Misunderstanding "Scripture Alone"

Generally, when U.S. Christians think of the phrase “Scripture alone” we understand it to mean that the Bible should be our only authority in following Jesus. In his book Words of Life , Timothy Ward argues that this is a misunderstanding of the 16th Century Reformers teaching of Sola scriptura (Scripture alone).

Building on several other authors works Ward argues as follows:

  • For the first five centuries Christians recognized scripture as the only divine authority, but also followed traditions.  These Christians  had an understanding of the Bible that valued the  interpretation in the community setting. Because of this willingness to learn as a body, Christians followed certain creeds and church traditions which clergy often gave as guidelines for proper understanding of the scriptures (Ward calls this “Tradition I“) .
  • Eventually the Church in Rome started to hold scripture and tradition as both equally divinely authoritative (“Tradition II“).
  • The Reformers cry of ” scripture alone” was not to throw out tradition altogether, but to keep tradition subservient to scripture (to return to Tradition I).
  • One group of Christians, the Anabaptists,  specifically sought to have only the Bible (“Tradition o“) as an authority. This was reflective of their more iconoclastic nature as compared to the other Christian groups of the time.
  • Tradition 0 (The Anabaptist understanding) , fueled by a New World sense of individualism and democracy, has led to the creation of hundreds of Christian denominations in the U.S. . These denominations exist specifically because people with a Tradition 0 understanding are more skeptical of authority and are less likely to take heed to historical guidelines for theology. Because of this there is an overemphasis and division on even the smallest of teachings.

While it is certainly admirable that many of us who are Christians in the US are zealous to be true to scripture, we must also remember that God has given us nearly 2,000 years worth of brothers and sisters who have the same Holy Spirit. Scripture is certainly our only authority that comes directly from God, but God has given us each other to help understand His Word as well. While we should never put tradition on the same level as scripture and we should realize that even traditions are wrong at times, we should certainly seek to learn from and even follow many traditions. If we are not willing to at least consider them we are essentially saying that we can understand the Bible better than 2,000 years worth of Christ’s followers.

If you want to flex your understanding of “scripture alone” (the Tradition I kind)  check out some of the great creeds and confessions for yourself.

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