It’s been a hallmark of Protestantism for 500 years, but what do we mean when we base our faith on “the Bible alone”? Is it even possible to read the Bible without being influenced by the social and theological contexts in which one is immersed? Hasn’t this doctrine, more than any other Reformation doctrine, been responsible for the fragmentation of the church?

To help unravel such questions, editor in chief Mark Galli interviewed a scholar who has given much thought to the place of Scripture in the church’s life: Mark Noll, recently retired from the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1783, as well as an essay in Protestantism After 500 Years entitled, “Chaotic Coherence: Sola Scriptura and the Twentieth-Century Spread of Christianity.”

Though the idea of sola scriptura predates Martin Luther, when did the idea surface in his life?

It came in controversies with people defending indulgences and unquestioned obedience to the pope. In these disputes he appealed directly to the Bible—as with his dramatic statement to the Holy Roman Emperor at Worms in 1521: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God.” He took his stand on Scripture alone.

The tension came when other Protestants asserted, “Well, the Bible alone clearly teaches that when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, this is a symbolic supper.” That’s when Luther said, “No, that’s not right. You have to read the passages about the Lord’s Supper in connection with all the other passages and the best interpretations of past theologians.”

And so hermeneutical debates (controversies over interpretation) began, as well as selective appropriation of theological traditions.

Why did so many people latch on to the idea with such enthusiasm?

My own sense is that sola scriptura then and now has been a liberating teaching for the appropriation of the scriptural message at the individual level. Sola scriptura is the other side of the coin of the priesthood of all believers. Sola scriptura does not mean I can understand Zechariah and Isaiah and Ezekiel in detail, but only that I can understand the Bible’s divine standard for righteousness, my falling short of that standard, and redemption in Christ. In this sense sola scriptura means that the Bible is an open book, that any person of even minimal intelligence can understand the big story of Creation, sin, the Fall, redemption, spiritual growth, and grace in Christ. That conception of sola scriptura transforms lives.

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For example, Thomas Bilney was an English priest who was revolutionized by studying Erasmus’s Greek New Testament. When he read the apostle Paul in Romans, he turned to Christ as his hope and began to preach that understanding of Scripture. During the different spasms of repression and liberation under Henry VIII, he was called to account, and he recanted. But then he was so stricken in his conscience that he went back to his home and, in a sense, announced, “I’m going to the flames.” He preached what he had discovered from reading Erasmus’s New Testament. His personal commitment to the message of salvation, which he discovered in Scripture, took him to his death.

There are many such liberating stories to this day. I think it is also fair to say that one official Catholic teaching after the Second Vatican Council is a similar idea that the Bible’s big message of grace is for everyone. For Catholics, of course, that message is to be guarded by the church, but it really is to be taken in by everyone. That’s the great Protestant gift of sola scriptura.

You also talk about sola scriptura as being a fountain of chaos.

Think of the levels meant by reliance upon sola scriptura. We’ve been talking about the level of personal appropriation. The next level is, “How am I going to live as a believer in this message of salvation?” The [epistles of the] apostle Paul, the Gospels, and the Old Testament are filled with material that Christian people have used for how to organize life morally to honor God. The Heidelberg Catechism asks, “What three things do you need to know? How great my sin, how great redemption, how we should live to honor God.”

At a third level, the Bible provides insight as to how to organize society—in economics, medicine, education, and so forth.

At the time of the Reformation, there was a fourth level: the Bible for Christendom, when the Bible was taken to provide organizing social principles that a regime enforced on everybody. So in Luther’s Saxony (under Frederick the Wise) and in Zurich (under Zwingli’s leadership), the rulers enforced social orders that were considered to be explicitly biblical, as defined by the leading theologians in those places. Puritan New England is an even better example of a society organized around Christian principles that its leaders defended by quoting chapter and verse.

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The chaos of sola scriptura comes as you move through those levels. There’s some disagreement when you say, “What does the proper understanding of the Bible mean for how I should live my life?” There’s more when you ask, “What are the Bible’s teachings for organizing law, military conflict, the economy, the arts, and other spheres of public life?” And even more when there’s coercive power employed, when you instruct a whole society how to be biblical.

This is where a key insight of historian Brad Gregory, in his The Unintended Reformation, has been illuminating. You had Lutheran areas, Reformed areas, Anglican areas, and Catholic areas. Each envisioned society as following God’s way—and each enforced its own particular way on entire populations. When people differed as to what the Bible taught, it wasn’t just something to discuss in church; it was something that could lead to serious disagreements, even deadly persecution and sometimes even warfare.

