The most popular book in human history continues to spawn many different styles of approach. Classic groupings in how Christians attempt to apply biblical instruction to their lives are often labeled as Conservative or Liberal. Further distinctions are often made beyond that which often unveil a family-tree of dissention.
One such distinction, particularly among Protestant Conservatives, is the recognition of sola scriptura – the emphasizing of the sole authority of Scripture in defining doctrine and over Christian practice. This writer is in concurrence, and yet there are significantly different camps even within those who claim to uphold the authority of Scripture.
Highlighting such differences is not intended for fueling disagreements, for God knows we have far too many as it is. Rather, it is raised here to assist serious students of the Bible in recognizing, within themselves and within potential church fellowships (that they may be considering for their own participation), whether or not the claim of biblical authority is a pretense or a fundamental principle.
There are two significantly different motives behind the actual operations of those who promote the authority of Scripture. For some, that authority is a tool to justify their doctrine, for others it is a revelation that defines their doctrine. (The term doctrine can be understood as Christian teachings, beliefs, common understandings, and expected practices).
This hearkens back to the profound question regarding which came first, the chicken or the egg. Although it is often assumed that Scripture has always been the backdrop for all conservative beliefs, the evidence is not equally convincing. From the garden of Eden to the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness, Satan has demonstrated the penchant for giving the impression of upholding the words of God, but he has always quoted with selectivity as it suited his agenda. In other words, he refers to Scripture so as to help justify his ulterior motives and not to convey truth.
That pattern repeats itself with those the Bible warns against as “wolves in sheep’s clothing”. They project the gentle image of a pastoral minister of Christian virtue, but their use of Scripture has mixed motives. By their fruit you will often recognize them — be it greed, selfish pursuits, power, or just job-security — but such twisters can also be measured by how they approach Scripture. Are verses of Scripture selectively touted to back up what they already want to believe, what their denomination teaches without regard to other verses that speak otherwise, or do they demonstrate integrity by upholding the fullness of what is revealed in God’s word?
Perhaps you may identify with an experience I recently had where a sheet of doctrinal beliefs were being circulated that had a long list of “supporting” verses to back up each bullet point. And yet, when I questioned how a particular point could be viable when considering what a few other un-listed verses say about the same subject, I was told (in so many words) that 500 years of history had more credibility than my opinions. Apparently, quoting verses that undermine a popular belief does not hold the same authority-of-Scripture for some people.
As always, we ought to turn all mirrors toward self reflection as well. It is good for ensuring humility and avoiding the witch-hunting responses of misguided zealots. And so, how about us? Do we go to church and surround ourselves with passages and people who repeat words that comfort our preferred beliefs, or do we humbly measure every idea, no matter how old or through whom it has been presented, to what Scripture actually says?
Do we profess the authority of Scripture so long as it operates as a protective wall against any questioning of what we currently believe, or does that authority dominate our approach and allow every doctrine to be regularly washed by the living word?
Keep in mind that the admonition to not doubt is about not doubting God, his goodness, or his promises, but it is not a reference to avoid at all cost any doubt regarding teachings from the church you were raised in, or about beliefs acquired along life’s road, or about what your favorite minister thinks.
In spite of what some Catholics may want to claim, Martin Luther did not promote the idea of sola scriptura to justify his rebellion against the established church. The evidence is that he submitted both his frustrations with the apparent abuses in the church at that time and his own doctrinal beliefs as an ordained priest to what Scripture actually says. So should we.
If you find yourself quoting favorite verses and avoiding others that don’t exactly support your preferred beliefs, take a chapter from the Bereans within the book of Acts and humbly re-measure what you thought you understood to what Scripture actually says.
Don’t expect to hear such things from those who already sing your tune. As the apostle Paul stated to some Christians, “Have I become your enemy, because I told you the truth?” Expect that those who challenge you or who believe differently than you on some point, may well be worth at least hearing—hearing long enough in order to expose your own comfortable beliefs to the healing waters of the Spirit.
Even if you find confirmation to sustain your views on some particular doctrine, you can’t go wrong by approaching Scripture with a teachable heart. Sola scriptura (or in English, only Scripture) was meant to uphold the Bible as the sole, divinely revealed authority of Christian belief and practice, in contrast to church denominational tradition or even to meaningful personal experience.
Some have twisted that authority for use as a tool to justify what they want to believe rather than to define what those beliefs ought to be. Properly used, Scripture should have the final say in everything Christian, even if it says things that challenge our comfort zones or even require outright repentance for having misrepresented the name of Christ.
Although God always remains sovereign, he does not dominate our expressions of life. So it is with his word. The holy Bible is the primary and final authority of revealed truth that is materially accessible to humans. We have the freedom to fully submit to that authority of revelation or we can twist it for our own ends.
Either way God remains God. The questions becomes, do we demonstrate ourselves to be his?
Does this Bible thumping reverberate a truth you can recognize?