Sola Scriptura?

Sola Scriptura

This post has been prompted by a couple of things I’ve come across lately. First, I’m part of a Facebook group for clergy women, and a friend of mine (we’ve never met, but when you’re in the trenches together as we are, you become friends) was requested by a nearby church not to fill pulpit supply in a church that needed it because of her gender. My heart hurts for her. Then, I watched this video here where Matt Chandler espoused the virtues of Calvinism, Biblical literalism, and of course, by extension, “biblical womanhood”. Finally, I just finished teaching an adult Kerygma® Bible study in the church I serve, and the topic of exactly how to interpret the Bible came up several times.

How do we know we’re reading the Bible correctly? How do we whether or not we’re being inordinately influenced by the culture around us? On the other hand, because no religion exists in a cultural vacuum (Christianity during the time of Jesus and today included!) how can our faith not be influenced by the times and places in which we live? What does it mean when I say that my relationship with Jesus—and thus my theology—is different from yours because my experiences and my walk with God has not been identical to yours?[1]

I also had a Skype conversation with a mentor/friend of mine this past weekend, where the question of what needs to be taken literally and what is symbolic in Scripture came up in several different ways. Is the creation story literally true? What about passages that seem to contradict each other? If I don’t believe this particular stance of this particular theologian on this particular topic, but agree with what they say over here about that, what does that say about me? What does that say about how I approach the Bible? My friend wondered, “Because you [Jill] have given me permission to interpret this theologian piecemeal (and I did), does that mean I approach Biblical interpretation piecemeal too?”

I had to confess to her, rather reluctantly, that yes, what she was doing with this particular theologian probably extended to how she read the Bible too. A beloved seminary professor referred to this phenomenon as “smorgasbord” interpretation. But, I said. I do it too. There are parts of the Bible I take more literally and/or seriously, parts I interpret culturally or symbolically instead of literally—when I just interpreted word-for-word over here!—and there are undoubtedly parts that I flat-out ignore, even without really meaning too.

I went on to explain to her that I take the whole of the Bible very seriously. It is the foundation of my faith, thus it is the foundation of my life. Added to this for me, is my spiritual heritage of being raised in a denomination that takes the Word of God very seriously, and the Bible is not something to be approached willy-nilly.

In the Reformed tradition, sola scriptura (scripture only) is a key piece of our distinctiveness, and has been so since the days of Martin Luther and John Calvin. These two leaders in the faith used the phrase to describe their elevation of Scripture and the primacy of it above the traditions of the Catholic Church at the time. But what does it mean for those of us in the Reformed tradition to claim sola Scriptura today, especially in light of all the questions I just raised? I confess to you that I’m not always sure what sola Scriptura “looks like”. One thing I did tell my Skype friend was this, “When you’re faced with a knotty question, ask yourself this question, ‘In the midst of this confusion/contradiction/not being sure which way to go, where do I see the character of God as outlined in Scripture?’” Whatever her answer is to that question, I said, will begin to point her in a direction that lines up with God’s Word.

I’m fully ready to admit that this may be a faulty method. There surely is something better out there. But, it’s the only thing that keeps me from blowing my top when I hear “biblical womanhood” being discussed, or curling up into the fetal position when one of my friends is simply trying to be obedient to God and has her call questioned yet again. Given what I know of the character of God, most of “biblical womanhood” gets thrown out the window. And I cheer my friend on in her fight to do the work God has called her to—when there should be no reason for her to fight at all. Because what I know of the character of God says that “in Christ, there is neither Jew, nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” (Gal. 3:28) and “So God created humans in his own image, in the image of God he created them; in male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). What I know of the character of God tells me that God values all people equally, and does not exclude an entire group from one particular profession simply because of their gender. What I know of the character of God tells me that he sides with the outcast, orphan, and the widow, even when even the church would like to exclude them or deny them certain rights based on their interpretation of Scripture. What I know of the character of God tells me I serve a God who is infinitely patient when I mess up, yet continually calls me to be more of the person he has created me to be.

