Nov 9 2009

Wrapping up Tradition and Sola Scriptura

Well, actually, I’m just wrapping up my short series of posts looking at the issues.  To revisit them, here’s the list:

  1. Rethinking Tradition and Sola Scriptura (in which I introduced sola scriptura)
  2. Rethinking Tradition and Sola Scriptura 2 (in which I introduced Tradition)
  3. Rethinking Tradition and Sola Scriptura 3 (in which I discussed various views of Tradition)
  4. Re Considering the issue of Tradition (just a bit of added value)

And, of course, I’ve often touched on these issues here over the last 2 years or so.  But, I find it personally helpful to think through things every so often, to consider new (and old) information.  In this way I find that I am, like the reformers, semper reformanda (always reforming).

The original concept of sola scriptura, “by scripture alone,” was based on Luther’s testimony at Worms:

Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other.

This stands a marked contrast to the common evangelical approach of “this is what the Bible means to me,” aka solo scriptura.  While the Bible can certainly give us personal insights, this does not mean that we can interpret the Bible willy-nilly, taking verses out of both textual, cultural and historical context.  Luther never intended to disregard the Apostolic teachings; he meant to avoid “traditions of men” as had corrupted the Roman Catholic Church.

Insofar as the evangelical church has ignored much of the early church and has let cultural and philosophical influences change how we read and interpret scripture, evangelical “tradition” is highly suspect.   I am to the point where I seriously have to question everything from Augustine to the present; Augustine compromised theology in order to make it rational, as he understood the concept, inventing doctrines like Original Sin.  The enlightenment further compromised theology, as did romanticism and existentialism.  We in the west now view everything through Cartesian and Augustinian lenses.  As such, the evangelical church has no authority; the “plain reading” of the Bible is not “plain” at all – even within one denomination, people can’t agree.

The Roman Catholic Church claims to be the original, Apostolic faith.  However, I have a very hard time accepting the RCC as having any authority whatsoever.  While it has certainly reformed itself since Luther’s time, it still suffers from a great many heresies, including claiming an authority which rests in the office of the Pope.  Also, it, too has been corrupted along with the rest of the West by Augustinian and Enlightenment thinking.  It’s history of disagreements and heretical decrees speaks for itself.

So, when the Pope reaches out to the Eastern Church or to the Anglican Communion seeking unity, I admit I am suspicious.  All along the RCC has believed that “unity” means for other churches to submit to the Pope, who, as I mentioned, has no Biblical or Apostolic authority.  The RCC is not, as it turns out, the original church.

This leaves the Eastern Churches, the Orthodox and Coptics.  It says much that these churches have not changed the essential nature of the faith, ever.  If there is a church group that has Apostolic Authority, it would have to be the Orthodox.  It is the Orthodox who has retained all of the ancient documents as well as oral tradition. They have successfully kept out heresy, and have avoided the theological and ethical scandals of the later traditions.

The question now is, “Can we be sure that the Orthodox have not erred in accepting ‘tradition’ as authoritative when it was just opinion?”  Is being the original church enough?  Timothy Ware explains what constitutes “Tradition” in the Orthodox church:

To an Orthodox Christian, Tradition means the Holy Bible; it means the Creed; it means the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils and the writings of the Fathers; it means the Canons, the Service Books, the Holy Icons, etc. In essence, it means the whole system of doctrine, ecclesiastical government, worship and art which Orthodoxy has articulated over the ages [The Orthodox Church, p.204]

In evaluating apostolic authority, we have to consider that we know from Paul’s letters that apostles do make errors. Paul specifically nails Peter, for example, as well as other unnamed apostles for teaching legalism.  Are we assuming that the Church Fathers didn’t make errors?

While many are able to accept that the Orthodox Church possesses the original faith, and has Apostolic authority, I am not yet at that place.  Perhaps I am still too entwined in rationalism – I do consider that a possibility.  But, while I will agree that the Orthodox Church has the greatest – and perhaps only – claim to the Apostolic faith, I cannot accept that all of the trappings of orthodoxy are apostolic.

That being said, I am more and more developing a great respect for Orthodox theology and spirituality, and will agree that if the 1st and 2nd century Christians taught a certain way, it is well worth considering.  I would go so far as to say that when interpreting Scripture, one should look to the early church for guidance.

