On September 24, 2017, in recognition of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s Senior Pastor, Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen, delivered the third of his four sermons on the great themes of the Reformation. Today’s was devoted to sola scriptura (scripture alone) The first, grace alone (sola gratia). The second, sola fide (faith alone). The last, where do we go from here?
The Call to Worship
The Call to Worship opened the service with these familiar words from Micah 6: “What does the Holy One require of us? But to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.”
Listening for the Word
Readings from Holy Scripture
Luke 1: 1-4 (NRSV):
“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”
“Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” So the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”
“This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”
“Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’ So the rumor spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’
“his is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”
“Protestants [seriously] take the Bible, and . . . fiercely we fight over its interpretation. It all comes down to scripture and what it means.”
“I believe in God and get frustrated by how people sometimes wield scripture as a weapon.”
“[W]hat does scripture say and mean – and how does our understanding of the Bible inform what we believe and how we should live in our communities? Those are uniquely Protestant questions, and over the centuries they have led to uniquely Protestant problems. Roman Catholics argue over what the Church says; we struggle over what the Bible says.”
“The two gospel passages just read remind us that what we call Holy Scripture was written by ordinary people. These are odd snippets of the gospels that, frankly, don’t have much substance to them, but they offer a window onto the ordinariness of the authors. At the start of one gospel and the end of another we get a glimpse of their down-to-earth personalities”
“Luke opens his gospel by saying that what follows is an effort to put down ‘an orderly account’ of extraordinary events. The author tells us, almost apologetically, that this is merely his attempt to make sense of things that might otherwise seem incredible. Thank you, Luke, for your humility.”
“John’s gospel closes with the author boasting of knowing so much more in the story that he’s not going to let us know about. In an all-too human burst of hyperbole, he says, ‘There are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.’ (John 21:25)”
“Scripture was written by human beings, people telling a story they had heard from others or had experienced themselves. Yes, the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, both in its writing and its reading. Yes, as we Presbyterians have said, it is ‘unique and authoritative.’ But it is not a record of divine dictation, as if God had uttered each word in a kind of magical transcription process. Nor is it ‘just another book,’ a collection of religious words that have little bearing on what the ‘real world’ is like.”
“Scripture is something else altogether. It’s part history, part poetry, part prophecy, part story, memoir, myth. We call it the Word of God because it bears within it a larger Truth – capital ‘T’ – to which its various parts point. Holy Scripture carries the compelling narrative of faith of the ordinary people of God, trying to understand who God is in their lives and in the world.”
“The words of the Bible, the psalmist tells us, ‘revive the soul.’ Many times at the bedside of a person gravely ill, I have seen the familiar words of scripture bring light and comfort. The words of scripture, the psalmist says, ‘rejoice the heart’ and ‘enlighten the eyes.’ They are ‘more to be desired than gold, even much fine gold.’ (Psalms 19:8, 10)”
“We should not underestimate the significance of scripture in our life as Christians, especially those of us who call ourselves Protestants. As we continue to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this fall, we’re reflecting on the great themes of that epic shift in the Church, and scripture alone is among them.”
“In the 16th century, power in the Christian Church tilted heavily toward Rome, with its vast ecclesiastical empire managed by a network of priests and bishops. Rome controlled all sources of religious authority – the wealth of the Church, its buildings and lands, its liturgies and rituals, its theology and doctrine. It even regulated access to salvation.”
“The Bible itself was also under Rome’s lock and key. Few common people could read their own local language, much less the Latin in which the Bible was written. It was read only by the educated few, mostly clergy in the hierarchy.”
“The Reformation initially offered a critique focused on the priestly office, but it soon escalated into a frontal assault on other sources of power. Luther, Calvin, and other reformers found in the Bible a formidable alternative to Rome’s clout. By declaring that scripture alone was the source of religious authority in the life of Christians, in one swift move Protestants swept away, discarded 16 centuries of accumulated Catholic doctrine and created an entirely new way of understanding Christian faith and imagining the Church.”
