Between the years 1513 and 1516, Martin Luther came to his new view of the doctrine of justification — sola fide, justification by faith alone.
Not surprisingly, as Luther began to teach his new view and expound upon it in tracts and books, he increasingly came into conflict with the Church. Finally, in April of 1521 he was called to recant his views before an imperial tribunal bearing the historically ironic title, “the Diet of Worms.”
This is where the classic standoff took place.
The Birth of Sola Scriptura
Now, on one level the issue at state was how Catholics were to understand the doctrine of salvation. On a more fundamental level, however, the issue at stake was that of authority.
The Church said, in essence, “You’re wrong!”
To which Luther responded, in essence, “No, you’re wrong! My teaching is in accordance with Scripture!”
To which the Church responded, in essence, “No, what you’re teaching conflicts with Scripture and with the authoritative teaching of the Church,” and demanded that he recant his views.
Luther faced a watershed. What did he believe about who has authority to speak for God? Did the Church have authority when, having examined the light of God’s revelation in Scripture through the lens of Sacred Tradition, it rendered formal ruling on an issue of faith or morals? Or did authority reside somewhere else?
He really only had two options: He could abandon his position: “Well, I thought I was reading Scripture correctly, but I guess I must not be. I’ll have to go back to the drawing board on this issue of justification.”
Or … he could reject the authority of the Church and its Tradition and stand alone on what he believed Scripture to be teaching.
We all know what he chose:
I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis: my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant … God help me!
At that moment, sola Scriptura was born: the belief that Scripture is the sole infallible rule of faith and practice for the Christian and for the Church; that there is no binding authority outside of the Bible itself.
The Right of Private Judgment
Now, think this through with me. What would be the practical implication of saying that Scripture will serve as the Christian’s sole infallible rule for doctrine and morals?
Well, if there’s no real ‘authority’ on earth, no ‘binding’ authority outside of the Bible, then ultimately won’t it be up to each Christian to decide what he or she believes the Bible to be teaching and thus what the true teachings of the faith are?
That’s right. The practical implication of sola Scriptura is what theologians refer to as the ‘right of private judgment’ in matters of the Christian Faith.
Now, Catholics have always enjoyed a right of private interpretation, but as a limited right. We’re free to study Scripture and attempt to understand its meaning. But we do this within the framework of what the Church has already formally defined as true.
As an example, I’m free to study the Gospels and maybe even come to brand new insights about the nature of Our Lord as both God and Man. It’s possible. But if I come to the conclusion that Jesus wasn’t divine at all, or that he possessed only a divine nature and not a human nature as well, as a Catholic I can know that I am wrong, rather than the Church!
Borrowing an analogy from Peter Kreeft, Catholics are like children playing in a playground. We’re free to swing and slide and throw theological sand in each other’s eyes and have all the fun we like. But there’s a fence around the playground that keeps us from wandering out into the street and being run over by every passing theological fad.
That fence consists of what the Church through the ages has formally defined as being true.
What Luther and the other Reformers did was tear the fence down. What they did was take this ‘limited right’ and make it an ‘absolute right.’
“Unless I am convinced!” Luther said. In other words (my paraphrase) “When it comes down to it, I don’t really care what popes have said or the Tradition has said. I don’t particularly care what Church councils have determined. It doesn’t matter to me what the authoritative teaching of the Church has been. Popes and councils can say what they will. My conscience is captive to the Word of God, which is my basis, and unless I am convinced by Scripture…”
And when you think of it, this makes perfectly good sense. If our Lord did not establish a Church on earth with the Spirit-given ability to preserve the apostolic teaching and, when needed, pronounce authoritatively on the true teachings of the Christian faith, what is left but to say that each Christian ultimately has the right to decide for himself?
And this is what happened.
The logic of sola Scriptura began to work its way out such that, beginning with Luther, Christians within the various Protestant traditions came to think of themselves as possessing the right to decide for themselves what they believed the Bible to be teaching and to live in accordance with that teaching — without being bound by any authority on earth.
