Theology for the Long Haul

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

How Much is Sola Really Sola in Relation to Scriptura?

Sola Scriptura, well know among the other sola slogans of the Protestant Reformation, is a bit of an awkward proposition if taken completely literally. If taken in this way, the teaching might seem to imply that scripture is the exclusive material for all things Christian. To translate such a view into spirituality and theology could mean for the church that all worship should be taken directly from scriptural passages and all theological reflection should express itself in a string of scriptural quotations. Such a reductionistic and wooden view of sola scripture was in fact never embraced by Luther or Calvin, who were quite comfortable drawing on the ancient ecumenical consensus of the churches in the east and the west. They certainly disagreed on the level to which ancient traditions should be integrated into the life of the church (Luther more accepting of them than Calvin), but both were certainly not ready to start anew with only the scriptures in mind. That is what set them apart from the more radical figures of the reformation era: they were trying to reform something that already existed not strip away the greater part to restore some primitive ecclesial reality. For this reason their understanding of sola scriptura needs to be articulated very carefully.

The term sola is an adjective in Latin for: “only, single, alone, or unique.” Of these meanings I would like to suggest that “unique” captures best the thrust of Luther and Calvin’s use of the term. Scripture is a unique authority for Christians, holding the primary though not exclusive place in the life of faith. Many of the traditions passed down from the early church (e.g., the ecumenical creeds) were of enduring value for Luther and Calvin, who were attentive to the Christological and Trinitarian language of Nicaea and Chalcedon. With this in mind, Luther and Calvin were able to maintain some sense of continuity with the ancient churches while at the same time critique other historical developments in the traditions of the western church. If this element of continuity is not taken into account then the critiques remain of figures like Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621) and Matthias Scheeben (1835–1888) that Protestant biblical interpretation is susceptible to arbitrary and infinitely individualistic judgments. After all, if scripture alone as interpreted by each Christian (apart from any historical awareness of what the church has taught and lived out over time) is to result in the fullness of understanding of God’s revelation for humanity then how can one account for the multiplicity of interpretations of what the biblical texts mean? It seems to me that one needs to admit that the consensus reached by the majority of Christians throughout church history is relevant to one’s reading of scripture. This is to say nothing of the Spirit’s work in guiding the church throughout history.

To return to my initial question: how much is sola really sola in relation to scriptura? I am inclined to say that it is sola up to the point of implying uniqueness and primacy. The scripture is a sure and reliable source for Christians. It holds an irreplaceable place of authority in the Christian community. It cannot be read in a vacuum however by hermeneutically neutral interpreters, therefore awareness of the ancient ecumenical heritage of the churches as well as reliance on the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit are necessary means to transcends the limits of individualism and sectarianism.

Posted by Jacob, who regularly blogs at Inter Christianos.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I really appreciate the challenge that you pose, and the articulated thoughts you offer. As I was reading though, I had a nagging question. Are interpretations really so diverse? I hear that said quite a bit in the academy, and sometimes (not this time)I wonder if it should be an insult to the Spirit who promises to lead Christians in all truth. This is why I like your interpretation of Sola as unique and primary. Personally, I give (I think) a lot of credence to the traditions and traditional interpretations, but for me these still need to be subordinate to the Scriptures (Old and New Testaments of the Bible). I think that Luther, Calvin, and the rest of the reformers disagreed with tradition where they thought these traditions disagreed with the Scriptures (i.e. indulgences vs. Romans). Luther held to many of the historical traditions, but not just because he put his faith in tradition and consensus... Luther believed these traditions were Biblical.
    To get back to my original thought. I don't think that interpretations are really that diverse. In my experience most Christians, though they may not agree with how the Christian life should be lived out at every point, agree about the interpretation of specific Bible passages (unless they are in seminary). It can be surprising to analyze how much of our Christian culture is based on ideas (assumed to be Biblical) that have been passed down, rather than on specific passages in the Bible. I think that there is probably more diversity in American seminaries than in the international church as it pertains to Biblical interpretation.