Sola Scriptura, Etc.

Christian George
Monday, November 1st 2010
Nov/Dec 2010

Quo warranto: "By what authority?" Posed to Jesus in Mark 11:28, this question became the driving impetus of the Protestant Reformation. By what authority should theology, spirituality, and ministry be judged? For nearly half a millennium, Protestants have answered this question by declaring sola scriptura. From Puritan pulpits in Britain to "Big Tent" revivals in America, "by Scripture alone" became a banner cry for those rallying behind the Protestant and eventually evangelical movement.

Today, new generations of Christians are asking the same questionÂ?by what authority? Against the backdrop of a postmodern society where the gods of relativism and subjectivism seemingly dwarf objective, absolute truth, this question becomes especially significant. Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, says, "The inherent flaw of postmodernism is becoming a practical obstacle to unity because there is no source of authority to determine what constitutes orthodox or heretical doctrine." (1)

To this end, some younger evangelicals can recite the Westminster Confession on Holy Scripture without crossing their fingers. Confident that the Bible is ultimately authoritative and "ought to be believed and obeyed," (2) ad fontes is their aim. Others are less capable, having located additional fountains from which to draw their authority. Given the ever-changing environment, taxonomizing younger evangelicals becomes challenging. Nevertheless, Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research, offers a helpful paradigm for understanding younger Christians. While his groupings of "relevants," "reconstructionists," "revisionists," and "reformers" characterize the chief tenets held by each faction, they also each represent a wide spectrum of beliefs. (3)


"Relevants" are theological conservatives who embrace traditional evangelical principles in Scripture while seeking to make them relevant to those living in a postmodern culture. By "upgrading" styles of worship, methods of preaching, and uses of technology, relevants target younger generations of Christians through seeker-sensitive strategies.

For the Reformers, the primacy of the central pulpit symbolized the authority of the Holy Scriptures. When dissenting pilgrims crossed the Atlantic to found their New Jerusalem, they brought their biblio-centric architectural legacy with them and incorporated it into the designs of their meetinghouses.

At the center of most Protestant evangelical churches today is a pulpit, not an altar. Yet during the megachurch movement in the 1950s, an additional feature was addedÂ?the stage. Accommodating large crowds required performance platforms, wider auditoriums, and amphitheater seating. With state-of-the-art video screens, lighting, amplification systems, and orchestra pits, entertainment-based worship came into vogue. Many feared the church looked too much like the world in order to draw the world into the church. Yet it seemed to be working. In a consumerist society where the demands of the consumer dictate the supply of the producer, "supersized" churches experienced vast numeric explosions when tapping into the wants and needs of the market. As a result, pragmatism became a driving source of authority beyond the Scriptures alone.

In the early twentieth century, John Dewey, the father of American pragmatism, believed experimentation should take precedent over theoretical and predetermined abstract ideals. For him, no dichotomy existed between means and their ends. Success was the final arbiter of action. Dustin Guidry shows how this line of thinking has been widely embraced by younger evangelicals: "Pragmaticism has led churches to ask the question 'Will it work?' instead of asking the question 'Is it true and biblical?'" (4)

Yet for churches employing innovative growth strategies while remaining relatively more committed to evangelical principles, a middle path has been blazed. According to C. Peter Wagner, proponent of the Church Growth Movement, consecrated pragmaticism does not compromise on ethical or biblical absolutes, though it "ruthlessly examines traditional methodologies and programs….If some sort of ministry in the church is not reaching intended goals, consecrated pragmatism says there is something wrong which needs to be corrected." (5)

For relevants, an effective tool for "correcting" antiquated or lagging ministries is the use of technology in the life of the church. Unlike previous generations, younger evangelicals (those born in and after 1975) were born into a society of visual stimuli. To appeal to this tech-savvy, visually coddled generation, PowerPoint presentations often work in tandem with sermons, dazzling scenic backgrounds splash behind floating worship lyrics, and in some casesÂ?like the San Antonio congregation Imagine FellowshipÂ?services are held in movie theaters. At Imagine Fellowship, tweeting during the sermon is not only allowed but strongly encouraged; and the thoughts, reflections, and questions of the congregation are visually displayed on the big screen throughout the service. (6)

