Sola Scriptura: Reality or Rhetoric?

May 2018 Feature 

Contrary to what is sometimes taught and believed, the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura doesn’t teach “Scripture good, Tradition bad.” Rejection of church traditions was and is not its goal at all. The Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura arose amidst the noise of competing authoritative voices during the medieval ages. These included the writings of church fathers, ancient creeds, papal declarations, liturgical traditions, and pronouncements by theological faculty.

Some of these authoritative sources for guiding faith and practice unfortunately deviated significantly from scripture. Sola Scriptura was thus a doctrine which affirmed that scripture was the supreme source of authority – not the only source of authority – for Christian faith and practice. Whatever was taught, preached, and practiced needed to have good support from scripture and had to arise from good interpretation and understanding of scripture. This affirmation of a high view of scripture is the Reformation’s legacy for the Protestant church.

Evangelical Christians in Singapore today claim that we affirm the same Reformation Sola Scriptura ideal. But do we really hold on to a high view of scripture? My colleagues and I teaching at the Singapore Bible College (SBC) often have long discussions not just about how biblical illiterate the church in Singapore is. For some of us, the greater concern now has shifted to how the church in Singapore hides behind the rhetoric of supporting a high view of scripture while practicing something else in reality. That is to say, while we tightly guard the idea of making scripture the basis of Christian belief and practices, how we handle scripture in reality falls very short of the Reformation ideals.

I teach a course on Bible Study Methods at SBC.  The course allows me to introduce to my students sensible ways of reading scripture in context.  At the same time, it also allows them to surface examples of bible study discussions, devotional readings, and sermons that they have encountered which violate the principles of sensible reading taught in class. Beyond just being able to point a finger at others, students inevitably also come to a point of self-awareness. This new realization is that their diet of devotionals, sermons, bible studies, and sloppy personal reading habits that often lead them to conclusions which, while not theologically incorrect, miss out the main message of the text.

A classic example is from John 2:1-11 where we find the account of Jesus turning water into wine.  A student pointed me to a daily devotional on this passage which has strong appeal to the modern audience but would not have made sense to John’s readers. In the devotion, the author declared that because the first miracle Jesus performed had to do with small details in the kitchen, it shows that God is interested in the little things of our mundane life. God wants to have an intimate relationship with His people!

Conclusions like these are multiplied in weddings sermons, bible studies, and visits to the Cana church while on Bible lands tours. In those settings, we hear messages that affirm the value of marriage, the legitimacy of drinking wine, the need for motherly interventions, as well as how the Christian life is made so much more complete when the believer opens his/her mind to daily miracles.

But is the big message of John 2:1-11 about marriage, wine, mothers, or looking out for miracles in our lives? There is no denying that all of the above conclusions from John 2:1-11 can bring encouragement to the Christian. What is important to note however is that settling for these conclusions force readers and listeners to miss the key points of bible passages and hence the intention and message of their authors.

When John recorded in his gospel the miracle of Jesus changing water into wine, it was part of a series of miracles that John took pains to document.  Far from existing to serve human need, the signs are focused on the identity of Jesus, the Son of God.

In the final verse of our passage is an important clue which John left for his readers: ‘What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him’ (v 11). The clue hints that more signs will follow the first. Like the first, the subsequent signs will follow a similar pattern of revealing Jesus’ glory and giving reason after reason for the audience to know and believe in Jesus.  When we read them together as a composite whole, they make a compelling case for following Jesus.

Something was at stake in the life of the church that John was concerned about and trying to address. John’s Gospel was crafted for members of the early church at a time when God’s people badly needed to be strengthened in their faith foundations. There was opposition, persecution, and skepticism directed at those who followed Jesus. Whether it was opposition from the local Jewish authorities, persecution from the Roman political machinery, or the lure of Greek philosophies, these words by John were necessary for the survival of the church as members tried to make sense of the claims of Jesus and the costs that came with following Him.

My work in this season of life is very tied to research and ministry amongst youth and youth adults in Singapore churches. One observation I have made is that we are in a season when the next generation is leaving our churches. This is a generation that is encountering deep skepticism about Christian faith. Given the many attractive alternatives, there is no compelling reason for them to stay or to go to church.  Those who remain often do so only because of what Jesus or the church can offer them!

Even more reason, young people today need to encounter Jesus the way he is portrayed in scripture and not to merely incorporate him into their lives as divine ATM, butler, or therapist to serve our pursuits and passions. If the church persistently offers interpretations of scripture which separate our understanding of the gospel from the drama of encountering the Jesus found in the Gospels, how then do we deepen the roots of the next generation and challenge them to follow Jesus? This is Jesus, the Lord of Lord who challenges his followers to follow him on his terms. This is not Jesus, our genie in a bottle who panders to the first world problems and psychological needs that we seem to be so beset by.

There is a beautiful hymn “Ancient Words” by Michael W. Smith, and its chorus goes, “Ancient words ever true, changing me, and changing you. We have come with open hearts, oh let the ancient words impart.”

The reality too often however is that we have changed the meaning and substance of these ancient words. Our hearts are open, but we have changed the meaning and we have not been changed. We have merely steered the discipleship challenge in scripture to support our needs and wants!

By doing this, we shortchange ourselves, our young people, and our congregation members. We also lose our moral authority to challenge cult groups and groups that teach heresy because we play the same interpretive game that they do!

What sort of corrective measures can we undertake to recapture the Reformation ideal of Sola Scriptura where more faithful readings, interpretations, and understandings of scripture can be found? Space only allows me to highlight one simple application, which is to cultivate the habit of reading scripture well.

The reality is that we don’t have the habit of reading Scripture well. When we read novels, examine legal documents, or watch movies, we naturally work out way from beginning to end. The reason why we take pains to do so is because meaning is found in reading or watching a text in its entirety. We do not take a favorite sentence from the book, a favorite clause from the legal document, or a favorite still shot from the movie and make whatever we want out of it.

Yet we do this in our Bible readings and interpretations all the time! We violate all the rules of reading a text or watching a movie sensibly in how we read and apply scripture.

What evangelical Christians thus need to do is to cultivate the habit of reading long portions of biblical texts over and over again. Alternatively, we could cultivate the habit of listening to long portions of biblical texts regularly and repeatedly. It could be listening to whole gospels, epistles, or even books in one session. Or it could be listening to a chapter multiple times over to understand the contours and features of the text or to discern for repeated themes and emphases.

In addition, we also need to realize that the wrong first question to ask any Bible passage we read is “What does this text mean to me?” The right first question to ask is “What does this text mean?” followed by “How does that meaning apply to me?

Habits and disciplines such as these help us to understand key points and main messages of biblical passages. They help us to develop deeper insights into God’s word and grow our commitment to Sola Scriptura from mere rhetoric to reality!


Dr Calvin Chong is Associate Professor, Educational Ministries at the Singapore Bible College. His teaching and research interests include orality studies, hermeneutics, new educational technologies, designing learning experiences, the impact of narratives on worldview and values, conflict resolution/reconciliation, and contemporary urban missions and youth issues.