It’s easy to think theology is dry and boring, useless to the life of the average believer. But theology is the most practical thing that we can do because what we think about God shapes the whole of who we are. It carries us through every season of life, and shapes every interaction we have. If we think wrongly about God, then we’re not equipped to follow him well nor to enter into the fullness of joy he offers us. The invitation to know God through the Bible is an invitation into joy.
God sent his word to us so that we can know him. He cares about how we approach it. His word is his mediated presence in our lives, so how we read and understand it is vital. So let’s do a little theology.
During the Reformation the reformers codified their beliefs into five statements that are still useful for us today. These statements are not infallible; they are not scripture. But they are useful for talking about what the scriptures teach us. For now I’ll focus on Sola Scripture, or translated, Scripture Alone.
What is Sola Scriptura?
Sola Scriptura simply means that all truth necessary for our salvation and spiritual life is taught either explicitly or implicitly in Scripture.” (Ligonier Ministries) In other words, Scripture teaches us everything we need to know to follow Jesus. We don’t have to go to teachers, books, sermons, or even historical doctrinal statements of the church — however excellent they might be — to learn what it is to follow Jesus.
Are these things still useful? Yes. We know this because we see sermons, collections of songs of worship, and teachings within the Scripture. We even see church leaders gathered to discuss important doctrinal decisions. All of these things are a part of the life of the church and useful for the Christian, but they all serve to point the Christian to the scripture.
Prone to False Doctrine
Without a clear understanding of Sola Scriptura, we are apt to succumb to the false doctrines that surround us. We don’t live out our faith in a vacuum, but in a culture which has it’s own doctrines that we are steeped in with or without knowing it. If we don’t understand Scripture as authoritative, then we will be knocked around by every wave of doctrine. In the changing norms of our culture, we must be rooted in the Eternal Truth revealed to us by the Eternal God in his Eternal Word. If we understand that scripture alone has the highest authority on any topic on which it speaks then we will necessarily measure all other teachings against it, even the implicit teachings in the culture around us.
In the same way we test the teachings of our culture we should test the teaching of a Church tradition, a favorite pastor or blogger, or our own underlying assumptions. During the Reformation, the reformers made the radical statement that Scripture had a greater authority than the traditions of the Catholic Church (referred to as the magistirum). Luther and his counterparts wanted the Church to submit itself wholly and fully to the word of God. The traditions, while valuable, were not on the same level of scripture.
To the modern day evangelical, this seems obvious. However, if we outsource our theological thinking to the catechism and doctrines of our protestant churches, or to our favorite popular pastors, then we follow the same pattern of the Catholic church in trusting a magisterium over and above Scripture. We must faithfully measure all we are taught according to the standard of Scripture. This requires close study, a skill we must learn to cultivate.
Limits of Sola Scriptura
However, if we don’t understand the limits of the doctrine – that scripture contains everything we need, not everything that is useful — then we can be tempted to discount the value of Scripture when we encounter a question that Scripture does not address. For instance, the Bible does not address voting because democracy was not a form of government in the times and places the Bible was being written. So we can’t go to the Bible for simple answers on how or if to vote.
But we can learn from the scriptures about justice, power, peacemaking, how to treat foreigners, how to treat the poor, what God has to say about racism, wealth accumulation, and war. That insight should shape our voting. But there are other useful things that could shape our voting: an understanding of how our government works, if similar platforms have historically done what the candidates claim they will, a wise counselor’s interpretation of the Scripture and the political season. These things are extra-biblical, and useful, but they are not authoritative and are not to be trusted as being on par with Scripture.
Pursue Consistent Application
A clear understanding calls us to try to have a consistent application of the doctrine. It has been inconsistently applied since the early church fathers, by Luther and throughout the history of the Protestant church. Luther himself appealed to previous theological interpretations when challenged on the way in which the Lord’s Supper was taken. Even denominations like Baptists who say they follow the Bible alone, have strong traditions of interpretation through which the church members tend to view scripture.
We are far from perfect. Each Christian and church will have blind spots in our submission to Scripture’s authority. We will assume it says things it is not saying, and we will miss it’s clear teachings. However, we must pursue excellence in submitting our lives to scripture because through the Bible we get to know and experience God who is our Great Joy.