Another common critique of sola scriptura is the some 40,000 Protestant denominations that have divided the church. Is that inherently a problem to you?

It’s a theological problem if—as has happened often—people say, “I think my denomination is theonly right way, and every other denomination is deficient to the point of infidelity.”

If, however, you think that the incarnation of God in a particular time and place means that the Christian faith is meant to be particularized for different people in different cultures, if you think God is the origin of this differentiation, and if you do not regard all denominations except your own as sub-Christian—well, we just might expect Christianity on the ground to display a lot of diversity. Should a South Sea island church look like a Fifth Avenue New York church? Probably not. Should they be organized in one organization? Perhaps ideally, but it’s not so bad if different Protestant organizations don’t regard each other as hopelessly in error.

For example, the recent Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization was the largest international Christian meeting ever, drawing people from all over the world. And the greatly diverse groups represented at Lausanne got along with each other; they were able to cooperate. There have been many other significant levels of cross-denominational, cross-cultural, cross-ethnic cooperation among Protestants, and now also between some Catholics and some Protestants. To me, that’s positive.

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How has sola scriptura actually functioned in people’s lives?

When people say, “We’re following the Bible alone,” they almost always mean, “We’re following the Bible interpreted by a circle of interpreters we trust.” So you have the famous statement in the first chapter of the Westminster Confession, which says that “the Scripture and things that can be logically deduced in Scripture” should be the supreme authority. But then the Confession was made the law of the land in Scotland, and if you disagreed with it, you had problems—despite what you thought Scripture as a higher authority taught. So the main confessions of the era—Heidelberg, Westminster, 39 Articles—were biblical interpretations that people trusted and agreed to adhere to. Even non-confessional groups, like Southern Baptists, have traditions of Bible interpretation that function practically like these formal confessions have done.

Sola scriptura means that the Bible is an open book, that any person of even minimal intelligence can understand the big story of creation, sin, the Fall, redemption, spiritual growth, and grace in Christ.

And yet in spite of these differences, the Bible and its message of salvation are still able to bring together people of different interpretive traditions. Historically speaking, this is sometimes dependent on charismatic figures. Billy Graham and John Stott were able to bring together a lot of people that you and I couldn’t bring together. But as a Christian, I would say that people are brought together, even with serious differences over specific points of doctrine or practice, because the Bible’s chief or central message is true. And if the Scriptures are considered a doorway into the mind of God explaining how sinners can be reconciled to God through the work of the Son, why wouldn’t you expect this to happen?

Where do you see this tension between the blessing and chaos of sola scriptura being played out today?

Mongolia had virtually no Christian presence up to World War II, and even the decades following. But then John Gibbons and his Mongolian wife began translating the New Testament in 1972. When the communist government collapsed and Christians were able to go into Mongolia, they came in and used their translation. But then Bible wars began in the 1990s, when different groups argued about how to best translate certain words, like the one for God. Within 15 years, there were at least six or seven Protestant-sponsored versions of the New Testament circulating, with antagonism between groups. So there it is. Protestantism “at its finest.” Chaos and discord.

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Yes, but today there are also tens of thousands of Mongolians worshiping in Christian churches with these competing Bible translations. How did this come about? It came about because the Bible was opened for them. Even though it was open in competing ways, in ways that led to arguments among Mongolian Protestants, the message of Scripture—of new life in Christ—had exposure in Mongolia that it had not had during the coercive years of communism. Today we see 330 individual Christian congregations with close to 50,000 adherents, most of whom are students and young adults. There is a degree of chaos in relying on Scripture, but remarkable coherence as different groups respond to the Bible’s message of new life in Christ.

How might Protestants best think about sola scriptura in the next 500 years?

As a historian of Christianity, it seems obvious to me that when there has been serious openness to the Bible, reconciliation with God and a desire to live changed lives that honor God resulted. That was true in the pre-Constantine centuries, in the medieval monasteries, in the 13th century of Thomas Aquinas, and in the Protestant Reformation. It was also true in its own way with the Catholic reformers in the latter part of the 16th century, and so on. My hope is that sola scriptura survives and flourishes, but in the sense that more and more people rely on “the Bible alone” as God’s means of opening the way of salvation to needy sinners.

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