The 16th-century Reformers—Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Knox and others—were derisively nicknamed, “the Sola-ists.” They distilled the essence of the gospel into 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?
In Living Faith our church affirmed that: “The Bible has been given to us by the inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life. It is the standard of all doctrine by which we must test any word that comes to us from church, world or inner experience. We subject to its judgment all we believe and do.” (5.1)
This statement reflects one of the Reformation distinctives—sola scriptura—which refers to the fact that the Bible teaches all truth that is necessary for salvation and is the ultimate authority in all issues related to our spiritual life.
When the Bible became accessible in the language of the people and when Martin Luther raised the issue of “private interpretation” of the Bible, it caused a great stir in the church. Now people could read the Bible, interpret it and relate it to the way they ordered their lives. In response, the church declared that the teaching office of the church was responsible for giving the meaning of scripture and there was no place for private interpretation. They feared that if the interpretation of the scriptures was left in the hands of untrained laity there would be distortions to the truth.
The Reformers did not intend to give the impression that the Bible was to be interpreted in any manner that suited a person; in fact, they argued the church had a significant role to play in interpreting the text. There were “pastors and teachers” (Ephesians 4:11-12) called and gifted by God, with the task of building up the community of faith, teaching sound doctrine, and preventing heresy from destroying the unity of the church. In their minds, scripture was not to be subject to “personal or private interpretation.” There needed to be proper checks and balances.
Today the issue is still debated. There is reluctance by some to grant the church the authority to interpret the scriptures. They argue that each individual is able to interpret the Bible for themselves apart from doctrinal beliefs as set forth in the creeds of the church. Such reasoning infers that each person becomes the final source of authority. One person might give an interpretation of a text and another present a different interpretation. Are both interpretations valid? Can both be true? If the answer is yes, then we are left with an interpretation of scripture that is highly subjective.
If we are to correctly interpret and understand the Bible we need an objective basis. There are principles of interpretation we must follow if we are going to understand the text and apply it as the “rule of faith and life.” For example, one such principle is the analogy of faith, which refers to the fact that scripture interprets scripture. This means that one passage of scripture cannot be interpreted in a manner that conflicts with something clearly taught in another passage. A second principle is that we must interpret the Bible literally.
This does not mean treating every passage as if it were clipped from a contemporary newspaper. It means that we understand the text in its historical context with attention to the literary style and genre. Some texts are written in poetic form, others are historical record. Understanding such basic principles helps to accurately interpret the text.
These comments are not intended to speak against the private reading of the Bible; it is wonderful that more people are reading and studying the scriptures. But we need to read it accurately. Many people who enter the church for the first time are not familiar with the Bible and need to have adequate teaching to understand it if they are to relate it to daily life.
In our congregational settings we have emphasized the teaching role of the laity; whether it is teaching in our Christian education programs or in home Bible study groups. Nor is it uncommon for lay people to preach in our pulpits. But who is helping these people correctly interpret the word of God as they give biblical instruction to others? Do they receive training from pastors and teachers or do we assume that their private interpretation of scripture is adequate for the task at hand?
The primary task of teaching elders (ministers) in our Presbyterian tradition is to enable congregants to correctly interpret the word of God and to equip them for ministry. If ministers give themselves to this task, congregants under their care will be able to “test any word that comes from church, world or inner experience.” Without this sound teaching, we will be caught up in confusion.