Monday, 17 January 2011

Sola Scriptura

Blogdom potentially gives everyone a platform, regardless of their competence in the subjects about which they pontificate post. So, dear readers, you have to take the trouble to sort the chaff from the wheat. Clearly there are a number of ways to do this - the main one being considering the bona fides of the blogger, if he/she shares them. There may be valid reasons for anonymity, but generally the more open the blogger is about his/her position and background, the better you will be able to begin to judge the likely value of what they post.

That's not to say there aren't good amateur theologians out there in blogdom, there are, and I would like to encourage everyone to take an active interest in theology, because, after all, we are all theologians after a manner! But, by and large, people who have not had the opportunity - and a wonderful opportunity it is - to study theology formally will be labouring under the burden of gaps in their knowledge, particularly in the complex areas of historical and doctrinal theology. There's no shame in that; even professional theologians have been guilty - more times than you would think - of perpetuating untruths when a simple return to the sources would have revealed the errors in their interpretations. For example, Alister McGrath is one of the most brilliant theologians writing today, gifted in writing at both the professional and popular levels, and I enjoy his books immensely, but for about 20 years he has perpetuated an untruth about the Lutheran doctrine of the Lord's Supper that, well, just infuriates Lutherans (I refer to his labelling it 'consubstantiation'). Likewise Bishop N.T. Wright has pegged Luther as an antimonian and repeated that judgment in a number of his writings, despite even being sent citations from Luther where he writes on the positives of the Law and sounds very much like...well, N.T. Wright!

This is by way of preamble to a series of new posts. I can't tell you the number of times I've had on-line discussions with Catholic or Orthodox folk who try to tell me that the Lutheran position on sola scriptura = "me and my Bible" (known to theologians as "private judgment"). Luther, and those who came after him (who, I might add, were only happy to bear his name because it stood for adherence to the Gospel) are responsible for the waves of subjectivism that have swept over Western Christendom since the Reformation and the consequent collapse of religious authority which has had such a baneful effect on Western society (the next part of the argument usually includes the exhortation to "come home to Rome" or maybe even "swim the Bosphorus" to Constantinople).

I can forgive them, after all it's what their priests and theologians, who really should know better, teach them. But I find it harder to deal with the closed-mindedness and well, 'arrogance' I think is the only word, that they display when I try to tell them that isn't the Lutheran position and that we have a place in our tradition for Tradition rightly conceived and ordered under the Word of God: "Private judgment"..."me and my Bible" comes the sneering response again. So, I abstain from such discussions time is too valuable to waste on dead end, on-line conversations with people who persist in attacking straw men that only exist in their own unteachable imaginations (or in the 'Fundamentalist Baptist' church down the road).

But, I am going to devote a series of posts this year to the Lutheran position on scripture. I'm starting with something very apropos by Dr Hermann Sasse, who studied New Testament, philology and historical theology in Berlin beginning in 1913, under men who formed what was at the time probably the most learned, if liberal, theological faculty in the world. The extracts from Sasse are from a lecture he delivered in Brisbane (my home town, as it happens) in 1967 called Holy Church or Holy Writ?, The Meaning of the Sola Scriptura of the Reformation. The occasion of th electure was an invitation from the Inter Varsity Fellowship (IVF) to discuss the issues raised by the then recent promulgation of Dei verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation) by the Fathers of Vatican II (18 November 1965).

These posts - and I'll be offering citations from other theologians as well - will be posted under the category 'Sola Scriptura'. That way I have a body of authoritative writing I can refer to in the future when receiving missives from misinformed Catholics and Orthodox. I also have a couple of readers who are Catholic and who are considering the Lutheran position, and I very much hope this series will be of assistance to them also. The first post will appear later today or tomorrow. Stay tuned!


vdma said...

Thank you for this post. You are right about the Lutheran position. However, I attended a number of Lutheran schools, and got the impression that "me and my Bible" was what sola Scriptura meant. It was not until Roman Catholics challenged me on that topic that I discovered what sola Scriptura really meant. The position of "me and my Bible" arrogantly assumes that I can understand the Scriptures better than all the Christians who came before. But if the Scriptures can be understood (2 Timothy 3:15 & 2 Peter 1:19), and they were written for all Christians (1 Corinthians 1:2), then it also follows that all Christians, including previous generations, could also understand the Scriptures.

God's blessings.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Unfortunately, some Lutherans have come under the influence of Evangelicals on this doctrine - historical amnesia, I call it. The common Evangelical doctrine is correct in parts, but sets a low value on history and tradition. By the time we get to Chemnitz in this series of posts, we'll see just how different the two approaches are, but also how different the Lutheran docrine is from a 'single source', sola ecclesia view too..
I hope you enjoy the series.

Stephen K said...

