Sunday, October 24, 2010

Scripture Alone?

A pillar of Protestant theology is Sola Scriptura which means that “Scripture alone is authoritative for the faith and practice of the Christian.” That quote comes from this web site which seems to present a balanced view of the subject and some of the controversy surrounding it.

With a unifying common principle such as Sola Scriptura, it would seem that all who subscribe would be in agreement on the important issues of the Christian faith and would be in full communion with each other. Alas, that is not the case because various Christian churches making the claim end up with quite different positions on theological issues they deem important such as the appropriate age for and method of baptism, whether a person once “saved” is always “saved,” whether the Lord’s Supper is a memorial or a sacrament, whether our salvation is up to us, up to God, or depends on both to some extent, whether miraculous healing and prophesy or even exorcism are alive and well in the 21st century, and whether God wants His followers to be rich or poor. The obvious conclusion which must be drawn from the existence of such variances is that it is not Scripture itself but rather the interpreters of it who are seen by us as the final authorities.

Some would argue that these differences are not important and that most Christians, whether claiming Sola Scriptura as their foundation of belief or not, agree on certain Biblical essentials of salvation such as our creation by God, our sinfulness, our need for forgiveness, the facts that God sent his Son Jesus to show us how to live and to give his life for us, and that through faith in Jesus we become part of the family of God and receive eternal life. These basic elements of the faith comprise sort of a “Four Spiritual Laws” approach to Christianity, and that approach works as an introduction to the Faith. But if a believer or a seeker begins a deeper study, it is discovered that efforts to understand some of those key words in the sentence above, “creation,” “sinfulness,” “forgiveness,” “Son,” “live,” “faith,” “family of God,” and “eternal life,” for example, have resulted in centuries of study and contemplation, volumes of writings, and multitudes of opinions. So, even when we agree on the basics, we don’t necessarily agree on exactly what they mean. The inquiring student also finds that there are lots of mysterious things in the Bible that don’t seem to be pointing to these simple ideas but rather to something much deeper and more complex. And it is those differing opinions on theological issues, word meanings, and complexity (possibly along with occasional squabbles over pastors or property) that have resulted in splintering of the Church over the centuries to the point that there are now thousands of Christian “denominations.”

For many 21st Century Christians, neither these divisive issues nor the splintering of the Church is problematic. To many, the proliferation of denominations and churches is good because it makes it easier for believers to find what they want or need in what has become a giant religious shopping mall. For others, purity of belief is critical and they will argue any point of disagreement, citing proof text after proof text in support of their position and even stand ready to found a new church or denomination if some unique distinguishing position can be identified and defended. And finally there are those to whom the splintering of the Christian Church and the resulting confusing and unclear messages about The Gospel to an unbelieving world seem counterproductive at best and who would like to see a lot more uniting and a lot less dividing going on.

The Catholic Church officially rejects Sola Scriptura and argues that there is a tradition of scripture interpretation and Christian practice going back to the very birth of the Church and passed from Jesus to and through the Apostles that must go hand in hand with Holy Scripture. As the keeper of that Tradition, the Catholic Church claims the sole authority to interpret and teach Holy Scripture. That sounds pushy, but c’mon Protestants, surely we must admit that we too are sometimes claiming that authority but, it seems to me, without the case that Catholics can make from Holy Scripture that Jesus gave power and authority to Peter and Paul and the other apostles and established The Church and put them in charge of it.

So, if the issues of Christian unity and teaching authority are of concern, what is one to do? One can take the loner approach and say, “It’s just between me and Jesus and The Holy Spirit will reveal whatever truth I need to know.” Or one can align with one of the more fundamentalist and authoritative churches and just accept their traditional interpretations, varied and youthful though they may be. A third option is to join a US mainline denomination congregation “read scripture together faithfully, “join the conversation,” cast a vote about how to interpret Holy Scripture, and then accept the result in the very young tradition of democracy. And finally, one can discount the well deserved scorn the Catholic Magisterium had earned in some quarters by the late Middle Ages, sparking The Protestant Reformation, conclude that the Reformation has outlived its usefulness, and accept that Jesus really did establish a church with leaders and teaching authority and a succession plan and that that church is the Catholic Church, blemished though it may be. And, when the person who makes that choice gets upset with the Catholic Church or is faced with criticism of it, he or she can remember that even Jesus had trouble with personal ambition, denial, and betrayal among his original twelve and that he never promised a blemish-free church but rather one against which the Gates of Hell would not prevail.

I think all four options are valid and reasonable and may be appropriate for any one Christian at various stages of his or her faith journey. Probably for the vast majority raised in one of the traditions, the questions raised in this essay are unimportant because they are quite happy and secure, blessed by God and “blooming where planted” so to speak. Others have doubts and concerns from time to time, recognize that Christian faith is a journey, and are blessed or cursed with inquiring minds that know God is beyond our understanding but are always searching for increased wisdom and understanding.

I think one serious result of the disunity of Christians is our tendency to be self righteous and to criticize each other. Today’s (10/24/2010) Gospel lesson, Luke 18:9-14, is the story of the Pharisee who came to the temple to pray and loudly announced his thankfulness that he was so much better than other people. He was followed by the tax collector who came just humbly asking God for mercy because he was a sinner. As I was listening to the sermon, I had the thought that probably some of us there were making the same mistake as the Pharisee, sub-consciously thanking God that we are not like that selfish fool, and completely forgetting that we are all in need of mercy because of our sin and just need to follow the example of the tax collector in our prayers.

So, let us be patient with each other.

1 comment:

  1. This was a very good, and very balanced look at how the modern Christian faith is organized. Sola Scriptura is very divisive, and the many denominations that exist today are evidence of that. But I think another issue that must go hand in hand with Sola Scriptura is where did these books of the Bible come from? How did the Church select only certain books and letters for the New Testament? I think when someone considers that question, the Authority of the Church stands out, and the ability for invididual churches to interpret Scripture is seen as deeply flawed.