Tradition is more than just looking back to the way things were done in the old days. Tradition is looking back to an understanding of Christianity that was shared with people who were within a generation of the Apostles – who better to show us how Scripture and doctrines were understood?

I am quite glad that the Orthodox Church has expressed a willingness to dialog with the Anglican Church of North America (and find it amusing, and proper, that Calvinism is one of the 3 big concerns); for me – and apparently also to the Eastern Church – the conservative Anglicans sit (to borrow a phrase) at the intersection of East and West, a place where I currently find myself.

Oct 31 2009

Rethinking Tradition and Sola Scriptura

Rethinking the Reformation concept of Sola Scriptura is a rather intimidating task, especially for someone who was raised Lutheran (and especially on Reformation Day!).  Sola Scriptura – the principle that says that the sole authority of the Church rests in Scripture alone – is one of the hallmarks of the Reformation.  It was a response to the abuses of Church Tradition by the Roman Catholic Church, who had added teachings that included Papal Infallibility, the Immaculate Conception (the belief that Mary the Mother of Jesus was born without original sin), and of course, the doctrine of Purgatory and the benefits of purchasing Indulgences.  It was this last doctrine that prompted Luther to post his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Chapel.

Martin Luther saw the dangers in following the obviously arbitrary doctrines created by the RCC, and at the Diet of Worms (yeah, I’ve always laughed at that, too) made this famous statement:

Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other.  God help me.  Amen.

The interesting thing about Luther is that he actually tried to follow church authority, going back to earlier Papal teachings that contradicted those he was questioning.  When he found out that he couldn’t reconcile the various “authoritative” teachings, he turned to the only unchanging authority, that of the Bible.

Sola Scriptura has become foundational to hundreds of protestant denominations, each of which follow “the plain meaning of Scripture” but yet disagree with each other on any number of points.  When someone claims to follow “the plain meaning of Scripture,” you really have to ask, “which one?” To most evangelical Christians, sola scriptura has come to mean, “the Bible means whatever I think it means.”  I have heard this theory of Biblical interpretation referred to as “solo scriptura.”

How far we’ve come from Martin Luther, whose intent was never to disregard the tradition of the Apostles, but rather to remove the authority of men from the Church.  The irony is that today, each Christian who asserts his own right to interpret the Bible for himself is once again relying on the authority of man, not the authority of the Bible.


Sola Scriptura is not without its problems.  For one thing, the Bible didn’t exist in it’s current form(s) until the 4th Century; it wasn’t just handed down from God with a gold-embossed burgundy leather cover.  Decisions were made – by men – as to which of the many books that had been collected met the standards of Scripture. Even then, there were books – such as those we call the Apocrypha, as well as some we find in our Bibles today – that have been routinely questioned.  Luther himself questioned the inclusion of one or 2 books.  How, then, could Luther rest on the Bible’s authority alone?  For that matter, how could the Church of the 2nd and 3rd centuries exist without what is considered by many to be the sole authority of the Church?  It seems obvious that Luther had some different thoughts in mind when spoke of the Authority of Scripture alone.

While I haven’t found any specific quote from Luther defining sola scriptura, he does give some clues as to his thinking:

Now it is the office of a true apostle to preach of the Passion and resurrection and office of Christ, and to lay the foundation for faith in him, as Christ himself says in John 15[:27], “You shall bear witness to me.” All the genuine sacred books agree in this, that all of them preach and inculcate Christ. And that is the true test by which to judge all books, when we see whether or not they inculcate Christ. For all the Scriptures show us Christ, Romans 3[:21]; and St. Paul will know nothing but Christ, I Corinthians 2[:2]. Whatever does not teach Christ is not yet apostolic, even though St. Peter or St. Paul does the teaching. Again, whatever preaches Christ would be apostolic, even if Judas, Annas, Pilate, and Herod were doing it” (Prefaces to the New Testament, LW 35:396).

Luther, it seems, was never ruling out the authority behind the Bible: Apostolic Authority.  For Luther, the key in determining whether a book deserved to be included in the Canon of the Bible, it had to contain the Apostolic message.

