“A simple layman armed with Scripture is greater than the mightiest pope without it.”
How highly controversial! Scripture alone is enough. Scripture is self-authenticating, clear, its own interpreter, and sufficient as the final authority of Christian beliefs. The idea is that whoever bases their faith on Scripture, whoever seeks guidance and answers in Scripture, doesn’t need anything or anyone else and will never be disappointed.
This concept of Scripture Alone or Sola Scriptura was introduced by the same man who said those words in the beginning of this article: Martin Luther, the German reformer who saw so many flaws in the Catholic Church of the 15th century that he simply had to speak up against it. His idea that Scripture alone stands at the center of an individual’s striving for and learning about God was eagerly adopted by many, and eventually by the younger evangelical denominations in the United States. To this day it is a key principal of many conservative Baptist and Lutheran churches and all those who call themselves “bible-believing.”
I firmly believe that the Bible is indeed God’s love letter to us, his children, and that all the guidance and nudges we need to come closer to this love are right there in Scripture. So yes, I call myself bible-believing.
Wait. How can a progressive Christian who is living in a same-sex marriage be bible-believing? How can someone like me adopt the same term as conservative Christians? Do I believe that my sexuality is wrong, that my wife is an abomination? Of course not. Then why does my hand not tremble when I write: “I believe in the Bible”?
Sola Scriptura does not mean that Scripture exists independently from time and space. It doesn’t mean that every single word is to be taken exactly how it is written. Because the dilemma already starts there–what is written?
Out of many examples, let’s take the most (in)famous one: the word homosexual.
What does it mean? A homosexual person is someone who is emotionally and sexually attracted to a person of the same sex. Someone who wishes to enter into a committed and loving relationship with another man or woman based on mutual consent and affection.
There is no word in biblical Greek or Hebrew, the languages of the early scriptures, that is able to translate this idea fully. Therefore, the word homosexual cannot appear in the original versions of the Bible at all. In fact, the first time it appeared in an English translation of the Bible was in 1946 (Revised Standard Version). It began to replace other words such as sodomite, who, contrary to popular belief, was just an inhabitant of the city of Sodom (which was destroyed for its lack of hospitality and not for sexual acts between men, as clearly stated in Ezekiel 16:49).
Words like arsenokoitai, which Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10, referred to shrine prostitutes in the ancient Greek and Roman belief systems, and were later translated wrongly to homosexual.
No, Sola Scriptura does not mean we must blindly follow every word that we find in our English translations.
To the contrary: Sola Scriptura asks us to examine every word closely, to go to its origin and understand its context apart from modern connotations and traditions.
Sola Scriptura demands that we challenge what is presented to us as authentic Scripture. Every verse has to be examined not only linguistically but also according to two fundamental principals of Scripture interpretation:
- The Bible can only settle matters about which it speaks plainly.
- The Bible cannot speak about matters today about which it didn’t speak about when it was written.
Every passage–if not every word–must be stripped of traditions, of 21st century Western cultural ideas, and interpreted according to the historical context, the intended audience, and the background of the writer.
This is the true meaning of Sola Scriptura: To understand the Bible as it was meant and not as it was distorted for political reasons and passed down from language to language and culture to culture until it was nothing more than an instrument of power and oppression.
But what about those matters about which the Bible does not speak plainly? What about abortion? What about the ordination of women? What about homosexuality? If we cannot find answers and guidance for everything in the Bible, what is it good for?
Luckily, Scripture does speak very plainly about that. Jesus says: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
About Franziska Garner
Franziska Garner was born and grew up in Germany. In September 2015 she moved to the United States and married her partner Lisa. Together they are building a ministry (www.wetfeetministry.com) with a special outreach to the LGBT+ community.