John Calvin complained of being assailed by "two sects"—"the Pope and the Anabaptists." Obviously quite different from each other, both nevertheless "boast extravagantly of the Spirit" and in so doing "bury the Word of God under their own falsehoods." (1) Both separate the Spirit from the Word by advocating the living voice of God with the inner speech of the church or of the pious individual. Of course, the Bible has its important place, but it is the "letter" that must be made relevant and effective in the world today by Spirit-led popes and prophets. Radical Anabaptist leader Thomas Müntzer taunted Martin Luther with his claim to superiority through a higher word than that which "merely beats the air." The Reformers called this "enthusiasm" (literally, "God-within-ism") because it made the external Word of Scripture subservient to the inner word supposedly spoken by the Spirit today within the individual or the church. In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul's letter-Spirit contrast refers to the law apart from the gospel as a "ministry of death" and the gospel as the Spirit's means of justifying and regenerating sinners. Gnostics, enthusiasts, and mystics throughout the ages, however, have interpreted the apostle's terms as a contrast between the text of Scripture ("letter") and inner spiritual knowledge ("spirit").
If only it were that easy to identify the "two sects" in our day. Tragically, "enthusiasm" has become one of the dominant ways of undermining the sufficiency of Scripture, and it is evident across the spectrum. Rome has consistently insisted that the letter of Scripture requires the living presence of the Spirit speaking through the Magisterium. Anabaptists and Pietists have emphasized a supposedly immediate, direct, and spontaneous work of the Spirit in our hearts apart from creaturely means. Enlightenment philosophers and liberal theologians—almost all of whom were reared in Pietism—resurrected the radical Anabaptist interpretation of "letter" versus "spirit." "Letter" came to mean the Bible (or any external authority), while "spirit" was equivalent not to the Holy Spirit but to our own inner spirit, reason, or experience. By the mid-twentieth century, the synods and general assemblies even of denominations historically tied to the Reformation began to speak of the Scriptures as an indispensable record of the pious experiences, reflections, rituals, beliefs, and lives of saints in the past, while what we really need in this hour is to "follow the Spirit" wherever he/she/it may lead us. And we now know where this spirit has led these erstwhile churches; but it is the spirit of the age, not the Spirit of Christ, that has taken them there.
William Placher finely described this broad tendency in modern faith and practice as the "domestication of transcendence." (2) In other words, it is not that revelation, inspiration, and authority are denied, but that the surprising, disorienting, and external voice of God is finally transformed into the "relevant," uplifting, and empowering inner voice of our own reason, morality, and experience.
Such domestication of transcendence means that the self—or the "community" (whatever name it goes by)—is protected from the surprising, disorienting, and judging speech of our Creator. Yet this also means that we cannot be saved, since faith comes by hearing God speak his Word of salvation in his Son (Rom. 10:17). This is not something that bubbles up within us, either as pious individuals or as the holy church, but as a Word that comes to us. It is not a familiar Word, but a strange and unsettling speech that strips us of our moral pretenses, overturns our most intuitive assumptions, disturbs our activistic programs. Basically, we are told to stop talking to ourselves as if we were hearing the voice of God. Through the lips of other sinful messengers, we are put on the receiving end of our identity. We do not discover our "higher selves" but are told who we really are: treasonous image-bearers of God; we do not find our bearings "in Adam" toward a fuller sense of inner peace and security but are driven out of ourselves to Christ, who clothes us in his righteousness.
"Enthusiasm"—the tendency to assimilate God's external Word to the inner word—is inseparable from the Pelagian tendency to assimilate God's saving gospel to our own efforts. Conversely, sola scriptura (the sufficiency of Scripture as the final authority for faith and practice) is inseparably bound to solo Christo, sola gratia, and sola fide (the gospel of Christ alone, by grace alone, received through faith alone).
In this article I want to focus on this integral connection between the sufficiency of Scripture and the sufficiency of the gospel. In doing so, I'm following a well-worn path from the apostles to the sixteenth-century Reformers and the testimony of the churches of the Reformation to the present day.
There is a basically "fundamentalist" approach to sola scriptura that can be reduced to the bumper sticker, "God said it. I believe it. That settles it." In this expression, there is no sense that the content of what God said in any way constitutes its authority. A Muslim might say the same of the Qur'an or a Mormon of the Book of Mormon.
