There is a great lot of talk in the evangelical and Reformed world(s) about sola Scriptura but one has the growing sense that not only is the Reformation scripture principle not well understood (e.g., it is often misconstrued as an endorsement of biblicism) its implications for the doctrine of Christian liberty or what Martin Luther (1483-1546) described as The Freedom of the Christian Man are also not well understood anymore.
Luther articulated the fundamental principle of Christian freedom at the risk of his own life, at the Diet of Worms (1521): “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and by plain reason and not by Popes and councils who have so often contradicted themselves, my conscience is captive to the word of God. To go against conscience is neither right nor safe. I cannot and I will not recant.”
When Luther said “Scripture and plain reason” he was not making them coordinate but, despite his frequent condemnations of “that whore reason” neither did he reject a role for reason in theology. See David Bagchi’s terrific essay on this in Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment.
When Luther spoke of “conscience” he had in mind the conscience that is bound by God’s perspicuous Word. The authority resides not in the conscience but in the Word. The conscience has been taken captive by the Word of God.
Luther was articulating briefly the genuine Protestant doctrine of Scripture alone, i.e., that Scripture (not Luther) has a unique, final authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life. Implicit in the Scripture principle is the Protestant conviction that Scripture is inherently and sufficiently perspicuous so that what must be known for faith and the Christian life can be known.
The Protestant principle is not the autonomy of the individual believer. The church reads the Scripture but where the Roman communion places the church coordinate to or even over Scripture, the Protestants place the church under Scripture. We serve the Word, the Word does not serve us. Thus, we say that the church (as an institution and in her assemblies) has only ministerial authority. She did not produce the Word. She can never contradict the Word. She cannot change the Word. The church only administers the Word.
This means that though the Word is incorrigible, the church is corrigible. Historically, the church has always become corrupt and needed Reformation. That was true in the 16th century and it’s true today. This is why the Westminster Divines wrote what they did in Westminster Confession of Faith 25.5, “The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a church on earth, to worship God according to his will.”
The church as such is indefectible. There will always be an expression of the visible church on the earth. Nevertheless, particular expressions of the church are not necessarily indefectible. That is why we speak of “deformation” and “reformation.”
The sole, unique authority of the Bible, God’s inerrant, infallible Word is provides and guards our liberty against the tyranny of human opinion, as Luther knew, even when that opinion is ecclesiastical.
Many of us have spent time in forms of Christianity that are very strong on rules and slavery and very weak on grace and freedom. By “rules and slavery” I refer to the imposition of man-made rules by which sanctity is measured. There was the law of the “quiet time.” There was the (usually) unspoken law against smoking and drinking alcohol. Then there are rules about television, about clothing, and the list could go on.
The first aspect of the freedom of the Christian, is the unique, normative authority of the Scriptures (sola Scriptura) as confessed by the churches. The second aspect of Christian freedom is liberty from the tyranny of human opinion. Rules are inevitable. They are necessary. Church orders are unavoidable but they must remain subordinate to Holy Scripture. They must serve Scripture. They must have some Scriptural foundation. One of the great errors of the medieval church is that the church reversed that order. Scripture was subordinated to ecclesiastical authority and rules (e.g., monastic rules) proliferated.
Grace, on the other hand, liberates. Grace, in the nature of things, is given freely to sinners. Where sin abounded, grace abounded more. Grace brings freedom to helpless captives. Christ did not die for his people because they were good or even because he foresaw what they would do. He obeyed, died, and was raised for us with the knowledge of what we really are by nature, after the fall: sinners, rebels against God. Nevertheless, for Christ’s sake, God has freely loved us in Christ and lavished his favor upon us, made us alive, given us faith, and united us to Christ.
As recipients of such rich and richly undeserved favor freely given we are free. Because it was freely given it was not earned. Because it was not earned it cannot be kept. We do not “keep” it. Grace keeps us. In that case, we are free from the tyranny of human expectations at least when it comes to approval from God. This is not antinomian counsel. Because we have been freed from the shackles of the demands of the law, for acceptance with God, we are free to obey God’s law, in the Spirit (who gave the law!), in Christ, in gratitude.
We are also free to push to the side purely man-made laws and rules, when they conflict with God’s Word. Arguably the sorts of rules that prevail in some forms of American fundamentalist Christianity may once have had a purpose but such rules often become disconnected from their original purpose and take on a life of their own.
One of the great blessings of the Reformation is that it not only delivered us from the tyranny of purely human (ecclesiastical) tradition. It also delivered us from the tyranny of informal rules. No one has to drink or smoke. Wisdom may dictate that abstaining is the best course of action but whether one does or doesn’t isn’t a matter of righteousness (conformity to God’s law) but wisdom and freedom. You might not approve of the sorts of people with whom one associates. People didn’t always approve of the sorts of people with whom our most Holy Savior associated.
Once more, freedom is not license to sin. It is license to serve Christ, to walk by the Spirit but it is for freedom that we have been redeemed.
On 18 April 1521 Martin Luther stood before civil and ecclesiastical authorities at the Diet (Riechstag) of Worms. Heiko Oberman translated Luther’s famous speech thus:
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason—for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves—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, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.”
You will notice that perhaps the most famous bit, “Here I stand. I can do no other” (Hier stehe Ich, kann nicht anders) is missing. Reformation scholars have doubted the authenticity of these words for about 50 years. They appeared in the first printed transcript but are thought to have been added. CT has a short account here.
Regardless of the authenticity of the words, “Here I Stand, I can do no other,” they certainly capture the spirit of Luther’s speech. Nevertheless, in our modern, egalitarian culture, these words (and especially the phrase “plain reason”) are liable to misunderstanding. He was not setting himself up as the final authority nor was he anticipating the Enlightenment assertion of human autonomy. He was asserting the essential clarity (perspicuity) of Scripture against the medieval and Roman view that Scripture must be subordinated to the authority of the church. Luther stood, despite his doubts and trembling, because the Word of God is intended to be heard (and read) and understood. What needs to be known for the Christian faith and life can be known. This is why Scripture is the unique (sola) authority for the Christian faith and life. Even ecclesiastical authorities must be subject to and corrected by it.
For Luther, reason had a function in the Christian faith and life. He did not counsel irrationalism (the denial of reason). Neither, however, did he counsel rationalism (the supremacy of reason). As David Bagchi has shown, in his essay in Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment, Luther was quite willing both to denounce that “whore, reason” and to invoke it in defense of his views depending upon the circumstances. The principle was that reason is always a servant (minister) and never a master (magister). To place reason (or feelings or anything) ahead of Scripture is to indulge in what Luther called the “theology of glory” (theologia gloriae). He taught a theology of the cross (theologia crucis). What we think or wish to be true must be submitted to the judgment of Holy Scripture.
We typically celebrate Reformation Day on October 31, remembering the Ninety-Five Theses but we would do better perhaps to celebrate April 18 as Reformation Day. Looking back on the Ninety-Five Theses years later Luther said that, in 1517, he was still a “right frantic and roaring papist.” Arguably, by 1521, Luther had recovered the biblical doctrine of justification by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), according to Scripture alone (sola Scripture). He had articulated a theological and hermeneutical (i.e., a way of reading Scripture) distinction between the law (or works) and gospel (or grace or promise). By this date in 1521 the basic building blocks of the Reformation were all in place and even though he did not fully understand their implications and would not understand them for several years, everything necessary for a thorough Reformation of the church was at hand.
They are just as needed and useful today as they were 490 years ago. Here we must stand. We can do no other. God help us.
This essay first appeared serially on the Heidelblog in June 2013.