The Reformation Today: Whatever Became of Scripture Alone?

September 24, 2017
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Psalm 19; Luke 1:1-4; John 21:20-25

Last week the Presbytery of the Twin Cities area met. That’s our regional council, 60 local congregations. We’ve been embroiled in a legal struggle for some years with one of our churches wanting to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) with its property. They disagree with the denomination’s open position toward gay and lesbian persons in the life of the church.

The PCUSA constitution affirms that all church property is held in trust for the denomination. The Eden Prairie Presbyterian Church rejects that position and has gone to the courts to prove their case. State courts have sided with the congregation. We learned last week that our presbytery plans to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The dispute illustrates perfectly how seriously Protestants take the Bible, and how fiercely we fight over its interpretation. It all comes down to scripture and what it means.

One of our confirmation students gets the point. “I believe in God, but I have a hard time with how people use the Bible sometimes,” the student writes in a faith statement posted with others in the Heller Commons.

I agree, on both counts. I, too, believe in God and get frustrated by how people sometimes wield scripture as a weapon.

“We continue to have conflicts about what scripture says we should do,” the student says.

“I don’t agree with people going along with their faith or scripture without questioning it. It’s dangerous. For example, some people don’t support same-sex marriage because, ‘The Bible says so.’ I’m not sure where it says that, but I know that people often say it does…You should not base your life off of a book without question or thinking, even if it is the Bible.”

That’s precisely the argument propelling us to the Supreme Court: what does scripture say and mean – and how does our understanding of the Bible inform what we believe and how we should live in our communities? Those are uniquely Protestant questions, and over the centuries they have led to uniquely Protestant problems. Roman Catholics argue over what the Church says; we struggle over what the Bible says.

The two gospel passages just read remind us that what we call Holy Scripture was written by ordinary people. These are odd snippets of the gospels that, frankly, don’t have much substance to them, but they offer a window onto the ordinariness of the authors. At the start of one gospel and the end of another we get a glimpse of their down-to-earth personalities.

Luke opens his gospel by saying that what follows is an effort to put down “an orderly account” of extraordinary events. The author tells us, almost apologetically, that this is merely his attempt to make sense of things that might otherwise seem incredible. Thank you, Luke, for your humility.

John’s gospel closes with the author boasting of knowing so much more in the story that he’s not going to let us know about. In an all-too human burst of hyperbole, he says,

“There are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:25)

Scripture was written by human beings, people telling a story they had heard from others or had experienced themselves. Yes, the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, both in its writing and its reading. Yes, as we Presbyterians have said, it is “unique and authoritative.” But it is not a record of divine dictation, as if God had uttered each word in a kind of magical transcription process. Nor is it “just another book,” a collection of religious words that have little bearing on what the “real world” is like.

Scripture is something else altogether. It’s part history, part poetry, part prophecy, part story, memoir, myth. We call it the Word of God because it bears within it a larger Truth – capital “T” – to which its various parts point. Holy Scripture carries the compelling narrative of faith of the ordinary people of God, trying to understand who God is in their lives and in the world.

The words of the Bible, the psalmist tells us, “revive the soul.” Many times at the bedside of a person gravely ill, I have seen the familiar words of scripture bring light and comfort. The words of scripture, the psalmist says, “rejoice the heart” and “enlighten the eyes.” They are “more to be desired than gold, even much fine gold.” (Psalms 19:8, 10)

We should not underestimate the significance of scripture in our life as Christians, especially those of us who call ourselves Protestants. As we continue to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this fall, we’re reflecting on the great themes of that epic shift in the Church, and scripture alone is among them.

In the 16th century, power in the Christian Church tilted heavily toward Rome, with its vast ecclesiastical empire managed by a network of priests and bishops. Rome controlled all sources of religious authority – the wealth of the Church, its buildings and lands, its liturgies and rituals, its theology and doctrine. It even regulated access to salvation.

The Bible itself was also under Rome’s lock and key. Few common people could read their own local language, much less the Latin in which the Bible was written. It was read only by the educated few, mostly clergy in the hierarchy.