In a day when Wikipedia and Theopedia have become final sources of authority for many teenagers, and 73 percent of college students use the Internet instead of the library for research, (7) one becomes suspicious of the role of technology in younger evangelicalism. The popularity of Internet social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook, not to mention "avatar"-capable applications such as Second Life, have given rise to a surprising offspring of postmodernism: "quasi-modernity."

Defined "as if" or "resembling but not equaling something," quasi speaks to the appearance of reality or virtual reality. Appropriately criticized as regurgitated Gnosticism (i.e., the separation of spirit from flesh), quasi-modernism allows for an online "second" life to parallel a "first" or "actual" life. Some churches appeal to Second Life when coupling their pragmatism with technology.

Indeed, much has changed since the days of Zwingli and the Reformers. Yet at the center of most online evangelical churches stands a pulpit, albeit pixelated and prone to glitch. As the Scriptures continue to be translated into the pedestrian vernacular of the people, via printing press or online access, and as long as the pulpit occupies a prominent place in the life, worship, and theology of the church, be it real or cyber, some evangelicals at least are convinced that the quasi-modern age of digita scriptura shares something in common with the great age of sola scriptura, some five hundred years ago.


While relevants struggle to make pietist principles on Scripture relevant to postmoderns, a second category of younger evangelicals also exists: "Reconstructionists" are marked by dissatisfaction with the current condition of the American church. Reconstruc-tionists point to unChristian (Baker Books, 2007) and They Like Jesus But Not the Church (Zondervan, 2007) as evidence of the need to "reconstruct" Christianity in the image of the early apostolic era. House churches, "organic" ministries, incarnational theology, and urban monastic traditions are some of their solutions.

Renowned historian David Bebbington sums up the tradition of nineteenth-century evangelicalism in four words: conversionism, Biblicism, crucicentrism, and activism. (8) At different times and in different places, evangelicals have emphasized these four convictions in various ways. In the early nineteenth century, British evangelicals both within and without the established church were deeply committed to social activism. This is seen clearly in the lives of prominent evangelical leaders: Anthony Ashley Cooper, who fought for the rights of factory workers in Britain; William Wilberforce, who aided in abolishing the British slave trade; and William Booth, who founded the Salvation Army.

Championing this activistic impulse of the evangelical tradition, reconstructionists take seriously some explanations of John 1:14. As Eugene Peterson renders it, "The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood." (9) In Celebration of Flesh, Arthur McGill writes, "In the Kingdom of God, men are created with flesh, reconciled through flesh, and glorified as flesh. To hide from the flesh for the sake of the Spirit is to miss the Christian life." (10)

In response to what is perceived as a decaying ecclesial institutionalism that supposedly neglects the marginalized, younger evangelicals are increasingly interested in becoming flesh for the outcasts of society. Scott Bessenecker, director of global projects for InterVarsity Christian Fellow-ship, finds a movement of "youth taking up residence in slum communities in the same spirit that I find in the start of the Franciscans and the early Celtic orders." (11) In the same vein of early monastics, these new monastics believe that the past has something to offer the present, especially the extrabiblical practices against which the Reformation reacted. Shane Claiborne, author of The Irresistible Revolution and founder of The Simple Way, has founded inner-city communities committed to serving the community, rehabilitating the sick, and living with the poor. (12) Claiborne writes, "The kingdom that Jesus speaks so much about is not just something we hope for after we die but is something we are to incarnate now." (13)

As evidenced by the invention of hospitals, almshouses, and asylums, many of which were extensions of the monastery, for better or worse the church has struggled to live in a "realized" eschatology. Following Jesus' example of injecting future kingdom principles into present day reality, in carnatio (literally "into flesh)" became a driving force behind many of the monastic traditions. By the end of the Middle Ages, a galaxy of charitable organizations blanketed Europe, giving rise to some of the most influential traditions in the history of Christianity.

