Sola Scriptura: The Bible and the Reformation
by Louise Westfall
The act widely attributed to initiating the Protestant Reformation we celebrate today occurred 502 years ago. A young priest, Martin Luther, gave public notice of his challenges to Roman Catholic Church theology by tacking them to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. The deed itself was not provocative — it was normal practice of the day. Protests against church teachings and perspectives had sprung up all over Europe and had resulted in heresy trials and even executions. Yet the whirlwinds of reformation found their clearest expression in the 95 Theses Luther posted. And the rest, as they say is history, the history of Reformed theology, of which we are inheritors.
At the center of the Protestant reformation was a conviction that feels very contemporary: the power of God is exercised through people, not a religious hierarchy. Salvation is given to people by God’s grace alone — it can’t be earned through good works, strict obedience to the church’s teaching, or by paying the church for spiritual benefits; it is received by faith alone. And alongside the pillars of grace alone and faith alone is sola scriptura: the Bible alone as the unique and authoritative guide for faith and practice, God’s instrument of revelation for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. The Bible belongs in the hands of people who can read it in their native language and not have to count on church officials—even preachers! — to be sole interpreters of its truth.
The text today is from a letter of the seasoned apostle Paul to a young disciple named Timothy — you could think of him as a millennial of his day. Paul’s advice is intended to strengthen Timothy for the persecution and deceptions he’ll encounter in the real world. Remember my example he begins, and something else: the instruction you receive from scripture. A reading from the second letter to Timothy, in the third chapter at the tenth verse. Hear in these ancient words, the living Word of God for you and me and all of us together. [II Timothy 3:10-17]
No one disputes that the Bible holds a unique and supreme role for the Church. We give Bibles to second graders, and teen-aged youth as they begin the confirmation process. Occasionally a new member from another religious tradition (or no tradition) will request a Bible. In a former church when a member who had been convicted of embezzlement was sentenced to prison, the only personal possession he could take with him was a Bible (though it had to be new and in its original packaging). It has been a profound privilege to read Scripture at pivotal moments: the soaring verses from Corinthians about love being patient and kind at weddings; the promise of resurrection and a “house with many rooms” prepared for them at the bedsides of people near the end of their lives. The Church regards this book as none other, for faith formation all along life’s journey and in every circumstance, joyous and sad.
I’ve been thinking about the important role of scripture in our reformed faith. If it’s the ability to read and interpret Scripture on our own, how are we doing?
I’ll be honest. I get paid to read the Bible. It’s part of my job. So maybe I’m an unreliable narrator, but I believe this book of books provides a guide to God’s revelation better than anything else. Every sermon I preach is grounded in Scripture. I would have nothing to proclaim apart from the Bible. Sermons are not op ed pieces, imparting my perspectives on the issues of our day, nor are they inspirational moments to warm our hearts against the cold slog of daily life. Instead, sermons grow out of our community engagement with these texts, to “hear” what God is saying to us through them. And the genius of the Reformation was the
God is still speaking … to us who are busy and preoccupied, weary and discouraged, eager to try everything in the world or cynical about it all. God spoke through the Bible to spark a reformation.
insistence that this process of reading and hearing was accessible to the people. So I asked a number of Central folks about their personal practice of reading the Bible. The group includes members and non-members, men and women, ranging in age from 24 to 92. They responded to these prompts: How do you go about reading the Bible? Why do you do it? And how do you interpret what you read?
The first thing that emerged was something of a surprise: every one of the respondents said that they actually read the Bible. A recent national survey suggests they are in the minority of Christians. Some in our group follow a plan: one person tries to read through the Bible every year, which requires about three chapters a day. Some use a devotional guide and a couple said they are involved in Bible studies with others. Most said they turn to the Bible in particular times: when they are struggling personally, or facing a difficult decision. One person has a verse tattooed on her arm, just to keep it front and center always — a verse from Proverbs — Laugh without fear of the future.
The first response came from a person who had been raised in church and had experienced the Bible frequently as an instrument of judgment and condemnation. He saw it used to justify gay-bashing and limiting the roles women could have in the church. As he came to understand his own sexual orientation as gay, the clash between his identity and the church’s teaching contributed to a sense of hopelessness and despair. But by the grace of God, reading the Bible alongside growing knowledge of human sexuality and experience in welcoming congregations, he came to hear God’s word as inclusive and empowering, challenging him—and everyone — to be the best versions of the people they were created to be.
His experience reminds me of the danger of reading selectively, of picking and choosing verses that support our convictions. Biblical scholar James Sanders offers an important corrective to this interpretive method; urging us to “stop looking at the Bible as a manual for morality and begin to see it as a mirror of our identity.” Instead of a rule book, a story of our people in relationship to God throughout time, in different cultures and contexts. Biblical interpretation doesn’t ask us to check our reason and advances in knowledge at the cover; no, we are to bring it all to the text and seek the kernel of truth apart from the trappings of a pre-scientific, patriarchal, and polytheistic world. One respondent quoted the United Church of Christ affirmation that God is still speaking. He added, “Just as we are still growing in our sense of the universe and how it works, I believe we are still young in our understanding of God’s reality, and this is why I try to stay open to the “more” of the One the Bible reveals but does not definitively define.”
When Christians refer to the Bible as the Word of God, I always bristle a little, one person noted. The words of the Bible were not spoken by God. Instead, the words written by humans point to the Word of God –the essence of God, which is love. This person interprets everything she reads in the Bible through the lens of God’s unconditional love for all people. If a text seems to contradict that principle, she tries to go deeper to find the flaw. She’s also ready to dismiss some texts as artifacts from a long-distant time, no longer relevant or meaningful for contemporary people.
Everyone spoke of the need to interpret what they read. One person reminded us that the Bible is an entire library of books with different perspectives and a variety of literary types, including poetry and metaphor, parables and history. Look for themes, she advised. And things that matter most: love of God and neighbor, forgiveness, money.
A woman whose years of experience and immense wisdom lend credibility to everything she says said that she can’t imagine starting the day without prayer and Bible reading, and even more so because of the terrible state of the world today. But she surprised me because she turns to the Bible not primarily for comfort and serenity, but to strengthen her to “get involved in a difficult world with difficult people to figure out what we can do together to make it better.” Sue Wilcox inspires me because she deserves to rest on her laurels, but instead keeps on striving to make a difference.
Why do I read the Bible? One person responded. In my early years I read to discover answers. In my middle years I read to acquire persuasions, rebuttals, and conclusions. Then I realized that I needed to let myself fall into the text, goals abandoned. Some of my years-long held beliefs have either shifted or vanished. But the Root, sinking ever deeper into my being, continues to reveal the Holy Presence within and around me. To that I say, Hallelujah.
And to that I add, Hallelujah. God is still speaking … to us who are busy and preoccupied, weary and discouraged, eager to try everything in the world or cynical about it all. God spoke through the Bible to spark a reformation. And God is still speaking through these ancient words to reform even the likes of you and me, so that we will reflect the Divine image in which we were created. Amen.
[I am indebted to these Central folks who responded to my inquiry: Sue Wilcox, Kathy Nyberg, Steven Erhart, Tim Mooney, Sherry Kenney, Cathy Hawk, and Emma Moore]