However, a genuinely evangelical approach maintains that Scripture is sufficient, not just because it alone is divinely inspired (though that is true) but because these sixty-six books that form our Christian canon provide everything God has deemed sufficient for revealing his law and his gospel. Speculation will not help us find God, but will only lead us to some idol we have created in our own image. We may feel more secure in our autonomy (self-rule) when we pretend that our own inner voice of reason, spirituality, or experience is the voice of the Spirit. We may be excited about a new program for transforming our nation, our families, and our own lives, but there is no power of God unto salvation in our own agendas and efforts. We can find all sorts of practical advice for our daily lives outside of the Bible. The evangelical view of sola scriptura does not mean that we do not need anything but the Bible for math, science, the arts, politics, or even daily principles for a host of decisions we make in our callings. What an evangelical (i.e., Reformational as opposed to fundamentalist) view does mean by sola scriptura is that everything we need for salvation and true worship is found in the Scriptures. The church has authority only to pass on what it has heard; it is the servant, not the Lord, of the covenant of grace.
The sufficiency of Scripture recognizes that we have everything we need for salvation and life in the canonical Word. "Salvation is of the LORD" (Jon. 2:9). It does not come from within us but to us from heaven, as the rescue operation of the triune God. And the form in which this gospel comes normatively to us here and now is Scripture. Even preaching is the Word of God only insofar as it proclaims the commands and promises issued by these sacred texts. The Bible is not the product of spiritual geniuses, sensitive gurus, and religious sages who can help us find God; it is the revelation from the God who seeks and saves the lost even while they are running from him.
If we tend to view our salvation as synergistic (i.e., cooperation between God and sinners), G. C. Berkouwer reminds us, we will likely "understand the God-breathed character as a sum of the divine and human, so that in fact we only have to deal partially with the divine voice in Scripture." (3) However, revelation and redemption are movements from God to us, not from us to God. Off the table then are any romantic theories of inspiration in which revelation is a product of a religious genius, superior intellect, or eminent piety. Besides this theological rationale, the prophets and apostles are represented often in Scripture as weak servants.
The biblical writers are not simply expressing their religious experience in verbal form. They do not call and send themselves, but they are called and sent by God. In fact, the false prophets are contrasted with the true prophets by the fact that they have never stood in the Lord's council and therefore have not been sent with his words (Jer. 23:9-40). The same criterion holds for the canonicity of New Testament texts: they must be identifiable within the circle of eyewitnesses who were directly called to their office by Jesus Christ. At the same time, they are not inert, passive spectators of revelation but, like Mary, are taken up by the Spirit into his service along with the full range of their own characteristics. Sola scriptura is inextricably tied to the conviction that the gospel comes from God, not from the pious individual or community. It is because it is the Word of the Father concerning Christ, brought to its perfect completion by the Spirit, that Scripture conveys God's own authority both as "the power of God for salvation" (Rom. 1:16) and the rule of God over all matters of faith and practice (2 Tim. 3:15-16). God not only saves us by his energetic Word so that he may rule us by his canonical Word, but he rules us in order to keep us in his continually saving and sanctifying care.
In the best-selling Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and fellow sociologists surveyed religion in the United States. They concluded that it is best described as "Sheilaism," named after one person they interviewed who said that she follows her own little voice. Every American is the founder of his or her own religion, following the dictates of his or her own heart. (For more on "Sheilaism," see "Reflecting Upon Scripture" by Shane Rosenthal in the September/October 2010 issue of Modern Reformation.)
Centuries ago, Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant said that the most certain tenet he knew was "the moral law within." External religions may have different ways of expressing it, each with its own sacred texts and miraculous claims to vindicate its authority, its own forms of worship, and creeds. The externals he called "ecclesiastical faiths," contrasted with the "pure religion" of practical morality. The latter needed no external authority or confirmation. We look within ourselves, not only for the law inscribed on our conscience but for the power to save ourselves—and our world—from whatever evils that vie for our allegiance. Kant insisted in several places that we do not need an external gospel because we are not born in original sin, helpless to save ourselves. We do not need to hear the good news of God's rescue operation because we already have everything we need within ourselves to handle the situation just fine.
There is a certain truth in Kant's observation: As creatures made in God's image for obedient fellowship, law is our native tongue. Yet Kant failed to appreciate the seriousness of the fall of humanity into sin. It's true enough that God reveals his existence and moral will to everyone, as Paul relates in Romans 1-3. We turn this general revelation, however, into a mixture of superstition, mysticism, and idolatry. Although we suppress its truth in our own unrighteousness, we still know the law and the God who still requires this stipulated love of God and neighbor. Christians and non-Christians can stand together in horror at the gas chambers of Auschwitz and can work together for greater peace, justice, and social betterment.
