In August of 1981, a young Swedish doctor named Hans Rosling faced a puzzling dilemma. Numerous people in the village of Nampula, Mozambique, were suffering from inexplicable cases of paralysis. At first, he suspected an outbreak of polio, but after he conducted tests, the virus was surprisingly eliminated as a possibility. With the nation on the edge of civil war, Rosling worried that the cause might be much worse — chemical or biological warfare.
After weeks of research with an international team of physicians, Rosling’s focus settled on a shocking culprit — an ordinary, starchy root vegetable called the cassava. Cassava had been a traditional part of the diet in Mozambique — and across much of Africa — since it was introduced by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century. Early in the investigation, a village elder complained that disease had struck the village because “the rain has not washed our cassava.” Although his concern was initially ignored, investigators soon came to realize that the cassava, if not properly prepared before eating, contained dangerous levels of cyanide — a naturally occurring poison that, when ingested, brought about paralysis and death. The villagers were being poisoned by their own staple food.
“Aware of it or not, we bring our life experiences and personal biases to reading the Scriptures.”
Following a process that had been passed down for centuries, villagers traditionally spent days preparing cassava before eating — soaking the cassava in water for a week and drying it in the sun before grinding the root into flour — a method that removed toxic cyanide. But because of impending civil war, villagers were ignoring the tradition, bypassing the time-intensive process, and producing cassava flour immediately after harvesting the root. Safe preparation of the cassava required the accumulated wisdom and skills passed down by elders.
Knowing the Bible Together
In a similar way, there is profound danger in being disconnected from Christian tradition. Prosperity preaching, bizarre personality cults, rigorous legalism, and freewheeling libertinism are all poisons passed along to unsuspecting Christians in part because of biblical preparation that has abandoned the wisdom of the ancients.
What is more, such false teaching is sometimes justified by teachers who claim to be “Bible-only” people. They assert the validity of their interpretation by wrongly arguing that the Bible is the Christian’s only theological resource and that anyone who counters with an argument from church history has forgotten what the Reformation stood for. Whether from malice or ignorance, they can twist the Scriptures to a wrong end — a pattern of brokenness that has its root in the first garden. Unfortunately, sometimes we eat what they serve because we, too, have lost sight of the biblical value of knowing Scripture together.
Sola Scriptura, Not Nuda
For the Protestant Reformers, a return to the centrality of Scripture never meant the abandonment of tradition. The Reformers recognized, however, that tradition in the Roman church had taken on an inertia of its own. Over the centuries, a right concern for maintaining the purity of doctrine had a negative effect of slowly consolidating the authority of interpretation into the hands of a few. Not unlike the Pharisees of Jesus’s day, the Roman clergy had come to invest the Church’s interpretation of Scripture with the same authority as the Scripture itself.
In fact, Roman tradition had (conveniently) come to assert that only the clergy — centered in the person of the Roman bishop — had final authority to say what Scripture finally meant on all matters related to life and faith. The Reformers identified a major problem with this assertion: the Scriptures created the church, not vice versa. As Luther famously quipped, “Who begets his own parent? Who first brings forth his own maker?”
“The Scriptures teach us that ‘just me and my Bible’ is also unbiblical.”
But the Reformers were careful to maintain that tradition was destructive only when it shared authority with or took the place of Scripture itself. In fact, they regularly called upon the great theologians of the Christian past as witnesses against the doctrinal compromises of their own day. John Calvin (1509–1564) was famous for arguing that Scripture was the only infallible rule of faith and practice and the final authority by which to judge Christian doctrine and life. But he regularly appealed to early Christian documents and church authorities, especially Augustine, for theological insight and clarity.
Calvin and others recognized that there was strategic importance in demonstrating continuity between their teaching and the convictions of the early church. Such continuity showed that justification by faith alone, for example, was taught not only by Scripture, but also by some of the most trusted theologians of the church from Paul to the present. Hence, Calvin’s regular message to his Roman opponents: “The ancient church is on our side!” For this reason, the teaching of the Reformers on Scripture was often summarized in the phrase “sola Scriptura” (Scripture alone), not “nuda Scriptura” (bare Scripture).
Not Just Me and My Bible
Unfortunately, in the past two centuries, “sola Scriptura” has often declined into “solo Scriptura” — “just me and my Bible.” As with the villagers in Nampula, appreciation for the theological wisdom of the ancients has been lost in the swirl of titanic change. The revolutionary impulse and suspicion of authority that is part of the pioneering American spirit is also part of our particular brand of evangelicalism. “No other authority than the Bible” in our context has often meant the rejection of traditional interpretations in favor of a personal one.
Over a century ago, Alexander Campbell (1788–1866), revivalist preacher and a father to the Church of Christ movement, reflected this shift:
I have endeavored to read the Scriptures as though no one had read them before me, and I am as much on my guard against reading them today, through the medium of my own views yesterday, or a week ago, as I am against being influenced by any foreign name, authority, or system whatever.
While Campbell’s approach may have the appearance of objectivity, in reality “just me and my Bible” is the height of subjectivity. Disagreement over meaning results in an impasse because there is no one to whom we will appeal. The history of Campbell’s heirs is a case study of rancorous division.
“Just me and my Bible” is also naïve. No man is an island. Aware of it or not, we bring our life experiences and personal biases to reading the Scriptures — even if those voices are from the world and not time-tested insight from heroes of the faith. We need the rain of the Christian past to wash our food, lest we unwittingly poison ourselves and, tragically, others too.
For the Bible Tells Me So
Perhaps most significantly, “solo Scriptura” misses out on the inestimable riches God has graciously provided in the body of Christ, his church. It is tempting for Christians to see themselves only as individual members of the church and so to focus exclusively on personal spiritual practices like biblical meditation, prayer, fasting, and the like. While personal spirituality is very much at the heart of the Christian life, it is incomplete if it fails to grasp what membership in his body entails.
“For the Protestant Reformers, a return to the centrality of Scripture never meant the abandonment of tradition.”
Constituted by the risen Christ in Acts 2, the church is a diverse body of men and women who, together, worship and serve the one true God. He has designed this body so that all the gifts necessary for its flourishing are present (1 Corinthians 12:12–28; Ephesians 4:9–16). And in his peculiar wisdom, he has designed it such that each member needs the other (1 Corinthians 12:21). We depend on the gifts that God has given the body — gifts like “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers” — in order to attain to “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11–14). In other words, the Scriptures teach us that “just me and my Bible” is also unbiblical.
We need to hear the word of Christ from one another — to discuss what it means and how to live in light of it. And we should guard against thinking about this with reference only to the present. The Bible doesn’t think about it this way. Hebrews 11 is a lengthy exhortation to learn how to run with endurance from “so great a cloud of witnesses” who have gone before (Hebrews 11:1–12:2). The church, depicted in all its future fullness in Revelation 5, is a body of men and women gathered from every tribe and tongue across all time. Each of us is linked not only to the fellow members of our local congregation, or believers gathered in a tiny apartment in China, or a Nigerian megachurch in London — we are united to those who gathered in fourth-century Alexandria and Antioch and Ephesus and Rome.
Although we cannot benefit from the testimonies and insights of Christians who have not yet lived, we would be foolish to ignore those who have come before us. Bernard of Chartres (d. circa 1124) famously said that we stand on the shoulders of giants — in other words, the body benefits from the exegetical insights, the doctrinal clarity, and the pastoral wisdom of the witnesses who have come before. It would be foolish and poisonous to be left to “just me and my Bible.”