Last week, to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, we began looking at some of the basic teachings of the movement which not only re-shaped the Christian church in Europe, but also heavily influenced Western civilization. This week we are looking at the principle that the Bible is the only authority when it comes to matters of faith, teaching and practice in the church.
During the Middle Ages, when the leaders of the church needed to make decisions about what they believed, taught or did, they relied on two authorities – the Bible and the traditions of the church. When the Reformers started working to make changes in the church, however, they only recognised the authority of the Bible, giving birth to the principle of Scripture Alone. For those working to reform the church, the Bible gave the clearest picture of what God wants the church to be and the work God wants the church to be doing in the world. Traditions of the church had their place, but it was the Bible that was to determine which of those traditions were to remain and which were to be discarded.
For example, when Martin Luther appeared before Emperor Charles V in 1521, he was ordered to take back what he had been writing. If he didn’t, he would be excommunicated from the church and condemned as a heretic. The story goes that Luther replied by saying:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.
One thing we can learn from these words is that Luther saw the Bible as the only authority in determining what is taught, believed and done in the church because human authorities have the tendency to get things wrong.
This is important for us today because traditions can still play a big part in our churches. Over the years, there have been times when I have been talking with people about how the Bible describes what God wants for a Christian community and people have replied that they have never done things like that before. As a church that is called to be continually reforming so that we can give a faithful witness to the gospel in a rapidly changing world, it is critical that we listen to the Reformers who pointed to the Bible as our only way of knowing who God is calling us to be and what God is calling us to do.
The challenge that goes with this is that it can hard for us to agree on what the Bible is actually saying. The Reformers discovered this, which is why we have so many different Christian denominations today. We say that the Bible is our only authority, but we find it incredibly difficult to agree on what the Bible actually says.
One example of this is the way I have seen the Bible being used in the same-sex marriage debate in Australia over the last few months. Christians on both sides of the discussion have pointed to different Bible verses to support their point of view about whether biblical rules say same-sex marriage is OK or not. They both claim that the Bible is their source of truth, but both read the Bible in very different ways.
Martin Luther’s approach to reading the Bible can help us find a way through this challenge. Luther taught that God says two words to us through the Bible. On the one hand, there are things God wants us to do, which we call law. On the other hand, God also wants to tell us what God has done and wants to do for us, especially in the person of Jesus. We call this gospel because it is good news for us (see verses such as John 1:17; Romans 5:20; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Galatians 3:17,18).
As long as we read the Bible as a book of rules, it will always show us to be people who break rules (Romans 3:20). For Luther, then, the main message of the Bible is that in the person of Jesus, God comes to give rule-breakers forgiveness, freedom, hope and life. For Luther, the central story of the Bible is the story of Jesus. He ate with social outcasts, extended mercy to the people society had rejected, brought grace to the people who needed it the most but deserved it the least, and gave healing to people with wounded hearts and souls. Jesus was crucified as a rule-breaker, died with convicted criminals, set the guilty free through his death and brings us life through his resurrection and victory over death. As we hear in Luke 4:16-21, Jesus came to bring good news to the poor, release for the captives, sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed as he brings us God’s favour and grace.
So when Luther argued and fought for the principle of Scripture Alone, he was fighting for the church to keep the good news of Jesus central to all we are and do.
It is easy for us to drift away from keeping the gospel, the central message of the Bible, as our central message. We can easily become more like a business, a social club, a welfare agency, or a moral watchdog. The call for us to recognize Scripture Alone as our authority means, for us as Lutherans, that we keep the gospel as our first and foremost priority, so that we can join with Luther and the Reformers in bringing the good news of Jesus to a world that is in desperate need of the hope, joy, love and grace it provides.
More to think about:
- Do you read your Bible regularly? Why / why not?
- What is more important in how you think about what we do as church: our traditions (the way we’ve always done things) or what the Bible teaches us? How might your church community be different if you applied the Scripture Alone principle and relied solely on what the Bible teaches us about being church?
- When you think about the central message of the Bible, do you tend to think more about about the law or gospel, rules or grace, God’s commands or God’s promises to us? Can you explain why you think about the message of the Bible like that?
- How might your understanding of the Bible be different if you thought of it more in terms of the way God wants to speak his grace, love, forgiveness and freedom into your life?
- What might need to change in your church community if you were to keep communicating the good news of Jesus as your core purpose and task?