Yet the gospel is not something that wells up within us. It is not a dictate of moral conscience or a universal doctrine of reason. As a surprising announcement that in Christ we have passed from death to life and from wrath to grace, however, the gospel is counterintuitive. So if we allow reason and experience—that which is inherent, familiar, and inwardly certain—not only to guide our access to but to determine reality, we will be left with Kant and "the moral law within." The good news has to be told, and to the extent that it is conformed to what we think we already know and experience, it will not be good news at all—perhaps pious advice, good instruction, and practical suggestions, but not good news.
Does salvation come to us from outside ourselves, from above, from heaven, as the triune God acts in history for us? Or does salvation come from our own inner resources, enlightenment, and experience? Does God's Word declare into being a new creation, or give us helpful principles and motivations for our own self-transforming and world-transforming activities? How we answer these questions determines not only our view of the sufficiency of Scripture but of the nature of the gospel itself.
In our day, the "two sects" of enthusiasm are alive and well. First, there is the "high church" version. Roman Catholics continue to argue that the Bible is the inspired "letter" that requires the "living voice" of the church (especially the pope) today. The Word of God cannot disrupt, overrule, or criticize the church because Christ has given absolute and unqualified authority to the church to speak in his name. When the church speaks officially, its pronouncements are infallible, even if the doctrines and practices it promulgates have no warrant in Scripture. This position is still maintained as recently as the Second Vatican Council and in the pastoral instruction of the current pope. It is the church's action in offering Christ as the sacrifice for sin in the Mass that has saving value. It is the church's works, in the various programs of confession, penance, indulgences, and prayers or other offerings for the dead, that achieve saving benefits for the people of God.
In recent decades, many Protestants have become attracted to this line of thinking. Methodists like Stanley Hauerwas, Lutherans like Robert Jenson, Presbyterians like John Franke, and Baptists like Stanley Grenz have all argued that the Bible is "the church's book." Echoing the Counter-Reformation arguments, these theologians maintain that the church created its canon. The Bible arose over millennia as the expression of the Spirit-led community's pious experience and virtuous practices. It was the church that officially authorized the books that make up our biblical canon, they argue, and therefore the church is "the mother of Scripture."
Yet the second "sect" to which Calvin referred—the Anabaptists—is also alive and well today, even beyond the groups historically identified with this tradition. Like the "high church" position, this view holds that the Scriptures are a dead letter from the past awaiting the further supplementation by the Spirit in order to make it relevant—"living and active"—in the present. The living voice of the church may be replaced with the living voice of the pious believer or circle of truly committed disciples, but the assumption is the same. The Bible is crucial as an inspiring testimony of spiritual heroism in the past and as a quarry for various principles. However, it is not sufficient for doctrine and life. It falls on the "letter" side of the ledger, requiring some further activity by us to make it spiritually relevant and effective today.
The quasi-Gnostic presupposition of this trajectory is that the spiritual, ethical, private, universal, ideal, inward, and autonomous are divine, while the physical, theological, public, particular, concrete, external, and heteronomous are merely human corruptions of pure religion. (4) Where interpreters like Irenaeus, Augustine, Luther, and Calvin understood Paul's statement "The letter kills, but the Spirit makes alive" (2 Cor. 3:6) as referring to the law's command without the promise, Gnostics old and new have interpreted it in terms of the external as opposed to the internal word. Not only the visible church but the Bible itself becomes relegated to the "external religion" that threatens individual autonomy.
The doctrine of the church as a creation of the external Word disputes every claim that prioritizes human agency (individual or corporate) over divine agency. "Deeds, not creeds," amounts to "Law, not gospel." The Bible may be a useful source for our activity, but it is not allowed to have its full force as a sovereign Word of judgment and grace. Kantianism is a good indicator of what we are left with apart from an external Word, the surprising evangelical announcement. The law is intuitive and familiar, while the gospel is counterintuitive and strange.
Kant's contrast can be discerned not only in the assumptions of the average person in our day (for example, in John Lennon's song "Imagine"), but in the regular report that Americans (and Westerners generally) are "spiritual, but not religious." One might describe this phenomenon as "postmodern," but it is in fact the old Enlightenment creed and has maintained its parallel course alongside Christianity, often under the pretense of "pure religion," ever since the serpent's enticement to look within for authoritative revelation. However, this "spirituality" and "morality" does not need the Spirit—that is, the third person of the Trinity, any more than it needs a divine redeemer, since "spirit" refers primarily to the inner self.
