Sola Scriptura or Sola Commentarium?
Sola Scriptura "is the doctrine that the Bible contains all knowledge necessary for salvation and holiness." - WikipediaAll of my life I have identified in one form or another as a Protestant. During most of the years following my conversion at age 40, I identified myself as "reformed". It was during those years that I first heard (or first remember hearing) the term Sola Scriptura. It is one of five "Solas" that the youngish reformed folks are so fond of having tattooed on their wrists and arms and ankles.
I don't need tattoos to identify myself with the Solas. They are etched into my heart. But, it was not always so. Though I was never a fan of body ink, in my days of being Reformed™, the solas became a bit like tattoos to me - a superficial form of branding, a way of identifying with a certain group in distinction from other groups.
For all of my lofty vaunting of Sola Scriptura, I actually spent far, far less time reading and studying the Scriptures than I did reading books about the Scriptures. I devoured a hundreds of very good books about the Good Book. I read books of theology, commentaries, and everything in between. I read Calvin and Piper and Edwards and Owen and Luther and Spurgeon and Pink and Sproul. I adored the Puritans! All of these were the experts. They were the pinnacle of spirituality, and they told me how I should interpret what the Bible says. They (and my fellow "reformed" friends and bloggers) decided for me, based upon their particular bents, which doctrines were the ones I should be focusing on and which theological camps I should park myself in. I accepted almost anything I was taught, so long as the teacher was popular, intelligent, and Reformed™.
During those years my soul began to wither, and for the longest time I barely noticed - until a series of tragedies struck. When they did I found that all my second-hand knowledge wasn't enough to steady my faith. I learned that my pet doctrines were not sufficient to sustain my life and heart. I could not survive on even the best of Christian books alone. I needed to hear from God for myself. I needed the Scripture, and I needed to know it first-hand.
Now, before I over-state my case, let me say that there were certain truths I learned during those "reformed" years that ultimately would sustain me. In every book I read, there were many quotes from Scripture. In most of the books I read, there was some good gospel teaching and a lot of solid truth. As I said, these books were good books, not junk. But perhaps the most important legacy of these teachers, for me, was the concept of Sola Scriptura. Through them I learned to respect God's Word (even if I didn't hear them telling me to study it for myself). From them I learned that there is no point in claiming to be a Christian while at the same time disregarding or dishonoring the very book on which my whole religion is founded (even though, practically speaking, that was exactly what I was doing). If that book is true, if it really is God's word to man, then that is where I need to go to learn about God. If it is not, if it is unreliable, or inaccurate, or hit-and-miss, then I had better admit I'm just picking and choosing and making stuff up as I go. I had better drop the whole thing altogether, and forget about calling myself a Christian at all.
And so, when my faith was desperately threatened, and I felt betrayed - for reasons I won't go into here - by the modern Reformed movement, and when all sorts of teachings were coming at me from every direction, vying for my allegiance (as they always do with people whose faith is being tested), I knew that if there really is a God (which I never doubted) and I really was a Christian, then I had only one place to turn to learn what was really true about Him and about Christianity: the Bible.
This time I went straight to the source. And I learned something: I found very quickly that any doctrine ripped from its context loses something. It loses many things. It loses the way in which it was taught, the tone of voice, if you will. It loses the setting and purpose and application for which it was taught. It loses the effects of all the other doctrines which surround and infuse it and underpin it. Even good doctrine, when misused, becomes unbalanced and un-tempered.
The wrath of God, for instance, has its place in God's character. But it is never to be separated from the holiness and love from which it springs. The doctrine of hell is likewise inescapable in Scripture, but it is not meant to bring sadistic delight or as a bludgeon. It is a doctrine that was never really expounded until the Savior came. In other words, the doctrine of hell was brought to us most fully by the very one who also brought salvation. The teaching about hell was brought with love, by the very one who would suffer to rescue us from it. The doctrine of God's sovereignty, to give another example, is never treated in Scripture as a philosophical talking point, or a topic for debate, or a test of the legitimacy of one's salvation, or a pat answer for the pain and suffering in people's lives.
The Bible's doctrines, removed from their context, can also be biased by the unique circumstances or, sadly, the sinful bents or attitudes of the teachers. Every good pastor and teacher throughout the ages writes from the perspective of his own time and culture, and with a mind to the unique needs of his own audience. Those circumstances may or may not resemble our own. Their teaching, thus, may or may not be best suited to the time or circumstances in which we find ourselves. For this reason, especially if you are reading non-modern works, it is important to understand the circumstances and history surrounding an individual's writings. This will help discern what is and is not meant by his words, and what is and is not transferable straight through the years to us. Jonathan Edwards, for example, was generally preaching to congregations full of church-going but nominal Christians. He struggled to wake people up from their presumed faith and to lead them into genuine relationship with Christ. (As a lifetime nominal Christian, this was a big part of his original appeal to me.) A problem arises, however, when you take this kind of teaching and apply it, without caveat, to genuine but sensitive Christian souls. For them this teaching can be devastating, and even dangerous, leading to discouragement and hoplessness. I speak from experience.
"...if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge...but have not love, I am nothing." (from 1 Cor. 13:2)All of our knowledge can amount to nothing.
This is a real danger. I know, because it threatened to swallow me whole, and I didn't even realize it until it was nearly too late. But God is gracious, and He really is sovereign over my life and my faith. He used some dreadful circumstances to alert me to the trouble I was in. And, yes, he used some good doctrine.
I am thankful that I was taught the value of Scripture, for it was what ultimately sustained me, but only once it became what actually sustained me. At some point during that time of crisis nearly four years ago, I determined I was going to see what the Bible had to say for itself. I was going to learn about God from His book directly. I made up my mind that I was going to spend at least at much time in the Bible as I did in books about the Bible. Since then I can count on one hand the number of works of theology I have read (and I have read some that have helped me immensly!).
I have found that the more time I spend in God's word, the more doggedly devoted to the Scriptures I become. I have found that the word of God is sufficient for every spiritual and emotional need. I can know God. I can understand His word. I can trust Him, and I can obey Him. In these years, as my time spent with God the Scriptures has increased, my faith has come alive. My confidence in Him has turned my most painful circumstances into times of growth and meaning. I have seen him transform my life, and the life of my husband as well, through His word.
I have learned through hard and rich experience that "the Bible contains all knowledge necessary for salvation and holiness." The Word of God really is sufficient for life and godliness.
Thus, Sola Scriptura has tattoed itself on my soul.