The Reformation initially offered a critique focused on the priestly office, but it soon escalated into a frontal assault on other sources of power. Luther, Calvin, and other reformers found in the Bible a formidable alternative to Rome’s clout. By declaring that scripture alone was the source of religious authority in the life of Christians, in one swift move Protestants swept away, discarded 16 centuries of accumulated Catholic doctrine and created an entirely new way of understanding Christian faith and imagining the Church.

One confirmation student says of the Bible,

“When we learn from scripture, it is then a responsibility of the church to act on the lessons… such as being generous or standing up for others…I believe that, without faith, doing this service work makes the church a wonderful non-profit, but what makes us unique is that we have our purpose to serve through scripture and faith.”

The Reformers were able to wrest scripture away from the Church hierarchy through a combination of factors, not least of which was the advent of the moveable type printing press. It was as revolutionary then as the Internet has been in our age. With the Protestant emphasis on reading scripture, literacy became essential. For the first time in history it became important for common people to learn to read and write. In some areas controlled by early Protestants, literacy was required of the people. The printing press was perfectly timed, then, to begin to make Bibles and other literature. Luther was among the most prolific pamphleteers of his time. All this literature was suddenly available for the first time in the local language to ordinary people who could now read, and the Reformation caught fire.

We can still see the results of the dramatic move away from established Church tradition and toward scripture as “the only rule of life and faith,” as Protestants have described the Bible. Worship for Protestants – as we see every Sunday here – became centered on reading and preaching the Word of God, not on Church doctrine and ritual.

To this day, we refuse to put our ultimate trust in an institution, but instead look to the Word of God in scripture. We are Protestants. Everything we do in worship revolves around the Word read and interpreted, as we try to understand what God is saying to us and compelling us to do in the world.

One of the confirmation students writes,

“I was asked during conformation, ‘What is it to be a teen with faith?’…A teen with faith is compassionate: they think and care for others. A teen with faith respects other people, cultures, traditions and religions. They also respect themselves. They own up to their mistakes, apologize for them, and then correct them. A teen with faith tries their best to give back to the community…”(Aren’t we glad this teenager is joining the church!).

“I believe…this,” the student says, “Because it…aligns…with…the central ideas in the Bible.”

That’s a thoroughly Protestant view of scripture: it guides us through life. A lamp unto our feet and a light to our path. Another student who’s a swimmer says,

Every day as I immerse myself in water, a sense of community rushes over me. Knowing, if all else fails, this pool will be here. The pool also guides me.  I swim back and forth in a meditative state, guided only by the always present black line at the bottom of the water. Every time I am present for a baptism, I have a similar feeling. A child is entering a community of faith that will always be there for them. The church, the community, the teaching provide a black line in the pool of life.”

The teaching points to the reading and interpretation of the Word. It all comes down to scripture for us. The Word of God forms and informs the Church.

Another confirmation student says,

“Church isn’t just an accumulation of seemingly random quotes and stories and sermons about the Camino. Church is the message, to everyone, about the importance of God and the impact God has on us then, now, and in our future.”

Church is the message, the Word come to life in the community of those who are following Christ. These are clearly Protestant confirmation students.

There’s a shadow side to Protestant reliance on the Word of God found in scripture. Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking our interpretation of the Bible is the only way to understand it. We forget the other two great themes of the Reformation, grace alone and faith alone, and begin to judge others, as if our reading of a text were the only possible, acceptable one.

Last week after worship on one of the tours of the construction site I saw the new tower on the corner in a new light. It’s wrapped in metal, but not constricted by it. The skin of the tower appears to be opening, letting in light and air. It’s not tied down and concluded, but is a work in progress. It defies easy definition. It invites inquiry and dialogue.

It’s doing in architecture what Protestants have done when they are at their best with Scripture: asking questions, offering and opening up differing interpretations, allowing a variety of perspectives.

