Why Sola Scriptura Does Not Work…

I recently posted an article entitled The Scriptures Alone: 45,000 denominations can’t be wrong, in which I reflect a bit on the result of five centuries of Protestantism. I would suggest that the one thing that unifies Protestants is the concept of Sola Scriptura; a Latin phrase meaning the scriptures alone. Now of course this phrase needs a bit of unpacking. Protestants do not mean by this that they will not use church buildings or have some degree of clergy (although some have come to that sort of conclusion), generally they mean that the Old and New Testament in the Protestant bible is sufficient to guide the church in matters of faith and practice. Noted Protestant speaker and pastor John MacArthur defines Sola Scriptura in this way:

The Reformation principle of sola Scriptura has to do with the sufficiency of Scripture as our supreme authority in all spiritual matters. Sola Scriptura simply means that all truth necessary for our salvation and spiritual life is taught either explicitly or implicitly in Scripture.

This is certainly a noble sounding proposition. It is little wonder that this became the mantra of the Reformation. If you found yourself in the position of Martin Luther, a Monk in the 1500’s, and you were hoping to take on an institution with the history and prestige of the Roman Catholic Church, you would need to appeal to something with equal prestige and sanctity. What better to appeal to than the sacred scriptures? In fact, says the Reformer, the traditions of the Church may have Apostolic authority, but the scriptures are the Word of God. Surely God’s Word is higher than the words of mere men – even Apostles? So off we go with a sure thing. Except, as I point out in the previous article, things do not go so well. Multitudes of denominations and splinter groups later, Sola Scriptura has failed to produce what it promised. I would contend that if the scriptures alone were truly sufficient as the rule of faith and practice, then this approach should have produced a somewhat unified Protestant church. Particularly in the area of faith and practice; which is ironically where they are most divided. It seems obvious that sola scriptura is not sufficient, after all in regards to establishing the faith and practice for the Church of God.

The question that then seems to linger is this: why does sola scriptura not work? The answer to this is quite subtle. In fact it may take an exhausted, truth seeking protestant-turned-convert to arrive at the answer. (One such as myself). In order to demonstrate the point let us examine a few issues that arise in Protestantism. For instance let us look at cessationism (gifts of the Holy Spirit have ceased to operate in the Church) vs continuationism (gifts still operate). I don’t want to bore the reader with the details here, the bottom line is that one camp affirms that the Holy Spirit still imparts supernatural gifts through the Church and the other denies that this is the case. This while both use the exact same Bible to arrive at their conclusions. I am going to pick on the Cessationists here because they offer a great opportunity to demonstrate the point. The Cessationist Protestant, sola scriptura to the core, picks up his Bible (utterly sufficient for faith and practice) and then ignores and dismisses large portions that teach about and indicate the value of Spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12-14 for instance). (Whether one agree or disagrees with the Charismatic practice of gifts is irrelevant to this point). Why do they ignore these passages? Because he and his group have developed an interpretive system that declares that those passages no longer apply to modern Christians. Let this sink in: they have developed a tradition that they use to interpret scripture; further one that legislates the applicability of New Testament scriptures.

And least our Continuationist Protestant friends rejoice too much, let’s talk about about a continued action of the Holy Spirit. You see, one of the issues that Cessationists raise against Continuationists is this: If the Holy Spirit is still speaking in the Church, then how can the Bible be the only word on faith and practice? It would seem that the doctrine of sola scriptura implies a cessation of God’s actions through the Church; at least in the mind of some Cessationists. In fact they do have a point. You cannot contend that the Holy Spirit is still acting and guiding the Church, while maintaining that the scriptures alone are sufficient to give direction in all spiritual matters. You would have to admit that the Holy Spirit, acting in the Church, is just as authoritative as the Holy Spirit inspiring the scriptures.  What our Charismatic Protestant friends then have is not sola scriptura but prima scriptura; which is actually the correct approach. (Also perhaps another reason why Mike Spreng writes that “Charismatics should become Orthodox”.) Fr David Moser says that the Holy Scriptures are like a beautiful diamond in the midst of a pendant. He compares the other jewels in the setting to “the lives of the saints, the writings of the fathers, the services and traditions of the Church.” The Holy Scripture is the centerpiece of God’s Revelation, it however is not the only part of that revelation. Further, the scriptures never make a claim that they are given as a rule of faith and practice. This, according to St. Paul, is in the hands of those God has given to the Church (See Eph 4:11). Sola scriptura makes the error of using the scriptures for something for which they were never intended. In fact, the idea that “all truth necessary for our salvation and spiritual life is taught either explicitly or implicitly in Scripture”, is a tradition that is used to interpret the scripture that is not found in the scripture. Thus Sola Scriptura is a self-defeating proposition.

