In writing this I find myself torn with much frustration. I have tremendous respect for those who helped shape this doctrine, yet I feel compelled to question it, led by the same spirit that animated these great reformers.
Sola Scriptura was birth out of displeasure with the arrogance of some to suppose that they, either because of status, position or power, are self-sufficient to construct their own doctrines and practices without the need to check them against what others had to say on the subject (particularly, in this case, the writers of the sacred Scriptures). Something had to be done. The prophetic spirit could not be kept quite any longer and Sola Scriptura along with other declarations became the voice of this cry.
It’s important to note that Sola Scriptura has emersed from a particular set of circumstances and it was penned as a reponse to those times. So we can’t take their response and just canonize it (which is what pretty much happened in the past five centuries, particularly in the protestant and evangelical circles). We need to carefully peel off its various layers, analyze it and see what we can learn from it in the 21st century.
In their reaction to the abuses of the church, reformers plastered to the Scriptures some concepts that just don’t fit them that neatly. To combat erroneous interpretations concocted by the Church the reformers forcefully oversimplified the nature of Scriptures. At the core of Sola Scriptura is this idea that anyone who reads the Bible will have no difficulty understanding it. That’s why, we don’t need anyone’s help in interpreting it; we don’t need the church to tell us what to believe and how to live; we can figure that on our own.
While that sounds good and liberating and it does have bits and pieces of truth in it, it does great injustice to the complexity and depth of the biblical text. First of all, Scriptures were not meant to be read in isolation, just me and my Bible (and the Holy Spirit).
They were meant to be read and understood in community.
We need the insight of great minds (past and present) to help us wrestle with the text. Yes, if we pick and choose there are plenty a verses that are pretty plain and easy to understand. Anyone who reads understands the basic ideas that run through the sacred texts. But that’s the problem; the Bible contains much, much more than that. If we assert that the whole Bible (not just some passages or some books) is inspired than we definitely have to, in all honesty, admit our limitation in understanding it and the need for external help (and lots of it!!!). I find it ironic that the great reformers who upheld highly the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture could not agree on what it means and so Luther, Zwingli and Calvin had to split on doctrinal lines. And the history from then on was one of many, many sad fragmentations in the Christian Church.
While Sola Scriptura is made to be understood not as a dismissal of the Church tradition, in reality it inevitably makes the incorporation of it in its hermeneutics more of an optional activity. As a result we find nowadays very little interest (if any) toward the great writings of the Christian church. Why should there be any interest? If I can just pick my “name engraved” Bible and have no difficulty understanding it, why bother knowing what others have said about it? But even this is so hypocritical. Because what we find is a multitude of denominations and seminaries (holding dear to Sola Scriptura) trying to convince us that their interpretation is the “right” one. What the individual is being effectively told is to read and familiarize himself/herself with only the materials and books within the particular tradition he or she is part of. Any writing from outside is deemed heretical and therefore to be avoided.
So slowly but surely, today the proponents of Sola Scriptura have developed the very arrogance the reformers were trying to fight against, but in a more disguised fashion. We have come up with practices and doctrines that while unbiblical, strangely enough are “supported” by the biblical text. It seems history forced us to change our strategy. We can’t just use our clerical position as a case for their theology, but find ourselves forced to use the Bible as support. We can quote verses out of memory but have little understanding of the depth of biblical message. We know our Bible and yet we have missed it. We don’t come to the Bible to have our theology challenged, but to find support for it. Sola Scriptura means today: my interpretation or the highway!!! To which we cry out: as we wrestle with the text, let’s not jump too quickly to conclusions; let’s listen to what others have to say, others from outside our tradition. It might help us see clearer.
Sola Scriptura is not exactly accurate. Prima Scriptura is not helping either, because while it starts with the Scriptures they are soon left behind. What we need is simply the centrality of Scriptures in our theology and practices. Not arrogantly (and dishonestly) say we need “just” (SOLA) the Scriptures, but to make sure they are part of the mix. They need to be the filter for our thinking. We need to let them do their purging job. But let’s allow ourselves to wrestle with its meaning as a community. Let’s allow more and more voices to help us see its beauty and depth.
Let’s never reduce its complexity in some encapsulated statements of faith that in turn block the Scriptures from continually challenging us, repositioning us, refreshing our soul with a new word from God.