interpreting the Bible is one of the most important skills we can obtain, but most people don’t invest the time, energy or thought into what that all requires.

See, there are lots of things that at one time sounded great; but once they were “released into the wild,” we realized something was awry. Sola Scriptura is wise and good and necessary as long as it is understood with all of these caveats and applied humbly. But most of the time, we ignore these speed bumps and, instead, insist on our rights to interpret the Bible as we see fit. And that is not helpful, and so I applaud all of those of you who want to press on and think seriously about the whole process of how we approach and interpret the Bible so we will not regret our views once they are “out there.” As the headline says: “One-Armed Man Applauds the Kindness of Strangers.”

*Next week, I promise, we will begin discussing the actual book, The Bible With and Without Jesus, which is the reason for this whole series.
Now, while we haven’t specifically mentioned the book yet,
both of these posts were necessary as they prepare us
to interact with all the interesting questions Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler will raise.