Does my litmus test make everything about the Bible make sense and agree with each other? No. Am I willing to stake my life on this method of interpretation? No. The Holy Spirit is constantly teaching me new things and revealing new things to me. But for now, I consider this method a gift. A gift that allows me to live into sola Scriptura in the best way I know how.

What about you?

What do you do when confronted with knotty Biblical problems or people who interpret Scripture differently than you?

What does it “look like” to live according to sola Scriptura in the 21st century?

How can we as Christian leaders be sure we are not leading those who learn from us astray?

What method(s) of interpretation do you find useful?


[1] Further exposition of these questions can be explored using the phoenix triangle. Perhaps in a future blog post.

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10 thoughts on “Sola Scriptura?

  1. Bravo Jill! Thank you for this fantastic post! I think you are pressing in harder on one of the essential questions that promoted a real need for a blog like TRB in the blogosphere. I am reminded of the comment that Daniel Meeter offered on our inaugural post. He wrote,

    “Sola scriptura, like the other “sola’s”, is not a nominative but an ablative, meaning, not “only scripture” or “scripture alone” but “only by scripture” or “by scripture alone.” The Reformed view is that scripture is the only rule, the only regula, but not the only source, not the only help, not the only comfort, not the only wisdom, not the only witness, not the only concern of study and understanding, but the only test of all of them.”

    I am not a lawyer or a grammatical scholar but I think this is a very important nuance to keep in mind with this whole sticky Sola scriptura issue. Only by turning to scripture can we make well informed judgments about a whole host of issues, some of which you bring up: issues of gender and the “role” of women in church and society or what to do when facing multiple contradictory theologies that all seem to have their grounding in scripture. But while scripture is our foundation, it is not our only source of wisdom. Nor do I think we necessarily discern or find wisdom only by turning to scripture first with each question we face. After all it is our subsequent traditions, or confrontation with every day life situations, our culture or the moral dilemmas we face that drive us to scripture with our questions. There is a reason we say scripture is our “final authority.”

    Furthermore, there is the very important question of how we read scripture when we do turn to it as our ultimate authority and that by which we make our informed decisions. In Jim Brownson’s latest sexy book he writes, “Most [Christians] acknowledge that there are central texts, which articulate major themes of scripture as a whole, and there are peripheral texts, which articulate subsidiary – and sometimes culturally particular – themes that are less relevant to every time and place. There are scripture passages that lay out broad general principals, and there are biblical texts that make specific exceptions to those broad principals.” I believe anyone who says they don’t do this is either lying, deceived himself or else must arrive at some pretty strange and perhaps dangerous readings of the Bible.

    I think that by far the most important of these “major themes of scripture” as Dr. Brownson calls them, is exactly what you have suggested here: the character of God, especially as God has been revealed in Christ. What is the final word on war? Is it Deuteronomy 20 with its instructions to slit the throats of the male enemies in combat and take their women and young girls captive along with their livestock? Or is it Jesus saying to love our enemy and turn the other cheek?

    Sola scriptura? Sure. We do confess after all that the Bible is the Word of God. But Christians used to understand that the Bible was the Word of God – as in metaphorically and only taken as a whole – it points to God’s vision for the world. Now we too often mistakenly take it for the words of God, as in each word comes from the mouth of God.

    There is still a fierce and intense discussion we must have about what to do when the words in the Word of God do contradict each other. I think the standard way to deal with this – for many conservatives and progressives alike – is to offer something similar to what Dr. Brownson has that some “biblical texts that make specific exceptions to those broad principals.” My worry is that this approach might sometimes lead us to excuse things we should not excuse do to context. For instance, we might find that context about fertility cults and the possibility of a few domineering women might shed some light on why the Deutero-Pauline writer of 1 Timothy uses such harsh language. But does it excuse it?

