Abusing Sola Scriptura

“The Bible doesn’t say it’s wrong, so I can do it if I want to.”

Unfortunately, this is a common refrain among protestants and Lutherans looking for some kind of license.  We can see this very clearly when it comes to sexuality.  One of the most common questions unmarried Christians ask themselves is “how far is too far”?  Is it ok to hold hands? To kiss?  Make-out?  Heavy petting?  Sex acts that don’t involve penetration?  Intercourse?  One can answer these questions with wisdom, but it is hard to do so with proof texts, and so many simply do whichever of these they want.  Of course the 6th Commandment says that adultery is wrong, but many consider that this means the unmarried have no obligations.  One could point out other passages such as Jesus’ condemnation of lust in the Sermon on the Mount, Paul’s comment on homosexuality in Romans, or the frequent warnings against fornication throughout the epistles.  Nevertheless, anyone raised on the NIV reads only the empty label of “sexual immorality” where fornication is mentioned (“what I’m doing isn’t sexually immoral!”), homosexuality interests only a small portion of the population, and when one comes to the point where one thinks only adultery and lust are wrong but everything in between is okay, one will necessarily lose one’s understanding of what lust is.  And so we end up with the normalcy of premarital sex inside the church and lose any concept of the virtue of chastity.

We find the same thing happening when we consider the use of post-biblical technology.  For example, Rome has long taught that contraception is wrong.  Protestants have long responded that the Bible doesn’t specifically condemn it, so it must be ok.  Now, however, there are a growing number of protestants and Lutherans who find the Roman arguments on the subject compelling.  Some agree with the Roman teaching that contraception is always and without exception morally impermissible.  Many others do not go so far as making it a moral absolute, but do recognize that contraception is not simply ok to use whenever and however one wants (and that our typical usage is indeed wrong).  But these kinds of moral arguments proceed mostly from natural law and wisdom–they are fortified by Biblical attitudes (such as children being a blessing), but not by specific Biblical commands.  We don’t have proof texts, and so most Christians still refrain “the Bible doesn’t say it’s wrong, so we can do whatever we want.”

But why do so many Christians eschew wisdom in favor of proof-texting?  Perhaps because quite frequently, well-meaning pastors and theologians join in the chorus of the license-seekers and claim that Sola Scriptura somehow implies that the Bible is ethically exhaustive.  They do not seek license for themselves, but instead do not want anyone to harm their neighbors’ Christian freedom by laying down new oppressive rules.  And so they teach that anything the Bible doesn’t specifically command or forbid must therefore be morally neutral–that it’s neither right nor wrong.  Indeed, many Lutherans will go so far as to call it morally wrong and harmful to our neighbors to actually discern wickedness anywhere that Scripture doesn’t explicitly point it out.  By doing so, they imagine that they are being more faithful to Scripture than those who use reason and natural law to discern right & wrong and broadly apply Biblical principles as they live their lives.

The irony is that this doesn’t seem to be Scripture’s take on the matter.  Rather, Scripture seems to say that whatever Scripture falls silent on is a matter to be discerned by our good judgment.  There are, of course, Paul’s famous words in 1 Corinthians 6: “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful.  ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be enslaved by anything.'”   There is also Ephesians 5.  Paul lays out some instructions, certainly, but they are somewhat vague:  we should not involve ourselves in “impurity,”  “foolish talk,” “crude joking,”  etc.  The Bible does not define such terms for us; Paul lays out no flowchart for what counts as crude or impure.  Instead, Paul instructs us to “Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.”  Once again, our good judgment is required.  Elsewhere, Paul even indicates that our good judgment should be informed by the natural order of things:  “Judge for yourselves:  is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered?  Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair it is her glory?  For her hair is given to her for a covering.” (1 Cor 11:13-15a).  (as an aside, this video by Rev. Jonathan Fisk is an excellent treatment of these verses).  The point is that verses like these in no way indicate moral neutrality for everything for which Scripture does not provide a specific command.  On the contrary, they indicate good judgment in such cases–and our good judgment may or may not discern the subject to be neutral.  It may consider it good and necessary or dangerous or forbidden or neutral or something else entirely.

Now, as good modernists, we like to imprint hyper-individualism onto “use your good judgment” and take it to mean “no one else has any right to say anything on the matter; it relies on your own judgment hermetically sealed from that of others.”  This, however, is…  well, poor judgment.  Humans are social beings.  We don’t live in a vacuum and so neither should we exercise judgment in one.  We listen to and learn from others.  Who among us hasn’t, to some degree, learned how to live well from our parents and mentors–including from their rules?  And so if another exercises his judgment, discerns “one must” or “one must not” on a particular matter, and then gives voice to that judgment along with their reasons, it is not necessarily harmful to his neighbors.  It may be a precious gift instead, for we all want “our love to abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight so that we may be able to discern what is best.” (Philippians 1:9-10).  We most certainly shouldn’t masquerade our good judgment as God’s judgment and call it a new revelation as Rome does, but neither should we pretend our judgment isn’t ultimately about moral goodness in a sense that is in no way God-neutral.

Others who object to using good judgment will point out our sinful natures.  Humans love to make new rules for themselves to make themselves righteous and condemn others.  This makes our moral judgments unreliable.  Reason, after all, is the devil’s whore!  When reason and the law are joined, faith immediately loses its virginity!  Should we not therefore prefer a source like the Bible that proceeds straight from the mouth of God?   This question is usually rhetorical, but it does have an answer.  Is even our Biblically-informed good judgment fallible?  Absolutely!  Should we submit to Scripture when it indicates that we are in error?  Of course!  Any time our good judgment approves what Scripture condemns or condemns what Scripture approves, we must repent of our error.  No matter how solid our reasoning seems in such cases, we must let God be true and every man a liar.  However, this doesn’t mean that good judgment isn’t our best tool for the job when Scripture is silent.  And let’s not over-blow reason being the devil’s whore.  Bread is also the devil’s whore (Matthew 4:3-4).  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make diligent use of bread as appropriate & necessary.  Likewise, though our good judgment must be subject to and instructed by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God, we have been given no command to shelve it where Scripture is silent.

Though the Bible is exhaustive concerning the Gospel and Salvation, it is not exhaustive when it comes to ethics.  It was not meant to be because it is not primarily a guide to right living but a declaration that Christ has lived rightly in our stead.  Consider the Sermon on the Mount:  Jesus issues many instances of “You have heard it said… but I say to you…”  For example, “You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall not commit adultery.’  But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  Here, Jesus disabuses those legalists who thought they were doing ok because they kept the letter of the law.  The point is not “you had one rule, but now you have two and I’ve gotcha with the second!”  That is still legalism.  He is instead telling us that “thou shalt not commit adultery” always went deeper than the barest literal reading.  Naturally, Luther agrees, which is why his explanation of the 6th commandment isn’t “do not have intercourse with anyone else if you’re married,” but instead “we should fear and love God so that we live a chaste and decent life in word and deed and each love and honor our spouse.”

Salvation is not simply a ticket to heaven–Christ has given us new lives to lead in Him.  These are not truncated quasi-human lives that exclude certain brain functions.  They are full and abundant lives that encompass our entire selves.  The sinful flesh that still clings to us will sometimes lead us astray, but these sins are likewise paid for.  We must lead our lives at the foot of the Cross, but let us not neglect to actually lead them as best we can.

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