The Sola Scriptura Principle

At the Diet of Worms, held April 18, 1521, Martin Luther famously declared: "My conscience is captive to the word of God." In its formative phase, Protestantism was characterized by a belief—a radical, liberating, yet dangerous belief—that scripture is clear enough for ordinary Christians to understand and apply without the need for a classical education, philosophical or theological expertise, clerical guidance, or ecclesiastical tradition, in the confident expectation that difficult passages will be illuminated by clearer ones. Although some early Protestants appear to have believed that it would be possible to develop a single, well-defined biblical theology and church practice, it soon became clear that additional constraints would be needed.

This point has been recognized since the 1520s. Martin Bucer, alarmed at the needless tensions that were emerging within Protestantism on account of the violent disagreement between Luther and Zwingli over sacramental theology, proposed that Protestantism simply declare that it would respect a reasonable degree of theological diversity, since this appeared to be the inevitable outcome of biblical interpreta-tion.14 So long as it could be shown that a given doctrine was adequately justified on the basis of the Bible, Bucer asserted, it should be accepted as lying within the spectrum of Protestant thought.

In the end, Bucer's irenic approach was not adopted because it was seen as vague and imprecise. Yet Bucer, one of the most perceptive Protestant thinkers during this formative age, had appreciated the fundamental problem of Protestant theological identity—namely, that the movement was primarily about a certain way of doing theology that could lead to an uncontrollable diversity of outcomes. To illustrate the issue, we may consider a question of no small relevance to tensions within North American culture at present.

What do Protestants believe about the creation of humanity, especially in the light of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution? This is a significant, highly contentious question, and we consider its importance in more detail in a later chapter. As someone with a specialist interest in this area, I can easily identify at least nineteen distinct Protestant answers to this question, each claiming to be the correct interpretation of the Bible. So which is the Protestant answer? Which one is right?

The first question can be answered quite simply. All nineteen positions represent answers that have been shaped by what is clearly a Protestant approach to the interpretation of scripture. The nineteen approaches may well be different, but each one has every right to call itself Protestant and to be recognized as such by other Protestants. The question of which approach is right is rather more difficult!

Since every Protestant has the right to interpret the Bible, a wide range of interpretations cannot be avoided. And since there is no centralized authority within Protestantism, this proliferation of options cannot be controlled. Who has the right to decide what is orthodox and what is heretical? For many early Protestants, this was a dangerous idea that opened the floodgates to a torrent of distortion, misunderstanding, and confusion.

So what could be done to limit the range of biblical interpretations? This was a pressing question, since the more radical thinkers within Protestantism chose to interpret the Bible in ways that seemed to many to lie beyond the pale of orthodoxy. John Dryden, writing in the seventeenth century, pointed out that both heretics and the orthodox appealed to the Bible. They happened to interpret it in different ways. And if there was no Protestant equivalent of the magisterium, the centralized teaching authority of the church, how could these positions be defined as heretical? Or even as un-Protestant?

For did not Arius first, Socinus now

The Son's eternal Godhead disavow?

And did not these by Gospel texts alone

Condemn our doctrine and maintain their own?

Have not all heretics the same pretence,

To plead the Scriptures in their own defence?

"The Hind and the Panther," part 2, lines 150-55

Over the years, each strand of Protestantism developed its own way of understanding and implementing the sola Scriptura principle.15 Each accorded primacy to scripture yet recognized a number of additional resources—such as tradition, reason, and experience—that might serve in connecting scripture with the intellectual and experiential world of every generation. Two approaches, both affirming the important role of the Christian community in interpreting scripture, proved to be of particular importance. The first stressed its synchronic role—in other words, the role of the present-day community of believers in seeking to understand a text. The second emphasized its diachronic role, looking to the testimony of believers in the past as an aid to the present-day task of interpretation.

The first approach stressed that biblical interpretation is ultimately a corporate, rather than an individual, matter. Individual believers have every right to ask for an explanation or defense of the views of the wider body, according to this approach. While the Holy Spirit has indeed been given to all believers—partly to illuminate their reading of scripture—the community of faith has a vital role in checking misper-ceptions or misreadings. Questions of doctrine are to be settled, however, by the community of faith as a whole, not by a single person. Anabaptism, often regarded as the form of Protestantism that gave individuals the greatest degree of freedom in this respect, generally emphasized the importance of the congregation in determining how to interpret scripture.16 Similarly, American Baptist theologians respect the judgments of earlier luminaries within their tradition, regarding them as important dialogue partners in the contemporary task of explicating and applying the Bible.17

The second approach emphasized the role of the past in interpreting scripture. The mainline reformers argued that since Protestantism represented the continuation and renewal of apostolic Christianity, it was able to share in the early Christian community's decisions concerning norms of faith and that community's identification of heresies and other inauthentic forms of faith. Most Protestants therefore accepted the traditional ecumenical creeds, regarding these as publicly authorized and endorsed interpretations of scripture. This approach was generally not adopted by sixteenth-century Anabaptist communities, which had serious reservations concerning the authenticity of earlier forms of Christianity, even during the patristic period. However, modern Anabaptist theologians take their own tradition with the greatest seriousness in attempting to fashion an appropriate engagement with the Bible in the light of today's questions and issues.18

The form of Protestantism that probably exemplified this approach best was early seventeenth-century Anglicanism. Francis White (15641638), sometime Bishop of Ely, was a leading representative of early seventeenth-century Anglican theology, which represented a classic statement of the "reformed Catholicism" of the Church of England at this time, combining the Reformation's insistence on the theological priority of scripture with a Catholic understanding of the institutional mediation of scripture through the church.19

For White, the church constructs "her faith and religion upon the sacred and canonical Scriptures of the Holy Prophets and Apostles, as upon her main and prime foundation."20 Yet White insisted on the need for an agreed, consensual means by which the Bible might be interpreted, and he found this in "the consentient testimony and authority of the Bishops and pastors of the true and ancient Catholic church," which were to be set over and against innovations resulting from individualist speculation.

In effect, White distinguished between two sources of authority— one magisterial, the other ministerial; one sovereign, the other subordinate. The former is scripture; the latter is the "voice and testimony of the Primitive Church," which acts as "a ministerial and subordinate rule and guide, to preserve us and direct us in the right understanding of the Scriptures."

The recognition that the church has a role to play in the interpretation of the Bible in no way invalidates the sola Scriptura principle. William Whitaker (1547-95) echoed a general Protestant consensus when he stated: "For we also say that the church is the interpreter of Scripture, and that the gift of interpretation resides only in the church: but we deny that it pertains to particular persons, or is tied to any particular see or succession of men."21 This naturally leads us to consider the role of tradition as an aid to the interpretation of scripture.

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