I could press the points here further, but the point that we hopefully have established is simply this – not the first Sola Scriptura, Protestant Church is truly practicing Sola Scriptura. Each and every one of them is interpreting the scripture in light of their own tradition. Sola Scriptura while purporting to exalt the scripture above all, in the end, becomes a means to exalt the opinion of an individual teacher or group of individuals to that of Divine inspiration. What we end up with is a sort of hyper-individualism that drives Protestantism. There was once an old story related by the famed pastor and theologian H. A. Ironside about a Baptist congregation in the hills of Tennessee that broke from Hutsthe larger First Church because they were convinced that Communion should be taken from a singular cup. He then added that this splinter group then split because they could not agree on whether or not the cup should have a handle. Then there is the more modern joke of the Protestant who was stranded on a deserted island. When rescued the rescuers notice a small hut and ask the castaway what it is used for. He responds “that is where I go to Church.” They then note another building and ask “what is that one for.” He responds “that is where I used to go to Church.” I think this joke perhaps highlights the issue surrounding Sola Scriptura, it leads to a hyper-individualism. Commenting on this joke, Protestant Evangelical David Jeffers writes:

“As funny as the story is, just how far from the truth is it? We’ve heard of the stories of churches splitting for the color of the carpet, piano, piano benches, even a peg for a pastor to hang up his hat.”

Jeffers then goes on to indicate that division was nothing uncommon in the New Testament. I would in fact agree. This is why St. Paul says “No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval.” What Jeffers and other Protestants seem to miss however is that these divisions in the New Testament record were the catalyst of Apostolic intervention and, in extreme cases, counsels that gathered the entire Church together.  Seeing that this was the practice of the Apostles in the New Testament record, why would it be surprising if this was continued by the disciples of those very Apostles? Did Christ not promise: Truly I tell you, whatever you bind onearth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on the earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, I tell you truly that if two of you on the earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by My Father in heaven. Would this not certainly have applied to the Bishops of all the Churches agreeing together in council?

It did not take long for the earliest Protestant denominations to realize this tendency toward hyper-individualism. Soon they themselves were contending with issues over the Deity of Christ, the necessity (or lack thereof) of sacraments, the role of the clergy and much more. These of course were questions that had been dealt with and put to rest in Christianity centuries before, but now that the Pandora’s Box of inspired opinion had been released, the flood could hardly be retained. What authority could they appeal to in order to silence the heretic when they had assured him that all he needed was his opinion and his Bible? Of course this is why the most early denominations developed confessions of faith, creeds or some sort of guiding code that gave them an identity. In other words, they soon saw that Sola Scriptura was untenable and reverted to the some form of tradition in order to guide interpretation. The distinction being that this new tradition could not be said to have been the faith which has been “believed everywhere, always, by all.”

When we contrast Sola Scriptura to that of Inspired Tradition we do not see a debate over the importance of scripture. Both views would contend that the scripture is inspired, and inerrant. Both would place the scriptures at the pinnacle of God’s hands-and-bibleRevelation to humankind. The subtle difference is in who has the authority to guide our understanding of what the scriptures mean. Those who hold to Inspired Tradition would say that this is never to be given to private interpretation but rather should be the function of the whole Church, as witnessed in every time and every place. The adherent to Sola Scriptura must maintain that the opinion of the individual is sufficient. One view lends itself to unity, the other to division. One appeals to the leadership of the Holy Spirit in the Church, the other seems to put more confidence in the intellect of individuals.

Finally, Sola Scriptura does not work because it circumvents the will of Christ for His Church. It erodes unity and leads to confusion. It places the imagination of the individual above the counsel of God. It reduces the manifestation of Christ in His Church to that of “everyman doing that which is right in his own eyes.” I do not insinuate that Protestants now, nor those of the Reformation were not sincere. I do not feel that their intentions were diabolical. There was indeed a need for reformation … in fact repentance, in the Western Church; a return to the common faith and fellowship of the Whole (catholic) Church. I believe in fact that the intentions of the Reformation was to return the West to the ancient faith. Their intention was right, their method was wrong; five centuries of division seems proof enough.

