By Scripture Alone; Alone with Scripture

(I am afraid this one gets a little preachy; possibly a little critical. As always, my heart is not to attack, but to rebuild.)

Gutenberg Bible

The Gutenberg Bible, the first printed Bible. (Wikipedia)

So continuing from my thoughts yesterday:

One of the most strident cries of the Protestant Reformation, and of Protestants to this day, is sola scriptura: by Scripture alone. Scripture, the Bible, was to be the sole rule and authority of faith and doctrine.

From an academic standpoint, I can respect this. It holds Christian doctrine and tradition to a very high, legalistic standard of proof. It demands that all belief and practice be absolutely attested to in inspired writing and stamped with divine approval. It demands written attestation by the Apostles — or by God Himself — before Christians put any element of faith into action. But is this a reasonable expectation?

As I wrote yesterday, nothing in our New Testament represents itself as a compendium or catechism of the Christian faith. No book claims to contain the sum of Christian truth. There is no demand or expectation in the New Testament that the New Testament writings alone should support, nourish, instruct, or guide the Church. At the time these documents were written, there wasn’t even any such collection as the New Testament. How could Paul, at the time he wrote his letters, have expected that his words, with those of a few others, would be the sole rule of the Church’s faith? Arguably, he and the other writers were aware that their writing was inspired by the Holy Spirit; but it is doubtful that they at the time would have understood their words to be Scripture — which to them referred to the Old Testament (though St. Peter in 2 Peter 3:15-16 apparently places St. Paul’s writings on the level with Scripture by the end of their lives, ca. A.D. 63–67).

It is evident throughout the New Testament that the Apostles’ primary mode of transmitting the teachings of Christ was through spoken preaching and teaching, not writing. Most of the Apostles were too busy doing other things, like evangelizing to the ends of the earth and dying martyrs for the faith, to write much. That Paul was such an effective writer as well as a tireless preacher surely had a lot to do with why Christ chose him. On every page of Paul’s epistles, he refers to what he taught to the churches in person, teachings that he does not repeat in writing. The Early Church, living prior to the New Testament being collected, received their Christian faith directly through the oral teaching of the Apostles and their successors, and could not have even comprehended an insistence on “Scripture alone.” It is a little ironic that a faith so focused on sermons and preaching should at the same time reject the oral tradition of the Apostles.

Some Protestant sects take this rejection further than others. Especially some of the older groups, such as Lutherans and Anglicans, have retained many of the external trappings of the Church’s traditions. I speak only anecdotally, I confess — I have a lot of reading to do about these churches — but I often hear Anglicanism referred to as “Catholic lite.” Many more conservative and traditional Anglicans are making the journey back to the Mother Church by the parish. I’ve never been a part of a Lutheran church, but through following Ken Ranos and talking to my friend Heather (who attends an ELCA church in California), I’m frequently nodding in agreement at all the similarities and parallels between our traditions. They take the attitude, it seems, that many of the traditions of the Church are valuable and beautiful and praiseworthy, and ought not to be discarded as long as they don’t hinder the Gospel of Christ.

Other churches, especially those descending from the Calvinist tradition, take the rejection of tradition much further. Here I’m on much more familiar ground, having been a part of Baptist and Presbyterian churches. The iconoclasm of Reformation Calvinists toward religious images is well known. It is evident to anyone who has ever seen or set foot in an evangelical church the extent to which their sects have rejected the artistic, ornamental, and architectural aspects of tradition. In doctrine, to a further point than Lutherans or Anglicans, these churches reject anything that is not written explicitly on the face of Scripture. The Sacraments of Confession and Confirmation are completely absent, for example — if not the notion of sacramentality itself. The veneration of saints, the very idea of sainthood, is gone. The attitude here, as I’ve heard from many Protestants, is that the absence of a tradition from Scripture is reason in itself not to do it.

