The lively debate Martin Luther was hoping to generate with his 95 Theses quickly got out of hand and changed the world forever. Obviously the time was right: when events are primed to happen, they happen. Within decades the Reformation was firmly established on the “Five Solas” developed over the next half-century of Reformation teaching, namely
declaring the gospel of
effecting salvation by
apprehended in the believer by
Glory of God Alone.
(That’s not the usual order, but you get the idea.)
This is all good news, and the Five Solas are a concise way of defining the aims of the Reformation as they shook out. A concise definition would be sorely needed, for within Martin Luther’s own lifetime the Protestant movement became dozens of Protestant movements, energizing Europe in ways that weren’t always positive. It was like releasing one of those mattresses that come packed under pressure: once out of the box, you’ll never get it back in, as it expands far beyond its original bounds. A quasi-communist peasants’ revolt, numerous pietistic communes, a state church headed by the monarch, proliferating Bible translations and commentaries, a series of wars, the seeds of the Enlightenment, the eventual establishment of the United States of America: all these and more can trace their ancestry to the Protestant Reformation. So can the sixth, unstated Sola:
by My Interpretation Alone
Once Luther realized his concerns about the Catholic Church had gone beyond an academic debate, and way beyond the original issue of indulgence-peddling, he went on to develop his ideas of where the Church had gone wrong. One problem was the priesthood, which created a superfluous intermediary between the believer and God. The Lutheran phrase, “priesthood of all believers,” meant that every follower of Christ had free access to God through Jesus, our only mediator. We don’t need a priest to hear our confession and assign penance; we can work that out with God on our own.
“Every man a priest” was never meant to imply that every man had the right to make up his own mind about what the Bible said. But it didn’t take long for the narrow interpretation of that phrase to stretch. If Luther and Zwingli disagree about a point of scripture, who’s right? If the Anabaptists are preaching a radical pietism, should they be stopped? Aren’t they’re reading the scriptures for themselves, as we’re all supposed to? Peeling off from Luther and Zwingli, in very short order, were Calvin and Muntzer, followed by Wesley and Fox, Alexander Campbell and Joseph Smith, Charles Finney and William Miller, Ann Lee, Ellen G. White, Charles Taze Russell, Mary Baker Eddy, William J. Seymour . . . and literally thousands more, founders of Protestant mainline denominations, offshoots, micro-movements, and cults.
The multitude of denominations is not entirely bad. We all have different personalities, inclinations, and backgrounds; it’s possible that some will thrive in a particular Christian tradition where others would suffocate. And while “organized religion” is dying all over the Western world, fewer churches are on life-support in the state-churchless USA. But it’s hard to say whether their relative health is because of the Sixth Sola, or in spite of it.
What gives some people—mostly men, but plenty of women, too—the assurance that, not only can they interpret scripture for themselves, but their interpretation is right? As in, “The rest of you are wrong.” Damnably wrong, even. Having grown up in one one-true-church and, much later in life, been declared apostate by another (much smaller) one, I’ve seen how the sixth-sola pattern emerges:
- Reformer displays an early aptitude for religion.
- Reformer involves himself in established church, where he may experience disappointment or disillusionment.
- Reformer endures a period of intense self-examination and study, from which
- Reformer emerges with a unique spiritual insight.
- Reformer enthusiastically preaches his special insight, meets resistance from “establishment.”
- Reformer collects a band of converts, may undergo real or perceived persecution.
- Reformer, now the leader of a movement, receives affirmation from his followers.
- Reformer decides his opposition is a) wrong, b) going to hell, or c) spawn of Satan.
- All of which means that the Reformer is a) right, and b) well, just right. Because.
Don’t get me wrong: the church is always in need of reform, and God is always reforming it. But not usually through movement men (and women). Luther was an exception, and there are others, but I’ve known and heard of many mini-Luthers who have it all figured out according to the Sixth Sola. Some may be false prophets, but most are sincere believers (at least to start with) who let that special insight go to their heads.
A little humility would do wonders for them; a little charity and patience with those who aren’t where they are, and may never be. “My interpretation” must be tested and debated and measured against established teaching—and perhaps discarded, if it doesn’t measure up. But even if it’s a sound scriptural principle, the soundest secondary principles become shaky when they’re elevated to primary ones: right up there beside “Jesus is Lord.”
Jesus is Lord of our minds, our study, our interpretation. As he submitted himself to his Father (and even, temporarily, to men), so should we. It’s not for us to build little empires around a Sixth Sola; far better to live it out in the wider church, and let the Spirit be our interpreter.