Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Sola ScripturaS

I get asked, since I am Anglican, if I believe in Sola Scriptura. My answer is that I do believe in it. The problem, is that the phrase, Sola Scriptura means different things.

In general it can framed in two ways. The most common way is to understand Sola Scriptura as a variant of the idea of ad fontes. Ad fontes was a catchphrase of the renaissance and reformation era that means to the sources. The renaissance, which means rebirth, was a time of going back to the texts of the classical era and applying them afresh in the 15th century. Those who called for this saw the middle ages as a time of suppressing these sources. The idea was that a new resurgence of learning, insight and progress would emerge from returning to the sources. In many ways, this did happen.

Parts of the protestant reformation were shaped by this perspective. Most notably the Swiss reformation with Zwingli the strongest advocate of this approach and Calvin advocating it to some degree. Within this framework, Sola Scriptura means a returning to the New Testament and reading it afresh without the accretions of interpretation that built up over the centuries. This fresh reading would bring about a rebirth of the church.

Other parts of the reformation -- the Lutheran and Anglican -- understood Sola Scriptura in a different way. These movements began with a belief in the church as a historic, visible community -- the catholic view. This community -- the Church -- needed reformation. It needed housecleaning, it needed some trash thrown out, some dusting and some new paint. But the Church was the Church. For these reformations Sola Scriptura was not an attempt to go back to the sources, Sola Scriptura was a touchstone for getting rid of things that contradicted what they saw as the clear teaching of scripture. There was not an attempt to start over from scratch. Doing that would have contradicted their first principle -- the Church as a visible, historic community that exists. One cannot start it over somewhere else. This is part of the reason Lutherans and Anglicans look so catholic. Their reformations were not about going back to the sources and starting over. They were about cleaning up the life of the Church catholic as it continued to move through history as the visible body of Christ.

Sola Scriptura as ad fontes is rampant in North American evangelicalism. Part of this is that NA evangelicalism is a step-child of the Swiss reformation. Another reason is the 2nd great awakening. At least the Swiss reformation had an ecclesiology -- they believed in the church. But the revivalists had the Bible. They took Sola Scriptura as ad fontes and abstracted the Bible from the life of the Church. The result is people who have the Bible and Jesus -- but have no clue about ecclesiology.

So then, if by Sola Scriptura one means the Bible functions as the touchstone for reformation and renewal within the visible, historic Church Catholic -- the Church that retains its worship, structure and tradition -- then I believe in Sola Scriptura. But if by Sola Scriptura one means ad fontes, count me out.

This is, of course, over simplified. But the distinction, IMHO, is real and important.


Adam Gonnerman said...

I think I get what you mean. My faith tradition is the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movment. The Christian churches/churches of Christ began as an effort to skip past the centuries and get back to the original Christianity. The trouble with this view, in my opinion, is that taken literally it throws out a lot of good tradition and history. In its most extreme form it makes it appear that God's purposes had failed for most of the past 2000 years.

Bryan said...

Thanks for continuing to write helpful stuff.


Peter said...

Thanks Bryan. I am also finding this helpful for me. Sharpens my own thinking to write about it.

Robert Lancaster said...

These are good thoughts. It would be cool if you came up for the Wheaton conference in April. I have a buddy from Charlotte coming with me too.

Weekend Fisher said...

That's a helpful way of explaining the difference.

On a completely unrelated note, when I went to look at your profile, it had 777 views, which caught my eye. (I've seen one with 666 views before, but didn't say anything.) ;.)

I have family in Lexington and Louisville.

Take care & God bless