Sola Scriptura and the Emerging Church

by Joe Baker

I've noticed on several blogs recently (Wheat & Chaff; Through a Glass Darkly; Slice of Laodicea) that the question of sola scriptura ('scripture alone') has cropped up with regard to the 'emerging' churches (see my earlier comments on use of the term 'emerging church').

This is the definition of given by Wikipedia:
Sola scriptura (Latin By Scripture alone) is one of five important slogans of the in the 16th century. It meant that Scripture is the only infallible rule for deciding issues of faith and practices that involve doctrines. The intention of the Reformation was to "correct" the Catholic Church by appeal to the uniqueness of the Bible's authority, and to reject Christian tradition as a source of original authority alongside or in addition to the Bible.

Sola scriptura is still a theological commitment of many of the Protestant churches, most frequently those from more conservative branches, and is frequently appealed to by those who would describe themselves with the slogan 'Bible-believing'. However, as with most slogans, the meaning has become simplified over time from the orignal challenge of the Reformers to the Roman Catholic understanding of authority to the current common usage as the demand for interpretation of the Bible unswayed by anthing exterior, other than, presumably, the Holy Spirit.

Ironically, sola scriptura was a direct challenge to the authority of tradition, but the Anglican church has held steadfastly to the three pillars of faithful understanding: scripture, tradition and reason (with experience being tentatively added in recent times).

The Anabaptists were part of the 16th Century Reformation movement. They agreed with the that sola scriptura was a good starting point but were suspicious of the use of the word. Who is qualified to interpret what Scripture says? It soon became clear that the Reformers wanted to maintain that it was the learned theologians who were skilled enough to interpret scripture alone. To the Anabaptists, this was replacing the authotity of the Catholic church with the authority of the leaders of the Reformation.

The Anabaptists believed that the best interpreters of Scripture were those who had received the Holy Spirit. This meant that an illiterate peasant who had received the gift of the Spirit was a better interpreter of God's word than a learned theologian who lacks the Spirit. As a consequence, sola scriptura, 'scripture alone', was rejected in preference for 'scirpture and Spirit together '. In its time, this was radical in the extreme, especially as most Anabaptists were the illiterate poor. The political authorities considered this politically dangerous and theologically irresponsible. But to the Anabaptists, discerning the will of God was something that all believers were expected to do.

This was soon adapted as certain individuals had begun to prophesy and do very questionable things, claiming to be lead by the Spirit. The challenge was to discern how to test the 'spirits'?

One early Anabaptist document recommends that the brothers and sisters read Scripture together, and then "the one to whom God has given understanding shall explain it." This process of community interpretation provided one way of placing controls on the interpretation of Scripture and prophecy.

The second arose after some maverick prophets lead some Anabaptists to . In the aftermath, it was realised that all spiritual claims must be measured by the life and the words of Christ. In this way, the 'testing of the spirits' was returned to the discerning congregation, and to Jesus Christ and the scriptural witness about him.

Is this relevant to the emerging churches? What does the apparent rejection of sola scriptura herald for emergents? Is the rejection of sola scriptura in the post-modern climate a slippery slope to disaster, or the dawning of a new horizon?

As I've previously said, I'm not Anabaptist 'by birth' but have chosen to identify myself with the Anabaptist tradition. As such, I identify with the rejection of sola scriptura by faithful believers from 500 years ago, in favour of an understanding of revelation pregnant in Scripture, interpreted by all believers through the power of the Holy Spirit, discerned in community, and tested by the measure of Christ. But the Anabaptist hermeneutic approach is also a challenge to the individualism inherent in the Protestant/Anglican quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, reason and experience.

Interpretation is a task for a community of believers full of the Holy Spirit seeking to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.