In recognition of the Reformation’s 500th anniversary, Reformed Margins will be reflecting on the five solas this October. The five solas are regarded by many as the five pillars of the Reformation, and we at Reformed Margins are proud to uphold these Reformed principles. For sola scriptura (Scripture alone), sola fide (faith alone), sola gratia (grace alone), solus Christus (Christ alone), and soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone) powerfully encapsulate the essence of our Protestant identity.

While we recognize that much ink has already been spilt expounding upon the five solas, the aim of our brief series is to reflect on them as people of color. For centuries, the five solas have served as unifying principles for the Reformed community to rally around. And yet, far from creating a cold and static uniformity, they have inspired unique and dynamic expressions of faithfulness across various cultures worldwide. Hence, Reformed Margins would like to recognize the Reformation’s 500th anniversary by celebrating and sharing some of these diverse expressions to the glory of God.


A Brief History

The principle of sola scriptura is not an invention of Martin Luther or the Protestant Reformation. Rather, circumstances surrounding Luther and the 16th century church forced Luther and the Protestants to make explicit what had only been implicit since the days of the early church.

Two years after Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, contending against the sale of indulgences, Luther found himself in Leipzig squaring off with Johann Eck. Eck was a fierce defender of the Catholic church and a highly skilled debater. During the debate Eck masterfully drew out of his opponent the natural conclusion of Luther’s theological positions. There at Leipzig Luther was led to publicly declare that not only were the sale of indulgences contrary to Scripture, but so also was papal supremacy. The issue of authority had become explicit. Did the final authority over faith and practice lie in the Pope and Catholic church or did it lie in sola scriptura (Scripture alone)?

What Does Sola Scriptura Mean?

Sola scriptura is the Reformation’s answer to the perennial question of religious authority. In summary, sola scriptura means that Scripture alone is the primary or supreme authority in all matters of theology. Scripture alone is of first and ultimate importance for making us wise unto salvation, for the development of doctrine, for the making of disciples, and for the cultivation of godliness (see Kevin Vanhoozer).

Sola scriptura, then, presupposes that Scripture is clear, sufficient, and hence capable of interpreting itself. Scripture’s clarity speaks to the truth that “[t]here are no insurmountable obstacles to God’s communicative purposes,”[1] for God’s Word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our paths (Psalm 119:105). Scripture’s sufficiency extends to all that it was divinely intended to do, such as teaching, reproof, correction, training in righteousness, and equipping believers for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Scripture’s sufficiency also means that it is sufficient to bear, communicate, and effect all that God intends (Isa 55:11).

For these reasons the Reformed maintain that Scripture is sufficient to clearly interpret Scripture over and against other would-be interpreters such as the pope, mystical extrabiblical experiences, or supposedly “neutral” autonomous human reasoning.[2] Vanhoozer helpfully writes: “For the Reformers, it is the Spirit speaking Christ in the Scripture, in the context of the household of God, who finally authorizes an interpretation, not an external magisterium or an internal revelation.”[3]

All of these implications surrounding sola scriptura stem from the Reformers’ understanding of what Scripture is. Scripture is the divinely authored, and hence the living and authoritative text by which God, who is Father, Son, and Spirit, covenantally reveals himself and his will to humanity. Scripture is human discourse sent forth and confirmed as the servant form of God’s triune discourse to humanity, and the chosen texts within the canon are all self-attested by the testimony of the Holy Spirit. It not only explains the New Covenant, whose subject and substance is Christ, but also transforms and authoritatively guides his followers in the New Covenant.[4]

Objections to Sola Scriptura

For many conservative evangelicals, sola scriptura is a no-brainer. What other supreme authority could there be for faith and life?  However, sola scriptura is perhaps the most controversial pillar of the Reformation. For how could anyone affirm Scripture as the supreme authority without falling into bibliolatry (making an idol out of the Bible) and downplaying Christ’s authority? And what about tradition? Isn’t it circular to believe that Scripture interprets Scripture? If it was so simple, why is there so much division in the Protestant church?

