The Contradictions of ‘Scripture Alone”: Part I

On October 31 the world celebrated the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. As we commemorate this tragic event that has ended by weakening faith, reducing it ever more to a private, personal, and subjective realm, rather than renewing and strengthening it, it is my intention to write about the deficiency of two central Protestant principles: sola Scriptura and sola fides – Scripture alone and faith alone.

I will start with sola Scriptura.

At the Diet of Worms in 1521, Martin Luther was charged with heresy and asked to recant. He gave this famous reply: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. [Here I stand. I can do no other.] May God help me. Amen.”

The words of Martin Luther are eloquent and powerful, but let us not be carried away by their forcefulness and apparent nobility without considering well the implications that lie hidden within them.

Martin Luther was standing in the presence of persons who at the moment represented to him the authority of Christ’s Church. He declared, note the emphasis, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture or by clear reason…” He was, in effect, whether or not he realized it, setting his own interpretation of Scripture and his own judgment of reason, as the standard. By demanding that he be convinced on his own terms he set an impossible task before the authorities; he showed that he was unwilling to trust the authority of the Church over his own judgment. The authority of Scripture, the authority of reason, and the dignity of conscience effectively become masks for the assertion of his own opinion.

The words in brackets, “Here I stand”, are often considered by scholars today as a later addition to the words of Luther, but they faithfully interpret the significance of Luther’s act. His personal ‘stand’ was set against the whole community of the Church, with her history, her tradition, and her teaching. It was a stand of his unique conscience before God having no respect for any other human being in their relation to God. 1500 years after the death of Christ, he was setting his interpretation of Christianity over and against the weight of 1500 years of lived experience of faith. He was declaring that St. Ignatius of Antioch (died 108 AD), St. Irenaeus of Lyon (died 202 AD), St. Cyprian of Carthage (die 258 AD), St. Athanasius (died 373 AD), St. Augustine (died 430 AD), St. Pope Leo the Great (died 461 AD), St. Benedict (died 547 AD), St Pope Gregory the Great (died 604 AD), St. John Damascene (died 749 AD), and countless others had absolutely nothing to say to him, unless by chance they agreed with him.

The theologian Johann Eck, who was representing the Church authority, immediately called forth the tremendous presumption in Luther’s ‘stand’. He answered saying, “Martin, there is no one of the heresies which have torn the bosom of the church, which has not derived its origin from the various interpretations of Scripture.” The great heretics of the past, like Arius, defended their interpretation of Scripture to their dying breaths. Luther, however, perhaps took a step further by setting Scripture itself as the one absolute authority.

Almost immediately, the inherent contradiction of ‘Scripture alone’ was revealed in the division of Protestantism into two main branches, Lutheranism and the tradition of the Reformed Churches. There were further divisions of interpretation, especially among the Reformed Churches (which continues today among Presbyterians and Congregationalists). There were also currents and interpretations (such as the Anabaptist, which continue today among Mennonites and in some way also among the Baptists) that arose outside the Lutheran and Reformed traditions.

Those distinct traditions of Protestantism, however, revealed another inherent contradiction in ‘Scripture alone’. They officially rejected 1500 years of Catholic tradition, but each branch began their own new ‘tradition’ of biblical interpretation. Lutheran ministers were trained to read the Bible in one way and they taught their congregations accordingly, and so it was also with the ministers among the different Reformed Churches and Baptist Churches. The different sectarian traditions of scriptural interpretation, combined with the new forms of church authority, have really been the only practical barriers to continued fragmentation within the Protestant movement. Yet, having rejected Catholic tradition and basing themselves on ‘Sola Scriptura’, those sectarian traditions could claim no more than human authority. As for Martin Luther, once he took his own stand, he never really accorded anyone else the same freedom to interpret the Bible that he gave himself.

(To be continued)

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.