For more than 30 years I was the quintessential Protestant moving from one theological camp to another borne along by the undulations of my own exegetical insights. My early dispensationalism eventually gave way to covenantalism when I began to take note of the continuity between the Testaments. The focus on continuity drew me toward theonomy before a renewed appreciation of the radicalness of Jesus’ message and a more sophisticated understanding of the New Testament texts as examples of Greco-Roman literature began to nudge me in a more “liberal” direction. With each shift I intrigued some, made many uncomfortable, and convinced others that I was “dangerous” or at best quirky. But who could condemn me when the Bible was my ultimate authority…or was it?
The popular narrative is that Luther “righted the ship” by elevating the Bible over Tradition as the ultimate authority for Christian faith and practice. Whereas the Roman Catholic Church is directed by both Tradition and the Bible as interpreted authoritatively by the Magisterium of the Church, Protestants claim that the Bible is their sole and immediate authority. They imagine themselves to have followed Luther in throwing off a fallible authority, the Pope and Bishops, in exchange for the infallible Scriptures. Both my personal experience and the subsequent history of Protestantism show this to be incredibly naïve.
The Roman Catholic Church and conservative Protestant churches share a belief in the Bible as an inspired and, therefore, infallible text, but it is a text nonetheless. Writing is an ingenious way to capture and preserve ideas, enabling people to revisit them and gain deeper insight. However, the written word does not divulge the intended meaning of its author unilaterally. It is a code that must be deciphered and interpreted by a mind, a necessarily fallible mind. Without exception the data that we encounter is filtered through a dense web of assumptions, experiences, associations, and other often subconscious elements in our efforts to decode its meaning.
Due to divergent cultural assumptions Christians from Africa hear different things than western Christians when listening to the same passage of Scripture, and African theology, though derived from the same Sacred Scripture, employs categories and constructions that are foreign to western believers. One’s level of education and particularly theological education are significant factors in molding the conclusions drawn from the Bible. The Bible translation that one reads can also contribute by suggesting a certain interpretation due to the word choices and theological biases of the translators. But even two people from the same culture with equivalent theological education sometimes find themselves at odds over what a passage teaches.
The reality is that individuals “hear” the Bible saying different and sometimes contradictory things. Like many Reformed and Evangelical Christians, an earlier version of myself found in the Scriptures what I perceived as a clear doctrine of justification by faith alone. More than a decade of further study brought me to the point where I am now persuaded that Jesus and the Apostles teach that sinners are justified by faith manifested in cruciform living and not by faith alone. Both convictions arose from a devoted study of the Bible and a desire to understand and live out its teaching. Scores of others have had similar experiences. Since I now disagree with Luther, and myriads of Bible-believing Christians (Is there any other kind?) disagree with one another, the Bible alone has proven to be an unreliable guide for multitudes of sincere Christians, including me, though there would be a lively debate about when I had it right.
Of course, Reformed theologians dispute that this could ever be the case. One of the cornerstones of Reformed Tradition is the “perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture,” the idea that “…those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them”. (WCF, Chapter 1) This sounds good to pious ears, but the assertion is of no benefit to anyone since even among “Bible-believing” Christians there is little evidence of the Bible’s clarity, and any experience of the perspicuity of Scripture is necessarily subjective. Because our fallible and finite minds are necessarily involved, there is always significant potential for misunderstanding.
The reality is that unless a person can do what is impossible, circumvent his own fallible intellect in his study of the Scripture, he can have no certainty that he has understood God’s perspicacious revelation correctly. Whatever our senses encounter is filtered through our minds. So, rather than establish the Bible as the ultimate authority, Luther’s innovation meant that every individual Bible reader, no matter how well or how poorly trained, was the ultimate authority in faith and practice. And to add to the irony, since the Bible does not teach that it alone is the ultimate authority for the Christian faith, Sola Scriptura must necessarily be an example of authoritative Tradition within Protestantism. Maybe a plurality of men trained in theology and Scripture while conversant with the theological tradition of the Church and properly vested with teaching authority isn’t such a bad idea.