Why Scripture Alone Didn't Work
This is the first post in our No Longer Sola series, which will discuss many of the reasons we left the Reformation Solas behind, as well as what we have found in our experience of Orthodoxy so far.
My journey into the Orthodox Church would not have been possible without first having come to the conclusion that Scripture Alone isn’t defensible as a principle of authority. What follows is short a sketch of my own thought process.
Initially, I was listening to a Podcast called "At the Intersection of East and West". I had been interested to learn what Orthodoxy taught more in depth, so that I would be able to reject those teachings and help others understand why they were wrong. During this podcast the issue of Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) and the Canon was brought up.
The Bible didn’t fall out of heaven ready to go. Someone had to gather and authenticate which books would be in the Bible. How could Scripture Alone be the final judge of teachers and doctrines in the early Church if there wasn’t consensus on what books can be trusted? Who decides which books are trustworthy to be read in worship and which aren’t?
That planted a seed of doubt that would soon begin to grow as I examined other doctrines of my church body. Even before seminary Amelia and I had concerns with our church’s position against infant communion. That issue is for another time, but as I was researching why the different denominations came to such wildly different conclusions on the matter I noticed something quite interesting.
My Lutheran church body did not deny infants communion because of the Bible, as we had been taught, but because of a continuation of Roman Catholic liturgical practices that had been in effect for a couple hundred years before the Reformation. It was only after the Reformation that some Lutherans began to appeal to Scripture and read back into it their justification for denying infants communion. In the process they separated themselves from over a thousand years of traditional Christian understanding on how to read those portions of the Bible.
After becoming a pastor I began coming up against some very practical difficulties because of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod's adherence to Sola Scriptura. I now had to deal with my parishioners' questions and concerns on the vast multitude of Protestant denominations, and who was right, and how do we know?
I had no solid footing on which to discuss the importance of liturgy and how we worship because allegedly the Bible doesn’t say anything about it, so it’s really just a matter of preference, right? The Divine Liturgy, which was supposed to bring to us God’s gifts, was thought of simply as a vehicle for individual style and a form of entertainment, rather than a place for teaching and experiencing that which is Holy.
The longer this went on the more apparent it was to me that I, as a pastor, had no real authority to shepherd my flock or to tell my parishioners what the Bible meant or how we were to live together as Christians. Thankfully I experienced very little conflict with my congregation. However, the reality remained that my Church body would not and could not back me up on any of the doctrines I was called to teach. (More on that later.)
Yes, we had Confessions which our congregation’s constitution promised to adhere to, but for most people, “Scripture Alone” was the rule to be followed. I could preach and teach the Lutheran Confessions and how to understand the Scriptures my whole ministry, regardless of the congregation, but at the end of the day Scripture Alone meant neither I nor the Church I belonged to was the final authority. Neither I nor the Lutheran Church had any real say in how any one person chose to interpret Scripture, or to worship or to live out their lives.
The final authority in “Scripture Alone” is always the individual using their own interpretation of the Bible to judge their pastors, teachers and Church. Everyone has the ability to become their own “Little Pope”, deciding doctrine for themselves and promising allegiance only to their own hearts and minds.
When there is no authority we call this anarchy, and spiritual anarchy is exactly what I began to see in the aftermath of the Reformation.
“In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” – Judges 21:25
My undergraduate Old Testament professor, an incredibly intelligent man, pointed this verse out to our class and said that this was a Biblical definition of sin. I believe there is much wisdom in his words. To finish up, here is a helpful, short clip about where the Bible came from. It's a great primer for a complex topic, and much more articulate than my feeble attempts.