We all live in a world that is a melting pot of philosophies. And we’re like a sponge floating on the scummy surface, just soaking in a little bit of whatever’s around us. Like that sponge, when life squeezes us we find out what we’ve been absorbing, because it oozes out. We’ve soaked up some post-modern moral relativism, which says “truth can’t really be known, because the truth is whatever you make of it.” Relativism and post-modernism give you no answers to your important questions, and it gives you no comfort during your suffering. The lingering modernism of our day says that the universe is cold and we’re fundamentally alone in the desperate fight of our lives. Richard Dawkins said that “ultimate reality is cold, indifferent, and extinction inevitable.” He writes,
The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation… In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.
We soak up such secularism through osmosis; when the pressures of life bear down on us, this is the garbage juice that leaks out.
There is a better, truer philosophy. The reformers had an answer for all of this. It held true in the conciliarism and papal centrality of its day, it held true through the rationalism of the enlightenment, and it holds true in the sad, impersonal secularism of today. The reformers called it the formal principle of the reformation. Unlike worldly philosophy, theirs says “There’s a God who speaks, and he knows you need to be spoken to. He knows you don’t know where to turn, so he’s going to write a book for you.” Their philosophy – perhaps it’s better called a doctrine – says “You can have real, meaty answers to the questions that bother you most.” It says the universe is more than a cold, meaningless place – it’s actually a marvelous work of art that you get to rule over and enjoy forever.
All the other philosophies that we try to apply to Christianity don’t work, because they jack up the order of what’s what. Liberalism says that our chief means of doing theology is Experience. Many of us grew up in a version of Christianity where the de facto means of doing theology is Tradition. The 21st century version of rationalism makes Reason the chief means of doing theology. But Sola Scriptura says that Scripture is the chief means of doing theology.
|Scripture||Chief means of doing theology; it’s authoritative, our only rule for faith and obedience.|
|Reason||Our reason is reshaped by Scripture’s authority.|
|Experience||Our experience is reframed by Scripture, and filtered through reason.|
|Tradition||Our traditions are birthed out of Scripture + Reason.|
Sola Scriptura is the lynch pin of reformation theology. It’s the doctrine that keeps us in check from ruling over the scriptures, as we tried to do during the enlightenment, and still try to do today.
Fundamentally, Sola Scriptura means “Scripture Alone.” Scripture Alone is our chief spiritual authority. Scripture Alone is our rule for faith and obedience. It’s the litmus test for the word of the church and its leaders. It’s the benchmark against which we measure all spiritual claims.
Since we’ve been studying Galatians for most of the year, let’s think about the formal principle in light of this book that, for Martin Luther, changed everything. In Reformed theology the formal principle is the authority of Scripture, Sola Scriptura. This constitutes the reliability of the message. The material principle is the content of the message itself: Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Solus Christus, Soli Deo Gloria. Grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone, for the glory of God alone.
Paul recognized this 1,500 years before Martin Luther did. That’s why the first chapter of Galatians conveys the formal principle, and the rest conveys its counterpart, the material principle. Paul begins with “Paul, an apostle – not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead …” He goes on to establish his authority as an apostle, and the truth of the gospel he preaches. This gospel wasn’t given to him by any man: it was delivered to him by the resurrected Jesus Christ himself.
That gospel is what makes up the rest of Galatians, essentially. This is the material principle—the gospel message that Paul delivered to the churches in Galatia, as of first importance. So we derive our formal and material principles from Paul himself, well before Luther. As the authority of Paul gives credibility and weightiness to his gospel message, so the authority of Scripture, the Word of God, is the thing we need to lean on to give weight to the gospel and its claim on our life.
The History of Sola Scriptura
Very early in Christianity, Bishops were recognized as the pastor of pastors in major cities, like Antioch, Jerusalem, and Rome. The bishop in Rome soon claimed more power and prestige than the others (5th century), and eventually out of this power grab the papacy was born.
Popes ruled the church for centuries; became increasingly politically motivated and entangled; eventually a French pope, Clement V, was elected and refused to move to Rome, instead staying in Avignon. The papacy remained in France for about seventy years, becoming increasingly subservient to French national interests.
The Avignon Papacy, sometimes called the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, led directly to the Western Schism, from 1378 to 1417. Here’s how it happened: in 1377 Pope Gregory XI returned the papacy to Rome, where he died. The cardinals then got together and elected Urban VI, who turned out to be a pretty rotten apple. The cardinals regretted it, and some of them reassembled and elected a new Pope named Clement VII, though the old Pope was still in place. Clement VII set up shop back in Avignon, while Urban VI was ruling in Rome. So now there are two popes, for the first time in the history of the church.
