Sola Scriptura … Not Nuda Scriptura!


Evangelical Christians, like myself, have a rather curious relationship with “tradition.”

As we remember this year, the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous nailing of his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg, we think of the great Reformation slogan of Sola Scriptura, by “Scripture alone,” where “we,” as in evangelical Protestant believers, reject the notion of Scripture and tradition, to be the final authority for Christian faith and practice. We tell ourselves that we do not need popes or church councils to bind our consciences. We do not need doctrines like purgatory, praying to the saints, etc., that have shaky Scriptural support, at best! We do pretty well with the Bible by itself. Thank you very much.

Or so we think.

As it turns out, there are important Christian beliefs that simply have little in terms of explicit references made in the Bible itself. Instead, these beliefs are firmly embedded in traditions, in how the Bible has been read, that have been passed down from generation to generation. Perhaps some of us Protestants take our rejection of “tradition” a bit too far.

Sola Scriptura vs. Nuda Scriptura

Here is a list of important beliefs that practically all evangelical Protestants share, where you can not find explicit references in the Bible:

  • Who wrote the Gospels? Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are taken for granted, but the authors’ names are never explicitly mentioned. Phrases like “the Gospel according to Saint Matthew,” were added in centuries later. Technically, if all we had to go on was the Bible itself, the four Gospels would be all anonymously written. While we have some evidence in the text that gives us clues, we are mostly dependent on church tradition to tell us who wrote the Gospels.

 

  • Is God one God in Three Persons? Many assume that the Trinity is specifically taught in the Bible, but the arguments for the Triune God are primarily implicit to the text. The term “Trinity” is not explicitly written anywhere in the Holy Scripture. Nevertheless, the doctrinal formulation of the Godhead, as articulated by the Nicene Creed, is a product of decades of informed, theological reflection, in the early centuries of the church, regarding how the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit relate to one another, and their fundamental unity.

 

  • Is the Bible without error? We can find statements in Scripture itself that speak of it being “God-breathed” (1 Timothy 3:16), or that God’s Word is “Truth” (John 17:17). But you will be hard pressed to find an explicit proof-text that says that the Bible is “inerrant.” Nevertheless, the concept of Biblical “inerrancy” as a tradition remains vitally important to many evangelical Christians today. The overarching testimony of history, as preserved through tradition, affirms that Christians down through the ages have viewed their Bible as fully and completely reliable.

 

  • What books are in the Bible? You can look up the names of the books of the Bible, in the table of contents. But the table of contents in your Bible itself is not technically part of the Bible (Zondervan, Thomas Nelson, or whoever published your Bible did that). Instead, the process of determining what books belong to the Bible, or the development of the Scriptural canon, took place over centuries of discussion in the church, where believers were able to recognize the inherent value, authority, and authenticity of what constituted God’s Word.

Does Sola Scriptura mean that we are to abandon these ideas and teachings? Does it mean that we must completely disregard confidence in, who wrote the Gospels, the nature of the Trinity, the inerrancy of the Bible, or even the canon of Scripture itself?

Hardly.

When the Reformers of the 16th century championed Sola Scriptura, “by Scripture alone,” they did not mean Nuda Scriptura; that is, “Scripture left naked.”  They did not seek to throw out all tradition. Their primary concern was that tradition should not obscure the Truth of God’s Word.

One does not need to have explicit statements in the Bible, for something to be affirmed to be true. There are implicit statements in the Bible, in which church tradition helps us, to put things within their proper perspective. My Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox friends might be a bit skeptical here, but a careful study of the Protestant Reformation, in the 16th century, suggests that this assessment is correct.

So, we really can not totally dismiss church tradition.

What “Sola Scriptura” Really Means?

Properly speaking, Sola Scriptura means that Scripture alone binds the conscience of the believer in Christ. Nevertheless, church tradition has an important place in the mind of the believer, as it helps to inform us as to how the church has historically received the Bible to be God’s Word to us.

The principle of Sola Scriptura has caused many Christians to rethink centuries of long, accepted beliefs. In many ways, this has been a good, if not, essential thing. Church traditions, over time, can go sideways rather easily. Every generation must read Scripture anew, to keep God’s people on the right track, doctrinally. Nevertheless, the application of the principle is still controversial, even among Protestants. There are doctrines that are less central to Christian teaching, that have undergone considerable debate among advocates of Sola Scriptura.

It can be risky business to uphold Sola Scriptura. Inertia, and the sentiment of, “Well, that’s just the way it is,” can be an excuse to cling to familiar ideas that unfortunately distort the teaching of the Bible.

