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 created by the church, the family, and the schools that have shaped them.
Of course, evangelicals have expended tremendous resources of scholarship on trying to determine the most basic, literal meanings of any given Bible passage. They have rejected outright the fanciful, allegorical interpretations of many medieval exegetes.
But there come issues—more numerous than some are willing to admit—where the Bible yields its direction more reluctantly. For faithfully biblical answers to these questions, we are thrown back on the resources of church tradition.
And here's the shocker (maybe): the very Reformation teachers who created the principle of the supreme authority of Scripture—sola scriptura—not only recognized this need for a strong, churchly tradition of biblical interpretation, they embraced it. They were just as convinced as we are that the Bible ought to speak to every aspect of life (heavens, they stood on the shoulders of a millennium-long Christendom tradition of church-state alliance!) But they knew that in addressing both churchly and worldly questions, if you wanted to find the "Christian Way" you had to hold a conversation with pious interpreters from past ages.
Especially, at least for Luther and Calvin, this meant attending to the early church fathers.
While preparing our Issue 80: The First Bible Teachers, we got a chance to talk with noted Reformation scholar David Steinmetz of Duke Divinity School about this. He reminded us that the Reformers worked hard to ensure their own interpretations of Scripture matched those of the Fathers:
"The Reformation is an argument not just about the Bible but about the early Christian fathers, whom the Protestants wanted to claim. This is one of those things that is so obvious nobody has paid much attention to it—then you look and you see it everywhere.
"The Reformers use the Fathers all over the place. We know Calvin read Augustine, and we discovered recently that Luther read Jerome—he had copies annotated in his own hand. The index of Calvin's Institutes is filled with an enormous number of quotations from the Fathers. And in the first preface to that work, addressed to Francis I, Calvin did his best to show his teachings were in complete harmony with the Fathers.
"The Protestants did this because they were keen to have ancestors. They knew that innovation was another word for heresy. 'Ours is the ancient tradition,' they said. 'The innovations were introduced in the Middle Ages!' They issued anthologies of the Fathers to show the Fathers had taught what the Reformers were teaching.
"But they also turned to the Fathers because they found them important sources of insight into the text of Scripture. Calvin and Melanchthon both believed it was a very strong argument against a given theological position if you couldn't find authorization for it in the Fathers.
"All the Reformers loved Augustine (Luther, remember, was an Augustinian friar). Calvin, though he loved Augustine for doctrine, preferred Chrysostom's approach to biblical interpretation.
"Chrysostom is a verse-by-verse commentator in his sermons. Calvin doesn't mimic Chrysostom, but he appreciates his model. Augustine flies a little too high above the text for Calvin—he is too quick to go to figures of speech, allegory, and so forth. Chrysostom flies at a lower level.
"Finally, the Reformation was not an argument about everything, but about just some things. It was not, for example, about the Trinity or the two natures of Christ. The Protestants had their own slant on these doctrines, but they agreed basically with Roman Catholics. Both confessed the Trinity and the two natures of Christ. And if we ask where these accepted doctrines came from—they came from the Fathers' reflections on the Bible!"
Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History magazine. More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christian History Corner recently featured an interview with Christopher Hall on reading the Bible with the church fathers.
Other CT and Books & Culture articles on the church fathers include:
Don't Read the Bible 'Alone' | Christopher Hall talks about how evangelicals should approach the church fathers. (Oct. 31, 2003)
The Tradition Temptation | Why we should still give Scripture pride of place. (Oct. 29, 2003)
"Everywhere, Always, and by All" | Scripture and tradition, revisited.
Living Tradition | Quotations to stir heart and mind on the heritage of faith. (July 18, 2001)
Christian History Corner appears every Friday on Christianity Today's website. Previous editions include:
Top Ten Stories of 2003 … with a Christian History Twist | Here is our review of "the Christian history that made the stories that made the news." (Jan. 09, 2004)
Resolutions Worth Keeping | The origins of new years' resolutions, and one famous list. (Jan. 02, 2004)
The Habits of Highly Effective Bible Readers | What we can learn from the church fathers that will enrich our own Bible study (Dec. 26, 2003)
Can Anything Good Come Out of New England? | Evangelical revival in the land of the liberal Brahmins may not be as historically odd as we suppose. (Dec. 12, 2003)
300-Year-Old Man Returns to Lead His Church | Evangelicals need this grandfather figure more than ever. (Dec. 05, 2003)
Thanksgiving in the Midst of Fear | Seriously ill in the days of the Black Plague, poet John Donne still celebrated God's goodness. (Nov. 26, 2003)
Good News to the Jew First | Critics of The Passion of Christ assume the story embodies an anti-Semitic message. But does it? (Nov. 21, 2003)
Thanks, Da Vinci Code | Tbe book sends us back to Christianity's "founding fathers"—and the Bible we share with them. (Nov. 14, 2003)
Breaking The Da Vinci Code | So the divine Jesus and infallible Word emerged out of a fourth-century power-play? Get real. (Nov. 7, 2003)
Not a Mercy but a Sin | The modern push for euthanasia is a push against a two-millenniums-old Christian tradition (Oct. 30, 2003)
John Paul II's Canonization Cannon | Why and how this pope has made over 470 saints. (Oct. 24, 2003)
Will the Next Pope Be an African? | Sixty-four years ago, the Roman Catholic Church consecrated its first black African bishop. Is it time now for the next step? (Oct. 17, 2003)
When Denominations Divide | The two-century-old "Unitarian controversy" suggests a grim prognosis for the current crisis in the Episcopal Church (Oct. 10, 2003)
Our Brothers and Sisters, the Episcopalians | The Episcopal Church needs our help. Here's why we should give it (Oct. 3, 2003)
Six 'Faith-based' Stories and a Moral | Are Christian social ministries worth fighting for? (Sept. 26, 2003)
Breaking Down the Faith/Learning Wall | How the history of Christians in higher education has stacked the deck against Robert Sloan's "new Baylor." (Sept. 19, 2003)
Learning From the Other 9/11 | Words kill. So teachers, watch what you say. (Sept. 11, 2003)
The Lord of the Rings: What Harvest? | A reader's guide to the best of epic fantasy (Sept. 5, 2003)`
J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, a Legendary Friendship | A new book reveals how these two famous friends conspired to bring myth and legend—and Truth—to modern readers (Aug. 29, 2003)
The Ten Commandments, How Deep Our Debt | The words of the Decalogue run like a river through not only the church but also English and American history. (August 22, 2003)