Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Sola Scriptura?

My article from this week's newspapers:

Q:  Does the Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) mean that Christians are forbidden from using any other sources to help them understand the teachings of Jesus?

Sola Scriptura, the idea that Scripture is the only authority for teaching in the Christian Church, was one of the “Four Solas” of the Reformation, which also included Sola Gratia (Grace Alone – that salvation is purely a gift from God, not earned by our deeds or behavior), Sola Fide (Faith Alone – that God’s grace is received by simply by trusting in Him, and not by any human effort or ability), and Solus Christus (Christ Alone – that God’s grace, in which we trust, comes to us only because of the crucified Christ). 

While there have been many historical misunderstandings of each of these, Sola Scriptura can have its own particular challenges.  On one hand, many churches have introduced one or more sources of authority alongside of the Scriptures, while at the same time, many reflexively reject all other documents and formulations out of hand, even when they are not elevated to the same level as Scripture. 

On one side of the equation, it is dangerous to add sources of authority alongside of, or particularly, above, the Bible. The apostle John even warns of this danger in the final verses of the book of Revelation, promising divine consequences to any who would add to or take away from Scripture.

One way in which this occurs is when there is a human official who is given the authority to unilaterally rule on what the Bible means and to speak with divine authority on issues that are deemed to be unclear in the Bible or where the Bible has remained silent.  In addition to the inherent danger of adding rules or teaching beyond the Bible, there is also the potential that the official, whether intentionally or unintentionally, will find themselves in a situation where their declarations contradict Scripture, which results in their ultimately becoming superior to the Bible or reinterpreting the Bible to fit with the new teachings. 

Another way in which this occurs is when a person’s individual experiences are allowed to become a source of authority. Because religious experiences cannot be verified, they leave no reliable way to know whether they were genuine, mistaken, or even a deception sent by the enemy, making them inadequate as authorities regarding God and what He desires or wants us to know, especially in cases where they contradict or go beyond the written Word. 

Another category of extra-Biblical sources is the History, Liturgy, and Creeds of the Church.  These differ, because they are rooted in Scripture itself.  Church History tells us how past Christians have handled questions and understood the Bible.  The Liturgy speaks to what the beliefs of Christians have been through the ages or what the emphasis of a particular tradition might be, and the Creeds are summaries of Scripture intended to aid memorization and to briefly, yet clearly, articulate the core beliefs of the Church to others. 

While these could become dangerous in the event they were made equal to Scripture or placed above it, they are not inherently problematic.  Because the ancient Creeds, for example, are drawn completely from Scripture, they merely repeat in summary form what has already been said, and do not add to the Bible. 

When liturgy or historical documents are used with the understanding that they are drawn from and ultimately point us back to Scripture, they actually aid our understanding of what Scripture has already said and help us to understand and avoid the places where those in the past have gone astray, and as long as the understanding remains that they are secondary documents derived from Scripture, and never equal to or above it, they become aids that allow us to stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before as we address the contemporary questions of our age from a Biblical foundation. 

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