Scripture Alone

We noted last month that 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation in Europe – on 31st October Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg and sparked such a revolution as he could never have envisaged. God was mightily at work.

But what is the heart of the Reformation? What were the great truths rediscovered during those momentous years? The fact is that the Reformation touched on every significant area of Christian doctrine. A great deal of attention was given, for example, to the biblical doctrine of the sacraments, especially the Lord’s Supper. The latter, sadly, was a cause of division among the Reformers themselves. The Reformation cannot be reduced to one issue, such as ‘justification by faith alone’, although that was a crucial doctrine much debated at the time. A useful way of approaching the core of the Reformation is through what have come to be known as the ‘Five Solas’ – ‘sola’ being the Latin word for ‘alone’. They are Scripture Alone, Christ Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone and God’s Glory Alone. These five truths do bring us close to the heart of the Reformation theologically and for the next few months Another Voice will be considering them briefly.

The foundation of the Reformation was ‘Scripture Alone’. What is the source of Christian theology? Rome relied on a combination of written Scripture and unwritten tradition, interpreted by the ‘magisterium’ of the Church. The Reformers realised that this positon was in fact profoundly unbiblical and in response asserted that we must base all theology on ‘Scripture Alone’. Without denying the value of centuries of study by scholars and preachers, the Reformers recognised that Scripture is the Church’s only infallible rule of faith and practice.

The Reformers understood that in the Bible we have a unique revelation. In the context of the Europe of their day the fact that the Bible was to be regarded as the Word of God was a largely unchallenged view. Theologians might differ as to how to interpret the Bible and as to what the text meant, but they generally agreed that what they were handling was God’s Word.

We face a rather different challenge today with regard to the place of the Bible. We live in a pluralist culture where other religions are on our doorstep, not in the far-flung regions of the world as they usually were in Reformation days. They too make claims to have divine revelations, sometimes in addition to the Bible. We also face the challenge of philosophers and theologians who assert that the very idea of ‘words from God’ is incoherent and incredible. In response we cannot allow ourselves to be moved from the position of 2 Timothy 3:16 – ‘All Scripture is God-breathed’. All Scripture – the Old Testament and also the New Testament then in process of production. In the Bible alone we have the Word of God written, given by the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit.

In the Bible we also have a unique authority. This follows from the God-breathed nature of the book. If God speaks uniquely in these pages, then they have absolute authority in all they teach. Submission to God’s Word is evidence of submission to God himself. As Christ said, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments’ (John 14:15).

Many of the great Reformation debates came back to the issue of the authority of the Bible. In response to Rome’s appeal to unwritten apostolic tradition and the Anabaptists’ appeal to the ‘inner light’, the Reformers were convinced that the Bible did not need to be supplemented and could not be replaced by any other source of authority.

We too need to keep asserting the unique authority of the Bible. Rome still appeals to tradition and to papal authority. Charismatics appeal to new revelations of the Spirit and ‘words from the Lord’. Many Christians in practice depend on their feelings as their authoritative guide. In the wider world all kinds of authorities are cited, often centred on human reason, science and ‘experts’. One major danger posed by our digital culture is the ease with which anyone can set himself up as an ‘authority’, subject to no checks of any kind. The very idea of authority crumbles in a Wikipedia world and the response we often have to contend with is ‘Who says so?’ with the implication that my view is as good as anyone else’s.

We must heartily defend ‘Scripture Alone’. In this book God has given us all we need to know (although not all we would like to know). No other source of authority must be allowed to usurp its place in theory or practice. Our love for the Lord must be demonstrated in obedience to his authoritative Word.

500 – A Big Anniversary

Anniversaries can be very important – ask any husband who has forgotten his wedding anniversary! They usually mark significant events, sometimes life-changing events, that ought to be remembered. The annual return of anniversaries such as Remembrance Day serves to keep the lessons of the past before our attention. Happy anniversaries can bring renewed joy in the recollection of good times, especially when they are viewed in the light of God’s providence in our lives. Some things ought never to be forgotten.

There is certainly the danger of living in the past – of letting what is now over govern our lives to an unhealthy extent. Old hurts, old grievances, old failures, old sorrows can shape us in ways that hinder our growth in grace. We need to learn when to remember and when to let go. Churches too can live in the past, keeping the focus always on past glories and successes, conveniently overlooking the weaknesses and failures that might suggest the past was not quite as glorious as we like to think. At times we as a denomination have fallen into that trap, idealising the Scottish Covenanters in ways that made it difficult to learn from them for the challenges of our own day. To forget history, however, cuts us off from the valuable lessons regarding the providence and purpose of God that it could teach us.

2017 marks an anniversary that should be – and no doubt will be – marked in a variety of ways. On 31 October, 1517, the German Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailed a document to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, the accepted way of raising issues for academic debate. These ‘Ninety-five Theses’ however were profoundly radical and marked the beginning of what came to be known as the Protestant Reformation in Europe. Luther was by no means the only theologian raising vital questions about gospel truth – Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich, for example, also played a significant role in the reforming movement – but Luther was certainly used powerfully by God to shake the foundations of established theology and ecclesiastical life in Germany and much further afield.

Luther’s 95 propositions go to the heart of the gospel message and so demand our continued attention. Many historians offer explanations for the rise of the Reformation in terms of the historical and sociological circumstances of the time and some of these do have value, but we have not understood the Reformation unless we see it as a mighty work of God. In the Reformation the Holy Spirit transformed people and communities through the saving application of the Word of God. Whatever else the Reformation was, it was primarily spiritual.

The Reformation was a revolution that took the Church backwards – it was a rediscovery of great biblical truths that had been obscured by the Catholicism of the Middle Ages. The Reformers went back to the biblical roots of the Christian faith and, on the basis of Scripture alone, proclaimed a message of salvation by grace alone, through Christ alone and received by faith alone, all to the glory of God alone. Multitudes experienced the true spiritual liberation that comes through an undiluted gospel. This was not just an intellectual movement – lives were transformed.

Now Luther was not perfect. Nobody knew that than Luther himself. He had his weaknesses and, like most things to do with Luther, they were on a fairly large scale. On some issues, such as his view of the Lord’s Supper, he was beyond listening to contrary opinions. There was in some of his writing a streak of crudity (shared with Erasmus, among others) that forbids quotation. His positon on a variety of matters represented a kind of half-way house between Roman Catholicism and biblical truth. We are, after all, not Lutherans, and with good reason. Nevertheless he was – by grace – a mighty man of God who was instrumental in revolutionising the spiritual life of a significant part of Europe and ultimately the world. A lesser man, a smaller man, would not have been up to the job.

The 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting the Ninety-five Theses ought to be commemorated enthusiastically by the people of God everywhere. We will be doing so at the Shaftesbury Reformed Conference on 15th February. Why not take the opportunities that 2017 will bring to deepen your knowledge of your spiritual heritage and to thank God for these wonderful events?