, , ,

The Modern Evangelical Assault on Sola Scriptura

No one ever plans to apostatize. A good, faithful Christian doesn’t go to sleep and then wake up the next day and walk away from the faith. It takes time, and there are a number of contributing factors. But before someone leaves the faith, they must either abandon, pervert, or weaken the Scriptures such that God’s Word no longer has authority over their lives. In light of this truth, it is critical that modern evangelicalism recovers the belief in Sola Scriptura: Scripture alone is the authority of the Church.

“Wait… recovers? Don’t you mean ‘preserve’? Are you saying that evangelicals are abandoning the belief of Scripture’s authority?”  

Yes and no. While Christians do not vocally deny the authority or sufficiency of Scripture, many Christians are compromising it. In looking at the Reformers and their battle for Sola Scriptura, we see many parallels with our own time. Like the apostate churches in the times of the Reformation, the threat is not that the church will disappear but that it will become Christian in name but satanic in practice. The churches will be open, and they may even be full, but they will have forsaken the truth of Scripture and turned to doctrines of demons (1 Timothy 4:1).

Threats to Sola Scriptura during the Reformation

The Roman Catholic Church in the 16th Century was like the Pharisaical whitewashed tombs which Jesus condemned (Matthew 23:27–28). The ornately adorned Catholic Churches were outwardly holy, but inwardly they were hollow homes of hypocrisy and heresy. How did it come to this? One of the most insidious evils of Medieval Roman Catholicism was the growing role of magisterial (or human) authority in the church. While paying homage to the Lord Jesus, the Pope saw himself as the head of the church. Through Papal edicts and the substructure of cardinals and bishops, the Roman Catholic magisterium reserved the right to interpret the Bible and elevated their status to be equal with God. Their word was as binding on the human conscience as God’s Word, and a human institution eclipsed divine revelation as the primary authority for the Christian religion.  

But when things seemed darkest, in stepped the Reformers. Against the Roman monolith the Reformers preached and propagated the biblical truth that Christ, not the Pope, was the head of the church (Colossians 1:18). Because Christ is the head, the church looks to His Word, not a human word, as authority. Martin Luther, one of the leading Reformers, put it this way: “In all articles, the foundation of our faith must be God’s Word alone, and without God’s Word there can be no article of faith.”[1] Christian doctrine contains no more and no less than what the Bible says. Scripture alone has authority.

But the human institution of the Roman Catholic Church was not the only enemy of Sola Scriptura. The Reformers also stood against the fanatics. While their zeal for reform is commendable, many of these “radical Reformers” committed doctrinal errors. The “Spiritualists” emphasized “that the Spirit of God works apart from the Word of God.”[2] This belief pitted the authority of God’s Word against human experience. While sounding extra, well, spiritual, this position actually replaced God’s Word,[3] undermined the authority of Christ, and relegated Christianity to pure subjectivity. Against this idea, John Calvin wrote, “For by a kind of mutual bond the Lord has joined together the certainty of his Word and of his Spirit so that the perfect religion of the Word may abide in our minds when the Spirit, who causes us to contemplate God’s face, shines; and that we in turn may embrace the Spirit with no fear of being deceived when we recognize him in his own image, namely in the Word.”[4] Those who hold to the Bible as their authority do not deny the Spirit; they recognize that it is only through the Spirit that they can rightly understand God’s Word (1 Corinthians 2:10–16). Christians have a certainty in the Word of God that they cannot have anywhere else. Christians are not restricting the Spirit when they look to God’s Word alone. Rather, they guard themselves from error and let the Spirit of Truth work through the Word of Truth.

A second errant group of Reformers were the Evangelical Rationalists, who emphasized human reason over divine revelation.[5] This practice led to several splinter groups (such as the Socinians), a rejection of several core tenants of the Christian faith (such as the Trinity and aspects of the substitutionary atonement), and a weakening if not outright rejection of the authority of Scripture.[6] By appealing to human reason as the determination of truth, these “Reformers” rejected Scripture as the sole authority of the Christian life.   

During the Reformation, human institution, human experience, and human reason all threatened the authority of Scripture. Other heresies existed, but these three were propagated by supposedly Christian groups. The Reformers stood firmly against the downgrading of the Bible in the life of the church, and they firmly held to Scripture alone as their sufficient authority. 