But it can also be quite humbling, too. Many are alarmingly too quick in saying that a particular church, or the church in general, has gone off track, with respect to the Bible. In every case, for every doctrine, it takes a lot of careful, concentrated effort and time to read and study the Scriptures, to make sure you apply Sola Scriptura correctly. Caution is in order.

For example, there is no explicit teaching in the Bible that affirms infant baptism. However, there are more than a few Protestants who believed (and today, still firmly believe!) that the Scriptures implicitly support the idea of baptizing newborns. Others are not as convinced. In fact, among self-identified, Protestant evangelical Christians, over the past one hundred years, or so, the global proportion of evangelicals who practice infant baptism, has steadily declined. Many now only affirm “believers’ baptism,” where mature consent and faith is required. But in the early years of the 16th century Reformation, you could find yourself burned at the stake for rejecting the practice of “infant baptism,” even among fellow Protestants!

Interestingly, nearly all of the 16th century Reformers accepted the “perpetual virginity of Mary” as sacred teaching. Luther, Zwingli, Calvin… you can name them. They were all throughly Protestant. Yet they believed that the mother of Jesus was not only a virgin, when she gave birth to Jesus, but that she never ever consummated her marriage with Joseph. The so-called “brothers” of Jesus, like James? Well, at best, they were either half-brothers, or cousins.

Did Luther and company really believe that?  Yep. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox will readily point this out to you, if you ask. However, today, you can scarcely find an evangelical Christian who can identify such an idea, even implicitly, to be in the Bible.

Sola Scriptura, and Its Critics

Critics of Sola Scriptura contend that a total disregard of tradition leads to a cacophony of voices, where everyone interprets the Bible, in whatever way he or she pleases. This is a fair critique, a sad reality in many of our churches today. It is a critique that every advocate of Sola Scriptura must bear in mind, and humbly seek to overcome.

This is why it becomes so important to take an “agree to disagree” posture on doctrinal matters that are not core essentials to Christian faith. We do not all read the Bible in an identical manner. Some of the early Reformers, like Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli thought that you could. Luther and Zwingli both believed that they could easily persuade others, with reason, to come around to their own points of view, on every doctrinal matter. They eventually realized that the study of the Bible does not always work out quite so easily.

There are a number of essential truths that all believers hold in common. Nevertheless, sincere, truth-loving, Bible-believing Christians sometimes do see things differently, when they read certain passages in the Holy Scriptures. We must continually listen and learn from each other, as we dig into God’s Word together. We must pray for discernment and God’s wisdom.

This is hard. This is difficult. This is time consuming. But it is quite necessary, if we truly wish to be faithful to the teaching of the Scriptures.

Perhaps the wisest thing to consider is that there is no such thing as a “traditional-less” view of the Bible. We are all products of a theological “tradition,” whether we consciously know it or not. Lutheran Protestants are beholden to a tradition established, knowingly or unknowingly, by Martin Luther. Reformed Protestants have their own tradition or traditions, following teachers like Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, or some other Reformed thinker. Anabaptist Mennonites follow a tradition established by Menno Simons. Even those churches that claim to be “interdenominational” or “non-denominational” today will often end up establishing the denominational traditions of tomorrow. So, if you think that you can view the Bible, in a manner completely devoid of any or all human tradition, then you are probably unaware of what traditions are influencing you, or at worst, you are simply being dishonest with yourself.

Though we can not completely escape our own traditions, Sola Scriptura nevertheless encourages us not to get locked into following the traditions of men. We can surely learn from our traditions, and the leaders of the church who have gone before us, but we must remember where our true allegiance is to be found. We are ultimately called to follow Jesus, as He is revealed to us in the Scriptures … alone.

This is where a quote from Pierre Viret, a 16th century Swiss leader in the Reformation, is helpful to keep in mind:

“I will not believe because of Tertullian or Cyprian, or Origen, or Chrysostom, or Peter Lombard, or Thomas Aquinas, not even because of Erasmus or Luther…. If I did so, I should be the disciple of men. … I will believe Jesus Christ my shepherd.”

It is ultimately the wisdom of God, that we should trust, and not the wisdom of mere humans.

So, remember, it is Sola Scriptura, NOT Nuda Scriptura!

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

One response to “Sola Scriptura … Not Nuda Scriptura!