In his Reply to Sadoleto, John Calvin said it like this:
We hold that the Word of God alone lies beyond the sphere of our judgment … Fathers and Councils are of authority only in so far as they accord with the rule of the Word.”
Now, this may sound like humility itself. But here’s the problem: someone has to determine what the “rule of the Word” is. The Bible is not going to suddenly speak and say, “Here’s the correct interpretation! Here’s what I teach about salvation and the sacraments and the Church!” Who is going to determine what the rule of the Word is?
Well, Calvin will determine this!
In other words, when you think it through, what Calvin is really saying here is this: “Fathers and Councils are of authority only in so far as I determine that what they teach is in accord with what I have determined the Bible to be teaching!”
Luther, who always had a way with words, put the principle even more succinctly: “In these matters of faith, to be sure, each Christian is for himself pope and church” (Werke, Weimar: 1898, 5:407, 35).
The Unraveling of the Church
Now, here the tragedy begins to unfold.
The moment Luther began preaching sola Scriptura and the right of private interpretation, immediately there was an explosion of interpretations and, with this, an explosion of divisions within Protestantism. The result was immediate chaos.
This is simply an historical fact. It could have been predicted. In fact it was predicted — and not simply by opponents of Luther. Luther himself foresaw what would come of his teaching and example.
There will be the greatest confusion. Nobody will allow himself to be led by another man’s doctrine or authority. Everybody will be his own rabbi; hence the greatest scandals (quoted in O’Hare, The Facts About Luther, p. 209).
As the Protestant movements began instantly to splinter and division and chaos ensued, Luther complained:
There are as many sects and beliefs as there are heads. This fellow will have nothing to do with baptism; another denies the Sacrament; a third believes that there is another world between this and the Last Day. Some teach that Christ is not God; some say this, some say that. There is no rustic so rude but that, if he dreams or fancies anything, it must be the whisper of the Holy Spirit, and he himself a prophet (Ibid, p. 208).
Luther lived to see those he had personally instructed in the faith reject his teaching and run off to preach their own doctrine.
How many doctors have I made through preaching and writing! Now they say, “Be off with you! Go off with you! Go to the devil!” Thus it must be. When we preach they laugh …. When we get angry and threaten them, they mock us, snap their fingers at us and laugh in their sleeves (Ibid, p. 207).
Luther even admitted that the chaos was directly related to the rejection of the Catholic Church’s authority.
Since the downfall of Popery and the cessation of excommunications and spiritual penalties, the people have learned to despise the word of God. They no longer care for churches; they have ceased to fear and honor God … After throwing off the yoke of the Pope, everyone wishes to live as he pleases (Sungenis, Not by Scripture Alone, p. 365).
There is nothing really surprising here. In fact, the logic seems quite inescapable:
You have (a) the ridicule and rejection of the authority of the Church; (b) the insistence that Scripture is the believer’s sole infallible rule of faith and practice; (c) the bold assertion that when it comes to the interpretation of Scripture, each Christian serves as his own Pope and Church, and … Should anyone with a brain be shocked when you wind up with individualism, with subjectivism, and with as many views as there are interpreters?
How could it be otherwise?
Luther Out-popes the Pope
So what did Luther do? Did the good professor scratch his head, furrow his brow and think to himself, “Hmm, maybe I’ve made an error here and should rethink my position. Maybe there has to be some authority in Christ’s Church above that of the individual and his interpretation of Scripture.” What did Luther do?
It’s clear that Luther did struggle a great deal, especially at the beginning. He did question himself, especially at the beginning. But as time progressed, in response to the chaos and fragmentation unleashed by his own preaching of sola Scriptura and the right of private judgment, rather than question himself, Luther became ever more bold in the assertion of his own authority. He began to prohibit his followers from exercising the private judgment he continued to insist on for himself.