    The plain sense of the text of 1 Timothy 2:8-15 is at odds with other examples of the empowerment of women in the biblical text: the prophetesses of the Old and New Testaments, Sister Phoebe, the woman whom Paul sends as the carrier of the letter to the Romans,Priscilla is usually mentioned by Paul before Aquila, women were the first and original witnesses of the resurrection. There are many more. Not to mention Paul in Romans 5 provides a very different exegesis of the Genesis fall narrative that does not blame (or even mention) Eve. I believe that our choices when we face such stark tensions in the biblical texts are: God changed somewhere along the line, God is still that way (and then we really have to come up with some really forced or funny interpretations of other passages), or we can assert that various authors had an incomplete understanding of who God is and we need the whole to arrive at anything resembling a comprehensive picture of the God-world relationship. By that holistic picture of the Word of God let us find our way in the world together!

    • Wayne, love what you said here: “My worry is that this approach might sometimes lead us to excuse things we should not excuse due to context.”

      And this concern, however valid, I think is at the root of all our acrimonious debate. It’s a noble and right desire, but we are not living it out well. Furthermore, we are not talking “to” each other, only past each other, and each side is unwilling to consider that there is any angle other than their own. Of course, I think I’m on the right side :). I say that tongue in cheek, but there’s also way too much truth to that cheeky statement.

      • Jill, if historical context might not completely explain or excuse a a rough passage say one like 1 Timothy 2:8-15 – with its harsh word towards women and its moving of blame for the “fall” from the sin humanity in Adam (Romans 5) to the author’s opinion about the gullibility and naivety of women – do you think it may ever be appropriate at some point that we repent of such texts?

  2. Some of these questions about interpretation of scripture are what makes God’s word so alive. I think the most important part is to stay challenged & a participant. Most American Christians do not read the Bible enough. I find it so fascinating that I can study a portion & return to it later & I find the voice of God has changed. Not that what I discovered in the first place to be wrong, but that there is always more.

    • Karimart, yes. However, I would also encourage you to be open enough in your study to consider the possibility that God may indeed say the complete opposite thing upon a second consideration of Scripture. I say this only because it’s happened to me. It’s disconcerting when it does, but at the same time, it leads me back to wrestling, which leads me deeper into my relationship with God. Sometimes the wrestling results in an answer. Other times, I simply learn how to live in the tension, which is part of faith too. My method of helping others approach passages that would otherwise paralyze them does not answer all questions, nor should it. If it does, it’s time for me to run screaming for the hills.

  3. Jill,

    One of the things I value most about you, Jill, is your transparency and honesty in your walk with God. We *all* are selective interpreters. The important things is recognizing that we’re selective. We know that we put more emphasis on one thing over another, and we have biblical reasons for doing so. But, in admitting we are selective, we are also leaving room for conversation and admitting we might be wrong, too. This is so important! The scary part of extreme belief is that we shut the door to conversation. We don’t want it because we’re right to the exclusion of all others.

    This is an excellent springboard into a conversation about the church 🙂 It is so important for us to interpret in community, and it is so important we hear from all kinds of voices on our tricky journey to understanding God’s call on our lives. Don’t doubt your call, Jill. Not for a second.

    • April, your comment about interpreting in community, specifically church, is very convicting to me just now. Even as a leader, I easily fall into the trap of thinking that church is simply a place that supports me so that I can go out and do this thing called life. And it IS that, but church is more than that. We are placed here by God to push each other to follow God’s call upon our lives, both individually and corporately. To act as a check and balance when in comes to this teeter-totter of church and world, to spread the Gospel in all its fullness in word and deed, and so much more! How often do I look towards church to help me with these knotty problems of Scripture and faith? Not often enough, I’m afraid.

  4. Good post.

    I really think sorting out interpretations of scripture has become harder with the advent of the internet because it exposes you to so many contradictory views, a lot of them well researched. Plus the way sites are organized now they feed you things they think you’ll agree with and that can be polarizing.

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