EDITOR’S NOTE: This year, Baptist Press is publishing a series of stories leading up to the 500th anniversary of when Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany, Oct. 31, 1517.
This story is the second in a two-part series highlighting insights on the Reformation by professors at Southern Baptist seminaries. In today’s story, professors from Gateway Seminary, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Southern Baptist Theological are quoted. A tandem story includes reflections from professors at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
NASHVILLE (BP) — Sola scriptura is among the most important Reformation principles for believers to understand and apply. That’s the conclusion of at least some Southern Baptist Convention seminary professors on the Protestant Reformation’s 500th anniversary.
Sola scriptura (Latin for “by Scripture alone”) is the doctrine that the Bible alone is humankind’s infallible rule for faith and practice.
‘The highest functional authority’
Chris Chun, associate professor of church history at Gateway Seminary, told Baptist Press the Reformation’s 500th anniversary “might be an appropriate time to reflect if Scripture still is the highest functional authority in Southern Baptist life and practice.”
“Sola Scriptura was the heart cry of Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, Menno Simons and William Tyndale,” Chun said in written comments, “and many lost their lives for believing that the Bible was their highest authority — no authority above the Scripture whether that be the pope or the councils! [The] notion that any literate person could study the Scripture revolutionized the concept of authority in the church.”
The Reformers’ emphasis of sola scriptura, Chun said, was highlighted by Martin Luther’s 1521 appearance before an assembly of the Holy Roman Empire known as the Diet of Worms. When asked to recant his writings, Luther replied, “Unless I am convinced by the evidence of Scripture … I do not accept the authority of the pope or the councils alone … I am bound by the Scriptures.”
Luther’s speech at Worms, Chun said, “resonated with many likeminded bands of Protestant Reformers.”
Chun asked Southern Baptists to reflect on whether Scripture is “authoritative” in their “meetings,” “churches” and “associations.”
“For all intents and purposes, who really has the authority,” Chun asked, Scripture or “pastors, committees, chairpersons [and] deacons?”
Scripture vs. ‘cultural norms’
Despite pressure “to conform to the cultural norms of the day,” Brent Aucoin, professor of history at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, noted that the Reformers’ “commitment to the authority of Scripture enabled them to courageously advocate positions that were then viewed as radical but today are generally accepted.”
Those positions included “the notion that salvation does not come by way of the church or through works, but rather by grace alone, through faith alone and in Christ alone,” Aucoin said in written comments. “Luther and other Reformers saw this critical, but contested, notion taught in the Scriptures and were willing, if need be, to sacrifice their lives and careers for it rather than have their views dictated by what the authorities of the day demanded.”
Some believers in the 20th century seemed to disregard sola scriptura, allowing “cultural norms to supersede Scripture when it came to formulating [their] views on segregation, interracial marriage, abortion and other issues.”
A reemphasis of sola scriptura is needed again today, Aucoin said, because “we see some who place themselves in the Baptist or evangelical camp allowing society rather than Scripture to determine their position on the morality of homosexuality and same-sex unions.”
Shawn Wright, professor of church history at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, claimed Luther’s “conviction that the Bible alone was able to give shape to our doctrine” served as a driving force in his life and ministry.
Ironically, Luther’s embrace of sola scriptura was spurred unwittingly by his Roman Catholic superiors when he served as an Augustinian monk, Wright wrote for a forthcoming issue of Towers, Southern’s campus publication. Exhausted by Luther’s incessant confession of sins, his superiors made him get a doctoral degree in theology and lecture on the Bible, thinking that might “take his mind off himself.”
Yet to their chagrin, Wright wrote, after studying and teaching Psalms, Romans, Galatians and Hebrews, Luther concluded “the Bible was the sole authority in the ultimate determination of our doctrine and our practice.”
That conviction led Luther to renounce the pope’s authority in public debates and eventually receive condemnation from the Catholic Church as a heretic.
“Luther never recanted because he was deeply convinced that God’s Word alone was true and authoritative. His response to the church and the empire proves this,” Wright wrote.
“He preached tirelessly from the Bible. He wrote commentaries on several books of the Bible (his 1535 commentary on Galatians is a wonderful example of the mature Luther’s thought). He translated the New Testament from Greek to German (in 11 weeks!) so that laypeople could read, hear, and understand the Bible for themselves. He himself was convinced that God used him simply as an instrument to make the Bible known,” Wright wrote.