How do we hear from God? Where should we look for authoritative revelation from God about what to believe and do? In the 16th century, those questions were hot topics and they are no less crucial and relevant for the church today. The Protestant Reformers answered those questions by pointing to the Bible as the sole and ultimate authority for belief and practice. The Bible alone was enough to answer questions of faith and practice, without any supplement. But that position (often called “Sola Scriptura” or “Scripture Alone”) faced two serious challengers, both from outside and inside the Protestant camp. In this post, I want to summarize the positions of these two main challengers to Sola Scriptura during the 16th century, and then give examples of how we see these challengers to Sola Scriptura manifest themselves in churches today.
The first challenger to the Protestant view was the long-established Roman Catholic position that the Church alone, and especially the Pope, held ultimate authority in deciding matters of faith and practice. The Catholic Church held that the Bible was authoritative but was nonetheless subject to the authority of the Church who had decided upon the canon of Scripture to begin with. The authority of the Church extended not only to the matter of interpreting what the Bible said, but could also declare doctrines and practices not contained in the Scriptures. Such extra-biblical matters would be binding on all Christians in the same way that Scripture was. Examples include praying to saints, purgatory, and the issuing of indulgences for forgiveness of sins past, present, or future. I am going to make up a label and call the Catholic position “Sola Ecclesia” or “ Church Alone”, meaning that the church holds ultimate authority in determining faith and practice.
The second challenger to the Protestant view was the radical Anabaptist position that God was still revealing his will prophetically through chosen leaders. This was hardly the view of all Anabaptists, but Anabaptists as a whole fell into disrepute for many years after a group of radical Anabaptists seized the city of Munster, believing that it was the New Jerusalem and their group’s leaders were God’s chosen prophets. They proclaimed that God had reinstituted polygamy and one of the main leaders took 15 wives. Eventually, some disaffected followers had had enough, and under starvation conditions, opened the gates of Munster to the Catholic army which had besieged the walled city. The short-lived Anabaptist millennial kingdom was violently suppressed and the leaders hung. Thankfully, subsequent Anabaptism followed much more peaceful routes, and the movement recovered under saner, more-biblically minded leaders. However, the damage was done. For Protestants Reformers, Munster was a prime example of the dangers that can come from following extra-biblical prophecies and visions. If you will indulge me, I am going to make up another label and call the radical Anabaptist position “Solus Spiritus” or “Spirit Alone”, meaning that direct, personal revelation of what the Holy Spirit is saying holds ultimate authority in determining faith and practice.
These three positions are three views on how we hear from God. Political and socio-economic concerns aside, much of the conflict of the Reformation era revolved around the question of authoritative revelation. Who (or what) had held ultimate authority in revealing to us who God is and what He wants. Which of these three possible streams should we listen to?
The Protestant Reformers saw the clear and present danger presented by both “Sola Ecclesia” and “Solus Spiritus.” Although nearly 500 years have passed since Martin Luther unknowingly kicked off the Reformation by nailing his 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg, the three streams of revelation that competed for allegiance in the 16th century are still competing for allegiance today.
Although nearly all Protestants claim to reject the “Sola Ecclesia” position of traditional Catholicism, pastoral authoritarianism rears its ugly head in many churches today. Claiming that God has anointed them, too many pastors bind the consciences of their church members, demanding obedience to the pastor. The pastor is above the law, and those who question or criticize him are guilty of touching the Lord’s anointed. “Soli Deo Gloria” (Glory to God Alone) has been replaced by “Soli Pastori Gloria” (Glory to the Pastor Alone). This crass assertion of authority is not dissimilar to the traditional Catholic claim that all Christians are bound to obey the Pope. The 16th century Reformers recoiled at the worldly glorification of medieval popes, but not enough believers today recoil at self-exalting pastors who have an overblown view of their own importance and authority. In many Asian contexts, this trend is exacerbated by cultural proclivities toward hierarchical organization of social relationships, respecting leaders, and avoiding anything that would cause someone to lose face.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are large segments of Protestants, especially those influenced by the Pentecostal tradition, who are opting for “Solus Spiritus” over “Sola Scriptura.” Of course, extremely few would consciously deny the authority and inerrancy of Scripture in theory, but in practice the Bible is just not enough. The Bible is good and all, but fresh revelations of what the Spirit is doing (and saying) are where the action is at. True spiritual vitality is found in learning to be sensitive to the leading of the Spirit, which many times is not necessarily connected to Scripture. Some of the things that the Spirit is perceived to be doing are rather mild, such as falling on the floor. But other things that the “Spirit” is doing are downright bizarre – getting drunk in the Spirit, laying on graves to get the anointing of saints of the past, casting out spirits of bitterness, getting baptized with fire, and predicting great revivals (that usually don’t come to pass). There is no end to the number of things that have been claimed as the work of the Spirit. Like the radical Anabaptists of the 16th century, many believers today are excited by the prospect of being on the cutting edge of what the Spirit is doing in the end times. But as “Solus Spiritus” replaces “Sola Scriptura”, the beliefs, practices, priorities, and emphases of the Bible fade from the center of the Christian life, replaced by a wide variety of beliefs and practices that may be wide of the mark of what the Holy Spirit actually wants.
What is the best way forward? When the Protestant Reformers saw the other options, namely “Sola Ecclesia” and “Solus Spiritus”, they opted for “Sola Scriptura.” They didn’t choose “Sola Scriptura” on a whim or just because it was their personal preference. Rather they were convinced that the Bible itself taught the authority and sufficiency of the Bible for all Christian belief and practice. The Scripture itself asserted its own primacy, and gave no indication of the church or the Spirit being the primary arbiters of God’s revelation of Himself and His will. The Bible is enough for us. In the midst of other claims to spiritual authority and revelation in churches today, both in Asia and around the world, the only safe course forward is “Sola Scriptura.” If the Bible is not enough for us, there is no end to the places we might end up.
If you enjoyed this post, please consider joining us at the Southeast Asia Network for the Gospel Conference from 10-12 November, 2016 in Bangkok Thailand. In the plenary sessions and workshops, we’ll be exploring the themes of God’s Word (Sola Scriptura) and God’s Glory (Soli Deo Gloria) in the context of ministry in Southeast Asia today.