Both these popes died, and were replaced again, and finally a council was convened to remove the two popes and elect a new one. All they managed to do was make matters worse by electing a third pope, and further confused matters by introducing the idea that councils had more authority than popes.
One of these three popes convened a council in 1414 to resolve the issue once and for all. Popes resigned and were excommunicated, and finally a single pope was elected, but even then it was a messy business.
This is why all this matters: the big question of the day was “Do councils have the authority over the pope, or does the pope have authority over the councils?” Where does the chief authority of the church lie? Scripture, popes, or councils? This is the embroiled theological landscape in which Martin Luther emerged.
In 1517 Luther had a clash with authority. Pope Leo X wanted to finish building St. Peter’s Basilica, and had commissioned the sale of special indulgences to fund the work. The indulgences were certificates of withdrawal from the bank of Christ’s merits and the superabundance of merit from the saints. These certificates could then be applied to forgive you of your sins. They could cut your time in purgatory short, and they could get your loved ones out of purgatory early, too. The pope’s cronies would go around the towns rallying the people to the coffers, compelling them to buy these indulgences. “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs,” was their song.
Luther had had enough, and wrote his 95 theses against indulgences. But the church leaders whose ear he caught knew that he was really doing was calling the pope’s authority into question. After all, how could a physical contribution of money make a spiritual withdraw from the bank of Christ’s merit? That only worked, they claimed, because of the pope’s infallible authority. His words were as good as gold – his words were as good as God’s. An opponent of Luther’s wrote, “He who does not accept the doctrine of the Church of Rome and the pontiff of Rome as an infallible rule of faith, from which the Holy Scriptures, too, draw their strength and authority, is a heretic.” Luther would have none of that. He consistently rejected the infallibility of the papacy, and lifted up the authority of Scripture. Not just an authority alongside the church or the papacy; the Scripture’s authority is over and above every human institution.
Why Such Authority?
The Lord is high above all nations,
and his glory above the heavens!
Who is like the Lord our God,
who is seated on high,
who looks far down
on the heavens and the earth?
— Psalm 113:4-6
The “high-aboveness” of God is called the Transcendence of God. This transcendent God is, as the Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth says, “wholly other.” He is located ontologically outside of creation. D. A. Carson writes that “any genuine knowledge human beings have of God depends on God’s first disclosing himself.”
This idea of transcendence could lead to deism, if not for the fact that our transcendent God is a God who self-discloses himself. The theological word for this self-disclosure is revelation. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets,” writes the author of Hebrews. He’s saying that in the times of the Old Testament, God spoke – he revealed or disclosed himself – to humanity through Scripture. But “in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the world.” He goes on to say that his Son, Jesus, is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.”
So God has revealed himself to us. First, by the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings – that’s what Jesus said, and that’s what the what the author of Hebrews said. Then he gave us the fullest revelation of himself in the person and work of Jesus Christ – the exact imprint of his nature, that is, the perfect image of God. God’s disclosing himself to us by saying “this is precisely what I am like.”
Our God is a transcendent God who reveals himself to us, and thus is knowable. In Romans, Paul says that “his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” God can be known in a limited sense through observing Creation. Paul says we can only know his invisible attributes this way. But in Christ we see God in his fullness. Later in Romans Paul continues to say that God revealed himself in the Law. But all that did was show us that we couldn’t keep the Law. But finally he says that “now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the Law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” Jesus is God’s fullest self-disclosure to a humanity so far beneath him that we could never attain to the knowledge of God without his gracious initiative.
What Scripture Says, God Says
Jesus himself spoke of the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms (or “the Writings” – this trifecta was the first-century way of referring to the entire Old Testament) as the unfailing words of God. In John 5 Jesus says to his accusers, “Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?” Jesus is assuming the absolute truth of what Moses wrote in the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch, as much as he believes that his own words are the words of God.
It is Jesus himself who says “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matt. 5:18). And Jesus himself said things like “Have you not read what God said…?” (Matt. 22:31) …in this passage he was citing Exodus to prove that the Sadducees don’t know the power of God, nor do they know the Scriptures. Jesus is equating the Scriptures with the very words of God, as a revelation of his power.
According to scholars, the New Testament quotes the Old Testament 343 times explicitly, and alludes to its text no fewer than 2,309 times – all of these quotes and allusions in the context of quoting the authoritative word of God. And Paul very clearly states in his letter to Timothy that “all Scripture is breathed out by God” (theopneustos). When we read the pages of Scripture it is still warm with the holy breath of God, having come from his very mouth.
