Whatever Became of  “Scripture Alone”?  

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?[1]

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.”

John 21: 20-25 (NRSV):

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.”

Sermon (Extracts):

“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.

Conclusion

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.

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[1] 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 WikipediaPsalm 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.

 

Jesus’ Night of Mindfulness

For Lent this year Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church is focusing on these themes: mindfulness; humility; mercy; repentance; and mortality.

For mindfulness (a state of active, open attention on the present) we looked first at Luke 6:12-19 (New Revised Standard Version), which states as follows:

  • 12 Now during those days [Jesus] went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew,15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
  • 17 He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.”

This passage starts with Jesus’ mindfulness on his night of prayer to God. He thought it necessary to be alone in a quiet place. There were no eyewitnesses to how he conducted that prayer or what he did, and afterwards Jesus apparently did not provide anyone with an accounting for how he spent his time in prayer that night. Moreover, Luke was not present for this event (Luke 1: 1-4).

I, therefore, tried to put myself in Jesus’ sandals. What would have been His concerns that night that might need prayer? I came up with at least the following:

  • Jesus knew that the next day He would be speaking to “a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people” from a wide area. What should He say to that gathering?
  • Jesus knew that the next day he would select 12 of his disciples to be apostles or leaders of his followers to go forth to heal and proclaim the Kingdom of God (Luke 9:1-6). Whom should he choose?
  • Jesus also presumably knew that soon thereafter he would select another 70 or 72 disciples to go to towns to prepare for Jesus’ future visits, i.e., to be his “advance men.” (Luke 10:1) Whom should he choose?
  • Jesus also presumably knew that with a growing number of followers, He would increasingly draw the attention of the authorities that did not like His actions and speeches. As a result, risks to his personal safety were escalating. How should he cope with that threat?

All of these issues required His thought and decision, and in prayer He undoubtedly shared all of this with God to obtain His guidance.

Thereafter He did select 12 disciples to be Apostles, including Judas Iscariot (Luke 6: 13-16). He delivered what has been called the Sermon on the Plain with its beatitudes and other words of wisdom (Luke 6: 20-49). He appointed 70 or 72 other disciples to be his advance men (Luke 10:1).

The other Scripture for consideration of mindfulness was Psalm 37: 1-9 (New Revised Standard Version),which provides the following:

  • “Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers,for they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb.
  • Trust in the Lord, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security. Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
  • Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.
    He will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday.
  • Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices.
  • Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret—it leads only to evil. For the wicked shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.”

This passage emphasizes the things that an individual should do: trust in the Lord; take delight in the Lord; commit your way to the Lord; be still before the Lord; wait patiently for the Lord; do good; and be still. The Psalms passage also has these negative commands: do not fret (three times); do not be envious of wrongdoers; refrain from anger; and forsake wrath.

All of these actions help to create mindfulness. Be still. Do not fret. Do not be angry. Turn all over to the Lord.

This theme was capped by Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen’s March 9th sermon, “What the Way of the Cross Asks of Us? Mindfulness.”

He defined “mindfulness” as being “conscious of ourselves in the present moment, aware of the world around us in a heightened way, attuned to our body, our breathing, the beating of the heart.” To this end, he emphasized our need to be “in silence, . . . centering and emptying, or lying prone for a time, aware of their inhaling and exhaling, feeling the earth and their body against it.” Rev. Hart-Andersen added that the “opposite of mindfulness is distractedness. The world is plagued with that, brought on by the omnipresence of technology.”

“Jesus demonstrates a mindful approach to life. Repeatedly he withdraws from the pressures of teaching and preaching and healing to regroup spiritually. We may not have traditionally used this language, but when he does that, he’s practicing mindfulness.” The sermon continued, “The mindfulness Jesus practiced had at least two dimensions from which we can learn. First, Jesus knew that he had to slow his pace, even stop, to be able to find time to pray. . . . Second, Jesus sought out silence. . . . Jesus understood the lasting impact of silence; he was intentional about finding a quiet place.”

The sermon concluded with these words. “In the end, the cross toward which we are drawn stands silent against the noise of the world, inviting us to contemplate its awful victory. Its stark outline causes us to stop. It leaves us speechless. The cross silences all our pretentions and quiets the frenzy – and in its shadow we face our own deep need for God. The Way of the Cross this Lent invites us into the practice of mindfulness, the quiet awareness of each moment. In the stillness, if we are patient and not too distracted, we will find God.”

Amen.