October 31st marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, when Luther nailed his 95 Thesis to the castle church door in Wittenburg, Germany in 1517.
When soon called to account for his beliefs, he famously refused to recant and said that he would have to be proved wrong based on Holy Scripture and right reason. Years later, this became summarized as Sola Scriptura or Scripture Alone.
It is to be noted that belief in Sola Scriptura should lead to Sola Church, but it has not. Protestantism has splintered into many groups. How is this splintering to be understood?
Perhaps protestants misunderstand why Luther included that clause about right reason in his defense? Perhaps there is a Lutheran Sola Scriptura and a separate Protestant Sola Scriptura.
This difference is illustrated by one of the last summaries of Christian beliefs that Luther wrote, which became known as the Smalcald Articles. Of interest to our present concern is the number of times that Luther therein referred favorably to various early church fathers, early councils, creedal statements and even to early popes.
Protestants do not generally appeal to anything outside of the Bible, so what was Luther doing here? Is not Scripture clear on all things?
With this introduction, I think it helpful to next look at early church history and see how (or if) Sola Scriptura was then understood. Depending upon dating uncertainties, Christianity began with the original Pentecost events recorded early in the book of Acts. This would be about AD 32.
This was before the New Testament was written! Early inquirers became Christians as the result of personal testimony or perhaps having been witnesses themselves of the events involved. Appeals were made to Old testament prophecies regarding a coming Messiah. Prophecy became the framework for belief but could not fill in the details.
So, the earliest Christianity resulted from witnessing, not reading.
The books of the New Testament began to appear around AD 50 and were complete in AD 96, although evidence suggests that they were not immediately available in all areas where Christianity had spread to. Verbal instruction is hinted at in various verses of the New Testament. Several New Testament writers mentioned they had much to say but would wait to discuss various questions for when they met face-to-face. St Paul also mentions to remember what he has said whether in word or epistle.
We, today, read books to learn from them. Back then, books were read to remember things from. (The text was a memory jogger.) What can this mean?
All books then were handwritten. This was an expensive and time-consuming process. It has been estimated that a complete Bible would be worth over $200,000, in todays currency. Remember Acts 19:19 where books of the curious arts were brought together and burned. There value was estimated at 50,000 pieces of silver. (It is safe to say that these were not dime-store comic books or pulp fiction.)
I suppose some outlying churches had copies of some New Testament books, or may have possessed copies of important verses, sort of a forerunner to what later became lectionaries.
Like all ancient books, the earliest copies of the New Testament were written with Uncial script, this means only capital letters, no space between words and no punctuation! (These features conserved space in expensive, handwritten books.) Uncial texts were difficult reading. You had to consult someone about difficult run-on text sections. Modern writing styles developed many centuries later.
Below is St John 1: l – 8 in Uncial script of the KJV:
This is somewhat easy to read because of its popularity. But try a sentence that includes NOWHERE. Is that NOW HERE or NO WHERE?
Unsurprisingly, complete Bibles were few. Bibles were read in church; perhaps no where else! Actually, early churches had a special official, the reader. (See some of the letters of the early father, Cyprian.) Supposedly, at specific times, he would read aloud to whoever was in attendance. Readers had to already know the text; the text was a memory jogger. Also, this was a setting to ask questions as to meanings. And who were the Sunday school teachers back then? Apostles, the elders, then the 72, and those they had trained.
Thus, early Christians could not distinguish between what they had been taught by word or by epistle. They were both taught in church and blended together.
Remember also that back then illiteracy was predominant. Perhaps less than 5% were literate. It may have been higher in Jewish communities, but not among the pagan cultures that Christianity soon penetrated.
For all these reasons, individual Bible reading or Sola Scriptura were not a personal possibility in the early church era, probably for many centuries thereafter.
As St Peter said, All Scripture is given by God. (II Peter 1: 19-21 and also St Paul in II Timothy 3:15-17.) But he did not say that Scripture had all the details. (John 20: 30-31) The oral instruction was in the background. (Luke 1: 2, 4, Acts 16:4, I Corinthians 11: 2, 15: 1- 2, II Thessalonians 2: 15.) Further mention is in I Corinthians 11: 34 and 3 John 13 -14. It was said that if every Word was written, that the world could not contain it all. (John 21: 25)
Actually, Paul’s quote in Acts 20: 35, where Jesus said It is more blessed to give than to receive is not recorded in the Gospels. We have to assume that it came from oral recollections that Paul had heard.
In the following centuries, questions continued to arise as to meanings. The early church fathers, church councils and creeds spoke to these concerns and confirmed the original teachings of the New Testament. Admittedly, not everyone agreed and certain unorthodox positions were excluded from fellowship.
The consensus was that we must adhere to the deposit of Apostolic teaching or to the Rule of Faith.
When we return to the time of Martin Luther, we realize that it is not surprising that he had said that he would have to be proved wrong based on Holy Scripture and right reason. Opinions and alternative interpretations were always simmering, contrary to the deposit of Apostolic teaching or to the Rule of Faith. Thus, right reason was needed. This was Luthers Sola Scriptura.