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Contra Sola Scriptura

by Vaughn Roste

Note: This is an in-depth article based on the Contra Sola Scriptura principle as it relates to Lutherans. For an easier read by the same author covering the same basic points for a general audience, please go to Biblical Marriage: A Bad Source For Debate

I have recently read several comments made by Alberta pastors that Scripture alone should be used in determining Lutheran church policy. Pr. Brad Everett in the last issue of The Forum referred to the ELCIC Constitution which states (in part) " . . . the Old and New Testament . . . [are] the only source of the Church's doctrine . . ." Pr. Mike Wellunscheg makes the same point in his letter to the editor in the November 2003 issue of the Canada Lutheran: ". . . we are Lutheran and adhere to the Reformation principle of sola scriptura." When one side in a debate clearly aligns itself with Scripture it forces any opposing opinion into the uncomfortable position of having to argue against the Bible, which is difficult as the Bible is a document that we all tend to hold very dear.

Thus the point of Lutherans believing in sola scriptura has been made twice recently, and for good reason. Sola Scriptura - the principle that Scripture alone determines Lutheran doctrine and consequent policy - is an integral component to the Lutheran faith. It could be argued that sola scriptura is the defining characteristic of what it means to be Lutheran. It unites Lutherans even across synodical and theological divides. How then can anyone argue against it? Yet that is what I intend to do in this article. Hear me out: rather than claiming that Lutherans should not follow sola scriptura, I will instead point out ways in which Lutherans already do not adhere to this doctrine. Further, there are very good reasons why Lutherans need to take more into account than solely the Bible in making church policy.

Sola Scriptura Philosophy

First, let's look at some of the problems involved in a literal sola scriptura philosophy. Those who adopt sola scriptura need to throw away the Creeds, as these are post-biblical, as well as the doctrine of the Trinity, as this is nowhere explicitly outlined in Scripture (granted, nor is it negated anywhere therein either, but according to sola scriptura doctrine must not merely be compatible with Scripture, it must be proven by it - preferably with chapter and verse). The theology of the Incarnation? Gone - or at least mostly, as it was defined largely to defend against the heresies of Arius and Photinus, who denied the pre-existence of Jesus. The Bible is not equipped to handle these issues, as they were not yet controversies when the Bible was written. These fundamental Christian doctrines were established by a church in the first few centuries CE who addressed these issues and simultaneously constructed the canon.

Further, sola scriptura is itself something that should not be taken out of context. It was constructed in response to the authority of the church hierarchy (although the Pope was not infallible until 1870), and the Catholic use of tradition and the church fathers in defining doctrine. Sola scriptura was Luther's response to these claims: ecclesiastical hierarchy and tradition are useful in determining church doctrine only insofar as they are in accord with Scripture. It put any question of the Lutheran position on indulgences and purgatory to a quick end.

Which Scriptures Apply?

However, Luther did not advocate a return to a Biblical culture or mindset. He was still well aware of the question of hermeneutics, or interpretation. Luther had no problems ignoring parts of the Bible in advocating sola scriptura, as certain passages in James and Hebrews would seem to contradict his stance that "salvation is by grace alone through faith" (Rom 1:16). Obviously one still needs to decide which scripture(s) shall solely apply - and (to ask the most Lutheran of questions) what do they mean?

Thus I am not arguing against the use of Scripture, only pointing out that those who claim to base their theology on sola scriptura are often unconsciously selective about which texts they would apply. They ignore the inherent errors and contradictions in the Bible and blindly pretend that the collection of books written in several different cultures and contexts all far removed from our own is somehow infallible. It leads to a "check your brains at the door" mentality in the church, where questions are not encouraged, only loyal obedience. Isn't the very presence of the Book of Proverbs in the Bible an indication of the importance of human wisdom?

Let me give one more example before turning to the issue that sparked the opening comments in the first place. If we apply sola scriptura to slavery, I'm afraid the abolitionists are on relatively weak ground. Nowhere is slavery in the Bible lambasted as an oppressive and evil institution: on the contrary, the Bible tells slaves to be content with their position (I Cor 7:21), obey their masters (Eph 6:5, Col 3:22), accept their punishment from them (I Peter 2:18-21), and even to return to their masters if they've escaped (Philemon 12). At best, it is considered a neutral institution. Today, however, Lutherans consider slavery to be abhorrent and a blatant offence against human rights - yet this position is not based on sola scriptura. Similarly, the current Lutheran position on women's ordination, pacifism, or the exploitation of the environment is one that runs contrary to the bulk of Scripture.

Examining Sola Scripture Principles

Let us then examine the principle of sola scriptura with respect to one of Canada's most pressing social issues: same-sex marriage. Using a concordance I examined the scriptural use of all the words I could think of related to marriage: marriage, marriages, wedding, weddings, wed, husband, husbands, wife, wives, etc. I included every law or rule regarding marriage in the Bible I could find, exempting only the references which were narrative (e.g. "Adam named his wife Eve" Gen 3:20) or metaphorical (Christ's marriage to the church, Rev 21:9). Encompassing the gamut of Scripture I have come up with the following list.