This "enthusiast" legacy has found fertile soil in American religious experience, particularly in the history of revivalism. Writing in the nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans wish "to escape from imposed systems" of any kind, "[t]o seek by themselves and in themselves for the only reason for things, looking to results without getting entangled in the means toward them." They do not need external guidance to discover truth, "having found it in themselves." (5) Of course, placing human experience at the center was a more general trend in European Romanticism, notes Bernard Reardon, with its "intense egoism and emotionalism." (6) The effect of Pietism (especially culminating in the Great Awakening), as William McLoughlin observes, was to shift the emphasis away from "collective belief, adherence to creedal standards and proper observance of traditional forms, to the emphasis on individual religious experience." (7) The effect of the Enlightenment was to shift "the ultimate authority in religion" from the church to "the mind of the individual." (8) Of course, Romanticism simply changed the faculty (from mind to heart), not the subject (from the self to an external authority).
Even evangelical hymnody was drawn into this Romantic tide, as in the familiar line from the Easter song, "You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart." Yet this inner spark, inner light, inner experience, and inner reason that guides mysticism, rationalism, idealism, and pragmatism in all ages is precisely the autonomous self that, according to the New Testament, must be crucified and buried with Christ in baptism so that one can be raised with Christ as a denizen of the new age.
Even when preaching is properly submitted to the text as canonical norm, private practices of reading are often abstracted from their wider covenantal ambiance. When we read the Bible primarily to discern, "What does this mean for me? How can I make it relevant for my daily living?" even the Bible becomes a servant of our autonomous self-creation rather than a sovereign Word that opens us up and places us in a disorienting, covenantal ambiance before God and among his covenant community. As we have seen, the public proclamation of the Word not only is a social event, it creates a new society. When Luther said that "the church is not a pen-house but a mouth-house" (9) and the Westminster divines confessed that the Spirit blesses "the reading but especially the preaching of the Word" as a means of grace, (10) they were asserting that faithful, meditative, and prayerful reading of Scripture in private or family devotions was subordinate to the public ministry of the Word in the common life of the church. Just as the Word creates the community, it can only be truly heard, received, and followed in the concrete covenantal exchanges within that community.
The Reformers' notion of the church as the creation of the Word affirmed neither the inner eye of rationalism nor the outer eye of idolatrous gaze, but the hearing of God's voice in a covenant assembly. Through the organ of the ear, the whole person—not simply the mind or the emotions—is justified and renewed, since "faith comes by hearing the word of God" (Rom. 10:14). The emphasis on the sacramental Word shifts the discussion to the plane of covenantal discourse: a divine speaking and human answering that is dramatic and eventful at its very core.
In his Word and Church (T & T Clark, 2001), John Webster sees this inextricable connection between sola scriptura and the gospel when he observes that the gospel creates the church rather than vice versa. Challenging the growing fascination with talk of the Bible as "the church's book," Webster observes that according to its own testimony the Bible is neither the book of the individual believer nor the book of the church, but God's book. It is not chiefly a resource that we use, but the means that God uses to reveal and save. In fact, he calls the perspective I've summarized here "hermeneutical Pelagianism." This is a theologically precise way of putting the point: To reverse the priority of God's speaking and human speech is in fact to substitute God's saving grace for our own works. This can be done in a "low church" (individualistic) manner or in a "high church" (corporate) way, but in either case it is to exchange God's Word for talking to (and therefore saving) ourselves.
In evangelical circles today, these "two sects" converge. This is explicit, for example, in the work of Stanley Grenz, who combined his Anabaptist-Pietist heritage with "high church" arguments. I interacted with his views in a previous article this year (see "God's Word in Human Words: The Inspiration of Scripture" in the March/April 2010 issue). Essentially, spirituality takes precedence over doctrine, personal and communal experience over external authority, and inspiration is extended beyond Scripture to include the Spirit's speaking through believers and the community—indeed, even culture, today. Reason, tradition, and experience serve alongside Scripture as the four legs of the stool. Nowhere in this account does Grenz locate the origin of faith in an external gospel; rather, faith arises from an inner experience. "Because spirituality is generated from within the individual, inner motivation is crucial"—more important than "grand theological statements." (11) The Christian life is not defined by God's action through Word and Sacrament. In fact, "The spiritual life is above all the imitation of Christ." (12) We go to church, he says, not in order to receive "means of grace," but for fellowship, "instruction and encouragement." (13) Grenz acknowledges that his interpretation calls into question the confessional Protestant emphasis on "a material and a formal principle"—in other words, solo Christo and sola scriptura. (14)
Just as creation is the result of a conversation between the persons of the Trinity, the church is the offspring rather than the origin of the gospel. It is no wonder then that Paul compares the work of the gospel to God's Word in creation (Rom. 4:16-17). While the covenant community is temporally prior to the inscripturated canon, the Word that creates ex nihilo asserts its temporal and communicative priority over both. Happily, the Church of Galatia (or Corinth, Ephesus, or Rome) is not canonical, though the apostolic letters addressed to them are. The script has priority over even its most significant performances. Furthermore, the canon not only judges our poor performances but also liberates us from having to repeat or defend them.