Tradition, therefore, has something to offer "new monastics." At the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, and more recently in the Second Vatican Council in the twentieth century, the role of tradition gained formal equality with the status of Scripture. In reaction to this equality, monastic traditions have been largely underexplored by Protestants in the last five hundred years. There is, however, a growing interest among younger evangelicalsÂ?especially reconstructionistsÂ?in recovering past traditions. In this way, earlier spiritualists such as St. Patrick of Ireland, St. Columba of Scotland, and St. Francis of Assisi have become teachers again. Through their writings, they speak to evangelicals about the upward, inward, and outward tenets of the Christian faith, instructing evangelicals in spiritual disciplines meant to heighten an awareness of God, which then becomes manifest in social outreach.

Modern mystics such as Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and Richard Foster also weigh in by drawing attention to spiritual disciplines. Pilgrimage and labyrinth walking, once taboo to Protestants, combine the upward, inward, and outward components of Christianity and are currently being reanimated by younger evangelicals. It is not surprising, then, that many flock to monastic settlements like Taizé, Iona, and Compostela de Santiago for guidance.

Among younger evangelicals, creedal Christianity is also on the rise. In confessional communities like House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the Nicene and Apostles' creeds serve as "doctrinal boundaries" or guard rails that are not to be driven on but serve to protect from heretical veering. (14)

For reconstructionalists, orthodoxy cannot be distilled from a fleshly, hands-on orthopraxy. Online social communities, though convenient, cannot fully capture the significance of a Christ who came to earth as a person, not a pixel.

Insofar as credo translates "I believe," younger evangelical are becoming a creedal people in the mystery of the incarnation. In radical juxtaposition to the quasi-modern dualism, ubiquitous in evangelicalism today, younger evangelicals are going "back to the future"Â?back to the textured life, to the touchable life, back to the nitty-gritty, face-to-face, community-centered templates of the great traditions of the past.


While reconstructionists are dissatisfied by elements of modern evangelicalism, "revisionists" are those interested in a significant revision of twenty-first century Christianity. Excited about new "forms" of Christianity emerging across America and Britain, revisionists value how a person lives over what a person believes. Old systematic approaches to theology and key evangelical teachings on Christ's substitutionary atonement, divine judgment, and doctrines of afterlife are brought into question.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, an Age of Faith suddenly gave way to an Age of Reason. New Worlds were being discoveredÂ?both above and below. Through the lens of the telescope, scientists were able to analyze the celestial bodies that once dictated the destiny of medieval life. Illnesses previously untreatable were remedied with medicine instead of magic. By the time the Renaissance found full pronunciation in art, science, literature, and music, there seemed to be no end to what the power of human reason could accomplish.

When the crosshairs of human reason fell on Holy Scripture, a battle over the authority of the Bible was inevitable. In response to the higher critical movement some evangelicals sought to preserve the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures, while others abandoned orthodox tenents of faith in light of a more "enlightened" scientific study of the Bible, resulting in a crisis of faith of sorts. (15)

A new crisis of faith has also emerged in evangelicalism today. Emerging author Phyllis Tickle argues, "We are seeing the start of a post-Protestant and post-denominational era. Just as Protestantism took the hegemony from Roman Catholicism and Roman Catholicism from the East at the Great Schism, so the emerging church is now taking hegemony from Protestantism." (16) In the mid-1990s, an ecclesial exodus of eighteen- to thirty-five-year olds revealed a grassroots movement of "emerging" Christians who jettisoned conventional forms of church. A "conversation" more than a hard-edged movement, the emerging church gained momentum by bringing into dialogue those of many denominations, geographies, and traditions.