12 Biblical Principles of Marriage

1. Marriage consists of one man and one or more women (Gen 4:19, 4:23, 26:34, 28:9, 29:26-30, 30:26, 31:17, 32:22, 36:2, 36:10, 37:2, Ex. 21:10, Judges 8:30, 1 Sam 1:2, 25:43, 27:3, 30:5, 30:18, 2 Sam 2:2, 3:2-5, 1 Chron 3:1-3, 4:5, 8:8, 14:3, 2 Chron 11:21, 13:21, 24:3).

2. Nothing prevents a man from taking on concubines in addition to the wife or wives he may already have (Gen 25:6, Judges 8:31, 2 Sam 5:13, 1 Kings 11:3, 1 Chron 3:9, 2 Chron 11:21, Dan 5:2-3).

3. A man might chose any woman he wants for his wife (Gen 6:2, Deut 21:11), provided only that she is not already another man's wife (Lev 18:14-16, Deut. 22:30) or his [half-]sister (Lev 18:11, 20:17), nor the mother (Lev 20:14) or the sister (Lev 18:18) of a woman who is already his wife. The concept of a woman giving her consent to being married is foreign to the Biblical mindset.

4. If a woman cannot be proven to be a virgin at the time of marriage, she shall be stoned (Deut 22:13-21).

5. A rapist must marry his victim (Ex. 22:16, Deut. 22:28-29) - unless she was already a fianc», in which case he should be put to death if he raped her in the country, but both of them killed if he raped her in town (Deut. 22:23-27).

6. If a man dies childless, his brother must marry the widow (Gen 38:6-10, Deut 25:5-10, Mark 12:19, Luke 20:28).

7. Women marry the man of their father's choosing (Gen. 24:4, Josh.15:16-17, Judges 1:12-13, 12:9, 21:1, 1 Sam 17:25, 18:19, 1 Kings 2:21, 1 Chron 2:35, Jer 29:6, Dan 11:17).

8. Women are the property of their father until married and their husband after that (Ex. 20:17, 22:17, Deut. 22:24, Mat 22:25).

9. The value of a woman might be approximately seven years' work (Gen 29:14-30).

10. Inter-faith marriages are prohibited (Gen 24:3, 28:1, 28:6, Num 25:1-9, Ezra 9:12, Neh 10:30, 2 Cor 6:14).

11. Divorce is forbidden (Deut 22:19, Matt 5:32, 19:9, Mark 10:9-12, Luke 16:18, Rom 7:2, 1 Cor 7:10-11, 7:39).

12. Better to not get married at all - although marriage is not a sin (Matt 19:10, I Cor 7:1, 7:27-28, 7:32-34, 7:38).

How many of these Biblical principles are rigorously observed by Lutherans today? Not a single one! Nowhere in the Bible does it say that "marriage is the God-ordained covenantal union of one man and one woman;" in fact, it says explicitly to the contrary.

Further, most Lutherans would consider these principles to be misogynistic and repulsive - and judging by today's standards, they'd be right. Applying sola scriptura and excising any reference to human rights or societal developments since the canon was closed in 405 CE to a Lutheran policy of marriage would have consequences that range from the ugly and unethical to the truly frightening and illegal. Views have changed, as has our concept of marriage. Many claim that this is the result of the Holy Spirit working in our world, and most agree that just about all of the changes are a good thing. But if we concede that our concept of marriage has evolved, is it not potentially arrogant to summarily discount the possibility that marriage should continue evolving, or even that it might be God's will that it do so?

On What Can We Rely?

Obviously, we cannot apply "only what Scripture says" to the modern-day question of marriage: this takes Luther's policy out of context. The question then becomes, "When we do not and cannot rely on Scripture alone, what does this mean?" On what then can we rely? And are we still Lutherans - and true to the ELCIC Constitution - if we realize that we have already abandoned sola scriptura as our sole basis for doctrine? From the looks of the above list, it's a good thing we have. But as we continue to dialog and prayerfully discern Godºs will in the area of same-sex marriages, we cannot only consider 2,000-year-old statements made in other cultures and contexts to be all that is important. Please do not misinterpret that I am claiming that the Bible is not important or relevant - of course it is. It is central to my faith and yours, and should be for any Lutheran. But to rely on solely the Bible is to dangerously ignore two millennia of progress in the areas of science, technology, and human rights, a sin which we dare not let ourselves commit if the church is to remain relevant to contemporary society at all.

Indeed, to rely solely on Scripture for doctrine is to ignore the possibility that the Holy Spirit has been active in the past sixteen centuries and indeed, may be actively encouraging us today to move beyond a literal reading of the Bible and to refuse to become modern Pharisees. While of course the Bible is integral to who we are as Lutherans, we do ourselves, the church, and yes, God a disservice if we ignore even the possibility of a revelation more recent than 2,000 years old. While we cannot and would not want to ignore the Old and New Testaments, we also cannot ignore the Now Testament. Praise God that, consistent with the spirit of almost every Biblical narrative, God even today continuously and patiently calls us ever forward.

Vaughn Roste holds a Bachelor of Arts from Augustana, a Bachelor of Theological Studies degree from CLBI, and a Master of Music degree from the University of Alberta. He currently works as a professional musician in Edmonton, singing in and directing several choirs, including being Interim Director of Music at West End Christian Reformed Church.