“The Reformers were able to wrest scripture away from the Church hierarchy through a combination of factors, not least of which was the advent of the moveable type printing press. It was as revolutionary then as the Internet has been in our age. With the Protestant emphasis on reading scripture, literacy became essential. For the first time in history it became important for common people to learn to read and write. In some areas controlled by early Protestants, literacy was required of the people. The printing press was perfectly timed, then, to begin to make Bibles and other literature. Luther was among the most prolific pamphleteers of his time. All this literature was suddenly available for the first time in the local language to ordinary people who could now read, and the Reformation caught fire.”
“We can still see the results of the dramatic move away from established Church tradition and toward scripture as ‘the only rule of life and faith,’ as Protestants have described the Bible. Worship for Protestants – as we see every Sunday here – became centered on reading and preaching the Word of God, not on Church doctrine and ritual.”
“To this day, we refuse to put our ultimate trust in an institution, but instead look to the Word of God in scripture. We are Protestants. Everything we do in worship revolves around the Word read and interpreted, as we try to understand what God is saying to us and compelling us to do in the world.”
“There’s a shadow side to Protestant reliance on the Word of God found in scripture. Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking our interpretation of the Bible is the only way to understand it. We forget the other two great themes of the Reformation, grace alone and faith alone, and begin to judge others, as if our reading of a text were the only possible, acceptable one.”
“Last week . . . I saw the new tower on the corner in a new light. It’s wrapped in metal, but not constricted by it. The skin of the tower appears to be opening, letting in light and air. It’s not tied down and concluded, but is a work in progress. It defies easy definition. It invites inquiry and dialogue.” [Below are photographs of the Frank Gehry-influenced bell tower.]
“It’s doing in architecture what Protestants have done when they are at their best with Scripture: asking questions, offering and opening up differing interpretations, allowing a variety of perspectives.”
“Words like ‘inerrant,’ ‘infallible,’ and ‘literal’ have occasionally crept into Protestant vocabulary, and when that happens, there’s trouble. We become rigid and inflexible. We want to tighten things down, finish it off, close it tight. We act as if the meaning of scripture is fixed and firm, once and for all. We’re tempted to exclude those with whom we disagree.”
“Whatever happened to ‘scripture alone? Whatever happened to the Protestant insistence on the individual believer’s access to the Word of God and the responsibility of that individual believer to understand, and study and interpret for themselves what the text might mean. Scripture alone has often been appropriated by those who insist on their interpretation alone, dismissing the Reformationinsistence on the freedom of all believers to read and understand God’s Word for themselves.”
“The Bible matters. There’s no other witness like it. The renewal of the Protestant movement, of the Christian Church, of our life in faith, will require a reawakening in us of the power and beauty of scripture for every believer. That means bringing our best to the Bible, our minds, our hearts, our science, our questions, our doubts, our emotions, our fears, our hopes.”
“Ordinary people wrote the words of scripture, people like us, trying to make sense of the extraordinary, mysterious, wondrous discovery of the love of God in their lives and in the world around them.”
We worship and follow and serve a Creator beyond our capacity to name or understand or contain or fully grasp. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying, and we Protestants believe that scripture is the best place to start.
It was good to be reminded that the Bible “was written by human beings, people telling a story they had heard from others or had experienced themselves. Yes, the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, both in its writing and its reading. Yes, as we Presbyterians have said, it is ‘unique and authoritative.’ But it is not a record of divine dictation,” as Muslims believe the Quran is.
The Bible requires us to bring “our minds, our hearts, our science, our questions, our doubts, our emotions, our fears, our hopes” into reading, reflecting and speaking about the Bible.
 The bulletin for this service and the text of this sermon are on the church’s website. There are many sources on Martin Luther; one is Wikipedia. Psalm 19 also was read at the service, and this post’s excerpts of the sermon delete its many quotations from the church’s Confirmation Students who were received into the membership of the church in the last part of the service.