These are admittedly challenging objections, and even the best Reformed answers may not prove satisfying to those who are already indisposed to Reformed theology in general, and sola scriptura in particular. However, it is important to understand that Scripture as God’s Word and the Son of God as the eternal Word are not at odds. The Son is the eternal Word, and the source and subject of all Scripture, and the Spirit who spoke through the prophets and apostles is the Spirit of the Word. Hence, Scripture is the Word of God precisely because the Son is the eternal Word, and he has always prophetically spoken through his Spirit as recorded in the Spirit-breathed Scriptures. Furthermore, the Lord Jesus’ himself submitted to the authority of the Old Testament Scriptures without losing his own supreme authority in any way.

With regard to tradition, sola scriptura was never intended to abolish the authority of tradition. The Reformers only meant to reject the supreme authority of tradition, in favor of the Scripture’s supremely authoritative status. Tradition is helpful, and even authoritative, insofar as it is normed by Scripture. And while one may flinch at the circularity of Scripture interpreting itself authoritatively, such a circle is unavoidable when discussing the notion of any supreme and ultimate authority. According to the Reformed, Scripture interpreting Scripture constitutes a virtuous and divinely-inspired circle that we can trust because of the ministry and presence of the Holy Spirit.

So then is the Spirit to blame for the infinite numbers of biblical interpretations, and all the doctrinal chaos the church has witnessed? If Scripture can interpret Scripture, why is there so much division? There are multiple reasons, namely sin and human finiteness. But the solution is certainly not to abandon sola scriptura. In fact, sola scriptura is the only option in the church’s pursuit of true catholicity and unity, for “Protestants who affirm sola scriptura ought also to affirm prima facie the catholic tradition as a Spirit-guided embodiment of right biblical understanding.”[5] Far from being a blank check that people can cash in to fund their own idiosyncratic readings, sola scriptura is a confession of faith that God’s Word is infallible and a confession of sin and that our words are fallible, and that the church is accountable to an authoritative word that is not her own, but the whole Scriptural witness.[6]

A Chinese American Perspective on Sola Scriptura

Far from being a white man’s theological concept that came out of a European context over 500 years ago, sola scriptura has import across all cultures.

One such example is within the Chinese American church. Yang Fenggang has interestingly documented this in Chinese Christians in America: Conversion, Assimilation, and Adhesive Identities.[7] According to Yang, the Bible provided Chinese American Christians with a supreme authority by which they could negotiate their own Chinese and American identities. To be more American and to facilitate their Americanness, they rejected ancestor worship in their new American context on the basis of biblical injunctions against idolatry and worshiping anything or anyone other than God. However, they also found in the 5th commandment an authoritative reason to affirm their Confucian value of filial piety, which helped preserve their distinct Chineseness.

On the flip side, it is on the basis of sola scriptura that Chinese Americans also limit their Chineseness and Americanness. While sola scriptura affirms the Confucian impulse of filial piety, it also limits unhealthy expressions of filial piety. For example, I have a friend whose Chinese parents threatened to withdraw from funding her undergraduate education and living expenses if she decided to follow Christ and get baptized. To them, getting baptized was the final straw that would ruin their daughter’s life, or more accurately their Chinese American dream for her, complete with a pharmacy degree, and nothing to hold her back, such as Jesus and the local church. However, my friend bravely chose to call her parents’ bluff and bravely follow Christ in baptism, and she continues to follow him today.

Sola scriptura also limits American values. For example, it is true that my parents, combining their sense of filial piety with the American Dream, pursued a higher standard of living and upward socioeconomic mobility as second generation Chinese Americans. Yet, as Christians, in submission to the authority of Scripture, they have never pressured me to pursue an even higher socioeconomic standing than theirs or a higher standard of living for the sake of following the American Dream. Instead, they have always encouraged me to discern God’s calling and to live faithfully, even if it has meant pursuing pastoral ministry and a PhD in World Christianity, neither of which will guarantee me an earning potential anywhere near my dad’s pharmacist salary. For my Chinese American family, sola scriptura has redefined satisfaction and success, shaping my family’s dream into something distinct from the American Dream.

