My Problem with Sola Scriptura

By Bob Hiller

Mark Twain once said “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”

This Lent my congregation has been working through the book of James. I’m convinced there is no better season in the church calendar for this book. After all, Lent is for repenting over sin and the Law in James produces that sort of thing in droves! James is not one to hold back in attacking anything that has even a hint of sin in it. He is the example of how to preach the Law. This is not to say there isn’t a ton of gospel in this epistle (there is!). But when James goes after sin, he shoots to kill.

Any preacher of the gospel will tell you that parts of James make them not a little uneasy. For those of us who confess, along with the New Testament, that we are declared righteous (justified) before God by grace alone through faith alone on account of Christ alone, we especially struggle when James begins to deal with faith and works. After all, Paul writes, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Romans 3:28) But, James goes so far as to say, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:23-24)

Now, this is tough for any number of reasons. At my ordination, I vowed to preach and teach only what the Bible says. I am a part of a church that believes that Scripture alone (sola scriptura) norms our faith and life. For me, as I work through James, this becomes difficult primarily because, well, I don’t want to say what James says! I wish he hadn’t written it! It would make my life and my theology much easier if the Holy Spirit hadn’t inspired it! But, alas, the Spirit wasn’t really looking for my input (as seems to be His way far too often!). He gives what we need whether we like it or not!

And that’s my trouble with sola scriptura: me! My theology! My views! My culturally nuanced/accepted perspectives! When I vowed in my ordination to preach and teach solely what the Bible says, I vowed to lay all of what is mine down before the Word of God. And, very often, while they are prostrate before that Word, like the double-edged sword it is, it chops off their glory seeking heads! I don’t get to correct the Scriptures because they are there to correct me (or better, kill me and raise me to a new life). We work on its terms, it doesn’t work on ours.

There is a great challenge for us who hold to the teaching of sola scriptura. We must teach only what the Bible says, and you don’t get to correct it or qualify it. Nothing of ours informs what the Scriptures say. We simply receive what the scriptures say to us on how we should view God, faith, theology, our world, our neighbors, and our own hearts.

The reformers got this one. For example, in the controversy over the nature of the sacrament, some were using their reason to try and explain what Jesus meant when calling the bread and wine His body and blood. Of course, reason couldn’t grasp this, so the words had to be qualified and re-defined. But, the Lutherans wouldn’t have it. The Word held them captive. As the authors of the Formula of Concord said in such a marvelous way, “the words of the testament of Christ are not to be understood in any other way than the way the literally sound.” (The Epitome of the Formula of Concord: Article VII: Concerning the Holy Supper of Christ, Book of Concord, ed. Kolb/Wengert, pg. 505). In other words, what Jesus says about the bread and wine can be trusted at face value, the way the sound. What He says is what guides our understanding about the sacrament, our understanding doesn’t guide what He says!

Or, take Luther when dealing with those who claimed the church’s authority over the text. Many would appeal to the great doctors and teachers of the faith. Luther responds, “Our adversaries exclaim: ‘Ambrose, Augustine taught this or that!’ But they are of no importance to us unless they bring the voice of Christ.” (Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis Chapters 21-25, AE. IV, pg. 377). Even the great teachers of the church like Ambrose, Augustine, even Luther, are subject to the Word.

Luther’s comment is insightful. The goal of the Scriptures is to create faith by giving you the Word of Christ. The problem that takes place when something replaces sola scriptura is that, whatever the replacement is gets in the way of the voice of Christ. That Word that kills you and makes you alive. In fact, that truth is what helps one solve the apparent, but not real, problem between James and Paul. Both are attacking those who would undermine the Word and work of Jesus. Paul is going after those who claim Jesus is insufficient to save and are creating doubt in the promises of Christ. James is going after those who are using Christ’s gracious work as an excuse to cause the poor to suffer, even to add to their suffering. Faith is their excuse for sin. Both groups are wrong about Christ and faith. Both need the Word to correct them.

Sola scriptura is only a problem for those who sinfully want to trust something besides scripture to teach us about God and the world. And, thank God for it! His Word stands firm despite us, and the Holy Spirit uses it to accomplish His purposes. Pray for your pastors to teach, and to trust that scripture alone is enough whether they like it or not!