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Reformation 500

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Marking the commemoration of Reformation is an exciting time for us as Lutherans. As we all prepare, this blog will offer resources, tips, and background on a number of issues. 

Scripture Alone

Nov 08, 2016

By Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo


bprt16.010From early years, I was a church nerd. I knew I wanted to be a pastor in third grade, around age eight. But even before that, I played church every Sunday, as I’m sure many of you did. I would come home from worship, put on an old black "duster" of my mother’s and place toilet paper as a stole on my neck. I was a geek. And I still am. It was white toilet paper indicating that every Sunday is Easter.


So by the time I was in eighth grade confirmation class I was pretty much loaded for bear when it came to questions. I distinctly remember asking my pastor how there could possibly be more than one "Sola"–Sola gratia, Sola fide, Sola Scriptura. Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Scripture alone. How could that be? That was a product of my Missouri Synod Literalism. I couldn’t live with the paradox rampant in Lutheranism, the ambiguity of many things being named "Alone."


I still wondered about those Solas when trying to prepare to preach at this Bishop’s Retreat. I thought–Three Eucharists, Three Solasso I did my research. I found nothing about the origins of these solas in the Lutheran Confessions or even the ancient copy of the Lutheran Cyclopedia given to me at my ordination forty years ago. So I went to the guru of things Lutheran: Tim Wengert.


Here’s part of his reply:


"I actually cannot help very much with this. Here’s what I know: 1. Luther used all of the "solas" we are used to: sola fide (1200 times), sola gratia (250); solus Christus (around 500) but Sola Scriptura only 18 times. But never as a set."


I’m hoping that Dr. Wengert has some kind of computer program that tells him this and it’s not all flying around in his brilliant mind. That would be scary. (He was replying to my email from Eisenach where he was to give a lecture on Melanchthon, who never used the set of solas either, by the way.)


But I decided to soldier on. At the risk of sounding like a lecturer, What does Luther say about Scripture? In his revised edition of the Bible in 1545, he said what people ought to feel when they read the Bible. They should sing, shout, and leap for joy in the gospel of Jesus Christ.


"It is good news, a great shout resounding through the world shared by all who seek within its pages the consolation, strength, and victory offered in it by God."


Luther was his own best example of this joy in Scripture. His passion to communicate its saving message enlivened all of his commentaries, preaching, and theological writing.


Luther’s stormy public career is directly connected to his deep study, analysis, proclamation, and translation of Scripture. And we, dear sisters and brothers, share this legacy. I hope. Our practice of Bible study–around the kitchen table and in the scholar’s library–has been powerfully shaped by Luther’s conviction that Scripture carried God’s saving message to humankind and needs to be faithfully, lovingly, enduringly communicated.


But it means more than treasuring the Bible–although that would be a good place to begin. We also have a particular way of reading it and listening to it, a way that is distinctive and powerful and, at the same time, helps us to steer away from arrogance and presumption and self-righteousness.


The Scriptures are a gift of God offered freely in Christ and read through the particular lens that saved people are judged righteous by God through grace manifested in faith. As a result, the whole of Scripture to Luther seemed to communicate a single message. No longer was it a book of laws and judgment, but a book of grace and redemption.


Is that true for us? Is that lens what we use when we study Scripture and help others open the printed Word of God? Do we see and share the kerygma, the central message that came, first in a person, Jesus Christ, and later in a text? Is our proclamation shaped as a story of the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and as a proclamation of salvation offered freely to humans redeemed by grace? The oft-quoted teaching that the Scriptures are the manger in which the baby Jesus was laidthe Scriptures are not God but the trusty bearer of God for usenclosing, protecting, and cradling the true Word, Jesus Christ. Once Luther began seeing the Bible message as both a message of judgment and a message of forgiveness at the same time he saw Jesus all over the book, constantly presence in both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament.


Another insight that has particular value for me and I think for all of us who are professional proclaimers is Luther’s caution that we not read the Scriptures alone. The danger in that practice is the possibility people might become distracted by the drama, take the Bible too literally, and begin to speculate when the events it describes would come to pass. Implicit in this is my hope that we all engage in reading the Word with others, from pericope studies to kitchen tables to preaching the lectionary workshops. I think that will help guard against preaching becoming a weekly exercise in Chicken Soup for the Soul, or worse, reverting to the Bible being a book of Law alone.


Our human impulse is to seek comfort in obedience rather than in the Gospel’s promise of freedom. There is no surer and more trustworthy promise than the freedom from sin, death, and the devil that God offers us in the gospel to which the scriptures testify.


This is why Luther invites us to read the Bible–Scripture alone–and sing, leap, and shout for joy! 



At the 2016 Bishop's Retreat, Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo preached on the Lutheran solas. Read his reflections on Scripture AloneFaith Alone, and Grace Alone.


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