Scripture Alone, but not a Scripture that is Alone

Like any doctrine or teaching, the various Sola’s of the Reformation have provoked some misunderstandings from time to time. This is perhaps most common for sola fide—that we are saved through faith alone and not by our works. Because of this, Lutherans and others have often been charged with antinomianism—the belief that we are altogether without the law and that Christians need not regard God’s commands to us as such. While antinomians have existed among protestants, the confessionally-minded parts of the Reformation have always understood that while we are saved by faith alone, we are not saved by a faith that is alone. In other words, faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ (the only kind of faith that actually saves) ultimately produces works as well. Accordingly, we can agree with James that faith without works is dead. This does not imply that faith is insufficient on its own, but rather that a faith without works isn’t the saving kind of faith at all. To quote James’ example, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” A bare commitment monotheism simply is not the same as faith in Jesus Christ and can do nothing to save.

I believe an analogous saying can be helpful when it comes to the misunderstandings surrounding another one of the sola‘s—sola scriptura. This confession that our doctrine and theology must come from Scripture alone has also provoked misunderstandings. Lutherans have also been accused of creating a kind of “just me and my Bible” mentality among Christians—one that results in individual Christians and denominations leaning entirely on their own understanding and getting swept away by every bad interpretation of Scripture that pops into their heads. There’s no denying that this has happened—a lot. Nevertheless, while it is not such a famous saying, the confessionally-minded parts of the Reformation have always understood that while our theology must come from Scripture alone, it cannot come from a Scripture that is alone.

When the first Lutherans presented their confession of faith to Charles V at Augsburg, they saw it as an opportunity to address the muddy waters surrounding their beliefs—specifically the common view that they were heretics who invented new doctrine. When summing up the first twenty-one articles of this confession, they said, “This is about the Sum of our Doctrine, in which, as can be seen, there is nothing that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Church Catholic, or from the Church of Rome as known from its writers.” Indeed, these preceding articles are littered with condemnations of the historical heresies (and those parts of the Radical Reformation that embraced them anew), affirmations of the historical creeds of the Church, and conformity to her historical practices. It is only then that they proceeded to the remaining seven articles that they considered controversial. These articles concerned the true innovations—the contemporary abuses that had crept into the church over the years. Expecting an opportunity to find some measure of unity in newly clarified waters, they were taken aback when Rome’s confutation began rebuking their confession as early as the 2nd article. In response, they wrote a defense of their confession which, once again, relied heavily on the Church Fathers (especially Augustine) to demonstrate the catholicity of their confession.

Their strong insistence on affirming continuity with the Church Fathers and drawing on their writings was well advised, for reading Scriptures along with the saints who went before us provides certain advantages and protections. C. S. Lewis noted this in his introduction to a modern translation of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.

 What Lewis observes is an incredibly practical point. Everyone brings their own biases to a text. It is not that these biases make a text undecipherable or unapproachable as postmodernism would suggest, but that they have a tendency to skew one’s perspective on it when he is unaware of them. When one reads a Scripture that is alone—a Scripture disconnected from the history of the Church—one is not truly reading Scripture alone, but Scripture along with one’s own philosophies and beliefs. But the surest way of delineating one’s own implicit beliefs from the teachings of Scripture is to read it along with the greatest teachers of the Church throughout the ages. If you read the Bible and come up with a teaching that is entirely new to orthodox Christianity, chances are it’s something you’ve read into Scripture rather than out of it.

The difference between scripture alone and a scripture that is alone is ultimately the difference between reforming the Church and rebooting the Church. The Radical Reformation sought a reboot: burn the confessionals, drop the ceremonies, reject the traditions, forget the history, and then start fresh with Scripture and nothing else. The gravest problem with this kind of nuclear option is that it inadvertently imports as much dross into the church as it purges from it. A reboot by men who have a bone to pick over superstition ends up excising Jesus’ promises about the efficacy of the Sacraments; a reboot by men who are enamored with a growing sense of individualism ends up putting the locus of salvation on our own decision for Christ; and so forth. The confessional part of the Reformation, on the other hand, sought to reform the Church. They did this, not through an idolatrous devotion to tradition that places it higher than Scripture, but by using tradition to identify the innovations that were corrupting the Church and as a safeguard against become innovators themselves.

Despite the bloviating of modern megachurch pastors, “sacramental entrepreneurs,” and the like, Christ never asked his Church to be doctrinal innovators, but rather to hold fast to the faith once and for all delivered to the saints through his Word. Nevertheless, we should not be so vain as to think we are the only saints who have done this. “Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.” This proverb is no less true when it comes to Church history. If we are to remain steadfast in the Faith and defend it against error, then we would be well served to draw our theology from Scripture alone, but also to do so along with those who fought these same battles long before we joined the fight.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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