I recently taught my daughters (ages 6 and 4) how to play Roshambo aka Rock, Paper, Scissors. Everyone knows the game:  Rock crushes Scissors, Scissors cuts Paper, Paper covers Rock.  While I love the permutation: Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock, apparrently so do my girls. It didn’t take long for them to start throwing dynamite into the mix, proclaiming that dynamite trumps (or in their words explodes everything.) Although they forget that Scissors can cut the fuse on dyamite, my daughters quickly learned that games can become very one-sided when someone has a trump to play.

Now while it is fun to pull out dynamite and sandbag your Roshambo opponent, it is not so fun when someone pulls out the dynamite of theology: Scriptural Authority. Things quickly become defined in black and white, right and wrong in record time when someone throws down the trump and declares any other facet of a discussion invalid.

It’s easy to label things when you claim Scriptural Authority: Churched vs. Unchurched. Biblical vs. Unbibical. You get the picture. There is no room for debate. Ever. It’s a cheap and dirty way to claim the high ground. It’s like playing Rock, Paper, Scissors (with or without Dyanmite, Lizards or Spock) and someone hauling out NUCLEAR BOMB!  I mean, how do you counter that? You can’t. It’s a cheap way to declare, without actually saying, “I’m right and everyone who disagrees with me is wrong, and I don’t even want to listen to what you have to say.”

Pastor Brant Clements sums it up quite well in his blog:

So if someone uses the phrase “the biblical doctrine” what they mean is “the Bible as I interpret it supports the doctrine that I teach.” Again, if someone uses the expression “the unbiblical practice” what they mean is “the Bible as I interpret it condemns the thing that you are doing.” I have found this to be invariably true.

Quite frankly, I’m a little fed up with this game plan, especially when it is tossed around like a hand grenade in the debate following the 2009 CWA decision regarding same-sex unions and GLBTQ rostered clergy. It’s what the Anti-ELCA crowd (ie, LCMC/CORE/WA) likes to use to criticize and condemn the “unbiblical” decisions of a now “unchurched” denomination.  Word Alone has no problems claiming Scriptural Authority to weigh in on this:

Biblical norms establish the boundaries and proper use of sexuality. The Bible clearly teaches that marriage is a holy bond between one man and one woman and is the only proper arena for sexual activity. From marriages, families are formed which serve as the building blocks of civilization.

There’s that biblical vs. unbibical moniker that Pr. Clement blogged about. Translation: “OUR rules establish the boundaries and norms for marriage and sexuality because we claim Scriptural Authority.”

One of my own pastors, who embraces the orthodox Confessional Lutheran Acronym Salad, has even claimed as much in his speech when implored the LCEP to secede from the ELCA (bold emphasis mine):

Throughout her history, [LCEP] has been a part of a Christian Lutheran body that has upheld the Bible as the final authority in governing the way she lives out her faith and service to God. [LCEP’s] current constitution proclaims that the Bible is “the source and norm for all matters of faith and life.”

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the Lutheran body with which [LCEP} currently has membership, has taken steps away from this time-honored and basic Christian practice. As a result, a number of the member churches of the ELCA have been thrown into turmoil and the ELCA’s world partners have distanced themselves having issued letters calling for the ELCA to turn from this grave error.

Translation: “I don’t agree with the 2009 CWA’s decisions, and since I am the Associate Cheese* at LCEP, I am going to discredit it because it doesn’t jive with my interpretation of Scripture. My house, my rules. End of discussion.”

Which brings us to Word Alone (not the ministry, the concept) aka Sola Scriptura. It’s a concept that all Lutherans (and for that matter most Christians) embrace.  It’s one of the pillars of the Reformation. The Bible alone is the measure of faith and the sole authority for Christians. Many Lutheran denominations cite Paul’s letters to Timothy as the basis for this rule:

16All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.    2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NIV)

Contrary to popular belief, the ELCA does not sway from that belief. In fact, it reaffirms it in many ways. At it’s website, the ELCA states the following:

The canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the written Word of God. Inspired by God’s Spirit speaking through their authors, they record and announce God’s revelation centering in Jesus Christ. Through them God’s Spirit speaks to us to create and sustain Christian faith and fellowship for service in the world.

I don’t think even the most progressive Lutheran will argue this confession of faith. It’s what makes us Lutheran. It’s why we embrace the Nicene Creed as one of our Confessions of Faith. It’s that leap of faith that defines who we are as Christians that God really did speak through the prophets.

