One of the things I’ve always appreciated about Luther is his clear-sighted view of the Scriptures as the “certain, simple, and clear” Word of God for us. He viewed the Scriptures as inspired by God and therefore without error throughout and completely sufficient to teach us all we need for faith, life, and salvation in Jesus Christ. This is known in Lutheran theology as “the Scripture principle” or “Sola Scriptura,” one of the three great Solas of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Latin for “Scripture Alone, Faith Alone, Grace Alone.”
One of the most succinct statements of the Scripture principle is found in the very first sentence of Lutheran theologian Franz Pieper’s great three-volume work, Christian Dogmatics: “We take the position that Holy Scripture, in contradistinction to all other books in the world, is God’s own infallible Word and therefore the only source and norm of Christian doctrine.”
In the late 1970’s I came to believe that the Lutheran church, under the influence of liberal theology and its historical-critical method of interpreting the Bible, which doesn’t regard Scripture as either infallible or inerrant, was gradually abandoning the Scripture principle. That was one of the factors that led me out of the Lutheran church and into Pentecostalism, which appeared to me at the time to hold to the Scripture principle more consistently and to apply it more thoroughly. But during the nearly twenty years I spent in Pentecostalism I came to realize that though its adherents avoid the error of discarding belief in the inerrancy of Scripture, they fall into an equally grievous error: they have discarded belief in the sufficiency of Scripture. Or, maybe more accurately, one could say they never held to it in the first place.
In the Pentecostal church of which I was a member in the 1980’s, this was shown by one of the pastor’s favorite sayings (and of course in many other ways as well): “He who has an experience will never be at the mercy of him who has only a doctrine.”
More recently I heard a current Pentecostal teacher, Bill Johnson of Bethel Church in Redding, California, put it this way: “Many people stop short of a divine encounter because they are satisfied with good theology. The Word is the invitation to meet the Person.”
Though Pentecostals are convinced they are staunch advocates of Sola Scriptura, such statements show they have in fact left it behind. They believe the Holy Spirit must engender something more within a believer than simple faith in the Savior revealed by the words of Scripture (properly understood according to grammar, syntax, and context—in other words, by sound doctrine), and the comfort, peace, and security that faith brings. In the mind of Pentecostals, that kind of faith is at best only the first step to the real goal of Christian life, which is having spiritual experiences.
In reality, the belief that spiritual experiences, or “divine encounters,” are the essential thing in Christian life, or that, without them, one’s faith in the Word and in the Savior it reveals is somehow deficient, leads to anxiety about one’s faith when one isn’t having any spiritual experiences, which, as everyone soon discovers, is most if not all of the time. Then comes confusion and uncertainty as to what the Word of God really is—having been taught that it must come with spiritual experiences beyond what sound doctrine and good theology show Biblical faith to be, one is led to extra-Biblical prophecies, revelations, dreams, visions, and other, stranger experiences that ultimately bring only more confusion and uncertainty. Finally one is led either to frank disillusionment and the loss of any real Biblical faith altogether or to a life spent pretending to oneself that one is seeing and experiencing all kinds of wonderful spiritual things which in reality aren’t there and rationalizing away the frequent spiritual and psychological catastrophes which are there.
The latter condition (living in a fantasy world and denying significant problems in the real world) is often the endpoint of those who became Christians in their youth through one of the many revival movements that have come and gone throughout history. They’re always hoping to recreate the spiritual experiences they think they had in that revival. The former condition (frank disillusionment and loss of any real Biblical faith) is often the endpoint of their children, who are more aware of the wounds inflicted by the emotionally manipulative environment of revivalism and, when grown, are more able to evaluate objectively the things they heard and saw in the churches in which their parents raised them.
In any case, trouble eventually results when Christians who otherwise believe the Scriptures to be inspired bring in something else alongside of Scripture as the real guide to the full faith and life in Christ that God intends for us to have. And, of course, other things besides spiritual experiences can be set up in that place—for example tradition, feelings, or human reasoning. But those are all topics for future posts...