I’d like to write a few posts to sketch out a few possible positions Christians have taken on the issue of authority. That is, when crises or disputes arise within a Christian community, as they inevitably do, who gets to make the call—and how?
Let’s start from the classic Protestant position of sola scriptura, “scripture alone”. This is the doctrine that the Bible, and only the Bible, is the final source of authority in the life of the Church and the life of the individual Christian. It was perhaps the rallying cry of the Reformation. Many of the great Protestant Reformers used this doctrine to pit Scripture against the traditions and practices of the Catholic Church at that time, and to great effect. Indeed, many Catholic doctrines and practices are not obviously taught in the Bible, so the Reformers could justify their condemnation of, say, the selling of indulgences, or the veneration of images, or devotion to Mary, or the papacy, and so on and so forth by appealing to Scripture. It’s a powerful argument that led to the deconstruction of much of what had been taken for granted in Latin (Western) Christendom.
The simplicity and power of sola scriptura led the early Reformers to hope that a single unified Reformed Church could be constructed against or alongside the Catholic Church; however, they almost immediately found that they disagreed about what the Bible actually says about various issues. Each stream of the Reformation thought that its position was the one obviously taught by Scripture.
Over 500 years, disagreements about what we might call the “clear teaching of Scripture” has led to innumerable schisms and separations, which still occur down to the present day over every issue imaginable.
So we might say this: sola scriptura was incredibly effective at dismantling the teachings of Catholicism, it’s also been incredibly ineffective at building concrete unity among Protestants. In fact, it’s led pretty directly to the fragmentation of Christians into many separate communities and denominations.
It’s hard to square this outcome with Jesus’ prayer for his followers in the John 17:
I pray not only for them [his disciples], but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one.
What do we find when we try to locate authority in Scripture alone? The doctrine leads us inexorably along the path of perpetual disintegration.
In the next post I’ll argue that this process of disintegration has led us to the endpoint we more or less find ourselves today, where every individual has become the ultimate source of authority. Scripture alone has become myself alone.
And while this might seen like a way out of certain problems, it comes at a high cost.