October 15, 2017
Sola Scriptura: A Conversation with God
You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as a symbol on your forehead. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written:
‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
* * * * *
“Sola scriptura” – scripture alone – was one of the hallmarks of the Reformation, and a radical shift in authority within the Christian Church. We think of the Bible as something easily accessible – nowadays there are Bibles everywhere – but it didn’t used to be that way. In those days there weren’t very many Bibles. For one thing, the Reformation wasn’t that long after the printing press had been invented. Before the 1450s, the only way to duplicate a Bible was by hand; a long, tedious process, to say the least. Bibles were rare, exceedingly expensive, and only written in Latin, which everyday people couldn’t read. Actually, many of the priests couldn’t, either.
Martin Luther was an educated monk who could read the scripture. And it was reading the Bible that completely turned Martin Luther’s life around. His understanding of grace came from reading Paul’s letters; it was so enormously important that he thought everyone should have the privilege of reading the powerful words of scripture.
But his grievance with the corruption of the Church of Rome was also a mighty factor. The Pope and his leaders held all the power – over priests, over churches, over theology, over governments, over people’s lives. They made claims over who was in and who was out, who got to heaven, and who went to hell. They were the one and only authority and had extraordinary power. Martin Luther upended it all with the very simple, radical claim that God’s authority rested in scripture alone.
God was the Author of the one, true Word. And the Author had sole authority in people’s lives. No one should need an intermediary before God, and God speaks the Word of life to us all. It was a radically egalitarian idea, so matter-of-fact to us now it’s hard to comprehend how radical it really was.
The Reformers went to great lengths to make reading scripture possible for common people. Translating the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek into the vernacular – into the common languages the people spoke – like German or English or French. Printing Bibles to put in people’s hands. Educating them so they could read the Word. Building worship to surround the Word so that people could learn what it meant. Calvin in particular believed that everything in worship should surround the Word – word and sacrament were the principle means of grace – which is why we’ve started printing out the scripture in your bulletins for you to read.
These days, every Christian knows the Bible is important to faith. But that’s not to say that every Christians knows the Bible. A lot of people I know feel vaguely embarrassed that they don’t know the Bible better than they do, but they’re not particularly interested in studying it. I’m not sure exactly why; maybe it’s like drinking scotch: it’s an acquired taste. Or maybe it just seems like too much work, without a lot of payoff.
There’s no question that reading the Bible is hard. I remember making a concerted effort when I was in High school to read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Genesis was pretty cool; a lot of the stories I already knew from Sunday School. Same with Exodus, though all the rules and regs tucked into the wandering in the wilderness seemed a bit much. But I just couldn’t make myself slog through Leviticus and Numbers. Four books in, and I gave up. It felt like learning another language.
The Reformers recognized this; they understood. John Calvin put it this way: God “speaks openly, and utters nothing deceitful or ambiguous. But experience tells us that Scripture is somewhat dark and hard to understand.”[i]
That’s putting it mildly. It doesn’t help that the texts were written thousands of years ago, in ancient languages we don’t speak, with world views utterly foreign to our own. As one scholar describes, “It is thoroughly patriarchal..., It has passages that [demand]… total slaughter of all the people in a vanquished town… It appears to defend slavery [and] describes polygamy without… condemnation.”[ii] What’s not to love?
The reality is that the Bible can be used to support almost anything. It’s called “Proof-texting” – you pick some text from the Bible and use it out of context to bolster your own position – to ‘prove’ that what you want is God’s will. Just look at the scripture from this morning: Jesus and the devil are arguing scripture with each other. The devil is using the Bible to tempt Jesus. It’s a great example of how the Bible can be used to support almost anything.
Abraham Lincoln alluded to this in his Second Inaugural Address when he said, “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” As long as the Bible has had authority, every conflict over social norms has played out the same way. Slavery. Civil rights. The role of women. Divorce. Homosexuality. Every single one.
Whole churches have been built around a few verses of scripture. The Mormons are famous for baptizing people in absentia – using extensive genealogy to find their ancestors who could not have been baptized in the Mormon faith because it didn’t exist then. Turns out ‘baptizing the dead’ is something that comes straight from scripture – 1 Corinthians 15:29! The Pentecostal tradition emphasizes ‘speaking in tongues’ – from 1 Corinthians 12. And we Presbyterians like to do things ‘decently and in order’ – which comes from 1 Corinthians 14:40. Every one of them from the same book of the Bible.
There’s the rub: Even if we know what scripture says, how do we know what it means?