Modern Threats to Sola Scriptura

But what of today? The Roman Catholic Church still poses a threat, but it is not considered mainstream evangelicalism (however, see David Lupinetti’s article for an excellent treatment of the threat of ecumenicalism) and I for one have never met a Socinian. Do not all Christians nowadays believe in Sola Scriptura? Unfortunately, while true Christians would never outright deny Scripture’s authority, many Christians hold the errant beliefs of the Reformation times. By consciously or subconsciously elevating human institution, human experience, and human reason, modern Christians once again threaten the authority of Scripture. 

While Christians would never let secular psychologists preach in their churches, they allow them to speak into their lives.

Many modern Christians look to the human institutions of secular science for information on how to live. Many claim that “All truth is God’s truth,” and they cite common grace as a way that God can use unregenerate people to help His church. This is pure foolishness. As Jay Adams says, “Of course all truth is God’s truth. But there is only one touchstone for determining whether a given statement claiming to be true is, indeed true…the Bible.”[7] The issue is that much, if not all, of what is propounded by secular scholars is not true. In fact, the Apostle Paul says that God has made this world’s wisdom foolish so that He alone may receive the glory (1 Corinthians 1:18–31). But, while Christians would never let secular psychologists preach in their churches, they allow them to speak into their lives.[8]

Part of the delusion is that these practices and beliefs are more similar than they are different, and therefore they can be used as tools to supplement Scripture. In reality, they are more different than they are similar. Biblical and secular worldviews have different origins (“ancient wisdom traditions”[9] vs. divine wisdom), a different understanding of human nature (generally good vs. radically sinful), different means of improvement (human effort vs. divine transformation), and a different goal (actualizing self, happiness, etc vs. glorifying God). Given those differences, appealing to secular sciences is not only ineffective, but it is also disobedient. God has given us not only a picture what He wants us to be but also a process of how to become it. We are not sanctified by grasping and conforming to an eclectic psychosocial paradigm or an evolving understanding of the human psyche. We are sanctified by the Word of Truth (John 17:17). In the Reformation, the human institution of the Roman Catholic Church usurped the authority of God’s Word over the church. In modern day evangelicalism, Christians voluntarily go outside of God’s Word to get a “second opinion” from secular society. This practice undermines the authority and sufficiency of Scripture alone for salvation and sanctification.

Second, modern day charismatic churches elevate human experience (“movements of the Spirit”) and undermine Scripture’s authority. Strictly speaking, are the Spirit and the Word different entities? Yes, of course they are. However, divorcing the two in matters of faith and practice can lead to extremely dangerous situations. If a Christian believes that the Spirit speaks and leads outside of the Word, he or she could give divine authority to thoughts, feelings, insights, inspirations, and impressions that have no divine authority. Mormonism, Islam, and many other false religions all began because of false divine revelation.[10] If this is true on such a large, dramatic scale, could it not also be true on a smaller, individual scale? Some would defend their experiences by saying that the thought or impression does not contradict Scripture, and therefore it could be from God. But as Calvin’s quote above demonstrates, there is no certainty in these impressions. By looking to human experience and stepping away from God’s Word as their lamp and light (Psalm 119:105), Christians move from that which is known to that which is unknown. There is no end to the errors that can come from this practice.

Lastly, God’s Word is threatened by errant interpretive methods which place human reason above divine revelation. Enlightenment intellectuals and Evangelical Rationalists advanced this is Reformation times, and it is still a threat today. The obvious assaults on the historicity or miraculous accounts in Scripture are easily recognized and rejected. But the more treacherous methods still claim Biblical authority but undermine it in practice. One such example is the Redemptive-Movement method of Bible interpretation taught by William Webb.[11] Simply put, this interpretive method says Christians must move beyond what the Scripture actually says in order to understand its meaning for Christians today. While claiming to find the true meaning, it actually subjects the authority of Scripture to the interpretive method itself.[12] Instead of looking for the author’s intent within the culture of the time, the Redemptive-Movement method goes beyond the author’s intent and arrives at a meaning outside of Scripture. In a review of Webb’s system, Wayne Grudem writes, “Webb’s trajectory hermeneutic nullifies in principle the moral authority of the entire New Testament and thus contradicts the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura”[13] It does this because “the standard is no longer what the NT says, but rather the point toward which some biblical scholar thinks the Bible was moving.”[14] By subjugating Biblical authority to subjective human reasoning, this method appears to give a high place to Scripture in Christian faith and practice, but in reality it destroys the authority of Scripture and replaces it with a system based on human reason.