One of my mentors in my early study of Catholicism was the well-known apologist Jimmy Akin. Some years back Jimmy wrote a wonderful little article titled, “Sola Scriptura: Theory or Practice.” In this article, he quotes at length from historians Will and Ariel Durant on the response of the Reformers to the division brought about by their preaching of the right of private judgment.
The quotations are enlightening, to say the least.
It’s instructive to observe how Luther moved from tolerance to dogma as his power and certainty grew …. In the Open Letter to the Christian Nobility (1520), Luther ordained “every man a priest,” with the right to interpret the Bible according to his private judgment and individual light …. Luther should have never grown old. Already in 1522 he was out-papaling the popes. “I do not admit,” he wrote, “that my doctrine can be judged by anyone, even the angels. He who does not receive my doctrine cannot be saved.” Luther now agreed with the Catholic Church that “Christians require certainty, definite dogmas, and a sure Word of God which they can trust to live and die by.” As the Church in the early centuries of Christianity, divided and weakened by a growing multiplicity of ferocious sects, had felt compelled to define her creed and expel all dissidents, so now Luther, dismayed by the variety of quarrelsome sects that had sprouted from the seed of private judgment, passed step by step from toleration to dogmatism. “All men now presume to criticize the Gospel,” he complained, “almost every old doting fool or prating sophist must, forsooth, be a doctor of divinity.” Stung by Catholic taunts that he had let loose a dissolvent anarchy of creeds and morals, he concluded, with the Church, that social order required some closure to debate, some recognized authority to serve as “an anchor of faith” …. Sebastian Franck thought there was more freedom of speech and belief among the Turks than in the Lutheran states.
And it wasn’t just Luther. In Strasbourg, the Reformer Martin Bucer “urged the civil authorities in Protestant states to extirpate all who professed a ‘false’ religion; such men, he said, are worse than murderers; even their wives and children and cattle should be destroyed.”
Luther’s disciple, Melanchthon, “recommended that the rejection of infant baptism, or of original sin, or of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, should be punished as capital crimes …. He demanded the suppression of all books that opposed or hindered Lutheran teachings.”
Reigning as a veritable king in Geneva, Calvin
was as thorough as any pope in rejecting individualism of belief. This greatest legislator of Protestantism completely repudiated the principle of private judgment with which the new religion had begun. He had seen the fragmentation of the Reformation into a hundred sects, and foresaw more; in Geneva he would have none of them. There a body of learned divines would formulate an authoritative creed; those Genevans who could not accept it would have to seek other habitats. Heresy again became [both] an insult to God and treason to the state and was to be punished by death (The Story of Civilization, volume 6, p. 420-425 and 472-3).
So let’s get this straight. Luther and Melanchthon and Calvin initiate the entire revolt against the Church’s authority on the principle of the Bible alone and the right of private judgment: Unless I am convinced! Only the Word of God lies beyond the judgment of the individual! Every man his own pope and Church!
But when it became clear that this principle leads to theological and ecclesiastical chaos, they did what? That’s right. They took firm control and began to systematically deny this right to everyone but themselves.
In other words, as Mr. Akin concludes his article,
All that “Here I stand, the Word of God compels me, I can do no other” stuff had to be interpreted narrowly. “I can do no other,” meant, “I can do no other.” It did not mean you could do something other if you felt the Word of God compelling you. You had to do what I said because I was the one the Word of God had compelled.
Jimmy has a wonderful sense of humor.
There’s really no escaping the reality that sola Scriptura and the right of private judgment have led inexorably to theological chaos and the destruction of the Church’s unity. And within Protestantism, it continues to do the same.
So how do Protestant pastors deal with this problem? How do they preach sola Scriptura and the right of private judgment while maintaining unity in their churches?
It’s an interesting question, and one I have some experience with, having been a Protestant pastor before entering the Catholic Church. But to answer it, we’ll have to pick up in the next installment. Stay tuned!
Coming Soon: Luther: The Rest of the Story, Part VI