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Sunday, May 21, 2006

Sola Scriptura

Note: This is the first in a series of articles that explores the controversies that led to the split at Sand Creek in 1889, and ultimately to the split of the entire Restoration Movement by 1906. See the list of links on the right side of the page for the other articles in the series.

Pro 30:5-6 Every word of God is flawless;
he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.
Do not add to his words,
or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar.
One of the fundamental tenets of the Protestant Reformation is that the Scriptures are the only source of divine authority for the Christian church. Martin Luther is credited with rediscovering this concept in the 16th century as he sought to correct the horrible errors in the practice of the Catholic church during his day. Luther chose the Latin term sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”) to summarize his rejection of the authority of the traditions and decrees of the Catholic church. He pointed to many errors and contradictions in the church traditions and practices. And he correctly saw that the Scriptures were the only available source of divine authority, capable of correcting those contradictions and errors. When, under threat of his life, the Catholic rulers challenged him to recant this position, Luther said:
Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other - my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen.
By that time the Catholic church had drifted far from the original teachings of the apostles. Many practices and beliefs had been introduced which were not found in the Scriptures. In the recent centuries there had been crusades and inquisitions, spreading Catholicism through terror, intimidation, and the use of the sword. Now, in Luther's day, forgiveness of sin was being granted by priests in exchange for money. In an even worse affront to our Lord's sacrifice, the priests sold indulgences-- a practice in which a person could pay the priest in advance for the right to commit a sin. The teachings of the church, over about 1500 years, had drifted far from the practices of the apostolic church. The creeds and traditions of men had corrupted the church. To Luther, that situation was intolerable.

Luther held the Scriptures to be the only then-existing source of the Word of God. In contrast, he insisted that the traditions and decrees of church councils were but the opinions of men, and were without authority. To correct the errors he saw in the church of his day, he called on the church to follow the Scriptures, and the Scriptures alone—sola scriptura.

In the years following Luther, the idea of sola scriptura was applied in a piecemeal fashion by various Protestant denominations, each group correcting those practices that seemed most important to them. Then in the 1800's, in Pennsylvania and in the American midwest, two groups almost simultaneously began to take sola scriptura further. Thomas and Alexander Campbell, and Barton W. Stone, sought to restore the faith and practice of the first century church, starting from a “blank sheet of paper”, and based on Scripture alone. The two groups joined together in 1832 in what became known as the Restoration Movement. The mantra of the Restoration Movement was to have no creed but the Bible, to call Bible things by Bible names, and to do Bible things in Bible ways. Their efforts enjoyed mixed success, with some great triumphs but many setbacks. More often than not, their setbacks could be traced to a decree of some council, convened in order to define who agrees with whom.

These are the roots of the congregation where I worship. Our love, respect, and dependence upon the Scriptures can be traced through the Restoration Movement back to Luther's sola scriptura. Perhaps we could also trace the inclination of some to form councils and write creeds to our historical roots.

Curiously, some churches have not been satisfied with the Bible as we have received it. It seems some believe the Bible alone is not sufficient to meet our needs, as if God did not finish the job of delivering his Word to future generations. From the time of Luther to the present, many church councils have created innumerable creeds (sometimes called declarations, proposals, decrees, statements of faith, etc.) to supplement or simplify the Scriptures.

The idea seems to be that these creeds would provide a lowest common denominator of doctrine on which Christians would hopefully unite. However, four hundred and eighty-five years of church history clearly tells us that these man-made documents are much more effective at dividing than at uniting. Inherently, these documents are fallible human efforts. They identify what the writers believe is really important in the Scriptures (and, by inference, what is not really important). Since they result from human judgment, these documents are imperfect, and opinions vary. As a result, they become sources of controversy and dispute rather than of unity.

Sola Scriptura is sufficient. We have received the Scriptures exactly as God chose for us to receive them. God has “once for all entrusted” the faith to the saints (Jude 3). That faith has been “revealed and made known through the prophetic writings [Scriptures] by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him.” (Rom 16:26). We do not need to boil down the Scriptures to an official, short list of shared beliefs, identifying those with whom we are united. Instead, let's be devoted to all of the Scriptures God has delivered. And let's be united on the basis of sola scriptura as we learn, believe, and obey God's Word together.