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Sola Scriptura

Tried and True—Or Problematic?


SolasOur Feature on the Solas
The 16th – century reformers—Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Knox and others—were derisively nicknamed, “the Sola – ists.” They distilled the essence of the gospel in five Latin slogans using the word sola, meaning only, solely or exclusively: sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura, solo Christo, soli Deo gloria (grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone, Christ alone, to God’s glory alone).

Today the solas of early Protestantism run up against other realities and claims: What does it mean to say “Christ alone” in a multi – religious world? How does scripture alone square with contemporary thought about biblical interpretation? And so on. So, are we still sola – ists today?


Scripture alone—this has been one of the ringing proclamations upon which the Protestant world has built the basis of its understanding of the Christian faith. The 66 books of the Old and New Testaments recognized by Protestants have been understood to be the rule of faith and life—not church councils or ancient creeds, not pronouncements of bishops or conclaves. Through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Bible is to be interpreted by reference to itself. It is the witness of the whole canon and not bits and pieces chosen at random that opens to us our understanding of God.
Historically, Protestants have understood the revelation of God in Christ to be the high point of that revelatory stream and thus the New Testament becomes a kind of linchpin in determining the sense of the rest of the scriptures. Unfortunately, this is where problems arise. If the Holy Spirit guides those who seek after God through the scriptures, why is it that there are approximately 30,000 denominations of Protestants in the United States alone, all maintaining that their interpretations of scripture are correct, and many differing so widely from each other that a visitor from outer space would wonder whose scriptures they were talking about? From the wildest fundamentalists to the most extreme radical textual critic, the understandings and positions they take are so dissimilar that one is required to ask: “Whose scriptures are we talking about?”
When Luther and other Reformers demanded that the Bible be made available to the laity in their own language, they firmly believed that these inspired scriptures, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the leadership of Reformed theologians, would break Christians free from the authority of the medieval church with its suspect practices, such as the use of indulgences for the remission of sins. It wasn’t long before even these leaders of reform began attacking other Christians, such as the Anabaptists, on the basis of what Luther and Calvin determined were wrong interpretations of scripture. This understanding of how we are to interpret scripture has always been the Sword of Damocles hanging over the head of the concept sola scriptura. For what might be termed orthodox Protestants, sola scriptura has never been understood to mean that any single Christian’s interpretation of scripture is as good as any other’s. As our own Living Faith puts it: “Both Old and New Testaments were written within communities of faith and accepted as scripture by them. Those who seek to understand the Bible need to stand within the church and listen to its teaching.” (Living Faith, 5.3)
Which raises another point. In the first four centuries of the church’s life, there was not just one community of faith. There were numbers of them and they did not all agree on what constituted “scripture.” By the time of the Reformation, Protestants accepted the Old Testament that had been canonized by Jewish scholars in the second century CE. Thus today there are three main canons of the Old Testament: the 39 books of the Jewish Tanakh and Protestant churches, the 46 accepted by Roman Catholics and the 51 accepted by most Orthodox churches. (And Anglicans sit on the fence between the Protestants and Roman Catholics.) Consequently, if it is sola scriptura, whose scriptura are we talking about?
There is a school of theological thought that runs under the name of the Jesus Seminar whose members attempt to discover the “historical Jesus” hidden, as they maintain, beneath the words of the four gospels. They seek to determine which parts of the gospels are the original stories and which are accretions of later church theology. Consequently, they depart from the general approach to New Testament interpretation by weeding out segments they claim are not historically accurate to Jesus’ time. (Similar questions were asked in the first centuries of the church’s existence.)
It really is a bit of a muddle to the average Christian. However, one needs to recognize that even those who want to take a radical view of Christianity are forced to deal with these canonical books. We may differ in our understandings about what the Christian faith is all about in reference to our understanding of God, of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but no matter what we believe we are forced to recognize that, like it or not, it is the 66 books that compose our Bible that have to be dealt with. We may argue about interpretation. Some may even want to dismember some of them (even Luther wanted to get rid of the Epistle of James) but one way or another, these are the books that frame our faith.

3 Comments

  1. avatar

    All the problematic points cited herein (from “no… private interpretation” + II Peter 1:20 to the anti-Scriptural second-guessing of the Jesus Seminar ) obstructive to a sound interpretation of Holy Scripture find not their Biblical solution, which is the Reformed solution, in the whole ecclesia either:that is a distinctly Roman Catholic solution that mandates the Church begat the Bible;Protestaants believe The WORD/Bible begat The Church.+ Ephesians 2:20/OT+NT. It is not in the Church, but rather in the Church’s authorized preaching (+ Romans 10:17) of The Gospel of Jesus Christ whereby Sola/solely does The Door of the House of Interpreter open. The sword of The Spirit can never be the sword of Damocles.

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    James Thomson Reply:

    Matheson’s response merely supports what I have written. She writes, “…it is not in the church but in the church’s authorized preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ whereby sola/solely does the Door of the House of interpreter open.” I have never yet met any preacher who does not firmly believe that what he/she preaches is authorized, either by some ecclesiastical body or by God directly. Thus the more than 30,000 Protestant denominations in the United States all mainatining the veracity of what they proclaim, many of them extremely divergent from one another. You have merely affirmed my point.

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    Gunar Kravalis says:

    Dr. Thompson has shone an important insight into the on going controversey over the issue of of the interpretation of scripture. Biblical interpretation can be a complex problem. The earlier confidence of the Reformers that all scripture could be interpreted with ease by all Christians dissolved as they began to argue over the meaning of the text. Over time, these arguments grew in bitterness and intensity. (In the middle of the 16th century a book was published which contained over 300 interpretations Jesus’ words, “This is my body” and the implications of those four words on the nature of the true presence of Christ in th eucharist). Partly in response to the unending cacophony of controversey, Luther and Calvin both, to the end of their years continued to develope new rules by which legitimate interpretations of scripture could be deduced. Those old arguments have never been resolved; it’s just that today most lay people can no longer understand them and therefore ceased to care. The long history of the church–not just during the Reformation– confirms that various interpretations of scripture have indeed been used as the basis of conflict and division. I think though, the primary cause of such a sad and tragic history lies not in the obsurity of the text. Instead, prideful, sinful humans who misuse scripture for their own power and gain have caused the problems. In my experience it is without benefit to struggle too hard in seeking to understand the more obsure or disturbing passages of scriptures. It can be potentially dangerous to argue about such passages with others. Rather, I have found it is wiser to pass over these texts until a later time. Then with greater maturity — and hopefully a wiser and more sober judgment — we may finally see the value and message that God has for us in these inspired words. As Calvin once remarked on the task of interpreting scripture, “Sobriety is best.”

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