Monday, November 02, 2009

Scripture Alone in the Lutheran Reformation

Happy Reformation Day! This October 31st, 2009 is the 492nd year since Martin Luther began the Reformation of the Christian church on October 31st, 1517, by nailing 95 Theses or Statements to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. The events that followed that initial protest against the church’s corruption of salvation have reverberated through history and we in the Lutheran church are heirs of that Reformation. While most of us aren’t students of history, there are many valuable lessons relating to Christian faith and life, and to the definition of the church that we would do well to learn from that period, so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of history.

I want to briefly focus your attention this month on one particular issue of importance that was debated during the Reformation. That was the authority of the Bible, or Holy Scripture. You may be familiar with one Lutheran slogan of the Reformation: “Sola Scriptura” or “through Scripture Alone.” The question was this: “What is the authority for deciding church doctrine (teaching)?” All Christian churches, and even sects or cults that claim the name of Christ Jesus, in some way or another claim the Bible as their authority. Yet there is a huge difference in what is taught. These differences between Christian churches can largely be explained from the seriousness with which they take the Bible as the authority, or what authorities they place above the Scripture.

The cry of “Scripture Alone!” was a response to the Roman Catholic church’s stance of determining church teaching on the basis, not of Scripture alone, but of Scripture plus the church. The church held equal authority to the Scriptures, in the Roman view of things. By church, they didn’t mean a local congregation, but rather the Pope as the divine representative of Christ, or the teachings of church councils (assemblies of bishops to discuss doctrinal matters). The Lutheran Reformers recognized that this gave a unwarranted power to the church, placing the church over the Scriptures, rather than under them. This allowed corruptions to creep into Christian teaching, inching ever further from the Scriptures. Since the time of the Reformation, the Roman church has actually confirmed or extended the authority of the Pope. At the 1870 Vatican I council, the Roman church officially decreed that the Pope is infallible (cannot err) when he makes official proclamations concerning Christian faith and morals.

This is an astonishing example of man being elevated above the Scriptures as a higher authority. However, the teaching of “Scripture Alone” in the Reformation, is just as much opposed to the individualistic elevation of man above the Scriptures. This happens today in a variety of Protestant churches (indeed in the Lutheran church as well!), when we place our own personal human reason or interpretation above the clear statements of Scripture. When our “reason” rejects some plain teaching of Scripture, or reinterprets it to suit our own needs or desires, then we have made ourselves our own “private pope” over the Scriptures. In contrast to both of these errors, the Lutheran Reformation held that all matters of doctrine and life were determined, governed, defined by Scripture Alone. Scripture is the judge of man and of the church—man does not serve as the judge of Scripture.

God’s Word has the final say in the matter. The teaching of Scripture Alone does not exclude or disregard all other authorities, such as the writings and teachings of other Christians throughout history—rather it acknowledges their proper place—as subservient to the Scriptures. Everything is to be judged and tested by God’s Word. All creeds, confessions, sermons, devotional writings—in short, all Christian teachings—are to be bound to this highest and greatest standard of the Holy Scriptures. When man becomes the judge of Scripture, it won’t be long before we begin to discard God’s teachings as we see fit. On this anniversary of the Reformation, may we, heirs of the Reformation, humbly submit ourselves under God’s Word, as the Divine Authority that rules our faith and our life. May we willingly hear His Scriptures and submit to their rebuke, correction, and training of us for righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Guided by Scripture Alone, God’s Word will be a lamp to our feet and a light to our path, (Ps. 119:105) so that we can bring the Light to a world shrouded in spiritual darkness (John 1:1-4; Isaiah 9:2).

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