This movement, greatly advanced by the writings and ministries of Rob Bell, Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, and Brian McLaren, encompasses a wide spectrum of fluctuating theological positions, making difficult any attempt to authoritatively categorize or define them. Examining the liberal left revisionists, many critique the movement as propagating "evanjellyfish" ChristianityÂ?a doctrinally "spineless" form of evangelicalism summed up by a new kind of TULIP: Tolerance, Conformity, Liberty, Inclusion, and Prosperity. (17) But looking at the right, others embrace the title "evangelical" while appearing "emerging" only in their attempt to "do church" differently. A common denominator among most emerging Christians, however, may be found in the acronym coined by Leonard Sweet, EPIC: Experiential, Participatory, Image-based, and Communal. (18)

In an interview for this article, Brian McLaren, writer and spokesperson for the emerging/Emergent movement, explained, "A lot of us feel that the concepts of authority we inherited were naiveÂ?implying, for example, that Scripture can exercise authority without interpretation. One of the biggest challenges in my life has been to distinguish between what Scripture says and what people say Scripture says. I've learned to have more confidence in Scripture itself, rather than in conventional interpretations of Scripture." (19)

Tickle compares the authority of Scripture to a cathedral: a good teacher is likened to a docent who offers advice about what to see inside the building but "would never say how another must interpret the space or use the experience of the space." (20) Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, buttresses Tickle's position: "The Bible is still in the center for us," he says, "but it's a different kind of center. We want to embrace mystery rather than conquer it." (21)

With modernism disappearing in the rear-view mirror, a postmodern embrace of mystery is now possible. No longer is a cold, scientific explanation needed for belief in the supernatural. What exists now is an emerging world in which mystery gains firmer traction. But just as with the pietism of modernity, for younger Christians, the temptation to elevate personal experience as an epistemological absolute intensifies.

Sprouting from the soil of postmodernism, the emerging church continues to take form. One wonders how a grassroots movement that resists institutionalization will keep from becoming an institution. Signs of decay have already been noted, with one critic even going so far as to write an obituary of the emerging church. (22) The prophetic words of Isaiah serve as a warning for revisionists: "The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever" (Isa. 40:8, NIV).


"Reformers" are younger evangelicals who seek to reclaim the Reformational teachings on Scripture and faith. Marked by tireless theo-centric worship, reoccurring emphases on God's sovereignty, and a ravenous appetite for Puritan literature, younger reformers looks to ministries like those of Mark Driscoll, John Piper, Tim Keller, Mark Dever, Joshua Harris, and C. J. Mahaney for leadership. In 2009, Time Magazine ranked "The New Calvinism" as third in the top ten ideas changing the world. (23)

A resurgence of theo-/missio-centric Calvinism is on the rise. According to Piper, preaching pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, "The criticism of Reformed theology is being silenced by the mission and justice and evangelism and worship and counselingÂ?the whole range of pastoral life." (24)

For two years, Collin Hanson, author of Young, Restless, and Reformed, traveled throughout North America on a quest to find out "what makes young evangelicals tick." (25) He interviewed pastors, visited colleges, and sat in the homes of leading evangelicals. At the end of his journey, he discovered a revival of Calvinistic Christians marked by an appetite for God's Word, a passion for evangelism, and a zeal for holiness. (26)

Some believe this generation's theo-centrism is a reaction against the widespread "me-centeredness" long since baked into its identity, as examined by Jean M. Twenge in Generation Me and by David Zimmerman in Deliver Us From ME-Ville. Zimmerman shows how new generations have mastered the deadly sin of superbia: "An inordinate sense of self regard." (27) It is not surprising, then, that the driving motto of the younger Calvinistic movement can be summed up by Louis Giglio, pastor of Passion City Church in Atlanta: "It's not about me. It's all about God." (28)

