“My Word Will Not Return Void”: The Indestructible Strength of Sola Scriptura

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11).

As I have continued to reflect on the significance and validity of the (in some quarters much-maligned) formal principle of the Reformation – sola Scriptura – I have come to the realization that, in the final analysis, commitment to this principle, and even the most strident opposition to it, ultimately boil down to a matter of faith. What I mean is this. Whereas Protestants and Catholics generally agree that Holy Scripture is the Word of God written (not identical to yet not divisible from the Word that is Jesus Christ, John 1:1), they disagree on the sufficiency of Scripture to make itself clearly known and understood by the power of the Holy Spirit. For Catholics, the fact that Scripture is subject to conflicting or contradictory interpretations (something that Protestants do not deny) means that it is impossible to have certainty regarding the meaning of the biblical texts apart from the “authentic interpretation of the Word of God” that “has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone”, that is, “to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 85). In other words, Scripture vangogh-still-life-with-biblecontains the apostolic “deposit of the faith” (depositum fidei), yet this deposit requires the hermeneutical mediation of the Roman magisterium in order to be clearly known and understood.

To put it bluntly, this strikes me, as a Protestant, as simply a lack of faith: not a lack of faith in Scripture so much as a lack of faith in the God whose Scripture it is. In its most primitive form, the Roman Catholic view objects to sola Scriptura because it does not believe, as Protestants do, that Scripture is capable of serving as the ultimate arbiter of the Church’s faith and practice apart from the Church’s own authoritative interpretation it. This does not mean that Protestants think of Scripture as existing in a vacuum; indeed we recognize that any understanding of Scripture’s teaching is intricately interwoven into a complex web of history, tradition, personal and corporate presuppositions, cultural conditioning, etc. Rather, it means that since Scripture is not just the Word of God but also the Word of God, we believe that no matter what mitigating or distorting forces may impose themselves on our interpretation, God will do as he promised in Isaiah 55 and ensure that his Word succeeds in accomplishing the whole purpose for which he sent it. Karl Barth stated it like this:

To say “the Word of God” is to say the Word of God. It is therefore to speak about a being and event which are not under human control and foresight. Our knowledge of this being and event does not justify us in thinking and speaking of them as though they were under our control and foresight. We know this divine nature which we cannot control or foresee when we know this Word, when we know, then, what we are saying when we say that the Bible is the Word of God…When we have the Bible as the Word of God, and accept its witness, we are summoned to remember the Lord of the Bible and to give Him the glory. It would not strictly be loyalty to the Bible, and certainly not thankfulness for the Word of God given and continually given again in it, if we did not let our ears be opened by it, not to what it says but to what He, God Himself, has to say to us as His Word in it and through it. With this recognition and adoration of the sovereignty of Him whose Word the Bible is, the knowledge of its inspiration, its character as the Word of God, will always have to begin.[1]

To me, this is the bedrock, the indestructible foundation and strength of sola Scriptura. Scripture is the Word of God, and insofar as it is God’s Word, we can be sure that God will accomplish his communicative purposes through it, regardless of whether or not there is an authorized magisterium to tell us what it means. To assert, conversely, that Scripture needs such an authorized magisterium to achieve its divine intention, then what can this be except a lack of faith in the God whose Word Scripture is? If we were to read a particular book and deem it to be semantically ambiguous and hopelessly confusing, we would essentially be blaming the author for a gross lack of communicative ability. If so, then how much more is this true in relation to our view of Scripture! That is, if we consider Scripture to be so difficult, dense, obscure, or complicated that it requires the interpretation of an authorized magisterium to make it plainly understood, then what are we doing if not disparaging Scripture’s divine Author and doubting his power to carry out the purpose for which he inspired it?

Paul’s exhortation to Timothy stands in stark contrast to any such disparaging or doubting of God and his Word:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:14-17).

