Reformed Protestants have “Sola Scriptura” as one of their main slogans. If Latin isn’t your thing, that slogan might be translated as “Scripture Only”. Of course, there are many different interpretations of what that means and many different ways of utilizing it in practice.
As one who is very focused on scripture reading and study, it is to me an attractive thought to make scripture the only thing that matters. But I can recognize that it also carries danger onboard.
No one can read scripture without doing some kind of interpretation of it. Even translation into vernaculars requires a measure of interpretation. “Sola Scriptura” can be used—and has been used—to advocate for a private interpretation os scripture that is heretical, that is, out of line with traditional orthodox Christian teaching. Or it could be a minor point of interpretation that is not necessarily heretical, but still out of line, possibly in a harmful way.
Even church groups who claim that they have no doctrine but the Bible are involved in interpretation that becomes authoritative tradition in their movements. Restoration churches and Baptists, for example, insist on baptism by immersion even though I know of no place in scripture that requires it. Perhaps, it is implied, but only perhaps. It needs some kind of interpretation. This example is not really a problem; I’d call it more of a quirk, to be tolerated like that one uncle at Christmas dinner.
As an aside, I don’t see anything in scripture which stipulates communion administered in styrofoam wafers attached to plastic cups of grape juice, but that seem to be de rigueur today.
These private interpretations are generally done within the church and within the tradition of a church. But sometimes, they are totally private interpretations, which leads us to the next problem.
Private interpretations, when held as authoritative, lead to disunity in the church. In fact, many of Paul’s letters are actually addressing interpretation that are outside the pale of apostolic tradition. For Paul—and for us—church unity is a very important thing.
Why are there so many Protestant denominations and movements that are not unified? It really comes down to private interpretation of scripture. One guy sees it this way when most people see it that way, so the guy splits off and starts a new church. Rinse and repeat. This is why there are hundreds, if not thousands, of denominations today, not counting all the hundreds of non-denominational megachurches which are really movements within themselves.
Toward a Solution
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all just get along. I guess we did pretty well for a thousand years or so until the Great Schism. Then another half a millennium until the Protestant Reformation. Luther and Calvin introduced the slogan “Sola Scriptura” (I simplify) and now we have the disunity that we have.
- Let’s make sure our interpretations are within the church. Lots of people propose lots of ideas from scripture, but many of those people are truly false prophets, not really part of the church. They have their own agendas, which don’t have anything to do with the gospel and much to do with accumulating followers.
Let’s recognize that tradition comes into what we believe, along with scripture. I think it would be more honest if we said “Scripture First”, rather than “Scripture Alone”. And considering the Wesleyan Quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, reason, and Christian experience might be a good move. I certainly don’t want to minimize the importance of scripture, surely, not I! But let’s be honest and reasonable.
Probably the thing the church most needs today is to increase biblical literacy among the people. It is appalling that people don’t know the Bible and don’t know how to interpret for themselves in order to measure what they hear from the airwaves and even from the pulpit. I wish I knew how to accomplish this more quickly and easily, but I fear it must be done a little at a time. It may take a shaking-out of the church, as experienced by many Christians around the world already, in order to move the task forward. That’s a painful thought, but it just might be biblical. You should check it out for yourself.
What is the Bible to you? Do you measure your tradition against it, or vice versa? How do you interpret it? Or do you leave that to some spiritual leader? Do you even read the Bible? If not, why not? Or maybe you read a verse a day at the beginning of your devotional guide. Come on! Read the Book!