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There's no question that the Bible is at the very center of conservative Christianity in America. When tough legislation limited access to the Bible in our public schools, Christians sought creative ways around the wall, legal prosecution notwithstanding. When translators set out to "modernize" the Bible's gender language, conservatives kicked up a storm. When lawmakers removed a Ten Commandments monument from a courthouse, Christian protesters mobbed the scene.

All of this activity hearkens back to the Reformation tradition of Sola Scriptura—the belief that the Bible should be the ultimate authority for the church, trumping all human traditions. For many conservatives, this authority is not only unquestioned within the church, but extended beyond the church to society at large. The dream of some evangelicals is a country—perhaps some day even a world—where every moral and political question is submitted to the Bible, which will provide answers both obvious and immediately applicable.

Worth asking, however, is whether we really understand what Sola Scriptura means within the church itself. Does this Reformation principle mean that the Bible yields up obvious answers to all our questions? That we need not turn to any interpretation of Scripture other than the conclusions each of us draws from our own common-sense interaction with Scripture? That the great teachers in the church's earlier eras—the "church fathers"—should have nothing to say to us today, for they represent nothing but "human traditions"?

Clearly even the most conservative believers have never been able to live as if they are not influenced by the teachings of other people—past and present—on how to interpret their Bibles. Everybody reads through a set of lenses ...

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