Trustworthiness of the New Testament
So now we know that the New Testament validates the Old Testament. But how do we know we can trust the New Testament? Didn’t it take forever for the church to trust it in its current form? In his essays on Scripture, D. A. Carson gives a few points to explain the formation of the NT canon, and its trustworthiness.
- Some New Testament documents refer to others as “Scripture” (1 Tim. 5:18, 2 Pet. 3:16)
- The early church used three essential criteria to recognize the canonicity of NT documents:
- Conformity to the “rule of faith” – i.e. “basic, Christian orthodoxy recognized as normative in the churches”
- “The document had to have enjoyed widespread and continuous usage by the churches. Incidentally, this criterion requires the passage of time to be useful, and helps to explain why so much time elapsed before the ‘closing’ of the canon.”
- Eventually the church universally found themselves acknowledging the same 27 books, for the same reasons. This organic, natural, Spirit-led recognition of the books is what led to the formal recognition (not formation) of the New Testament canon in the 4th
To this last point, in John 10:14 Jesus says “I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me.” The voice of Jesus has the ring of truth in our hearts. Jesus goes on in the next chapter to illustrate this point powerfully. Lazarus has died, and has been in the tomb for four days. Jesus approaches the tomb; he doesn’t go try to resuscitate him with mouth-to-mouth. He merely speaks: “Lazarus, come out.” The truth of the sheep knowing the voice of Jesus goes so deep into reality, that his word reached into death itself, and brought forth a living man. When we read the pages of Scripture, we hear the voice of Jesus, and we recognize it as the voice of our shepherd. It just…rings true.
Carson (can you tell I like Don Carson?) writes:
The church, then, did not confer a certain status on documents that would otherwise have lacked it, as if the church were an institution with authority independent of the Scriptures or in tandem to the Scriptures. Rather, the New Testament documents were Scripture because of what God had revealed; the church, providentially led, came to wide recognition of what God had done in his climactic self-disclosure in his Son and in the documents that bore witness to and gathered up the strands of the Son-revelation.
The Primacy of the Word
This brings us back to the Reformation. During the time of Martin Luther, the Roman church had well-established extra-biblical and un-biblical doctrines like worship of Mary, prayer to the saints, purgatory, the treasury of merit, and many, many more. Many of these arose out of error, but many of these were pragmatic and useful to the officers of the church, as we discussed about the indulgences earlier. And how did the church maintain an explanation of the authority of these doctrines? They did this by claiming that the church, meaning its “head,” the Pope, has authority alongside, or even over, the Bible. They said (and still say today, by the way) that “the Church created the word of God.” Think about that claim for a moment, and let it sink in.
Martin Luther was aghast at this. I can picture him slamming his stein of Wittenberg ale down on the table, rising from his seat and shouting “nein!” Luther taught firmly that the Word of God always creates the people of God. In the beginning, God spoke creation into existence, crowning it with Adam and Eve. Out of Ur of the Chaldeans God spoke, he called Abraham and said “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” Ex nihilo, out of nothing, he formed creation; ex nihilo he formed his people. Later God spoke a better word. The Apostle John would call Jesus the Word of God. The author of Hebrews says that God spoke this final word to us in these latter days to reveal himself to us. The Word of God always creates the people of God. Furthermore, it is the word of God that converts us. This is a work of creation. Jonathan Edwards points out that when Scripture speaks of being a “new creation in Christ” (2 Cor. 5:17) it’s not being metaphorical. The word of God has spoken to your heart of stone and said “let there be flesh!” Jesus encountered Paul, the blasphemer and persecutor, who had been kicking against the pricks for so long—he looked at his black, faithless heart and said “Let there be faith!” The Spirit of God is hovering over the chaotic waters of our heart, and when we encounter the word of God, Jesus by the power of the Spirit creates faith in our hearts. Without this powerful creative work of God, we would be as blind to the truth of Scripture as the Pharisees of Jesus’ day.
S.C.A.N. – The Doctrine of Scripture
In brief, let’s go over the four main points of a well-rounded doctrine of Scripture. Thanks to Kevin DeYoung for this helpful outline.
Sufficiency of Scripture
2 Tim. 3:14-17
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
Clarity of Scripture (perspicuity)
’For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.’
Authority of Scripture
I bow down toward your holy temple
and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness,
for you have exalted above all things
your name and your word.
Necessity of Scripture
1 Corinthians 2:6-13
Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,
‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him’—
these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.