  • Why is Sola Scriptura so important to Protestants, and what does it mean? | Blurts & Spasms

    […] Posted by T.Collins Logan on Tuesday, January 28. 2020 Luther’s ideal had a noble aim: to remove institutional authority and any elite classes from scriptural interpretation, and place interpretation in the hands of lay folk. Luther’s view of course coincided with the invention and widespread availability of the printing press, and with the consequent rise of literary and availability of the Bible across Europe. Before this time, only a small percentage of Church members (probably less than 30%) would have been literate, and very few literate or non-literate churchgoers actually had familiarity with Biblical texts. By the end of the 1500s, both of these conditions saw a pronounced shift. So again…it was a noble ideal, especially in the context of the abuses of the Catholic Church and its hierarchy in preceding years. Consider how revolutionary the idea was that any and all individuals could learn about personal salvation and spiritual life without prostrating themselves to some hierarchical authority, or paying lots of money for it?! This was, essentially, the beginning of the democratization of Christian orthodoxy — the elevating of individual ability to formulate and navigate Christian principles on their own. Of course, any good idea can be taken too far. Some evangelical denominations assert that the Bible basically interprets itself, and does not require any education, or understanding of historical Christian traditions — or any other sort of preparation or education — to understand. Again, this is very empowering for each individual Christian to be able to navigate their own faith — and this certainly seems like a positive thing. But it also introduces an inherent weakness that we see echoed across many different areas of expertise in modern times: that any armchair opinion is equivalent to a well-researched, well-educated, well-informed opinion from an expert in that field. Sometimes, this can be liberating. But quite often, cultural pressures and pervasive groupthink begin to poison the well via things like the Illusory truth effect. Just because “everyone in the Church” is repeating something over and over again does not make it true…and yet this is how much of scripture ends up getting interpreted in modern times among evangelical denominations. We can then add these additional interferences to the mix, which further dilute the ability of a sola scriptura approach to bear consistent or reliable fruit: 1. Distortions due to biased translation of the Greek and Hebrew. Unless a reader educates them on the original Hebrew and Konai Greek in which the biblical texts were written, how can they know they aren’t being sold a particular doctrinal view because of a particular translator’s decisions…? 2. Distortions due the original selection and canonization of particular texts. Most of the New Testament as we know it today wasn’t formally canonized until 363 at the Council of Laodicea — that’s about 300 years after most of the texts were written. But as many who have researched the early Church know, many additional texts were also circulated among the earliest Churches, texts which are today considered “extra-biblical” or apocryphal. So why aren’t those texts part of the “infallible single authority” under the sola scriptura doctrine? That decision preceded sola scriptura…and therefore disrupts its purity as a standard. 3. Distortions due to legalistic, literalistic methods of interpretation. This is a subtler issue to discuss, as it is grounded in the concept of hermeneutics — that is, the principles that guide how we go about interpreting a given text. Unless those principles are clearly thought through, we can inadvertently misunderstand scripture by forcing a particular filter or bias of interpretation onto it. And, unfortunately, that happens a lot in denominations that push sola scriptura into the realm of nuda scriptura (i.e. “scripture left naked” of all traditional contexts). Sola scriptura also had a rather devastating effect on something else over time — something which was a far more liberating and “democratizing” idea in early Christendom. And that was the promise that holy spirit would continue to provide Christians with guidance and wisdom in their spiritual lives. In this sense, most scripture is the “milk” of the Word — the easily digestible spiritual food for young babes in Christ, teaching the most basic concepts. And, of course, what is easier to do, learn to listen to the subtle inner promptings of spiritual insight — or accept the presence and power of “spiritual gifts” like prophecy — and then develop mature discernment over time, or to accept rigid legalistic interpretations of a written document that “keeps things simple?” Tellingly, both Jesus and the Apostle Paul exhorted early believers to develop more mature spiritual insight through agape, holy spirit, and disciplined practice — instead of relying on legalistic habits like those of the Pharisees and Sadducees, or relying on simplistic “milk,” and never moving beyond it. Yes, studying scripture is part of the mix…but only part. Developing deep discernment, and reliance on the guidance and gifts of holy spirit, takes discipline, focus, hard work, and time. And yet this is the truly liberating and enduring power that Jesus offered as part of a revolutionary shift: everyone and anyone could enter the holiest of holies; everyone and anyone could participate in the Kingdom of God; everyone and anyone could receive the holy spirit as helper and guide. But too many members of the Church — both centuries ago and today — are simply not interested in exercising this incredible privilege and gift. So they rely exclusively on scriptural authority instead. Just my 2 cents. P.S. I thought this article from a self-described evangelical was a thoughtful take on sola scriptura vs. nuda scriptura: Sola Scriptura … Not Nuda Scriptura! […]

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