Well supplied by publishing houses such as Banner of Truth and Pilgrim Press, young reformers want to identify with authors like Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. Tired of "miniskirt music" (29) Â?praise songs that barely cover the theological essentialsÂ?they have also added modern hymn writers like Keith and Kristyn Getty, Stuart Townend, Chris Tomlin, and David Crowder to their iPod playlists. Annual four-day Passion worship conferencesÂ?not entirely dissimilar to early twentieth-century "Big Tent" revivalsÂ?draw thousands of eighteen- to twenty-five-year olds who are "united for His renown." (30)

Theologically conservative leaders such as Mark Driscoll, founder of the Acts 29 movement, are revered among young reformers. Though Driscoll's style has been critiqued as abrasive and at times irreverent, (31) his theology of Scripture would make any Puritan smile: "We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God." (32) Similarly, on the other side of the continent, Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, is equally committed to the authority, integrity, and dependability of the Scripture: "Everybody's got a foundation," he says, "the Scripture is my foundation." (33)

Martin Luther's efforts to make the Scriptures accessible for even "the farm boy at his plow and the milkmaid at her pail" (34) resulted in mass production of the Scriptures. Today, younger evangelicals continue to produce Bibles of every shape, edition, size, and translation. In this Bible-saturated society, the danger of solo scriptura ("Scripture alone") in contrast to sola scriptura ("by Scripture alone") is present. Though susceptible to a myopic exclusion of other Christian traditions and personalities, young reformers are in large part safeguarded from reading Scripture in total isolation of tradition because of their interest in the Reformation-inspired pastors. For them, traditionÂ?small "t"Â?is subordinate to the Word of God, though it is still able to occupy an important place in its reception, history, and transmission.

One problem that Collin Hanson has discovered, however, is that despite elevating John Calvin to almost demigod status, most young "Calvinists" have never read the Institutes of the Christian Religion or even investigated Calvin's positions on church and state, polity, and baptism. Perhaps a far slier threat to young reformers, then, lies not in the elevation of Scripture or the Reformation but in the idolization of personalities who have the ability to make Jonathan Edwards a "homeboy," and maybe even a primary source of authority. Of course, the exaltation of preachers is nothing new. Even the best of them, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, could not escape the "cult-like" aura or "Spurgeonism" (35) that surrounded his ministry.


As the spectrum of belief enlarges among relevants, reconstructionists, revisionists, and reformers, the additional sources of authority relied upon by each group have become more pronounced. Younger evangelicals differ on matters of theological substance, nuance, and idiom, yet each species gathers to drink, to some degree or another, from the same waterhole of Holy ScriptureÂ?the primary source of authority for Protestants.

Some younger evangelicals answer the age-old question, quo warranto? with dogmatic certainty. Others, like Jesus, answer the question with a question (see Mark 11:29). Yet as younger evangelicals grow into older evangelicals, and as new generations of Christians replace current ones, the words of Francis Schaeffer ring true: Jesus gives the world the right to judge whether we are Christians by our observable love for each other. (36) To this end we believe in necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas. (37) Or, to put a postmodern spin on it, "Essentials in Sharpie, nonessentials in pencil, and all things in charitable cursive."