The point Luther was making, and which is more obvious today than ever, is this: no man has an infallible interpretation of the Bible.  This, then, begs the question: Where is such authority to be found, if not in the Bible itself?  This is not to suggest that the Bible is not authoritative; I believe that it is.  The problem is in the exegesis, the interpretation.  It seems logical to conclude that either there is no source of authority in interpretation, in which case we have problems, or there is an authority, in which case we should find it.

Next, we turn to the issue of Tradition.

Sep 26 2009

If you like singing in church, thank Martin Luther

The BBC has produced a very nice documentary on the Lutheran influence in worship, paying particular attention to Bach, probably the most well-known Lutheran organists and composers.  It’s fascinating – anyone who has an interest in worship music should find this particularly interesting.

I hadn’t realized that in the pre-Luther Roman Catholic Churches, the congregation didn’t sing; the hymns were all sung for them by “professionals” – in Latin, of course.  Luther started writing hymns like “A Mighty Fortress” and taught his congregation to sing.  This started a whole new trend in popular worship, as you could imagine.

Again, the documentary is fascinating, and features music by Luther, Bach, and others performed by The Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers, as it traces the influence of Luther and his followers on worship music, and specifically that of Bach.

The good news is that this is available as a series of 6 HQ videos on YouTube.  Here’s the first installment:

Paul T. McCain has also blogged about this series here, where he has provided the following links to the 6 videos:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5:

Part 6:


Nov 27 2008

The Church: simul iustus et peccator

Many years ago, concerned by friends leaving our church, I preached a sermon on the topic, “what is the church?”  I could not find a copy of my notes, but I am guessing that I probably would not agree with much of what I said back then.  After a few years as a church elder and dealing with a vast array of problems, I significanly revised my thinking on the church. If you looked back at some of my writing from this period, you’d note that I sounded quite emergent, before emergent existed. However, that, too, has passed. After many years of thinking, reading and writing about ecclesiological issues, I find myself almost full circle, coming back to a more traditional view of the church.

David Hayward has written recently about the nature of church, saying, “The truth is that it is basically a group of people in relationship with one another and with the spirit of Jesus.”  I would have to agree that this definition follows Jesus’ promise in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”  There is an element of church that exists wherever Christians are in relationship, even if  no prior relationship existed between the individuals; our connection to Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit is sufficient for relationship, and church, to happen. However, I suspect that in many cases church relationships have become predominantly horizontal; that is, we no longer see our connection to the local church as based in Christ, but rather upon any number of extrinsic elements.  The invisible, universal Church is one thing; the local church is quite another.

One of the unfortunate results from Martin Luther’s rediscovery of the priesthood of all believers is that we see ourselves as somewhat independent and self-sufficient; it’s truly “me and Jesus.” However, what we fail to realize is that we are priests not just for our own benefit, but for the benefit of others, the local community of believers. We are truly dependent upon each other. This is seen most clearly in the administration of the sacraments – baptism and communion – something which evangelicalism has also lost. The sacraments, having lost any sense of incarnational theology, have been reduced to rituals, memorials or testimonies, rather than a true expressions of the work of Christ. When attempts are made to “spiritualize” them, the result is often akin to superstition.

For Luther, the church was an expression of the Gospel, and was in fact founded on the Gospel, that we are justified sola gratia, by grace alone. The church, in Luther’s mind, is also seen as a communal version of his anthropology, that we are simul iustus et peccator, simultaneously saint and sinner. That is, in Christ we are, as is often phrased today, in the “already and not yet,” sinners who have been undone and condemned by the Law, but remade and are being sanctified by Christ.

The Church is expressed locally when Christians gather in faith, with the common belief that we are simul iustus et peccator, sinners dependent upon the cross. There is no other basis for communion.  When we corporately respond to the preaching of the Gospel and respond in faith, the church itself is undone and reacreated. Therefore, “unity” is only possible through the work of grace in the corporate gathering. There is, therefore, no need for pastors to exhort followers to “get on the same page” or do anything else to create or preserve unity in the church; whatever these issues are, they are immaterial. Unity and the corporate expression of the Church is solely based in the Gospel and our shared faith in the Cross.

This does not necessarily make finding a local church easy; even within the various liturgical church denominations, there are varying expressions, ranging from “low” church expressions with modified liturgies to “high” church expressions with all the bells and smells. Style and personalities are a factor; however, when all is said and done, we are made a church not by any of these things, but because we are all simul iustus et peccator.