Reformation–Interpretive Anarchy and Chaos?
Did the Reformation loose interpretive anarchy upon the world?
Did it make every believer into a little pope?
Does Sola Scriptura generate doctrinal chaos rather than consensus?
Kevin Vanhoozer asks and convincingly answers these questions in his 2016 book Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity.
He notes that critics of the Reformation point to Roman Catholicism’s structural unity and definite authority as a model of the way things should be. In contrast, they charge the Reformation with spawning
- skepticism, and
- church schism.
The chief offenders, they say, are the two doctrines of Sola Scriptura and the priesthood of all believers.
On the surface this may seem true. Some Protestants have taught that because Jesus promised his disciples that the Holy Spirit would guide them into all the truth, all Christians need is their Bible and the Holy Spirit.
This, unfortunately, misinterprets Jesus and misunderstands how the Holy Spirit leads into the truth. Jesus promised the apostles unique guidance as they founded the church. But even their guidance was not individualistic. In Acts we find apostles consulting together, praying together, and then declaring together, “It seemed good to us and to the Holy Spirit.”
The Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura means that Scripture is the supreme authority for the Body of Christ and all its members. No other authority, such as the pope or church tradition, stands alongside the truth.
However, Sola Scriptura does not mean that Scripture as interpreted by each believer is that believer’s sole authority. The Holy Spirit gives elders teaching authority within the church (Tit. 2:15; 1 Tim. 2:12). Believers are told to submit to that authority (Heb.13:17). Yet, elders, and even groups of elders, are fallible.
Scripture alone is infallible. As my friend, Larry Smith, loves to quote, the Holy Spirit has made the Church as a whole “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim.3:15). Members of Christ’s body read rightly Scripture’s infallible truth together with other members, under the authority of Christ, and through the illumination of the Spirit.
In other words, when Peter writes “you are … a royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9), he is reflecting the pattern of authority God has stablished. “Royal” signals authority. “Priesthood” signals community. The plural “you are” signals interdependence, not independence.
Practically, this means we seek the truth in Scripture by:
- attending to its message,
- requesting the Spirit’s illumination,
- committing to obey its commands,
- listening respectfully to believers from all ages,
- acknowledging our fallibility,
- remaining open to correction, and
- being passionate about truth but temperate in our opinions about its interpretation.
The Holy Spirit has not chosen to lead all parts of the body of Christ into the same understanding of all parts of the truth. This is evident both locally and universally. Yet, the faith-consensus that exists when Scripture is studied in concert with the Church universal under the guidance of the Spirit is amazing.
We can affirm together with all the saints, past and present, our belief
“in God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth;
in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered for us, was crucified, buried, and rose again, ascended to the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from whence he will come again to judge the living and the dead;
in the Holy Spirit who inspired the Holy Scriptures, who by grace justifies us through faith alone and who also sanctifies us into the likeness of Jesus Christ;
and in the holy Christian Church, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.”
The Reformers did not loose interpretive anarchy in separating from the Roman church. The Roman church left the catholic faith by making salvation dependent upon works, upon membership in the Roman church, and upon submission to its authority.
The Reformation remained faithful to both the unity of the truth and the plurality of the gifts of the Spirit. I commend Vanhoozer’s Biblical Authority After Babel to my readers who enjoy theology and don’t mind wading chest deep. I hope this taste whetted your appetite for the full course.