The Scriptures Alone: 45,000 denominations can’t be wrong…

Next year will mark 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Thesis to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany.  Five centuries of Protestantism certainly gives us much to reflect on. What began as a call for reform within the Roman Catholic Church evolved into a new approach that abandoned the ancient traditions of the Church and called for a re-interpretation of Christianity based on the scripture alone – sola scriptura. The general idea, with variations, was that at some point in history the Church ran off the rails, and it was the duty of the reformers to restore Christianity to its ancient vitality. The strategy was simple, the Restorationist would just open the Bible and follow it to the letter; thus re-birthing lost Christianity. 45,000 plus denominations later the difficulties with such an approach is apparent.

Fr Moses Samaan writes “Martin Luther rebelled against the primacy of the Pope of Rome”, yet says that in the end made everyone a pope instead, which led to even more division and confusion.” This is a startling evaluation, but one that seems to have merit. The Reformers took issue with Papal supremacy and challenged excesses and abuses they saw during their day; concerns that were not without substance. Yet their answer to placing ultimate authority into one individual was to essentially place that authority on the shoulders of each and every individual christian. The result has been nearly chaos. For every denomination claiming an essential belief on an issue, there is another that claims the total opposite. It is hard to contend that sola scriptura  has been effective considering the results.

It is this Western conundrum that has driven many to a point of frustration that has caused some to abandon Christianity altogether. Western Christians are presented with two options, either one man who speaks for the entire Church or a wild-eyed theological free-for-all. Most are not aware of the “middle way” of Orthodoxy. That it is possible to hold to the scriptures while being guided by the wisdom of the Fathers. The Orthodox approach is really the antithesis to the Western approach, the Orthodox Church lives in the safety of the Fathers. Rather than the radical individualism of Protestantism or the supremacy of a single individual, the Orthodox way calls to the entire Church at all times to guide its teaching, faith and practice. The rule of faith and practice in the Orthodox Church is the Holy Spirit acting through the entire Church. Certainly the scriptures are an integral part of this, but one beautiful part of a living, vibrant body of faith. An Orthodox Christian reads the Bible in the light of those who have come before and is never alone in the scripture.

As we approach the five hundred year mark here in the “christian west” perhaps it is time to evaluate the results of this very long experiment. If we evaluate the evidence empirically which approach to the “rule of faith and practice” has fared better? The Papacy, every man a “little pope” or the college of the Fathers? Five centuries and 45,000 denominations – the message seems clear.

The Mysticism of Mary…

I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian. The journey that has brought me to this place in my life is rather an epoch in itself, and one that I do not have time to address particularly here. I bring it up to point out that my new found appreciation of the Mystery of the Theotokos in ancient Christianity is rather naive and I cannot claim to be any sort of expert. What I have discovered in regards to the Mysticism of Mary in Eastern Orthodoxy is rather profound. I hope that organizing it into some sort of coherent thought here will help me to better grasp what I am seeing. In the words of a spiritual mentor, I have no desire to convert anyone to anything. Just sharing a perspective.

To begin this discussion I suppose that we would need to discuss the tradition and history surrounding Mary in the West. In my opinion the views about Mary seem to take on polar extremes. The Roman Catholic Church exalts Mary to a place of near deity, while Protestants may have overcompensated by nearly forgetting her altogether. The Eastern Church seems to have found the middle ground here. (My bias is clear and admitted here). The Eastern tradition does not exalt Mary to the point of an additional member of the Godhead, but they at the same time do not marginalize a woman whom scriptures proclaim would be called blessed in the generations to come. A woman who was the vessel to bring the Incarnate God into the world. In the Eastern Church the blessed Virgin is not worshiped, but she is however honored (venerated) as the highest ideal of Christianity. She is the image of Theosis (unification with God). She models, more than all, the example of the Christian life in that she brought forth Christ (quite literally) through her humility and faith by the Holy Spirit. So must we all as Christians. In the Eastern Church, and consequently in the writings of the Fathers and Mothers of Christianity, Mary is the personification of the Christian life.