Words like “inerrant,” “infallible,” and “literal” have occasionally crept into Protestant vocabulary, and when that happens, there’s trouble. We become rigid and inflexible. We want to tighten things down, finish it off, close it tight. We act as if the meaning of scripture is fixed and firm, once and for all. We’re tempted to exclude those with whom we disagree.

Sometimes we even end up in court with them.

Whatever happened to ‘scripture alone? Whatever happened to the Protestant insistence on the individual believer’s access to the Word of God and the responsibility of that individual believer to understand, and study and interpret for themselves what the text might mean. Scripture alone has often been appropriated by those who insist on their interpretation alone, dismissing the Reformation insistence on the freedom of all believers to read and understand God’s Word for themselves.

The Bible matters. There’s no other witness like it. The renewal of the Protestant movement, of the Christian Church, of our life in faith, will require a reawakening in us of the power and beauty of scripture for every believer. That means bringing our best to the Bible, our minds, our hearts, our science, our questions, our doubts, our emotions, our fears, our hopes.

Ordinary people wrote the words of scripture, people like us, trying to make sense of the extraordinary, mysterious, wondrous discovery of the love of God in their lives and in the world around them.

“The experiences of love and care I feel from my family and the people from church,” a confirmation student says, “Might just be the way I feel the love God has for me.”

The young people we will receive into membership today understand that we worship and follow and serve a Creator beyond our capacity to name or understand or contain or fully grasp.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying, and we Protestants believe that scripture is the best place to start.

Thanks be to God.


Pastoral Prayer ~10:30 am Worship

David Shinn

Friends in Christ, today’s pastoral prayer is an adaptation of a prayer titled “A Prayer for Charlottesville” by Lauren Grabaugh. Please join your hearts and minds with me as we pray together. Let us prayer.

To the God whom we have forgotten;  To the God who is not male and is not white: To the God who takes no pleasure in violence; To the God who is Love; To the God who is tender-hearted and warm embrace; To the God who is not deaf to Her children’s cries and is moved to tears by their suffering: To the God whose law is love of neighbor, hospitality for the stranger, care for the weak: To the God whose touch is healing, whose gaze is compassion; whose way is lovingkindness; To the God who is Justice; To the God who tramples fear and hatred under Her feet; To the God who convict our hearts, stir our spirits, transform our minds; To the God who revels in the joyful dance of community and invites us to do the same; To the God whose own child’s lynched body hung limp on a tree, not by Her own hand, but because of fear and hatred of those human beings who feared the kind of world they were promised would be ushered in and hated the changes they would have to undergo to get there;

Help us with our short memory, deliver us from our failure to remember the sins of our past, our aversion to repentance, and our refusal to make reparations and seek reconciliation.

Help us so our souls will not waste away so no black, brown, female queer, trans, Muslim, differently abled bodies and minds will not be harmed, scapegoated, and demonized.

Help us to call on your name and see the faces, the image of God, of our sisters and brothers, and feel the pain of our neighbors, strangers, friends, and enemies;

Lead our imagination from infiltration of war-mongering forces of violence.  Lead our spirits from being colonized by depressing ear of our oppressors.

Transform our minds by the power of your love for you are able to renew a right spirit within us and grant us courage to change our ways and challenge our culture of consumption.

To the God who is healing, be with all who are preparing and recovering from surgical procedures, medical treatments, and rehabs. Lift them up.

To the God who sees and hears, be with all who are voiceless. Assure them of your presence and power.

To the God who is wise, be with all who desires your counsel, your vision, and your action. Strengthen our bodies to be instrument of your love and kindness.

To the God of wind, rain, fire, and earth, lead the rescue efforts in Puerto Rico as 70k people are at the mercy of the breached dam, and bless the recovery effort to all nations and states affected by the natural disasters.

To the God of mercy for the million Rohinga Muslim terrorized by genocide and seeking refuge in Bangladesh.

To the God our present help, our ages past, our firm foundation, lead thy people to work for peace and justice.

To the God who taught us all to pray, Our Father…

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