Hence, far from creating a uniformity of Reformed robots, sola scriptura possesses great potential for fostering both the unity and diversity that God intended for his church. Sola scriptura is the firmest authoritative standard by which all people can and should engage in their own identity formation. May we ever commit ourselves to this foundational Reformation principle.

 

[1] Mark D. Thompson, A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006), 165.

[2] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, 1:465-469.

[3] Kevin Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority After Babel (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2016), 117.

[4] Kevin Vanhoozer, “Holy Scripture” in Christian Dogmatics eds., Michael Allen & Scott Swain (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2016), 30-56.

[5] Kevin Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority After Babel, 146.

[6] Kevin Vanhoozer, Episode 145: Kevin Vanhoozer on “The Reformation, Sola Scriptura and Tradition”

[7] Yang Fenggang, Chinese Christians in America: Conversion, Assimilation, & Adhesive Identities (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999).

Posted by Andrew Ong

Andrew is an ABC (American Born Chinese) born to ABCs from Northern California. After completing a B.A. in Psychology and Social Behavior at the University of California, Irvine, he moved to Philadelphia for his MDiv at Westminster Theological Seminary. He and his beautiful wife currently live in Scotland where he is pursuing a PhD in World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, researching Chinese American evangelicals and Neo-Calvinist theology. Andrew’s a simple guy whose passions include: sushi, pizza, nachos, and the Golden State Warriors. On his less sanctified days he lives by the maxim: #ballislife.

6 Comments

  1. As an Taiwanese American, I’m really glad for this post and for this series. Andrew, would you distinguish between sola scriptura and Scripture itself? When you say that “sola scriptura ‘affirms'” or ‘limits,’ this or that, it gets unclear for me whether you’re talking about Scripture, or the sola. Also, how do we know that what you see as an affirmation of filial piety is not what you call ‘idiosyncratic readings?’

    Reply

    1. Hi Jeff,

      Thanks for reading.

      You ask a great question. I would say sola scriptura is implied by what Scripture is. When I say sola scriptura affirms or limits this or that, I’m speaking of sola scriptura as a principle to live by, whereas Scripture is the content and norming authority that implies sola scriptura. Unless a person lives by sola scriptura as a principle that is implied by what Scripture is, he/she will not ultimately* be limited or affirmed by Scripture in his/her life decisions and actions. Scripture does speak against and for our varying actions in life, but it is only when we live by sola scriptura that Scripture affirms and limits our various actions in our actual decisions. I guess the confusion is over what it means that Scripture affirms and limits this or that and what it means that sola scriptura affirms and limits this or that. Regardless of what we do, Scripture affirms and limits many things, but living by the principle of sola scriptura is what affirms and limits these things in the life of the person who submits to Scripture. Hope that clarifies things.

      How do we know that the Chinese American affirmation of filial piety is not an idiosyncratic reading? As unsatisfying as it may sound, I would simply answer that Scripture interprets Scripture, and Scripture does teach us to honor, submit to, and obey our parents (Ex 20:12; Eph 6:2). Scripture also teaches us that we are not merely individuals, but belong to families, communities, and societies, and that we have corporate obligations and responsibilities to the groups in which we belong (Num 16; Deut 6:4-10; Deut 11; 1Tim 5:8; Eph 5). I believe that filial piety (at its best) recognizes this same impulse. When sin entered the world and cursed it, threatening to reverse all of God’s creational intentions, God limited this reversal and destruction of creation (common grace) in order for history to go on, so that he might unfold his plan of redemption in history. Because of common grace, and the limitation of the curse, every culture recognizes (to various extents) good things that God intended for his creation, such as the notion of honoring one’s parents and family. But again, in summary, the only way to weed out or discern idiosyncratic readings is to go back to Scripture again and again because Scripture interprets Scripture.

      Thanks for the interaction!

      Reply

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