I'm looking forward to this series too. I'd be one of those people who don't have formal theological training, but who think about theological questions and try to read a broad spectrum of works by authors who would have theological and historical background. The question of 'sola scriptura', its meaning, and the general problems of meaning, interpretation, guidance and authority seem to me to be important to get on top of, especially since it's a conundrum whether one ought to try to read the New Testament directly without/before reading others' filters, or whether it is only ever possible to read the New Testament through the prism of an interpretive tradition.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Hi Stephen,

Re. the New Testament & tradition, imo it's a both/and solution rather than an either/or solution. Through philological and historical/archaeological investigations, we have certainly learned much about koine Greek and the NT world background that was unknown even to the Fathers and medieval exegetes. But on the other hand, we don't want to dispense with their insights entirely, because there is much of value there and the Holy Spirit was promised to the church to guide it into all truth. So, there wil be continuities and discontinuities with what has gone before. Above all, God's Word retains primacy; that is a foundational epistemological starting point which is assumed here. If you need some background reading on that, I can perhaps suggest some things readily available on the 'net.

Good to have you on board!

Stephen K said...

Pastor Mark, what you say makes sense but I would like to know how one can satisfactorily reconcile two things which are often considered mutually exclusive: (1) the revelation of God in Jesus; and (2)the vastly overwhelmingly universality / continuity of human experience, aspiration and insight into God across time and culture. I think the latter means that Zoroaster, Siddartha Gautama, and several others must be seen as fitting into a spectrum of revelation, but the former is usually embraced as if nothing else is of human or cosmic account. I can't accept that thesis. That is why I find the question of being able to read the Gospel in faith but also in "context" so challenging, and so elusive. I await your series with great interest.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Well, that's a big subject, Stephen. Just to indicate the way I would appraoch it - yes, there's a lot in the various religions of the world (and philosophies) that we can approve of. There is a certain 'natural' revelation made known to humans (natural because it comes through observation of nature) and also through conscience, which bears the impress of divine law by virtue of God's creation of us.

Unfortunately, this impress is weakened because of the impact of sin, hence the need for a more direct revelation from God of who he is and what he requires of us.

Just a historical note - in the nineteenth century, with the popularity of 'evolutionary' thinking, anthropologists suggested that religion had begun as animism, advanced to polytheism, and finally reached its highest form in monotheism. In the 1920s a German anthropologuist named Schmidt rejected this - he suggested it was the other way around - the original relgion was monotheism, which declined to polytheism, and reached its nadir in animism among populations of humans who were isolated from the mainstream of human development.

Over time Schmidt's thesis has received more respect as new discoveries have been made. It seems to me, from what I know, to tie in with the development of Vedantic religion into Hinduism, for example. Buddha would come in there too.
So, if Schmidt is correct ,all religion then, is a falling away from a primal monotheism, which would be the religion of 'Abraham, Isaac and Jacob' & Moses, based on the revelation given to them. Christ is the fulfilment of this monotheism. Just a different way of thinking about the subject which can open up interesting possibilities.

Stephen K said...

Yes, that's a theory, but in defence of Buddha, his was not a polytheistically-inclined way. I think it can be rightly said that in his understanding of the relationship of our individual perosnalities - made up of skhandas that dissolved into the One, the Atman - at death - he was close to Paul Tillich's concept of God as the "ground of being".

Further, I think implicit in my question was the inappropriateness of "approving" bits of other revelations. In another post-site I have suggested that the only - or rather the best - way to understand "catholicity" is to accept that Calvary was for everyone who ever existed, before or since, across time or culture, believing or non-believing, and that consequently everyone - as above - is a member of the one catholic church, an "ekklesia" for all time. Membership of this ekklesia is not dependent on virtue, or good works or any merit, thus no room for Pelagianism or Tridentinism here. Otherwise, the significance and import of Jesus-love, redemption, is a narrow thing, thus a facsimile. What do you think of this take?

Pr Mark Henderson said...

The redemption won by Christ is indeed for everyone, but we also need to say that the subjective reception of it is by faith. Yes, this has to do with the catholicity of the church - the church is to proclaim the Gospel to all peoples.

Btw, I didn't mean to suggest that Buddha was a polytheist - quite the opposite, but his followers have corrupted his original insights. The folk expressions of the great religions always tend towards this corruption, it seems to me. It reminds me of something Calvin said, "the human heart is an idol factory"

Southern Cross said...

I do look forward to the series, too. I have been constantly challenged on the doctrine of sola Scriptura by Roman Catholic acquaintances, and although I did stand my ground, more details would come in handy and broaden my understanding of Lutheranism.

Could you also please explain why 'consubstantiation' is no apposite term for the Lord's Supper in Lutheranism?

Sadly, I have had no formal training in theology. This is something I will try and remedy with my modest means.

Pr Mark Henderson said...

Dear SC,

Yes, you will be tested, but that will serve to deepen your understanding and commitment.

Re the RCC being conservative, that is certainly the case outwardly, but they are actually the most radical of church bodies by introducing dogmas which ahve no scriptural reference and only shaky historical evidence.

'Consubstantiation' is a human philosophical term (related to 'transubstantiation') which implies a mixing of the substances of our Lord's body and blood with the bread and wine. Lutheran theologians reject it as an adequate explanation of our doctrine, and prefer to speak of a 'sacramental union' between the body and blood and the earthly elements and certainly of a real presence. And finally, the 'real presence' is an article of faith, and we do not want to fall into the error of Rome, which has dogmatised a philosophical theory about how this takes place. This is going beyond scripture - once again.

Hermann Sasse's 'This Is My Body' is the best book to read about the Lutheran doctrine.

You're quite right, SC, to take you time over these matters and explore deeply until you are fully persuaded in conscience.