The threats to Biblical authority which the Reformers opposed are very much alive today.

The threats to Biblical authority which the Reformers opposed are very much alive today. We must not think that the Reformers solved all of the problems or that the attacks on Scripture only come from outside the church. Those in the church who appeal to human institutions, human experience, and human reason still threaten the foundation of the faith: the authority and sufficiency of Scripture.

Encouragement and Exhortation

In the face of these threats, take heart and rest in the sovereignty of God and the promise that Christ will build His church (Matthew 16:18). The days indeed seem very dark now, but they were dark in the time of the Reformation as well. Yet, despite all opposition and seemingly against all odds, the Word of God and the Church of Christ endured! We need not fear that God’s plans will fail. His Word, no matter how assaulted it is, will endure forever (1 Peter 1:24–25).

Second, stand firm on the Word of God as the complete and sufficient authority for your life. Do not look anywhere else for direction from God. His Word gives you everything you need (2 Timothy 3:16–17), and it alone is the source of sanctification (John 17:17). Examine your life to see if you are replacing Scripture with another institution, over-emphasizing human experience, or subjecting it to human reason. Pray that God will bring you into alignment with His Word and that it may do its work on your heart (Hebrews 4:12).

Lastly, submit to it. We often focus so much on acquiring new and deeper knowledge (as we should) that we forget to obey what we already know. As Paul Washer has said, how different would our lives look if we truly obeyed half of what we know? In your quest for deeper knowledge, do not forget to be a doer of the Word (James 1:22–25).

The first step in submitting to God’s Word is submitting to what it says about Christ and salvation. There are many philosophies about how we can be right with God, but the only one that matters is the one God Himself has given. Ephesians 2:8–9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” You cannot earn your way to God. You must repent and trust in Christ alone through faith alone. This salvation is revealed by Scripture alone, is made possible by God’s grace alone, and glorifies God alone.

The Reformers recognized that they were engaged not in a social or political battle, but a spiritual one. To fight a spiritual battle they needed spiritual weapons, and no weapon is more fearful to the enemy than the Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. No practice shakes hell more than when Christians faithfully read, study, and proclaim the Scripture. The Reformers believed that Scripture alone would win the day for Christ. If we want to see a reformation and revival in our day, in our city, and among our friends and family, we must also believe it and live it as though our lives and the lives of our loved ones depended on it. Because they do.  

[1] As quoted in Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011). [2] Ibid, 154. [3] Sinclair B. Ferguson, David F. Wright, and J.I. Packer, New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988). [4] Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine, 154. [5] Ferguson, Wright, and Packer, New Dictionary of Theology, 563–64, 649. [6] Ibid, 649. [7] Jay E. Adams, A Theology of Christian Counseling: More Than Redemption (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979). [8] I am not saying that a Christian should not go to a non-Christian for anything, such as physical ailments, car trouble, etc. However, these examples are far different from entrusting unregenerate people with matters that are inherently or even tangentially spiritual. [9] “The Traditional Enneagram,” n.d., https://www.enneagraminstitute.com/the-traditional-enneagram, para 1. [10] “Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” n.d., https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/site/accounts-of-the-first-vision; “The Prophet Muhammad and the Origins of Islam.,” n.d., https://www.metmuseum.org/learn/educators/curriculum-resources/art-of-the-islamic-world/unit-one/the-prophet-muhammad-and-the-origins-of-islam. [11] Webb, William J. “A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic: Encouraging Dialogue among Four Evangelical Views.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 48, no. 2 (June 2005): 331–49. [12] Grudem, Wayne. “Should We Move Beyond the New Testament to a Better Ethic? An Analysis of William J. Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 47, no. 2 (June 2004): 305. [13] Ibid, 301. [14] Ibid, 306.

Mike Engelsgjerd recently separated from the U.S. Army after 15 years of service. Towards the end of his service, Mike began to feel God’s call to full time Christian ministry. In following this call, He is pursuing an M.Div. at TMS with the goal of becoming a Chaplain in the U.S. Military and a Pastor.

%d bloggers like this: