Sola scriptura…for dummies

At First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem <www.fpc-bethlehem,org/sermons>, we’ve begun a five-part sermon series on the great “solas” of the Reformation. “Sola” is simply Latin for “alone.” And the solas serve as a simple way to distill the main emphasis of the reformation teaching on the nature and source of Christian faith.

The first of these is “sola scriptura” or “scripture alone.” As we explore this topic, it’s important to really wrap out hearts and minds about what this principle of scripture alone means (and doesn’t mean). So in today’s post we’ll take a non-scholarly look at this pillar of reformed belief.

Sola scriptura means that the Bible alone is a sufficient source and authority for how we understand Christian belief and how we practice the Christian faith.

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Another way of stating this is that should a person have no other source of knowledge about God, the Bible is enough. It contains all that we need to know who God is, what God thinks of us, and how we can be reconciled to God through the Gospel.

Sola scriptura doesn’t mean that the Bible tells us everything there is to know about God. In fact the Bible itself tells us, “Now there were many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose the whole world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).

The Reformation insistence on “Scripture alone” was a response to the Medieval Catholic Church, which had derived beliefs/doctrines from the Bible and reason that the Reformers (rightly) declared not to be justified on the basis of the text of Scripture. An example is the doctrine of purgatory. There is no clear reference in scripture to an intermediate place of purification that changes the nature of souls so that they are fit for heaven. However, at the same time, it is a reasonable (if unbiblical) answer to the question: how do imperfect people get into heaven? That belief can, however, only gain hold when a source other than the Bible is allowed to augment the witness of scripture.

 

Sola scriptura is simply a boundary fence that helps us to know with some degree of certainty what the church ought to focus on in its proclamation. N.T. Wright defines the contours of the doctrine like this:

 [Sola scriptura] provided, on the one hand, a statute of limitations: nothing beyond Scripture is to be taught as needing to be believed in order for one to be saved. One the other hand, it gave a basic signpost on the way: the great truths taught in scripture are indeed the way of salvation, and those instructed with the teaching office in the church have no right to use that office to teach anything else.

(Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God, 72-3).

It’s also a boundary line for the individual Christian in order for us to settle for ourselves the answer to the questions: Who is God? What must I believe to be saved? Is there meaning to my life? It’s a way of placing the Bible where it ought to be: front and center in the belief and practice of the Christian community:

 

When expounded faithfully, with proper attention given to the central New Testament emphasis on the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the turning point of all history…God’s word [will] once again do a fresh work in the hearts and lives of ordinary people. (Wright, 73).

If we do this, are we susceptible to the charge that we are worshipping the Bible? We ought to bare this in mind. It is possible to allow the Bible to become an idol. As Christians we follow God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We do not worship the Scriptures. We appropriately value and esteem the Scriptures as communication or revelation from God. They are, if you will, an extension or God’s authority into our midst. They are given to us so that God may speak to us through them and that using them we may respond to God in worship. To borrow a familiar word, they are “the message” to us from God and so the authority of the Scriptures is one derived from their origin in the mind of God mysteriously expressed through the minds and pens of human authors.

The ultimate purpose of sola scriptura in my life and yours is to assure us that there is not some other authority that we must discover to find other secrets to the Christian life. There is not other source for discerning God’s will. We know all that we need to know about God and how we can be restored to him through the Bible. In this sense then, sola scriptura is one of the most practice doctrines imaginable.

4 Comments on “Sola scriptura…for dummies”

  1. Nice scholarly piece. Purgatory is just one example of things what were left unsaid in the Bible but the Bible remains the definitive word of God. Reasonable differences can exist in Biblical interpretation especially around things left unsaid. Presbyterians need to stop fighting about this and respect that others hold their faithful interpretation as dear as each holds theirs. You have made just one of the common sense arguments that suggests there is no definitive interpretation of every aspect of the Bible while still remaining the sola scriptura.

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  2. It might be a stretch, but what about 1 Cor. 3:15 as a possible allusion to purgatory – or a proof-text someone who teaches it might cite. I might never have thought of it, but I have been intrigued that C. S. Lewis, who, as you know, sought to teach about those things all Christians have in common, “mere Christianity,” believed there must be a purgatory of some sort.

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