As a follow-up to this past Sunday’s sermon (available here), I want to address a common observation about the doctrine of sola scriptura. Our church is steeped in history and tradition. We have liturgy, lectionary, denomination, creeds, articles, statements of faith, prayer books and all kinds of other things that shape our common life that are not scripture. How can we say that we believe in Scripture Alone?
I first faced this question during my freshman year of college (where I did one year of engineering school). One of my good friends was Greek Orthodox, and I was thoroughly a low church evangelical, without much exposure to the great Christian tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy. Paul and I had some deep conversations that year, and even visited church with one another.
As we talked, it eventually became clear that we were speaking past each other about this doctrine. He rejected it, because he understood that accepting the doctrine meant rejecting all of the tradition that he had grown up with, and really loved. But, this was a misunderstanding.
We don’t mean, by this doctrine, that we reject everything except scripture. We mean that we accept everything in scripture, and reject everything opposed to scripture. All of the areas of life and faith that are not addressed clearly in the Bible are where tradition and reason have great value. They help us answer questions that the Bible doesn’t address, and help us to understand the doctrines that are developed by reasoning from the scriptures. This tradition is how we develop statements of faith, creeds, and church governance.
Yet, Holy Scriptures set the bounds. For example, scripture is not clear about the way that Christ’s church should be organized, and so traditions including bishops, or congregational leadership, or council leadership have all developed, and all seek to be faithful to scripture. But, those same scriptures also provide the limits – Christ will not return as a human again to lead His Church in the world. So – Messianic leadership is out.
Likewise, the scriptures set the bounds on the idea (danger?) that one of a us can sit ourselves down with the Bible and find a full and satisfying expression of Christian faith. We can find salvation in the scriptures as we read and the Holy Spirit speaks, to be sure – but can we find satisfaction? The “me and Jesus” lifestyle is the risk we run by affirming sola scriptura – yet its very nature is contrary to the scriptures it supposedly cherishes. It’s been my observation that there are very few people that take a “me and Jesus” lifestyle seriously (I actually think I don’t know any). They either end up back with a community of faith (because God “sets the lonely in families” and insists that we “consider how we might spur one another on to love and good deeds”), or the lifestyle is a smokescreen intended to deflect serious consideration about spiritual things. “Me and Jesus” happens at my schedule and when I feel like it – so it doesn’t really push me to engage with the things of God, and I can continue in self-satisfaction.
So what about tradition? Creeds? Prayer Books? Hymnals? Reason?
All have their place – but that place is to help God’s people interpret and apply the scriptures – God’s only infallible Word to His Church – in order that we might be shaped into the image of Christ for a world in need.