Today is October 31st, and there is a holiday that deserves no small amount of recognition. I am referring, of course, to the 505th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
Yes, yes, I’m aware of Halloween, and I am looking forward to shortly taking my kids around the neighborhood in their costumes – my daughter in particular has an exceptionally awesome and very spooky spider costume that she is very much looking forward to wearing. Yet I would be remiss in my duties as a theology nerd if I didn’t acknowledge the accomplishments of Luther on this day.
At the heart of Luther’s protest against the excesses of late medieval Catholicism and his theological revolution, is a self-critical moment within the life of the Church, in the name of the higher truth to which it bears witness. The 20th-century theologian Paul Tillich would describe this heart as The Protestant Principle: a protest against the identification of our ultimate concern with any finite creation of the church. This anti-idolatrous, self-critical theological principle is present within Luther’s protest against the abuses of the church, the misplaced trust in the decisions of church councils and popes, and what he saw as a distortion of the biblical gospel itself. These are principles that I have always thought of as worth celebrating as a theological achievement.
Nonetheless, I find myself reflecting on the rather ambiguous legacy of the Reformation and its lasting effects upon the church.
Today I will begin with the problem of Sola Scriptura.
Like all medieval Christians, Luther believed that the Bible was the inspired word of God. Convinced that the errors, excesses and problems of the medieval catholic church were tied to the overconfidence in the fallible decisions of Popes and councils, Luther wanted to tie Christian doctrine to a more secure and reliable source. The remedy for this was sola scriptura [scripture alone], which claimed that all doctrinal and theological traditions needed to conform to the dictates of scripture as written in the original languages.
There are three principal issues that this development raises, which I think we are still suffering from.
Firstly, the dichotomy between church tradition and scripture is fundamentally misleading. This is especially apparent in our time, with the benefit of more than two centuries of biblical criticism behind us, yet I believe the principle holds true even in Luther’s day. The Bible is the product of church tradition. The books of the Bible were written by and emerged out of the early church. The cannon of the Bible was decided by the church, as they tried to determine which writings at the time were authentically apostolic and which were not. This denigration of church tradition as normative for Christian doctrine leads people to believe that their faith is not mediated by the tradition and the institution. Without the Church you have no Bible. Without the Church, you have no Jesus.
Secondly, the development of sola scriptura as a normative principle assumes that the meaning of the text is plain and available to all who have access to it. What happens when you have a disagreement about what the text actually says? Catholic contemporaries of Luther saw that this was an obvious problem within the new Protestant faith, and that without an authoritative church tradition to guide the interpretation of scripture, conflicts would have no means to be peaceably mediated. In this the Catholics were clearly correct. Within the first generation of protestant reformers there was already a spit over the meaning of the Eucharist, leading to a division between Lutheran and Reformed protestants. If Protestantism has been good at one thing, it has been the creation of a nearly endless strain of schismatic breaks, fracturing into one denomination and one movement after another. My adopted church family, the Methodists, is in the midst of a break over just such a disagreement.
Thirdly, the principle of sola scriptura threatens to become an idolatry of the written word of scripture. For the moment I am setting aside concerns about the human, historical, culturally conditioned aspects of the biblical writings. Strictly on theological grounds: the Bible is not the Word of God. Jesus is the Word of God. The Bible is a witness to the Word of God, it is a pointer to the word of God. The point is not the text, but what the text sees that we, in our day-to-day living do not. That is not to deny that the Bible is authoritative for all who claim to be Christian. Yet the nature of that authority is confused when we absolutize the Bible and make it an end to itself. The principle of sola scriptura is not identical with this problem, but it invites the problem into the church.
Without a doubt, I’m painting with a broad brush here. There are also resources within Luther that help to combat some of these problems, especially the way in which Luther’s understanding of the Gospel (i.e., Sola Fide, of Faith Alone) acts as a normative principle by which scriptura is interpreted. But that is beyond the scope of this reflection. This is, after all, a blog post, rather than an essay or a monograph. That being said, I don’t believe that these concerns about the meaning and legacy of the Reformation are groundless.
I am, and remain, a Protestant. To paraphrase James Gustafson, while the fact that I am a Protestant and not a Roman Catholic is an accident of birth, it is also a matter of theological commitment and reflection. The reformers offered a far more compelling account of the nature of grace and faith, of the role of preaching, and, indeed, of the Bible itself. The self-critical move within Protestantism remains an important force, which transcends the actual content of the 16th-century Reformation. Protestant Christianity must continue to be critiqued in the name of Protestantism. But Protestantism can also be critiqued from the Catholic side as well, and those are critiques we ignore at our peril. After all, as Stanley Hauerwas reminds us, Christianity did not begin in 1517.