On February 2, 2010

Sola Scriptura

So I’ve been wrestling with the eighth chapter of Acts for the past few weeks, trying to figure out what was going on then, and what that could mean for Jesus’ followers today. The story is pretty bizarre to be honest. A guy named Phillip is swept up by the Spirit (whatever that means) and is taken to meet an Ethiopian Eunuch, a man who’s in a high political position, who’s driving a chariot back to Africa.

Sounds like the beginning of a George Lucas movie, I know.

The Eunuch is a man who’s made quite a few sacrifices to get where he’s going. And he’s made it to the top, but now, and this is my imagination, he’s looking for more. He’s now returning from a visit to Jerusalem to visit a foreign God, and a foreign Temple.* And on his way home, he runs into a hitchhiker wanting to have a Bible study.

A few centuries ago, Scripture was really taking a pounding. The institutional church leaders had a monopoly on who could or couldn’t read the Bible (not to mention most of the culture was illiterate) and so the ruling theocracy of the day interpreted the implications of Scripture to the masses. And sometimes they added a little something in there for their own gain. They pork-barreled the Bible like it was a bill.

They had all these addendum’s about what God wanted, and some of them were meant with good intentions, while some of them were just religiously veiled attempts at furthering their own agenda.

Enter Martin Luther. Here’s a guy, who for all his flaws, saw what was going on with the corruption of the religious establishment, and decided the best way to end the corruption was by getting the Bible out there. Into the hands of the people.

One of the central principles of the Reformation movement was Sola Scriptura, which means Only Scripture. The idea behind it is that we don’t need people’s additions, or interpretation about what the Scripture is saying, just give the people the Bible. And that is a good idea, started with great motives.

The problem is it’s not Biblical.

Because if the Ethopian Eunuch would have been a Protestant, when Philip would have come jogging along side of him, asking do you understand what you’re reading there. The Eunuch would have responded by saying “Of Course, I’m literate. I have no problem understanding this.”

But he doesn’t.

Instead he tells Phillip something I think is interesting. He says, “How can I? Unless someone explains it to me?”

Worked into the Bible itself is the Bible pointing beyond itself. As if it’s incomplete, looking for a body. This is not to diminish the Bible. It’s to say what Jesus himself said in John 5, that Scripture points externally to the person of Jesus.

Which just happens to be what Phillip does from there.

He interprets the passage the Eunuch was reading from Isaiah to be about Jesus as the Messiah.

Over the years, I’ve had people say little comments to me that reflect this kind of worldview about the Scriptures. I’ve had good friends tell me I read too many other books, or that I just need to stick with the Bible. Which, ironically enough, is probably an idea that they got from other books, or at least people who read them. I’ve had people dismiss me because I read scholarly books for school. (To be clear I don’t claim that I’m a scholar or the son of a scholar).

But their argument is just let us read the Bible. The problem with that is we probably can’t. I doubt very many people in our pews would get much out of it if we just plopped down several large stacks of Greek or Hebrew codices. We are already the beneficiaries of someone else wrestling to interpret Scripture for us.

One of the unintended consequences of this kind of view of Scripture is that it can keep us isolated. It’s the product of a culture of individualism that is relatively new. And when we baptize that approach to Scripture, the one thing people rarely point out is that it’s not in Scripture.

We weren’t made to read the Bible by ourselves, in fact that is a pretty new phenomenon. Not that it’s bad, I happen to read the Bible often by myself and like that way better than say, you reading it to me. But there’s also a reason I blog, and read other people’s blogs. Or have conversations, with people on page and in person. There’s a reason that I like Bible studies, small groups, or whatever other name you want to put on it.

I want to see what God is doing in other lives besides my own.

Because maybe God’s showing you something he didn’t show me. Or maybe he showed me something he didn’t show you.

The Scriptures are this story spanning thousands of years, written by dozens of authors.

If God took that kind of process to write it, is it possible He’s trying to say something about how to read it.

Maybe it’s time to let someone else on the chariot.

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  • KO

    That’s right. The Word became flesh … and the Word was God… Hmmm, Satan comes up with every kind of way to keep us from tapping into the power that is within us.

  • Chris

    Excellent commentary! I’ve gotten tired of the number of Christians I see trying to tell us the Bible is a “simple” book to understand. I think this is not only a very misleading and harmful statement, but ultimately it does not honor the complex, complete and sometimes subtle work that God provided for us. If God had wanted to make things simple he would’ve inspired “The Holy Pamphlet”. While the concept of grace is simple enough for a child to understand and accepting God does not require substantial brainpower, God’s word is deep enough to ensure that even the brightest among us can spend an entire lifetime growing in understanding.