1 [ Back ] Mark Driscoll, "Mark Driscoll: A Pastoral Perspective on the Emerging Church," Criswell Theological Review n.s. 3/2 (Spring 2006), 91.
2 [ Back ] "Of the Holy Scripture," The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), chapter 1, IV.
3 [ Back ] Ed Stetzer, "Understanding the Emerging Church" (6 January 2006), Though Stetzer includes reformers as a subcategory of relevants, for the purposes of this article I have allocated a separate category for it.
4 [ Back ] Dustin Guidry, Turning the Ship: Exploring the Age-Integrated Church (Longwood, FL: Xulon Press, 2009), 35.
5 [ Back ] C. Peter Wagner, Leading Your Church to Growth (Ventura, CA: Regal, 1984), 201.
6 [ Back ] See Diane Mapes, "Holy Twitter: Tweeting from the Pews" (3 June 2009),
7 [ Back ] Steve Jones, "The Internet Goes to College: How Students Are Living In the Future with Today's Technology" in the Pew Internet and American Life Project (15 September 2002), 3.
8 [ Back ] David Bebbington, quoted in Barry Hankins, American Evangelicals: A Contemporary History of Mainstream Religious Movement (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), 1.
9 [ Back ] Eugene Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress Publishing Group, 2002).
10 [ Back ] Arthur C. McGill, The Celebration of Flesh: Poetry in Christian Life: An Enjoyment of the Poet's Art, As Seen in the Words of T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens (New York: Association Press, 1964), 5.
11 [ Back ] Scott Bessenecker, quoted in Rob Moll, "The New Monasticism," Christianity Today, vol. 49, no. 9 (September 2005).
12 [ Back ] For the "12 Marks of New Monasticism," see
13 [ Back ] Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 117.
14 [ Back ] Timothy George, "Faith as Trust, Knowledge, and Confession." Sermon given at Hodges Chapel, Beeson Divinity School (1 January 2009).
15 [ Back ] Owen Chadwick notes that W. H. Mill "devoted four solid years of Hulscan lectures to refuting Strauss." Owen Chadwick, The Victorian Church: An Ecclesiastical History of England, Part I (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), 532.
16 [ Back ] Phyllis Tickle quoted in "The Future of the Emerging Church: Are We Experiencing the Next Reformation of Christianity?" (19 March 2007), 2007/03/ the_future_of_t.html.
17 [ Back ] This acronym is adapted from Mike Scruggs, "The Five Points of Evanjellyfish Christianity: Restoring Our Biblical and Constitutional Foundations," points_of_evanjellyfish_chr.htm.
18 [ Back ] Leonard Sweet, quoted in "Interview: Brian McLaren," Religion & Ethics Newsweekly (15 July 2005), episode 846.
19 [ Back ] From an interview with Brian D. McLaren conducted by Christian George (22 June 2010). Available at
20 [ Back ] From an interview with Phyllis Tickle conducted by Christian George (13 June 2010).
21 [ Back ] Andy Crouch, "The Emerging Mystique," Christianity Today, vol. 48, no. 11 (1 November 2004), 2.
22 [ Back ] C. Michael Patton, "Obituary: The Emerging Church (1994-2009),"
23 [ Back ] Time Magazine, "10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now,",29569,1884779,00.html; accessed 1 June 2010.
24 [ Back ] John Piper, quoted in Collin Hanson, "Young, Restless, Reformed: Calvinism Is Making a ComebackÂ?And Shaking Up the Church," Christianity Today, vol. 50, no. 9 (September 2006).
25 [ Back ] Collin Hanson, Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008), 12.
26 [ Back ] Hanson, 156.
27 [ Back ] David A. Zimmerman, Deliver Us from ME-ville (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2008), 16.
28 [ Back ] Louis Giglio quoted in Andree Farias, "A Passion for the Christ," Christianity Today (April 2005), 2.
29 [ Back ] Christian George, Sex, Sushi, & Salvation: Thoughts on Intimacy, Community, and Eternity (Moody Publishers, 2008), 107.
30 [ Back ] See
31 [ Back ] See 0.html.
32 [ Back ] See
33 [ Back ] Timothy Keller:; accessed 3 July 2010 from:
34 [ Back ] Timothy George, "Why We Still Need Luther: Four Hundred Fifty Years After His Death, Martin Luther Can Still Inspire Us," Christianity Today, vol. 40, no. 12 (28 October 1996).
35 [ Back ] See "Spurgeonism" in Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Sword and Trowel, vol. 2 (1866), 138.
36 [ Back ] Francis A. Schaeffer, The Mark of the Christian (reprint, 1970, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2007), 22.
37 [ Back ] "In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity." Quoted from National Education Association of the United States, Addresses and ProceedingsÂ?National Education Association of the United States, 1873 (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, 2007), 31.
Monday, November 1st 2010

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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