This can, and has, been taken to extremes. The Seventh-Day Adventists and their ilk reject Sunday worship — which has been practiced by the Church since the earliest days — because it is not commanded by Scripture. The Churches of Christ reject the use of musical instruments in worship because there is no evidence of it in the New Testament. I encountered a “new wave” church in Alabama that had no pastor but professed to practice a “New Testament model of church organization.” I am not quite sure what that means, since the New Testament never lays out a model of church organization; but presumably it included elders and deacons. It is common to hear of Protestant churches that try to reconstruct the New Testament Church — but the New Testament gives only glimpses of the faith and practice of the Early Church; most evangelicals reject the authorities that would shed the most light, the Church Fathers. Some churches are even rejecting the traditional doctrine of the Trinity, and returning to such ancient heresies as Sabellianism and Arianism. I’ve talked to Protestants who readily acknowledged that some of the traditions of the Church are good things to do and hold, and have value and merit — but that their churches nonetheless reject them because they can’t find them in Scripture.

This seems to me to be an awfully lonely and barren place to be. By their strictness in living by Scripture alone, these churches are left entirely alone with Scripture. They have shorn themselves of all of the beautiful and wonderful things that have clothed and ornamented the Church over the ages: all of the history, all of the scholarship, all of the art, all of the music. They have spurned the fellowship of the heroes and martyrs, the great cloud of witnesses, who are a part of our spiritual communion in Christ. Even more seriously, they have cast away elements of the faith — the Sacraments, Holy Orders, Apostolic Succession — that make the Gospel work, that guide and nourish the Church, that protect her teachings and sacraments, and that keep her in communion with the Holy Spirit.

Most tragically, with these nuts and bolts and hinges removed, the Church has lost her unity. Since the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, the breakaway Protestant sects have split, and split, and split again, until there are estimated to be upward of 33,000 distinct Protestant denominations (and this is a conservative estimate). There have been more new denominations formed in the past century than have ever existed in all the prior centuries combined. Many churches — the hundreds of thousands of independent or nondenominational churches — really are completely alone. Only the Catholic Church remains one and coherent in the face of this disintegration. The Protestant churches beyond are splintering.

But wasn’t the Reformation supposed to restore the Church? Wasn’t sola scriptura supposed to bring the Church back to the Gospel? Whatever may be said about the doctrine’s aims, without any kind of magisterial authority to guide the Church, disagreement about the interpretation of Scripture only multiplies. Sola scriptura is the linchpin of the whole Reformation, without which it would not have been possible to reject the Catholic Church, its hierarchy, or its Sacraments. It, more than any other doctrine, is the root of our continued disagreement, and our failure to reunite the Church. And it has fostered the individualistic, private interpretation of Scripture, which to this day has been more divisive than any other element in Christian spirituality.

4 thoughts on “By Scripture Alone; Alone with Scripture

  1. Thanks for the ping!

    That there are so many Protestant churches is perhaps the single greatest colossal failure of the Reformation. Yes, it was supposed to restore the church–and it didn’t. Many of the Reformers’ calls for change were eventually heeded, but not before the schism occurred, not before a price had to be paid. Please don’t think too poorly of them all, though. Luther, for example, never intended to form a separate church–he and his followers didn’t leave, they were kicked out. I deeply lament that this gave others an excuse to simply form their own churches. And while the Reformation failed to keep the church’s unity, it did lead to necessary change.

    The teaching authority problem for Protestants has never really been solved. It is a stumbling block we have to deal with every day.

    • No, I don’t think poorly of the Reformers. I still am pretty fascinated by them and think them pretty heroic for standing up for what they believed in the face of persecution. I think the early ones especially, like Luther, really did want reform and not schism. I think the Catholic Church caused the schism as much as the Reformers did by its knee-jerk responses and persecuting the reformers, rather than hearing them out and trying to work with them. There was definitely corruption and abuse that needed to be cleaned up.

      My beef is mainly with the direction evangelical Protestantism has taken, with its emphasis on individualism and private interpretation. So many evangelicals don’t even see the need for any authority beyond their individual conscience. The answer to doctrinal disagreements stemming from differences of interpretation is to split away and form a new church.

      I just get frustrated. I would really like to see progress made toward reconciliation. And this issue seems to be the heaviest thing standing in the way.

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