  • http://ozziepete.wordpress.com/ Aussie Pete

    Good thoughts Jonathan. But you failed to consider the Great Commission of Matt. 28 & Mark 16, where we’re specifically told to go into all the world printing and distributing Bibles…Oh, wait, that’s just my fed up paraphrase… Why is teaching so undervalued? Is it a postmodern phenomena where I don’t want other people telling me what to think and believe? It seems to me that postmodern culture and Martin Luther have arrived at a crossroads together, although coming from different directions.It seems to me that Scripture places great importance on teaching and role modeling, in addition to personal study.Consider Matt 28, Mk 16 “Go…teach”, or 1 Tim 16 where Timothy’s told that by his life and teaching he will save himself and his hearers.We can see how important teachers are when we consider the numerous NT warnings against false teachers. What if each of those warnings was in the positive “gather good teachers around yourselves” rather than “avoid false teachers”, would that change our understanding?Sorry, I guess I found a soapbox…didn’t see that coming.PS. I don’t think I ever thanked you for your Sarna recommendation on Exodus… it made for a good sermon series.

  • Maynard

    Thanks, Storment. I love your, “They pork-barreled the Bible like it was a bill” line. You alluded to this, but let me add that another issue with the “let’s just read the Bible” argument is that if I were to do that, I’d be reading it through a Southern white man’s eyes and interpreting it as such. That’s not wrong. That’s where I must start, but if I read commentary by someone of another culture, faith, region, etc, I get a glimpse of how God spoke to them about the very same passage and can then go back and relate it to my original interpretation and perhaps even see more deeply into what God wants me to get from it. . . Love your thoughts and challenges, man. Keep it up.

  • Anonymous

    I used to fall into this trap, but thankfully got lifted out of it quite a few years ago. Without the Spirit, the Bible is just ink on paper. We need others around us to help us learn. This is taught throughout the Bible. “Iron sharpens iron,” “Two are better than one,” “a cord of three strands is not quickly broken” . . . You get the picture.Of course, Sola Scriptura doesn’t really mean that we learn without teaching. Otherwise, Luther couldn’t have taught us about Sola Scriptura. I think one of the biggest things that the Ethiopian eunuch meant was that he wasn’t Jewish. He didn’t have the teachings of the culture, of the rabbis, of the people. There was just so much Phillip had that he didn’t. We’re in much the same boat today.

  • http://www.djiverson.com/ DJ

    Totally inspirational insight. As usual. I’ve been wrestiling with the phrase ‘my personal savior’ lately. Any thoughts on how this might relate? I’m starting to draw some paralells but was wondering what your take on that might be.

  • http://feetwasher.blogspot.com Philip Cunningham III

    You mis-spelled Philip ;)

  • http://www.stormented.com Jonathan Storment

    KO, Yeah, I think we both heard this from the same place.

    Chris, thanks brother. Yeah I think a lot of central things are easier to understand, but you’re right. The Scriptures are pretty complex, and keep getting deeper the more one digs.

    Peter, That’s a good word about all the NT emphasis on teachers. I think you’re right that (at least in our context) we’ve leaned into focusing on the false teachers aspect, vs. the former. I’m glad you liked Sarma, he’s a stud.

    Maynard, I love your insight. One of the things that Postmodernism has taught it’s predecessors is that everyone has a perspective or bias, and the best way to find out what your’s is, is to try and look through someone else’s.

    Anonymous. I like this line, “Of course, Sola Scriptura doesn’t really mean that we learn without teaching. Otherwise, Luther couldn’t have taught us about Sola Scriptura.” Good point. I think Luther was reacting against that needed to be corrected. And I’m glad that Scripture is one of the things that teachers have to be accountable to. They can’t just make stuff up (at least not without people calling them on it). But I doubt if Luther saw how individualism and Sola Scriptura would go so close together.

    DJ, Thanks man. I think that there is some good to it. I am a person and I need a Savior. But I think the Bible is painting a bigger picture than just my own salvation too. I am a part of people whom God is saving. The Scriptures are concerned with the corporate, holistic salvation of God, From the Cosmos to the Single Mom. Anyway that’s my opinion for right now. Looking forward to seeing you in a month Brother!

    Filip, thanks for pointing that out.

  • Dan Gill

    Indeed I did.

  • Dan Gill

    I didn’t mean to comment anonymously. I must have must missed the name block.

  • Gillespie

    Word my brotha!

  • Robb

    Jonathan, I am enjoying reading here and getting a fresh look at things. I always thought Sola Scriptura meant that the Bible was the final authority. I read lots of other books, listen to sermons and talk to others about scripture but don’t we always have to reconcile that back to the Bible? I think that in this definition it is a Biblical concept (Luke 1:1-4, Mt 4:1-11, Acts 17:11-12). We also must understand that each Christian can have different interpretations of scripture and that can be ok as long as we agree on the core “non-negotiable” items as Rick puts it.

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