The very first thing we learn about humanity is that we are created in the image of God. “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness.’” The most fundamental thing about us as humans is that we are meant to reflect what God looks like. A good mirror accurately images the person in front of the mirror, and that is what was intended for us as God’s image-bearers. But the Fall distorted that image. We are now more like a funhouse mirror, warped and distorted. As we strive to be more like Christ, the perfect image of God, we must seek to know that which we image. That’s why theology matters: we can’t be faithful image-bearers if we don’t know what God is like.
Esther Lightcap Meek wrote a short book on epistemology, the study of how we know what we know, called A Little Manual for Knowing. She says that we all have a default posture of knowing-as-information. The sort of knowledge that puffs up—it’s all about getting information for ourselves, and our own use. But she says when the knowable breaks into our reality and we get a glimpse of it, we are reoriented. We need to begin to move from knowing-as-information to knowing-as-love. To love something or someone, we must embark on a journey to know it deeply. This journey is necessarily over a time continuum. You can’t just magically know something instantaneously; you must make a commitment to it, based on trust (or faith), and pledge yourself to continue to press in. It’s when we come from this perspective that we move toward fuller knowledge of the knowable.
This journey of knowledge is a picture of the Christian life, as it relates to God and Scripture. If God has self-disclosed himself in the pages of Scripture then we must wonder at what is revealed. Our curiosity must be peaked, and we must firmly decide to embark on the journey of more deeply knowing the God who revealed himself. In 1 Cor. 13 Paul says,
For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. . . For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Right now our knowing God through his Word is only as though we are looking in a dim or distorted mirror. It requires faith, and it requires hope. But one day… one glorious day, faith and hope shall pass away. We won’t need them anymore! And what will be left? Only love. We shall fully see God, face to face, and we shall love him completely and perfectly, just as he has always known and loved us.
By all means, read; study, and study hard. Theology really, truly matters if you want to image God to the world around you. But we must have a posture of humility, knowing we’re not going to perfectly know or love him now. We’re not going to fully understand every nuance of theology, and we’re not even going to want to know him more deeply sometimes.
If you’re anything like me, you likely have turned to the Bible when you’re in personal distress, looking for an antidote. You want a solution to your problem. You want a way out of your crappy circumstance. This is that knowing-as-information perspective that Esther Meek talks about. You’re going to open the pages of Scripture, not get the answers you want, and then consciously or sub-consciously decide that it’s not useful to you.
But the Bible is sufficient. Yes, it is sufficient to equip you for every good work. But most importantly it is sufficient to tell you what God is like, through the revelation of his Son, so that you might love him more dearly. Your reading of the Bible should be God-focused, not you-focused.
Psalm 84 describes the Christian life, and the journey of knowing God:
Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the Valley of Baca [weeping]
they make it a place of springs; [that’s you]
the early rain also covers it with pools. [that’s God]
They go from strength to strength;
each one appears before God in Zion.
If there’s one thing I want you to be free from tonight, it’s the reluctance to read your Bible. Through its pages you will hear the very words of Yahweh. The Holy Spirit will whisper the words of Scripture to your heart, and make them come alive in beautiful ways. By reading Scripture as a means of knowing and loving God, you will find springs of living water pooling along the dusty road of life. You can drink deeply to sustain you on your journey to Zion.
The number one reason I have avoided reading my Bible is this: I had recently sinned, and felt dirty. On the one hand, somewhere deep down I felt that a holy God wouldn’t want to speak with me if I was unclean. On the other hand, I didn’t want the conviction of the Spirit to come and sanctify my life. I preferred to stay in my sin, like a coward.
God is not one to be shied away from in this way. He gently placed Moses in the cleft of the rock so that God might pass safely by, and declared himself abounding in love. David says in Psalm 20 “May the Lord answer you in the day of trouble! … may he send you help from the sanctuary and give you support from Zion!” He is our strong support that saves us from our sin, in the day of trouble. He is kind and gentle to us, and wants to restore us. His kindness is meant to lead us to repentance. We need not fear turning to him—like the father of the prodigal son, he is already running down the path to meet you with outstretched arms.
And we need not fear the sulfurous stench of sin that lingers on our garments. Jesus told Peter that he is already clean! Only his feet need washing. If you belong to Christ, then your sin has been nailed to the cross, and you bear it no more. You only need to be washed in the water of the Word. To avoid the Word because of your sin is like refusing to go to the emergency room because you’re afraid that they don’t want sick people there.
So run to Christ—run boldly and swiftly, letting nothing keep you from hearing the voice of God as revealed in the pages of Scripture, and preached to you by the Holy Spirit.
“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.”