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Sola so long?

I have recently studied Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. I highly recommend it as perhaps the most intriguing academic thesis I have encountered in quite some time.

Understand that, while I have dabbled in a few different denominations, I am a Protestant, through and through. Probably in ways that I am not even aware. For instance, I recognize that our ideal of sola scriptura or “by Scripture alone” has its problems, especially lending itself to fundamentalism or biblicism (making an idol out of the words themselves, instead of worshipping the God they point to). However, I never questioned the basic premise; in fact, I had always been taught that sola scriptura was a step forward towards liberation, freeing lay people from abusive hierarchies.

Not so, claims Gregory.

The claim that truth is sought by Scripture alone opened up a pandora’s box that has led to constant conflict, polarization, and schism. I tend to think of Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Anglicans as rather cohesive denominations, but the presence of three different Presbyterian denominations within twenty miles of my home clearly evinces otherwise. Furthermore, Gregory points to the Anabaptists as a movement which, from the beginning, has been marked by division. This is evidenced by church names that get really long, like Full Gospel Bible Fellowship of the Holy Spirit … each moniker that is tacked on represents yet another split. And here’s the point: behind each schism is a well-meaning person with a different biblical interpretation.

Garrison Keillor knows this as well as anyone. In a delightful yet probing chapter in Lake Wobegon Days simply called “Protestant,” Keillor pokes fun at the history of the founders of the Brethren Church, which once freed of the Anglican hierarchy, “were not content to worship in peace but turned their guns on each other.” What was the source of this conflict? In Keillor’s words, these Brethren were “scholarly to the core and perfect literalists every one.” Sola Scriptura led to faction after faction because “once having tasted the pleasure of being Correct and defending True Doctrine, they kept right on and broke up at every opportunity until … there were dozens of tiny Brethren groups, none of which were speaking to any of the others.”

Gregory contends that sola scriptura undercut the fundamental consensus that was present in society. From that point, we have really just been talking past each other, unable to agree on even a framework of authoritative reference because, let’s face it, the Bible is big, long, multi-authored, and multi-perspective. Given the lack of consensus, Gregory traces an arc through the Enlightenment, where appeals to scripture were replaced by supposedly self-evident truths of reason; unfortunately, sola ratio has not ushered in a golden age of justice and peace in society. Now, contends Gregory, we can only agree on sense of consumerism: we can agree to produce and to purchase as many goods as possible. In Lake Wobegon, car ownership is a matter of faith. Lutherans drive Fords and Catholics drive Chevrolets. As my friend, Jess, says, this would be funny if it weren’t so true.

This sola is killing our planet, constituting an “unintended” reformation indeed. 

About Andrew Taylor-Troutman

I am a pastor and a preacher, a writer, a husband and a father. My professional and personal lives are deeply involved with story-telling: stories that are silly and poignant or profound and commonplace. Stories that are tear-jerkers and belly-shakers. Stories about my son, Sam, and the congregation I serve, New Dublin Presbyterian Church. Each in its own way, these personal narratives shed light on the great story that God is writing with humankind and all of creation.

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