But who gets to interpret every verb and decide where every comma goes? Who gets to claim the scriptural high ground and be, as former President Bush, declared, The Decider? Who gets to decide what is “inerrant” and “infallable” and what is minor and trivial? As one of the pillars of the Reformation, Sola Scriptura was a concept to correct the errors of the Roman Catholic Church. It was meant to take the human error out of how we read scripture. As Martin Luther once said, “a simple layman armed with Scripture is greater than the mightiest pope without it.”  In other words, Reformers such as Luther strongly believed  in the Five Solas (as in were willing to die for what they believed) that Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone), Sola Fide (Faith Alone), Sola Gratia (Grace Alone), Solus Christus (Christ Alone) and Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone) were the foundations of faith and salvation. We didn’t need an intermediary such as the Pope to facilitate grace or interpret scripture. In fact, Luther (and many conservative Lutheran denominations) to this day still officially declare the Catholic Pope the Antichrist. (Talk about arguments I never want to touch with a ten-foot pole!) I have no idea if they truly meant the Pope really does have the number o’ the beast hidden under his mitre or if he was just the embodiment of the power and how to abuse it, (for that matter, I don’t want to touch that debate with ANY  length pole) but it is summed up nicely in Building Unity (Burgess and Gross, eds.):

In calling the pope the “antichrist,” the early Lutherans stood in a tradition that reached back into the eleventh century. Not only dissidents and heretics but even saints had called the bishop of Rome the “antichrist” when they wished to castigate his abuse of power.

But in ignoring the time-honored Lutheran tradition of respecting Bound Conscience (PDF file), have these Anti-ELCA organizations and their Scriptural Authority become the one thing that the the early Reformers rallied against: the embodiement of power and how to hold it over others? Have they become the Dynamite in Roshambo that becomes the unnecessary intermediary and Decider of right and wrong? Isn’t that why Luther split with the Pope and his church because of the arbitrary “unbiblical” rules  (Yes, the irony of using the word “unbiblical” burns, thanks for noticing.) for salvation and grace. Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Word Alone (as long as you color within the lines with the preapproved four crayons provided for you. Any deviation from this will nulify the above promised Grace.)

And since I’ve already stuck my neck out far enough, I might as well go all the way and really get branded a progressive heretic…

I don’t agree with Scripture Alone.

There I said it. I haven’t been smote, smoted, smited (what is the past tense for the verb “to smite?”) by a bolt of lightening. And when I say that, I mean that I don’t think that Scripture is not the ONLY way that the Holy Spirit communicates with us. Holy Pessimism, Batman! If that were the case, aren’t we painting a very bleak picture of modern Christianity? That would have meant that God had stopped speaking to us over 2000 years ago, that there are no modern day prophets that will light the way, that God has been some place else for the past two millenia. I like how Pr. Brant summed it up in his blog. The Bible is not only a record of God’s past conversations with humanity but it is an “invitation to the conversation” to build faith and find Grace.  

Scriptural authority sure worked well when the only people that could actually read scripture were a handful of clergy. The masses were taught to recite the Pater Noster from memory when they neither spoke nor read the Latin in which it was recited thousands and thousands of times. For that matter, most had never held or even seen a Bible. Mass was in Latin, so they didn’t even understand the words of worship when the gathered in churchs. Wielding scriptural power was pretty easy when the only person that actually read it was the one in power. Unfortuantely there isa 2000 year history of using Scripture and the pulpit to keep everyone else in line. It is extremely easy to use Dynamite when no one else understands the Roshambo rules.

Now if I came out and said, “The Holy Spirit told me that I shall have a tuna melt for lunch today,” I would be the first one to sign the papers to check myself into a psych ward.  But the Holy Spirit didn’t stop speaking 2000 years ago. The Spirit is at work today.   Now I’m not saying go pick up the Book of Mormon or the Anarchist’s Cookbook to find what the Holy Spirit is saying today. But we don’t live in that era where only the learned clergy had access to the scripture. The Bible has been translated into countless languages. It isn’t just someone elses Scriptural Authority that points us toward Grace. We are individually given a roadmap to head in the right direction. Scripture helps us find the Spirit. It is an essential element in that journey of faith.  We need that invitation in to the conversation. We need to use it as a roadmap to Grace. But we also need to ask ourselves, how does the Spirit speak to us today? It is there in our prayers and discernments. The Holy Spirit isn’t trapped in the the first century of the common era.

It is a Twenty-first Century force that continues to help us on that journey of faith, and it isn’t restrained by one version of Scriptural Authority.

And as we each open that wonderful invitation, it the Apostle Peter who warns us about people using their own interpretations of Scripture as a weapon:

15Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. 16He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.  2 Peter 3:15-16 (NIV)

Both sides of an argument will use this passage to claim the other is fallen into the trap that Peter writes of. People like distort Scripture and bend it to their will. The like to use it as Roshambo Dynamite.

Scripture is an invitation to meet God. But reading it cover to cover isn’t the way to find Him. Nor is claiming the Scriptural highground in an argument. Scripture brings us closer to God, but the journey is ours. The Bible will point us in the right direction. But without Faith, without guidance from the Holy Spirit in our day to day lives, the Bible just becomes a book filled with a bunch of words that can be thrown at another as easily as a rock. Christ didn’t intend for it to be used in as a trump in a biblical version of Rock, Paper, Scissors.

I welcome the Bible as an invitation, but I know it I need to find the other roadmaps provided by the Holy Spirit in order to strengthen my face and continue on that Journey with Him.

*No offense intended to either associate pastors or cheese as I like them both.