Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Sola scriptura

Ronald K. Rittgers at The Christian Century reviews Alister McGrath's Christianity's Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution—A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First. The "dangerous idea" was "that the Bible is the main source of authority for the Christian religion and that all Christians have the right to interpret it for themselves." The review explains why the idea was dangerous, but also valuable, and also why Protestantism needs Catholicism. Some excerpts from the review:
Protestantism is dangerous. It is an explosive and ultimately uncontrollable force that can destabilize and undermine church and government. It can reject time-honored truths, traditions and institutions—including its own—and posit new ones in their place, only to repeat this process again and again. Protestantism is infinitely restless, constantly moving in many divergent directions at the same time. Like evolution, it possesses astonishing power to create highly adaptive religious organisms and equally astonishing power to destroy them if they fail to develop appropriately.

This is how Alister McGrath, professor of historical theology at the University of Oxford, depicts Protestantism in Christianity's Dangerous Idea. Why is Protestantism so dangerous? Because it is based on a dangerous idea: that the Bible is the main source of authority for the Christian religion and that all Christians have the right to interpret it for themselves. This conviction is the source not only of Protestantism's vitality and flexibility, but also of its lack of fixedness and its innate tendency toward schism. ....

The only thing the early Protestants shared was the dangerous idea. And they quickly learned just how dangerous it could be when they found themselves unable to reach consensus on important matters of doctrine. After examining the failure of Luther, Zwingli and others to resolve their differences on the Lord's Supper, McGrath observes, "We see here the fundamental difficulty that the Reformation faced: the absence of any authoritative interpreter of scripture that could give rulings on contested matters of biblical interpretation."

Protestants attempted to remedy this problem by constructing various interpretative authorities—Luther's catechisms, Calvin's Institutes, the marginalia of the Geneva Bible—but none could furnish truth claims that were accepted by all Protestants. Whatever external coherence early Protestants had was largely dependent on the presence of a defining other—Catholics in the early modern period and secularists in the later modern era. This need for an external source of self-definition became part of the core of Protestantism.

...McGrath moves on to consider several fundamental questions regarding the identity of Protestantism, especially its relationship to the Bible. Here he emphasizes Protestants' need to return constantly to scripture to reevaluate current beliefs, practices and structure and make sure that they reflect as faithfully as possible the light of the gospel. In this sense, Protestantism is more a method of doing theology than a specific set of doctrines or practices. This method does not and cannot yield an ample supply of eternal verities, but Protestants believe that it does provide sufficient clarity on the vital matter of "things that are necessary to salvation," which is the real concern behind their belief in the Bible's perspicuity. McGrath notes that the Protestant method is not for those "who like everything to be rigorously and clearly defined," but it does appeal to those who believe that the gospel must be creatively and continually reincarnated in its ever-changing surroundings.

It is true that the defining Protestant idea is dangerous. But one can question whether McGrath has plumbed the full depths of its threat. The real danger is that when confronted with the competing Protestant truth claims about crucial matters of faith—including those that touch on salvation—theologically reflective Protestants may lose confidence in their ability to interpret or even trust scripture, and thus their ability to know God. ....

Some people view the Bible largely as a human artifact that contains important human wisdom about God but needs to be supplemented and corrected by more modern sources of wisdom. McGrath makes clear that such liberal Protestants are a small minority in the Protestant world. It seems that most—including McGrath, perhaps—continue to believe in the perspicuity of scripture. It is remarkable, after all, that the vast majority of Protestants agree with one another and with most non-Protestant Christians about the essentials of salvation—that is, that it comes only through Christ and requires grace and faith. But one wonders if this surprising agreement is not owing to another yet dangerous idea that was present in the primordial materials from which Protestantism burst forth and that thus became part of its genetic code: the importance of clinging to the ancient rule of faith. If this is the case, Catholicism did not simply motivate the construction of a unified Protestant front; it also provided Protestants with a certain immunity against the most destructive possibilities of their core idea. [more]

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