As we see, for example, in the giving of the Law at Sinai (Exod. 20:2-3), the gracious act of the Great King in saving his people justifies his sovereignty—and the authority of his constitution "above all earthly powers." Church courts have a ministerial authority to interpret this constitution, but they cannot create it. Otherwise, the church would be its own mother rather than the offspring of the Word and Spirit, and its own savior rather than the beneficiary of salvation. Thus, the priority of canon over church is the corollary of the priority of God's grace over "human will or exertion" (Rom. 9:16).
When the church dares to speak to the world as God's ambassador, it also humbly reminds its hearers that it too stands under that Word's judgment and grace. If Jesus himself appealed to the Father's authority for his speech (John 12:49-50), and the Spirit only "speaks what he has heard" from the Son (John 16:13-15), then it would be presumptuous, to say the least, for the church to do otherwise.
In Holiness (Eerdmans, 2003), John Webster reminds us, "Theology is not free speech but holy speech. Hence the authority of Scripture is a matter for the Church's acknowledgement, not its ascription." When firmly ensconced in its proper covenantal context, the preaching of the law as well as the gospel contributes to the upbuilding of God's sanctuary. Appealing to the 1541 Geneva Catechism, Webster says that the solo verbo (by the Word alone) is the correlate of the sola fide (through faith alone). To give priority to the Word is to give priority to the action of God.
Defined by Word and faith, the church is not a self-realising institution with Scripture as an instrument of its steady identity. Through Scripture the church is constantly exposed to interruption. Being the hearing church is never, therefore, a matter of routine, whether liturgical or doctrinal. It is, rather, the church's readiness "that its whole life should be assailed, convulsed, revolutionised and reshaped."
An individual or a church that simply talks to itself can never be converted. The dethroning of all human sovereignties is actually our liberation. The "then and there" of the play itself, now committed to a written script, stands over (and sometimes against) its performances here and now, and this means that even the church can be saved.
As the body cannot be equated with its sovereign head, the church's speech (tradition) cannot be equated with God's Word. Since Christ's person and work—and apostolic testimony to it—are qualitatively distinguished from the church and its practices, the canon does not simply offer us a good story to complete by imitation (a corollary of an exemplary view of the atonement) or repeat by further acts of atonement and reconciliation, but a completed script that draws us into its storyline as performers. The canonical characters are in a class qualitatively different from the postcanonical church that performs the play. Even to speak of intentionally departing from the script is to assume that the script is normative.
As the church recognized when it received it, the canon is authoritative simply because of what it is and whose it is in the sphere of God's activity, not because of what we make of it individually or corporately. The practice that gives the words their sense is first of all God's, not our own, since not only the speech but the practices of baptism, the Supper, fellowship, the prayers, outreach, and diaconal care also find their authorization and efficacy in the canonical Word.
God's Word does not render us silent; it gives us back our voice—or, rather, gives us back the appropriate lines in the script intended for us. As Stephen Webb describes the Reformation view of the Word in preaching and liturgy, "Words could spring forth as praise because God had already said the Word that releases us from our sin." (15) Once more we see that the forensic Word generates an effective economy that is as extensive as it is intensive.
The Word that rules is the Word that first of all liberates. Unlike the other words of other sovereigns to which we give our allegiance, this Word brings about a liberating captivity and a captivating liberation. Yet it is always something strange, something to which we must be converted by the Spirit. And this is true as much for the community as for the self, neither of which can be exempt from this sovereign grace that refuses to let us define ourselves, which would be our death. Like Isaiah, we are "undone," yet only to be forgiven, clothed, and sent out with good news on our lips and in our hearts.
While the church is not the master of the text, it is the amphitheater in which the Word creates the reality of which it speaks, the place where a valley of dry bones becomes a resurrected community (Ezek. 37). Just as we come to God with empty hands to receive Christ in salvation, we come to his Word as hearers rather than as judges and lords. Yet even this emptying of our hands is the judging and liberating work of a God who is too gracious to let us have the last word.
Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.
Issue: "Sola Scriptura" Nov./Dec. 2010 Vol. 19 No. 6 Page number(s): 25-32
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