Thursday, June 16, 2016

Sola versus Solo Scriptura

Sola Scriptura: the teaching that Scripture is the Church's only infallible and sufficient rule for deciding issues of faith and practices that involve doctrines.

A friend on Facebook posted a link to the Heidelblog - Sola Scripture ≠ Nuda Scriptura. I wasn't familiar with the term, Nuda or Solo Scriptura, so I read the post, which says:
Evangelical Christians in North America sometimes misunderstand the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura to mean that the Bible is the Christian’s only theological resource, that it can and should be denuded of its churchly context (hence nuda Scriptura). Such an understanding is altogether incorrect.... Calvin believed that holy Scripture as the only infallible rule of faith and practice should serve as the final authority by which to judge Christian doctrine and practice, but it was not his only resource for theology...He recognized the strategic importance of demonstrating the continuity of Protestant teaching with the core convictions of the early Church.

While believers should be Bereans and search the Scriptures for themselves, we don't do it in a vacuum. Our study of the Word is not disconnected from what has transpired in church history. Even the means by which and the theological grid through which we interpret the Word are influenced by those who have gone before us. 

So given the potential for deception if one is left to one's self, I wondered if any cults or erroneous teachings were conceived via Solo Scriptura. In my reading, I happened upon:
- Caleb Rich "insisted that his own interpretation of Scripture should not be mediated by any other authority, historical or ecclesiastical - a conviction steeled by the competing claims of rival denominations and a new openness to visionary experiences." He begin "having  a series of visionary experiences in which celestial persons counseled him to avoid all other denominations and all other human advice." Rich became the main leader of Universalism in New England at the end of the 1700's. 1
- Lucy Mack Smith came to the following conviction: "I said in my heart that there was not then upon earth the religion which I sought. I therefore determined to examine my Bible, and taking Jesus and the disciples as my guide, to endeavor to obtain from God that which man could neither give nor take away… The Bible I intended should be my guide to life and salvation." She eventually "sealed this individualization of conscience by finding a minister who agreed to baptize her as a solitary Christian without any attachment to any congregation." Perhaps she isn't very well known, but her son is - Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormons. 2

I would hasten to add that believers may find themselves in isolated situations because of persecution. A person in a previously unreached group may be the first and only Christian in the community. There may be situations where a believer needs to leave an unhealthy or even abusive church environment and take time to recover. I get that, and my recovery took seven years. But spiritual isolation in the present and from the past can be a dangerous thing.

In my case, I felt betrayed by leaders I had previously trusted, so I refused any form of teaching apart from the Bible, like the people mentioned above. When 9/11 occurred, universalism was very appealing at that moment as I tried to make sense of the world. But making sense was nigh impossible given the weakness of my theological foundation. Looking back, God preserved me from falling into error, but what I thought would keep me from going further astray only starved me spiritually.

I also think a sense of independence is ingrained in the American psyche such that it was easy to disdain the past. "We threw off the shackles of those imperialists long ago! Who needs history?! And who needs church history?!" I was so ignorant that I honestly believed the Apostle John died and BOOM! Instant Roman Catholic Church as we know it today. I had no clue about the early church fathers who wrestled against heresy and sought to defend the truth by encapsulating essential Christian beliefs into basic statements of faith. I fell into the trap of thinking new was better when it came to doctrine, as if I knew better than generations of Christians before me. They were certainly not infallible, and as C.S. Lewis says:
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.3

Thankfully God has brought me to a very different place in my spiritual journey. Today I affirm Sola Scriptura and agree 100% with Martin Luther that my conscience must be held captive to the Word, but not in isolation. I owe a debt to the saints who lived and died in defense of the truth down through the ages. The creeds, confessions, and writings of the past can be a healthy corrective against the errors of my day. I should not take them lightly but value them as God-given safeguards of the faith.

For further reading: 'Sola Scriptura' Radicalized and Abandoned - Matthew Barrett

1. The Democratization of American Christianity, Nathan O. Hatch, Yale University Press, 1989, pp. 40-41.
2. Ibid. 43.
3. Introduction by C.S. Lewis to On the Incarnation by Athanasius.

This is an expansion of a prior post on my personal blog.

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