As you may recall, when we left Martin Luther last week, he was bewailing and bemoaning the theological chaos that came about early on in the Reformation.
There are as many sects and beliefs as there are heads. This fellow will have nothing to do with baptism; another denies the Sacrament; a third believes that there is another world between this and the Last Day. Some teach that Christ is not God; some say this, some say that. There is no rustic so rude but that, if he dreams or fancies anything, it must be the whisper of the Holy Spirit, and he himself a prophet.
How many doctors have I made through preaching and writing! Now they say, “Be off with you! Go off with you! Go to the devil!” Thus it must be. When we preach they laugh…. When we get angry and threaten them, they mock us, snap their fingers at us and laugh in their sleeves (Facts, p. 207).
But this seems to me a bit convenient. After all, when he announced his own "bottom line" before the Diet of Worms -- "I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Scripture, which is my basis. My conscience is captive to the word of God" -- did he not expect that those who followed in his steps might also consider themselves convicted by the testimony of Scripture as their basis? Did he not think that their consciences might also be captive to the word of God?
The logic of sola scriptura seems inescapable. Once one rejects the idea of there exists on earth any unified spiritual authority and proclaims the right of every Christian to follow what he or she sees as being the teaching of Holy Scripture, one should not be overly surprised when the result is individualism, subjectivism and ultimately as many views as there are interpreters. How could it be otherwise?
So how did Luther and the other Reformers respond to the chaos unleashed at least to a significant degree by their own preaching of the right of private judgment? What did they do?
Well, to promote the truth as they saw it, and to maintain some minimal unity in the Reformation churches, they did what they had to do: they began to prohibit their followers from exercising the private judgment they continued to insist on for themselves.
Sola Scriptura: Theory or Practice
When I was struggling as a Protestant minister and learning the case for Catholicism, one of my chief mentors was Jimmy Akin, senior apologist with Catholic Answers. Back in the 90's he wrote a wonderful little article titled Sola Scripture: Theory or Practice? in which he discusses this exact issue.
In that piece Jimmy quotes at length from historians Will and Ariel Durant on the response of Luther and the other reformers to the confusion resulting from their own example and teaching.
I don't think I can do better at this point than to ask ask you to carefully read this powerful passage from the Durants. I'll even include Jimmy's comments, as he made the point so beautifully.
It's instructive to observe how Luther moved from tolerance to dogma as his power and certainty grew.... In the Open Letter to the Christian Nobility (1520) Luther ordained “every man a priest,” with the right to interpret the Bible according to his private judgment and individual light.... Luther should have never grown old. Already in 1522 he was out-papaling the popes. “I do not admit,” he wrote, “that my doctrine can be judged by anyone, even the angels. He who does not receive my doctrine cannot be saved.” Luther now agreed with the Catholic Church that “Christians require certainty, definite dogmas, and a sure Word of God which they can trust to live and die by.” As the Church in the early centuries of Christianity, divided and weakened by a growing multiplicity of ferocious sects, had felt compelled to define her creed and expel all dissidents, so now Luther, dismayed by the variety of quarrelsome sects that had sprouted from the seed of private judgment, passed step by step from toleration to dogmatism. “All men now presume to criticize the Gospel,” he complained, “almost every old doting fool or prating sophist must, forsooth, be a doctor of divinity.” Stung by Catholic taunts that he had let loose a dissovent anarchy of creeds and morals, he concluded, with the Church, that social order required some closure to debate, some recognized authority to serve as “an anchor of faith"... Sebastian Franck thought there was more freedom of speech and belief among the Turks than in the Lutheran states.
Other reformers rivaled or surpassed Luther in hounding heresy. Bucer of Strasbourg urged the civil authorities in Protestant states to extirpate all who professed a 'false' religion; such men, he said, are worse than murderers; even their wives and children and cattle should be destroyed. The comparatively gentle Melanchthon accepted the chairmanship of the secular inquisition that suppressed the Anabaptists in Germany with imprisonment and death…. He recommended that the rejection of infant baptism, or of original sin, or of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, should be punished as capital crimes. He insisted on the death penalty for a sectarian who thought that heathens might be saved, or for another who doubted that belief in Christ the Redeemer could change a naturally sinful man into a righteous man…. He demanded the suppression of all books that opposed or hindered Lutheran teachings; so the writings of Zwingli and his followers were formally placed on the index of forbidden books in Wittenberg.