One scholar puts the question this way: “How can we avoid reading into scripture… our own culturally and historically conditioned insights and self-interest?... [and] How should we deal with the historically conditioned character of scripture itself?” In other words, how do we know what is actually God’s word to us today?
The Spirit guides us, to be sure; and many times that guidance comes through other people’s voices. Scripture is radically egalitarian; but it’s not individualistic. We need each other, the community of faith, to interpret the Word for our time.
Over time the Reformed church developed guidelines to help us. We interpret scripture in the light of Jesus Christ, his life and ministry and death and resurrection. We read it through the lens of the law of love. Jesus said the greatest commandments are to love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself. That lens helps us see what’s most important. Scripture interprets scripture – that is to say, we don’t take individual verses at their face value, but in the light of what the rest of scripture says. We pay attention to literary and historical context within scripture. And we look to the faith of the broader church – past and present – to guard against our simply taking our own preferences as God’s will. Those rules help guide us as we listen for the voice of God in the Word of God.[iii]
Reformers like John Calvin and Martin Luther knew it would be hard. Which is why they wrote massive volumes of commentary on the scripture, and why scholars and preachers and teachers have been doing that ever since. We talk about what we think it means, and put it on the table for people to think about and poke at and try on for size.
Which may beg the question: why bother? If it’s that much work, why bother reading scripture at all? We can be perfectly fine church-goers without it; many of us have been doing it for years! We love our neighbor, or try to; we volunteer in the church and community; we try to live good lives; we worship God. Aren’t we really OK without it?
And the answer is, of course! Last week we looked at the Reformed idea of salvation by grace through faith. God’s grace is not dependent on our knowledge of scripture. There’s not a Bible section on an SAT test to decide whether we get into heaven.
And yet… there is so much we are missing if we keep the Bible on the shelf.
Barbara Brown Taylor, who is a writer and Episcopal priest, describes her own journey of discovering Scripture. She says,
The more I discovered what was there, the more I discovered what was not. Adam and Eve ate “forbidden fruit” in Eden, but nowhere in the Bible is an apple mentioned. Jacob made a long-sleeved robe for his favorite son, Joseph, not a coat of many colors. Matthew describes travelers from the East who bore gifts to Bethlehem, but ‘We Three Kings’ is pure invention.
All of this excited me, because there was clearly much more to the Bible than I had ever expected, and exploring it demanded more of me as well… I could take the text apart and put it back together again without harming it, ask questions and challenge the answers without being struck by lightening. The word of God turned out to be plenty strong enough to withstand my curiosity. Every time I poked it, it poked me back. Every time I wrenched it around so I could see inside, it sprang back into shape the moment I was through. In short, the Bible turned out not to be a fossil under glass but a thousand different things – a mirror, a scythe, a hammock, a lantern, a pair of binoculars, a high diving board, a bridge, a goad – all of them offering themselves to me to be touched and handled and used."[iv]
I can’t imagine my own life without the Bible. It’s the story I live inside of; it’s the story of my life. My story is part of a bigger story, with a beginning, middle and an end, and I am privileged to be a character in this story of God’s grace. I belong to a God, scripture tells me, a God who made the world in all its beauty, who wants me to notice and revel in how beautiful it is. I follow a Savior, the Bible tells me, a Savior who made his way into the world not to condemn me, or other people, or the world itself, but to save it; to love it into goodness and wholeness and life. I am empowered by a Spirit, this book tells me, a holy Spirit, that breathes power and energy into me and whispers words of encouragement and correction and tenderness, who helps me see my life as it was meant to be. It’s the story I live inside of, a story with miracles and magic, sinners and saints, a story where goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, and life is stronger than death.
It is a story that, in spite of all the trials of this world – it has a happy ending.
I love the Bible. It didn’t always used to be that way. But I love it like a best friend. The Bible is how God talks to me. God doesn’t lecture me or scold me; it’s a conversation we’re having. Honestly, my sermons? They’re the conversations God and I are having in my head, and I just lay them out for you in hopes they’ll mean something.
But mostly what I hope for is that you’ll have that conversation, too. Because this Bible? It’s your story, too.
Rev. Karen Chakoian
First Presbyterian Church
[i] John Calvin, Commentary on Isaiah, 45:19, vol. 2, 421. Cited in Howard L. Rice, Reformed Spirituality, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991), 102.
[ii] Rice, 97.
[iii] Shirley C. Guthrie, Always Being Reformed: Faith for a Fragmented World (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 24-29.
[iv] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, (Lanham, MD, Cowley Publications, 1993), 61.