The idea of this young Jewish girl who, because of her purity and innocence, is chosen by the Holy Spirit as the mother of God is captivating. The narrative of the Gospels seems to give the ultimate contrast, the infinitely strong and masculine Deity  juxtaposed against the frailty of childlike purity and femininity. The phrase that echos through the ages and ultimately brings forth salvation to the cosmos is a humble reply: “be it unto me as you have said.” It is the amen of all ages. How can we help but admit that this act of submission is integral to the Gospel narrative. Without the Virgin, there is no Virgin birth. Our dear Protestant friends may bemoan the veneration (honor) of Mary, but the weight of reality should be felt here.  Mary’s role in the incarnation is immanently important. Further the protology of Genesis places a great emphasis on the Theotokos. It is the woman who is tempted, it us further the woman’s seed that is to “crush the head” of the serpent. If the deception of Eve brought forth death, then surely the faith of the New Eve brought forth Life. The role of the Mother of God cannot be marginalized, it is vital and important. This is why the most ancient of the Fathers, Mystics par excellent, saw the role of Mary as integral to the Gospel.

The role of Mary is more than practical however, it takes on a Mystical dimension even in the scriptural Canon. In the Revelation we see her image invoked:

12:1 Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars. Then being with child, she cried out in labor and in pain to give birth.

And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great, fiery red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail drew a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to give birth, to devour her Child as soon as it was born. She bore a male Child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron. And her Child was caught up to God and His throne. Then the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, that they should feed her there one thousand two hundred and sixty days.

The imagery and symbolism here invokes the image of the Theotokos – she who brought forth the “man child” to rule all nations. Further it unites this imagery with the New Jerusalem; the “mother of us all”.

Gal 4:26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. 27For it is written: “Rejoice, O barren woman, who bears no children; break forth and cry aloud, you who have never travailed; because more are the children of the desolate woman, than of her who has a husband.”

It is in this way that Mary is the image of the New Jerusalem; the Church of the Living God and First Born:

Heb 12:22 You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, 23 to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, 24 to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.

In Eastern Christian mysticism, Mary then becomes the embodiment of God being “birthed” into the world through the worship and faith of the Church; which is His body. She is the Church, and the Church is her. She is the physical bringing forth the Divine. She is the material bringing forth the invisible Kingdom. She is the New Eve who gives birth to all who live in the Divine Life of Christ. This can be readily seen in the celebration of the Eucharist in the Eastern Churches. The alter becomes a womb in which the Eucharist – the body and blood of God – is birthed. Then the very “doors” become the birth canal by which the Presbyter (the spiritual midwife) brings forth the substance of the Divine to share with those who come hungry to the wedding supper of the Lamb. The echos of this mystical phenomena can be heard throughout the liturgy and teaching of the ancient Christians. In this way the dualism that separates men from God in their consciousness is healed in the union of heaven and earth. The woman who brings forth God heals the breach between the material and the immaterial; they become one in her Son. Because of this divine birth, the physical cosmos is healed. All things in heaven and earth are united to God through Christ, now in the eternal realm, in the course of time for we finite, time-bound creatures.  The mystery of Mary teaches that to us and its lesson resounds in the ages.

The Christian mysticism of Mary then calls to the archetypal unctions in mankind. She corresponds to “mother nature” of so much mystical lore. She is Mother Earth, that brings us forth from dust and then nurses us in her bosom until we are mature enough to stand before God.  She loves and pities us in our weakness. She sees within us the spark of the divine and calls us to sweet fellowship. Who has looked into the heavens upon a starry night and not felt the warm arms of a tender mother. Or looked upon the beauty of a sunrise and not felt compelled to reach toward the Light. The mystery of Mary, the Theotokos, calls to every man in every corner of the globe.

The Mysticism of Mary then is all of these things, and perhaps much more. She is the New Eve, the Mother of God, the lowly virgin girl who says with unwavering faith “be it unto me as you have said”; she is all of these things. In Eastern Christian mysticism the Saints are not laying dormant in the dust, but they are in heaven worshiping and praying for their brethren as we finish our course here below. They are the “great cloud of witnesses” that we read of in Hebrews, interceding for us in the heavens; guiding, instructing and teaching. Among them there is no greater than the Virgin. “More honorable than the Cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim..” Our Mother who said to the Angel Gabriel in faith “be it unto me according to thy word.” She brought forth the fruit of Life:

And Mary said:“My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. Luke 1:46-48