No one [In Geneva, where Calvin ruled as pastor] was to be excused from Protestant services on the plea of having a different or private religious creed; Calvin was as thorough as any pope in rejecting individualism of belief; this greatest legislator of Protestantism completely repudiated the principle of private judgment with which the new religion had begun. He had seen the fragmentation of the Reformation into a hundred sects, and foresaw more; in Geneva he would have none of them. There a body of learned divines would formulate an authoritative creed; those Genevans who could not accept it would have to seek other habitats.
All that “Here I stand, the Word of God compels me, I can do no other” stuff had to be interpreted narrowly. “I can do no other”, meant, “I can do no other.” It did not mean you could do something other if you felt the Word of God compelling you. You had to do what I said because I was the one the Word of God had compelled.
Looking back I can see that as a evangelical pastor I was caught in the same dilemma that Luther, Calvin and the other were caught in. As a child of the Reformation, of course I taught that the Bible alone was authoritative in the lives of my congregation. I reminded them that I was "a mere fallible interpreter of God's Word," that I could be wrong in anything I said and that it was their “right” and in fact their “duty” to search the Scriptures and decide for themselves whether what I was saying was, to borrow Calvin’s words, in accord with “the rule of the Word.”
This is what I said to them. Pastors of Protestant churches say this sort of thing all the time. "Search the Scripture and make up your own mind!" This is standard evangelical teaching.
But what do these pastors do when someone in their church takes them up on this, accepts their right and duty, searches the Scripture and decides that on some important issue what the pastor is teaching is not in “accord with the Word”? What if that person is a respected teacher in the church and wants the freedom to teach his point of view -- even as the pastor is free to teach his own point of view?
What would I have done in such a situation? Would I have responded, "Oh, well, I'm teaching the conclusions of my private interpretation of Scripture and he's teaching the conclusions of his. So be it”?
Here's what I would have done --- what I would have had to do to maintain unity in the church. I would have first tried to convince him that he was wrong and I was right. And if this failed, I would have explained to him (kindly) that he would either have to quit teaching his point of view in the church or take his private interpretation down the road to a church that agrees with him.
I would have essentially shown him the door.
Sounds reasonable enough. After all, you can’t have someone dividing the church by teaching in contradiction to the pastor.
But image this gentleman says to me, “Pastor Ken, I love these people and I want them to know the truth of God's Word. My conscience is captive to Scripture. Also, I was married in this church and my children have been raised here. I've been here 50 years. You've only been here three. How is it that you get to practice your right of private interpretation and teach the results of your own study of Scripture, but if I practice that same right and come to different conclusions -- why is that I have to shut up or get out? Since only Scripture is authoritative, why don't you leave?”
What would I say? What could I say?
In the end there’s nothing a Protestant pastor can do, nothing a Protestant denomination can do, but what Luther and Bucer and Melanchthon and Calvin did.
Churning Up the Wind and Waves
At some point in my thinking about this whole situation, Ephesians 4:11-16 reached out and grabbed me by the throat. In this passage St Paul is talking about the need for unity in the Church, and says that God gave to His Church apostles and prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers specifically in order to ensure this unity. Pastors and teachers exist, Paul says,
...so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith an in the knowledge of the Son of God… so that we would no longer be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the cunning and craftiness of men.
And to this end, he gave His Church pastors and teachers.
But -- and this is the thought that grabbed me -- this could only work if there were some authoritative teaching to which individual pastors and teachers were bound. Some standard of teaching to which their teaching must conform. If, on the other hand, each is his own pope and council and free to read his Bible and draw his own conclusions, then pastors and teachers will disagree with one another and split off to form their own churches and denominations and those specifically called to unite the people of God will become the very ones stirring up the wind and the waves of doctrine and tossing the children of God to and fro. And this is precisely what we see within Protestantism.
Protestant historian and Luther scholar Heiko Oberman writes,
Application of the Reformation principle of sola scriptura, the Scriptures alone, has not brought the certainty [Luther] anticipated. It has in fact been responsible for a multiplicity of explanations and interpretations that seem to render absurd any dependence on the clarity of the Scriptures.
Sola scriptura does not and cannot work. Because of this, I asked myself, how could it be the foundation Christ would have established for His One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church?
No. If Jesus desired that His Church be one, and gave His Church pastors and teachers to ensure that oneness, he must have established that Church with some principle of authority. He had to have.