It is instructive to note that Paul does not speak of Timothy’s knowledge of the “sacred writings” or of the ability of those writings to “make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” as depending on an authorized magisterial interpreter. Indeed, Paul, (himself an apostolic authority supposedly necessary for proper interpretation of Scripture) fully recognized the fact that even from even as a child (i.e. before ever hearing Paul’s teaching, or for that matter the teaching of any of the other apostles!), Timothy had “learned” and “firmly believed” that the biblical message. It is for this reason that Paul goes on to affirm that “all Scripture is…profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”. Why? It is not because “all Scripture” depends on the interpretive agency of an authorized teaching magisterium in order to become “profitable” (which is what Paul should have written had he actually held to the Roman view of Scripture), rather “all Scripture” is already profitable simply because it “is breathed out by God“.

But, someone will protest, is not the error of sola Scriptura evident in the disunity that it breeds among Protestants? I have already written on this topic (here), so I don’t want to belabor the point here. Suffice it to say, first, that our convictions and principles must be guided by truth rather than by pragmatism. That is, the pragmatist measures the validity of something based on the results it produces. While this may be appropriate in certain circumstances, it is certainly not applicable when we have to do with the Word of the cross that is a folly and a scandal to most people (1 Cor. 1:18ff). If we were to measure the truth of the gospel by the effect it has, we would likely give it up for something else, as even the Galatians (5:7-11) were tempted to do so as to avoid the persecution that the gospel inevitably brings! No, it is through the folly and the scandal of the cross that God has chosen to demonstrate his wisdom and power. By choosing the foolish things God shames the wise, by choosing the weak things God shames the strong, by choosing the lowly things God shames the proud, and by choosing the broken things God shames those who seem to have it all together. This is why we walk by faith and not by sight. If our certainty regarding Scripture could be validated by a visible magisterium, then what need would there be for faith? Indeed, as Paul states in Romans 4, faith, like that of Abraham, must hope against hope and trust God’s promise to accomplish his purpose through his Word even when circumstances seem to contradict it. That, after all, is the meaning of faith.

Thus, I simply conclude as I began. The significance and validity of sola Scriptura comes ultimately from the fact that Scripture is not simply the Word of God, but it is the Word of God, the God whose Word will not return to him void but will accomplish the purpose for which he sends it. This is a power, a communicative efficacy that will achieve its divinely appointed ends with or without the cooperation of any human person or institution. Indeed, as Isaiah 40:6-8 uncompromisingly proclaims:

All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.

Truly, all flesh, including the Roman magisterium, is like grass that withers, in contrast with the Word of God that stands forever. So the fundamental question that determines whether or not we will live and die by sola Scriptura is this: do we fully trust in God, and in God alone, to fulfill his purpose in breathing out Holy Scripture, or do we doubt his power and disparage his ability to communicate his Word to us clearly and compellingly even without human assistance? It seems to me that full confidence in God will lead to sola Scriptura, however our circumstances may incline us to think otherwise.

I close with one of my favorite quotations of Martin Luther, excerpted from a sermon he preached in Wittenberg in 1522:

Once, when Paul came to Athens (Acts 17[:16–32]), a mighty city, he found in the temple many ancient altars, and he went from one to the other and looked at them all, but he did not kick down a single one of them with his foot. Rather he stood up in the preaching-347x280middle of the market place and said they were nothing but idolatrous things and begged the people to forsake them; yet he did not destroy one of them by force. When the Word took hold of their hearts, they forsook them of their own accord, and in consequence the thing fell of itself. Likewise, if I had seen them holding mass, I would have preached to them and admonished them. Had they heeded my admonition, I would have won them; if not, I would nevertheless not have torn them from it by the hair or employed any force, but simply allowed the Word to act and prayed for them. For the Word created heaven and earth and all things [Ps. 33:6]; the Word must do this thing, and not we poor sinners.

In short, I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no one by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. Take myself as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept [cf. Mark 4:26–29], or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything. Had I desired to foment trouble, I could have brought great bloodshed upon Germany; indeed, I could have started such a game that even the emperor would not have been safe. But what would it have been? Mere fool’s play. I did nothing; I let the Word do its work.[2]

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[1] Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 2, London; New York: T&T Clark. p.527.

[2] Luther, M., 2012. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings Third Edition. W. R. Russell & T. F. Lull, eds., Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. pp.293-294. Emphasis mine.

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