How "Sola Scriptura" gets it all wrong

As I recently pondered the idea that I could be wrong about my various theological assertions, I was reminded that we are all products of our environment. I was reminded that, just as I can trot out various passages and verses to support my stance on a number of issues, so can people whose conclusions I disagree with. 


In my tradition, we have this thing called the Five Solae. They’re typically held as central doctrinal ideas, developed by various theologians during the Reformation. Usually, though, the one people are most familiar with is “sola scriptura” - by scripture alone. Although these solae were meant to be held together, in many Protestant evangelical circles, “sola scriptura” gets all the airtime. 


I believe this is part of why we’ve had such fights about innerancy, Biblical literalism, and the “right” way to interpret scripture; why it’s so important to us that we have scripture to back up each thing we believe - and thus, why we often make it (perhaps unconsciously) say whatever we want.


The oft-cited example of this is the use of scripture to justify slavery. This is unconscionable to most of us nowadays, but I often wonder what things we are justifying with scripture today that will make future generations incredulous.


Our obsession with scripture is becoming counter-productive. 


Admittedly, this is a weird thing for a chaplain, minister, and educator to say. I recently read a wonderful post contending that while the words of scripture don’t change, how we interpret it and understand it does. The need to be right, to be most Biblical, to be the most inerrant is overtaking our focus on the other elements of the Five Solae: Grace alone, faith alone, through Christ alone, glory to God alone. 


If our interpretation and understanding of scripture isn’t also a comprehensive incorporation of grace, faith, Christ, and glory then it’s time to re-evaluate. 


Maybe you’re with me so far, so here’s what’s really been challenging to me: people who believe differently from me are likely doing their best to understand and apply the Five Solae in a way that best fits their context. Of course there are exceptions, and some people really are just unjust and harmful in their application of scripture. But I think most of us are truly trying to do our best - we all come from unique sets of experiences that lead us to different interpretations and versions of “best.”  


My religious education emphasized a loving God; maybe yours featured a wrathful God. I came from a tradition prioritizing inerrancy and infallibility of scripture; maybe you have a looser understanding. I was raised low-church, maybe you’re comfortable in high-church settings. 


None of this is to justify the potentially harmful applications of scripture I mentioned above, but to give context to those who exist on the opposite side of the spectrum from us. 


So are we now at a stalemate? You have your reasons for believing what you do, and I have mine. We don’t necessarily have to understand each other, we can, in fact, fight against each other. But getting one or the other of us to change our mind isn’t as simple as re-interpreting a problematic verse or reciting a list of scripture we feel supports our point. We are bringing so much more to our beliefs than “sola scriptura.” 


Is the end result scriptural gnosticism? Philosophical depression? Theological destruction? I’ve investigated each of these options (among others), maybe they work for some, but I’m not ready to give up on my spirituality. The brand of scriptural interpretation I have worked out over the years, that is most true to the way I understand each of the Five Solae, follows a transcendentalist philosophy articulated by Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister in the 1800s: 


“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” 


I have decided to take a birds-eye view of scripture and attempt to understand the arc of the texts rather than drilling down into specific verses, or looking for ammunition against specific issues. True, you can’t develop the outline of this arc without playing in and amongst some of the finer points. I want to know and contextualize scripture as much as I can but not miss the forest for the trees. I want to give “sola scriptura” its due, but not neglect grace, faith, and so forth. 


This isn’t a philosophy whose aim is to justify ignorance, but rather than throwing all my effort into line-by-line dissection I’ve decided to use my intellectual resources elsewhere. In so far as it’s necessary, I want to use my knowledge of Biblical specifics in service of my grappling with the larger message and context of the text. 


So far, I have found Theodore Parker’s statement to be a good guide: the scriptural arc, too, bends toward justice. But also toward mercy. It bends toward the ultimate realization of true Love casting out fear. Toward Hope walking among us and removing the need for a better-articulated scriptural argument. 


My role is not to cross my “t’s” and dot my “i’s” and deliver an immaculate list of scripture to back up opinions on dozens of different issues. My role is to educate myself, absolutely. To understand what I believe -  so that I can do work with God. So that I can play my part in the arc of the universe.