Earlier this week, on the advice of some of my more techie friends, I finally decided to bite the bullet and update the operating system on my iPhone. Now, I know this might not sound "newsworthy" for some of you, but I found it really stressful to click the "Confirm Update" button. Not because I don't trust my friends' advice, but because of the bazillion page disclosure that I was supposed to read before doing the update. You see, clicking "confirm" was an indication that I had read and agreed with the conditions described in the document...and I knew that I had not...not in any depth nor detail.
There were just too many words...with a whole bunch of legal and technical stuff that I didn't understand...so I skipped it. And I've been thinking about it ever since...partly because it bugs me that I don't know what I agreed to...but mostly because I realize we do that a lot as a society. We check in at the doctor's office, and with a cursory glance, we sign a bunch of forms that they tell us to sign. We sit at a mortgage closing while the agent puts papers in front of us saying, sign here, and here...initial here, here and here. We sort of understand them, but not always. Some of us drop off our tax information to a professional and sign whatever he or she gives back to us...others enter data into store-bought software that we assume, or hope, knows the tax code. The list of things we sign-off on, without in-depth knowledge of what they mean is probably longer than we really want to admit.
So why is this happening at such an alarming rate? Why do we neglect to be informed? Why do we assume? Why do we abdicate our responsibility to learn and know for ourselves and instead just take someone else's word?
Perhaps it is because we are naive...too trusting...we believe that others will tell us what we need to know. Could it be that we tend to only dig into the things we already believe to be true, so we have no need to question? Perhaps society has lost our ability or desire to investigate and think critically. It is possible that we are just too busy...or, quite honestly...maybe we have just become complacent and lazy.
With increasing frequency, we are just not up for the hard work of digging deeper. Unless something is particularly vile or cosmically far-fetched, we tend to just accept whatever is laid before us and give very little effort or consideration for what it might actually mean in a bigger picture or down the road.
And, sadly, this is true for many Christians as well...especially when it comes to the hard work of studying scripture and doing theology together. And by doing theology...I mean the art of formulating our understanding of God and how God is at work in the world at any given time. Now I'm not saying that everyone is guilty of this, but when studies show that nearly all Christians surveyed indicate that they have multiple Bibles in their homes, yet less than 20% actually read it daily...we may have a problem. When the majority of people who claim Christianity as their faith tradition but do not attend worship regularly...we may have a problem. When Christians are willing to let someone else - be it a pastor, an author of a book, a television personality or a Facebook meme - tell us what to think and believe, we may have a problem. And folks, if the only Bible-time you get in a week is what is read in worship or what the pastor says on Sunday morning, there is a problem.
Someone once said something like (and I'm paraphrasing): "If we still believe the exact same things we did as children, then one must question whether we have grown up at all." The same is true for Christians...if we aren't constantly learning something new about God, about our faith, about our mission as Christians, then can we really say we're growing in Christ? I don't think so.
Nonetheless, the reality is that very few people are willing to dig into the scriptures...to be challenged by them...to learn and grow from them...on a regular basis. A whole lot of Christians would prefer to let someone else tell them what the Bible says and to interpret for them. In a way, American Christianity has assumed the reverse position of the Reformers. We have willingly given up the very freedom they sought in the today's tenet: Sola Scriptura.
You see, for Christians in the Middle Ages, there was no freedom to access the scriptures, much less to give them critical thought. For one thing, this was before the invention of the printing press and there weren't any Gideons. Bibles were not readily available. The few that did exist were held within the church...and interpreted by the church leadership.
One writer described it as the Kinko's of theology. For those who aren't familiar with Kinko's it was a revolutionary copying service that was big in the 90s. You could drop off a stack of papers and come back and hour later to find 100 sets of 2-sided copies bound and tabbed for your convenience. Kinko's did the work for you. At the time of the Reformation, the church did the work for you. If you had a theological question, you took it to the church where the magisterial authority would provide the answer. There was no room for discussion or debate. Whatever was handed back was what you believed to be truth.
Prior to the Reformation and counter-Reformation, Christians were given a measured truth from the church. They were not allowed to "do theology" on their own. Now, in defense of the Catholic church, this was for good reason. If the church controlled the truth and kept people from wrestling with scriptures on their own, then they could limit the potential for heresy. If there was only one right doctrine interpreted from one source, then the people could not be led astray.
So...I get that...but the outcome of this was rote faith. People knew what they believed...based on what was dictated to them...but they had no idea why they believed it. Church confessions, doctrines and interpretations were handed down, without question...and the people repeated them back without understanding or conviction. The layperson could not defend their faith, even to themselves. Nor could they be sure what was biblical truth and what was not.
In fact, the common Christian had very little exposure to the whole of scripture. They only heard the parts that the church leaders decided to share. And worse yet, if you didn't speak Latin, the scripture that was shared meant nothing to you since it was always read in Latin. Leading up to the Reformation, the main source of Bible stories was artwork - paintings, murals, and windows - and even those were offered through the lens of the artist and the patron who commissioned the work.
Ironically, no one seemed to consider any of this to be a problem...until Martin Luther, who, by the way, was an Augustinian monk, not a priest. I misspoke about that last week. Nonetheless, Luther the monk gets his hands on a Bible and starts reading it...and wrestling with it...and asking questions...and is convicted that everyone deserves this holy experience. He encountered God in the scriptures...and affirmed the truth that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone...a truth, which by the way, he did not see being lived out by the church.
Luther and the Reformers asserted that the scriptures were inspired by God to reveal God's self to the people of God. Scripture was all one needed in order to know God revealed in Jesus Christ, and it offered the plumb line necessary for serving him faithfully. The people did not need a church leader...or another doctrine...or a set of church rules in order to have a relationship with God...they just needed to know God for themselves.
Therefore, to Luther, it was essential that the people have access to the scriptures. The confessions and doctrines and traditions and interpretations that the church offered may have been important for the orderliness of the religion, but they were not necessarily biblically sound. Luther maintained that the people had the right to determine the truth for themselves...as it was revealed in the scriptures.
So, sola scriptura became short hand for the idea that the only authoritative source for the faith and practice of Christianity is scripture...not all these other things. Sola scripture was the rallying cry of the Reformers...asserting that scripture alone is complete, authoritative, infallible and true. Sola scriptura wasn't meant to say that traditions and teachings of the church weren't important...but it was definitely the Reformers' way of stating that they were only deemed true and right to the extent that they were revealed in, by, and through scripture. Scripture was the measuring stick of all things in the church. Sola scriptura was also meant to be an overt rejection to an individual's right to proclaim authority over interpretation. In other words, folks, there is always the distinct possibility that we could be wrong.
In a sense, sola scriptura is about the importance for Christians to be able to claim and defend their own faith...to know the teachings of Christ...to have their own knowledge of God...all of which are revealed in the scriptures.
More specifically, sola scriptura still challenges Christians to discern God's truth and make appropriate interpretations by struggling with scripture and doctrines and teachings for ourselves...rather than letting someone else do it for us. It means studying the scriptures, engaging in thought-provoking dialogue, and learning from those who have gone before...as well as those whose experiences of God are different than our own. Not because the scriptures will give us straightforward answers to all our questions - that rarely happens. And definitely not so others can tell us their answers. Sola scripture assures us that in the presence of the Holy Spirit wrestling with the scriptures for ourselves will undoubtedly reveal God and God's will to us.
This seems to be part of Paul's message to Timothy in our reading today. As the church in Ephesus faced false teachers and heresy, Paul says to Timothy who was the appointed leader: begin with what you know to be true from the scriptures...and how they point to salvation through faith in Christ...but also rely on the wisdom of those who have long-walked the life of faith...and learn from others who have had similar struggles.
Now, let's be clear...the scriptures Timothy would have known were mostly what we call the Old Testament. He would have heard the stories of the gospels...and maybe read some of Paul's letters...but he did not have a Bible per se. Not to mention, most everything would have been orally conveyed...not in writing. So, while it's not a direct comparison between Timothy's situation and ours today, Paul's message still seems just as pertinent now as it was back then.
You see, Timothy was encouraged to continue in what he has already learned...but also to be willing to learn more...and to inspire the church to learn as well. Paul writes: convince, rebuke (or perhaps better said, challenge) and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. In others words, Timothy has a God-given responsibility to help the church do the hard work of discovery so that together they will be able to discern what is right and true.
This responsibility...and privilege...of the church...has not changed. It is still ours today.
What has changed, though, is that we are greatly advantaged over the early churches. We've got two thousand years of church history to guide us. We have an agreed canon of inspired scripture available to us in multiple languages, translations and interpretations...in print...on our computers...literally at our fingertips on phones. Not to mention we have unfettered access to learning resources and tools. And most importantly, we have each other...fellow Christians with whom we can learn and struggle and discern. Thankfully, we live in a place where we are free to do so...no government stopping us...no distance hindering us...no real threat of persecution here. We are free to share our experiences...thoughts...and discernment...as we seek the Holy Spirit's guidance in our wrestling with how to live the gospel in the 21st century.
And folks, there is still plenty of wrestling for the church to do. God has inspired the Holy Scriptures for our teaching, but God has not directly answered every life question in them. Some call the Bible an instruction manual, but I disagree. An instruction manual is a step-by-step "how to". I don't know about you, but it seems to me that there are a whole lot of things in our world that are not addressed step-by -step in the Bible. It's not that simple and straight-forward.
Likewise, there are many things about which church people have vastly different understandings...and others about which we vehemently disagree. So yes, there is still much more to discover about ourselves and our relationship with God.
Still, sola scriptura assures us that everything we need in order to know God...everything we need in order to be certain that we are saved by grace through faith...everything we need to faithfully follow Christ...in available right here...when we consider it in its entire narrative...when we read it in the presence of the Holy Spirit....when we boldly engage and study it...when we listen for God.
Friends, Luther was willing to die for the common Christian's right to read, hear, and discern what the Bible says about God - about God's love, about God's mercy, about God's faithfulness, about God's promise of salvation...all of which are revealed though his Word...both written here and incarnate in Christ Jesus.
Now, here we are 500 years later...with this beautiful love story between God and God's people readily available. It is an incredible story of love and grace...justice and mercy...salvation and restoration for God's people...For his imperfect, ill-equipped people. For his willing servants and his stubborn sheep. For those who are unlovable as well as those who are unloving...For his people who hurting...desperate...lost...ashamed. For the timid, the bold, the fearful, the brave. It is story of hope for all the ages. Why on earth would we not want to read it...study it...and embrace it? It is, after all, our story...ours to live and to tell. Thanks be to God.