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It’s one of those moments we wish we could have seen firsthand. It took place in the square before the Water Gate. At daybreak, Ezra brought out the law. He unrolled the scroll and began reading. He kept on until noon, and all the while the great crowd gave their rapt attention. The law was read, interpreted, and studied. Nehemiah 8, which records this event, also tells us that this Bible study session resulted in worship. The people were humbled, and their faces looked to the ground. They bowed before God as He revealed Himself in His holy Word.
This event from the Old Testament is a precedent-setting moment. God’s people gather, they hear God’s Word read, they hear God’s Word interpreted and taught, and they worship. This is how it’s supposed to be. As the decades pass and generations come and go, however, God’s Word sadly recedes from the center of His people’s lives and from prominence in His congregation. The Old Testament prophets spoke of a famine of the Word of God. As we look through the pages of the Bible and through church history, we find such times of famine. One of the severest of these times of famine came on the eve of the Reformation.
Martin Luther originally launched his protest against the church over the issue of indulgences. He wanted a debate. While he was involved in various disputations in the wake of posting the Ninety-Five Theses, he finally got a real and true debate at Leipzig. Over the summer months, Luther squared off with Johann Eck, Rome’s premier theologian. Over the course of the debate, Luther declared the Reformation plank of sola Scriptura, the firm and unwavering commitment to the absolute authority of Scripture. Luther’s writings and the reports of these debates convinced Pope Leo X that this German monk was a heretic. The date and the time was set for the ultimate showdown: April 17–18, 1521, at the Imperial Diet, or meeting, at Worms.
Worms is another one of those moments that we all wish we could have seen first-hand. Luther, adorned in his simple monk’s garb, stood before—and against—princes and nobles, cardinals and priests, all wearing the trappings of their offices. On the throne sat the twenty-one-year-old Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor. Luther’s books were spread out on a table before him. He was commanded, “Revoco!” —to recant his writings, to recant his views of sola fide (faith alone as the instrument of justification) and of sola Scriptura. That was April 17. Luther asked for a day to consider, and he was granted it. He spent the night in prayer and appeared again the next day. Then, he delivered his famous speech:
I am bound to the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand. May God help me. Amen.
That moment led to one more moment that would have been wonderful to have seen firsthand. Actually, it was not a moment, but a few months, as Luther was holed up in Wartburg Castle overlooking the town of Eisenach. There he translated the Greek New Testament into German, and there, in his modest study, he wrote a series of sermons called the Church Postils (Kirchenpostille). The New Testament is, of course, the Word of God, and the Church Postils are a series of sermons that expound the Word of God. The Word needed to be proclaimed, but the Word also needed to be interpreted and taught. Ezra set the precedent in Nehemiah 8. Luther was not doing anything new. Instead, he was doing something very old.
Sola Scriptura may be considered a Reformation plank, but it is also, more accurately, a biblical one. It is fruitful, however, to consider how the Reformers thought of sola Scriptura. We see this best in the way Luther responded to his critics.
One of the incessant criticisms Luther received amounted to this: You have thrown away fifteen hundred years of church history. The second criticism was this: You have thrown away the church. By claiming that your conscience is captive to the Word of God, you need neither tradition nor the church. You need not bother with the communion of saints through the centuries or even now.
Luther was never one to back down from a fight, so he took these criticisms head on. Before we look at his criticisms, however, it is important to see how some people who profess sola Scriptura justify these objections. Some contemporary evangelicals take sola Scriptura to mean that they do not need teachers and that they can jettison two thousand years of church history. But the affirmation of sola Scriptura by Luther and the other Reformers was not a call for radical individualism or a rejection of church authority. One text that is helpful here is Luther’s On the Councils and the Church.
In this text from 1539, Luther responds to two decades of criticism. One of the things he points out is the value of church history, the value of healthy tradition, and the value of the councils. It’s a mistake to think that Luther thought so highly of his own views that he totally disregarded the views of all others. While not elevating tradition to the position of final authority, he did see it as necessary, helpful, and instructive. Tradition, to the Reformers, is a fallible authority, unlike Scripture, which is an infallible authority.
Paul tells Timothy to train faithful men who will be able to teach others. These are men entrusted with the “deposit of faith,” men who are trustworthy. They are to be trained by Timothy, who was trained by Paul. They, in turn, train others. The word Paul uses in 2 Timothy 2:2, translated as “entrusted,” means to hand over, as if you are passing on an inheritance. The word in the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible, is tradidit, from which we get the English word tradition.
There is such a thing as a healthy tradition. There is also such a thing as an unhealthy tradition. Luther points to a clear sign of unhealthy traditions: they exalt the externals, the forms, over internal realities and ultimately over Christ Himself. This happened among the Pharisees and Sadducees in the first century, and it happened in the sixteenth century. It happens in our day. A tradition is only healthy to the extent that it supports the centrality and prominence of the Word of God. Creeds do this. The orthodox teachings of the church councils and of the Reformers do this. Simply put, healthy tradition exalts Christ, the gospel, and sound doctrine; unhealthy tradition does not.
Luther had a place for tradition, and he also firmly believed in teachers. The New Testament sanctions the office of teacher. Yes, our consciences are held captive to the Word of God. And because of that, God has given us teachers to help us understand His Word, love His Word, and live out His Word in our lives.
As part of the communion of saints, we are not isolated from tradition or from the church. Keith Mathison, my colleague, put it succinctly: It’s sola Scriptura (the Bible is the only infallible and final authority) not solo Scriptura (the Bible is the only authority). To affirm sola Scriptura is to understand the Bible’s authority well and to understand it as the Reformers did.
Scripture is our only inerrant and infallible authority for faith and life. It is God’s Word, God breathed. Therefore, we must obey it. We must strive not to see it displaced and cast aside but to see it placed at the center of all that we do. We can look back at moments when the Word was given its proper place. It happened among the exiles upon their return to Jerusalem as recorded in Nehemiah 8. It happened in the sixteenth century. Let us not lament that we did not see these moments first-hand. Instead, let us pray for our own moments when we put God’s Word at the center, when we broadcast God’s Word, and when we see it at work.