I have an honest, non-inflammatory sola scriptura question for Lutherans and traditional Reformed individuals. I’m trying to figure out if the tradition of the church plays ANY role at all in determining how scripture should be interpreted. Obviously one criticism of sola scriptura is that it eventually leads to a million different interpretations of the same text, with everyone in the debate insisting his or her own interpretation is the best.
So the question is, can the early church fathers play any role in that debate, or must scripture by itself be the only way to prove an interpretation is correct?
Allow me to provide an example to better explain my question:
If I’m a Lutheran and I want to know, for instance, whether or not the church should practice infant baptism, I first should go to scripture and see what is said. I read the scriptures and conclude the proper interpretation is that infants should be baptized. But then there are all these other Christians saying infants shouldn’t be baptized and that the Bible doesn’t teach it. So how do I know my interpretation is the Apostolic interpretation of scripture and not just my own faulty understanding? The Baptist says he’s got it right, I say I have it right, who settles the dispute? Whichever side can argue it the best?
OR, can the Lutheran look to the early church fathers and say, “I know my interpretation is correct because the church has always properly interpreted this teaching the correct way”? Or is that a violation of the sola scriptura principle?
Well, if Lutherans are asking the bolded question, they are probably asking the wrong question. In terms of doctrine, our interpretation doesn’t really matter
For us, SS is primarily a practice of the Church (in my case, the LCMS). Doctrine for Lutherans is set by the confessions/Church.
But that said, we definitely consider the historic teachings of the Church and the Fathers.
From the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article X:
The Tenth Article has been approved, in which we confess that we believe, that in the Lord’s Supper the body and blood of Christ are truly and substantially present, and are truly tendered, with those things which are seen, bread and wine, to those who receive the Sacrament. This belief we constantly defend, as the subject has been carefully examined and considered. For since Paul says, 1 Cor. 10:16, that the bread is the communion of the Lord’s body, etc., it would follow, if the Lord’s body were not truly present, that the bread is not a communion of the body, but only of the spirit of Christ. 55] And we have ascertained that not only the Roman Church affirms the bodily presence of Christ, but the Greek Church also both now believes, and formerly believed, the same. For the canon of the Mass among them testifies to this, in which the priest clearly prays that the bread may be changed and become the very body of Christ. And Vulgarius, who seems to us to be not a silly writer, says distinctly that bread is not a mere figure, but 56] is truly changed into flesh. And there is a long exposition of Cyril on John 15, in which he teaches that Christ is corporeally offered us in the Supper. For he says thus: Nevertheless, we do not deny that we are joined spiritually to Christ by true faith and sincere love. But that we have no mode of connection with Him, according to the flesh, this indeed we entirely deny. And this, we say, is altogether foreign to the divine Scriptures. For who has doubted that Christ is in this manner a vine, and we the branches, deriving thence life for ourselves? Hear Paul saying 1 Cor. 10:17; Rom. 12:5; Gal. 3:28: We are all one body in Christ; although we are many, we are, nevertheless, one in Him; for we are, all partakers of that one bread. Does he perhaps think that the virtue of the mystical benediction is unknown to us? Since this is in us, does it not also, by the communication of Christ’s flesh, cause Christ to dwell in us bodily? And a little after: Whence we must consider that Christ is in us not only according to the habit, which we call love, 57] but also by natural participation, etc. We have cited these testimonies, not to undertake a discussion here concerning this subject, for His Imperial Majesty does not disapprove of this article, but in order that all who may read them may the more clearly perceive that we defend the doctrine received in the entire Church, that in the Lord’s Supper the body and blood of Christ are truly and substantially present, and are truly tendered with those things which are seen, bread and wine. And we speak of the presence of the living Christ [living body]; for we know that death hath no more dominion over Him, Rom. 6:9.
In this defense of the doctrine of the Real Presence, Melanchthon defends the doctrine first and foremost from scripture, but he supports that position by referencing first, both the “Roman Church” and the “Greek Church”, stating that they both have always taught this. He ten further references Vulgarius and Cyril.
This is, in my view, a textbook example of how *sola scriptura *is supposed to be practiced.
I’m not personally against infant baptism, although I was raised Baptist and wasn’t baptized until I was 13. But we can’t tell much from Acts 16:15 or other references in Scripture, none of which specifically mention infants being baptized. So it is still a matter of speculation as to whether the early Christians were doing this or not.
Well…how did Scripture exactly tell you, in this instance, to baptize infants?
And your response is quite interesting…you stated…“If you had…”…it seems like you did not have to resort to Scripture to prove infant baptism…using Scriptures here, as you imply, is optional and not required.
In the case of infant baptism, Luther relied on church tradition, not on Scripture (Luther’s Works, Vol. 40, page 241):
“Since our baptizing has been thus from the beginning of Christianity and the custom has been to baptize children, and since no one can prove with good reasons that they do not have faith, we should not make changes and build on such weak arguments.”
I think that this quote is from Luther’s treatise, “Concerning Rebaptism,” which appears in volume 40 of Luther’s Works.
What I think is interesting is one of the few teachings Lutherans don’t seem to agree with the universal teaching of the early church fathers on is the Lord’s Supper as a sacrifice. There is a ton of evidence from the fathers that the early church always believed it was a sacrifice. I’m not saying that they believed it was a sacrifice for sin … but a sacrifice none the less, usually it’s referred to as a sacrifice of thanksgiving.
I wonder why Lutherans don’t believe that as well?
"With these thoughts it might be possible to rethink what I cannot but feel is an area that Lutherans are in desperate need of revisiting: namely, our reaction to the language of the sacrifice of the Mass. There is indeed a very profound sense in which the whole Church gathers to constantly offer before the Father, to hold up before Him, to commemorate the One Oblation which was once offered, and which Oblation is precisely made present by Christ Himself for us in the gift of His Body and Blood in order to BE our life, our justification, our redemption. When we point to it and beg the manifold mercies of the Father we are not elbowing our way into Christ’s sacrifice (for we couldn’t be any more “in” it than we already are!), but using Christ’s sacrifice as the great gift it is: the reconciliation of God and humanity. Is not this what all Lutherans sing: