Sola Scriptura: A Baptismal Defense

A talk presented to a conference hosted by the Presbyterian Committee on History and The Presbyterian College – as part of ongoing celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Still in somewhat rough form, but clear enough to follow.


Some days you feel like you’ve drawn the short straw. And let me confess that I feel a bit that way about this line-up of five events over five years, with each year dedicated to one of the famous Solas of the Reformation tradition.

Sola Gratia – Grace Alone

Sola Fide –Faith Alone

Solus Christus – Christ alone

Soli Deo Gloria – For God’s Glory Alone

And our sola for today, of course, is Sola Scriptura – by Scripture Alone.

I’ve got to say that when I thought of this line-up of topics, I said to myself: “Grace alone. That’s such a beautiful and compelling theme of the Reformation – that our lives are gift and grace – that new life in Christ is grace upon grace. Grace Alone is a beautiful and is such an uncontested theme of Christian life and faith. Who wouldn’t want to offer reflections on that topic?”

And Faith Alone – perhaps a little more contested within the wide church – or perhaps not so much contested as differently understood in different traditions. And within our own Reformed tradition this is such a rich theme: Faith understood as the way we enter into relationship with Jesus and with the Father to whom Jesus prayed.

And Christ Alone. Who wouldn’t want to wax eloquent for half an hour on that theme? Jesus, the messiah who is our only source of life and hope and forgiveness and joy and resurrection; Christ as the only source of redemption for our world. Who wouldn’t want to take up such a theme – one that lies so close to the heart of our Reformed tradition and the heart of Christian faith?

To say nothing of the Soli Deo Gloria. All for the glory of God.

But our theme for this year and this weekend is Sola Scriptura. And perhaps you’ll understand why I feel like I’ve drawn the short straw. Is there anything straightforward about how we approach the scriptures today? Is there anything self-evident about the authority of scriptures for our lives? Well of course at one level we’d want to say, yes. Yes, it is straightforward to open the scriptures and read the scriptures – and by reading them to grow in our faith, understanding, and Christlikeness.

But on the other hand, when we approach the scriptures, and when we try to understand how the scriptures shape our understanding of God and shape our sense of self – well, it often seems far from straightforward. So many challenges when we read the scriptures.

There are questions and challenges in translation – do we always know what the original text in Greek or Hebrew text meant?

There are substantial cultural differences – can we get our mind around what various texts meant to those who lived in times and place are worlds apart from our own? How does we apply those texts to our time and place? Referring back to my installation lecture, what

There are scientific questions – what is the significance of the fact that the writers who produced the scriptures understood the cosmos and human selves and bodies in very different ways than we do?

Whenever we open the scriptures, and whenever we interpret the scriptures, there are significant questions that arise. That’s true whether we are reading the scriptures personally and devotionally or within the community of the church. And all of this, of course, is against the backdrop of a wider culture that has little use for the scriptures in general – doesn’t understand them or esteem them. So this morning I confess that I feel a little like I’ve drawn the short straw in this lectures series. “OK, Roland, you get to deal with sola scriptura in this series.” Scripture alone.

So where to begin on this question? Well, the title of my lecture for today gives a sense of where I want to begin. I want to begin with the sacraments or, more narrowly, with the sacrament of baptism. The title I’ve given my talk is “Sola Scriptura: A Sacramental Defense?” Which is to say that I’m asking about the relationship between baptism and the scriptures. I’m asking whether we can arrive at some account of the singular authority of the scriptures if we begin with the reality of baptism and with our experience of baptism. Now this will immediately raise questions for those who inhabit the Reformed Tradition in any kind of serious way. Even accepting that I’m only posing a question – even accepting that I’m only engaging in a bit of experimental theology – this will seem a decidedly un-Reformed approach to scripture. Defending sola scriptura by way of the sacraments?

How can the sacraments be prior to the scriptures?

How can we make scripture secondary to the sacraments?

Doesn’t that end up putting the church ahead of scripture?

Isn’t this what that the Reformation was trying to undo?

They are important questions, of course, but let me push forward with my reflections, and see where they take us.

My paper is going to unfold in three moments, with baptism at the centre of each.

The first moment will be the moment of my own baptism as an infant many years ago. The second moment will be the moment of an adult baptism taking place in the church today. And the third moment will take us back to the earliest church – to that very earliest community of women and men who came to faith in Jesus and were baptized

We’re going to get to sola scriptura. But first, baptism!

We begin with my baptism, but not because there is anything unique about it. In fact my experience is probably quite similar to that of many others. Nevertheless, it remains important to begin with my own baptism, or with each of our baptisms, because doing so introduces a high degree of concreteness into this whole discussion. When we talk about the church or when we talk about baptism, or when we talk about the scriptures, we are talking about living and breathing children and women and men – we are dealing with families and congregations that live their faith, who very concretely turn to the scriptures for wisdom and understanding, who seek out baptism. In any such discussion, it seems to me, there should be as little room for abstraction as possible.

Now to begin with my own baptism is to begin with an event at which I was present but in relation to which I have no immediate personal memory. Knowledge of my own baptism comes to me only second-hand – through my parents and other family members – through photographs and a baptismal certificate – through holding and handling a garment that I wore at my baptism.

At some point, of course, I became aware of the fact of my baptism. It was probably at a young age that I became aware water had been poured, promises spoken, and a confession of faith offered. At the same moment that I became aware of my own baptism, I also began to learn what my baptism meant. And the scriptures would have been a key component in my growing knowledge of what it meant that I was baptized. Within my family and a local congregation, I was taught what the bible said about what faith and baptism. And the scriptures also shaped me more indirectly since I lived within a family and community that were scripture shaped – even if no family or congregation are synonymous with the scriptures or fully faithful to them. I was obviously also shaped by more than simply the scriptures.

So already here we get a bit of a sense of the dialectic toward which we are moving in this discussion. On the one hand there is my baptism – and on the other hand the scriptures that provide the meaning of my baptism. On the one hand there is an infant over whom water is poured and over whom promises are made and in whose presence a confession of faith is offered – and on the other hand the scriptures that provided an explanation for what had happened. In my life, evidently, there is a clear sequential order – first my baptism, then awareness of my baptism, then an understanding of the meaning of my baptism through the scriptures, in a family and within community.

Baptism – Scriptures – Understanding

Now it seems to me that it’s just here that we have to stop for a moment and ask what baptism is and means – whether baptism in general or infant baptism. Here we come up against numerous theological questions. First among the questions is one that each of the Reformers tended to answer in his own particular way – the question of whether baptism is a moment in which God acts in relation to the person baptized – or whether baptism is simply a sign or symbol of God’s promises. When we try to offer an explanation on this point, it is evident that the scriptures themselves play a part. For his part, Calvin isn’t always clear on which answer he wants to give. Sometimes he wants to say that baptism is just a helpful way to symbolize the forgiveness of God in Christ – and at other times he wants to say that God acts in baptism, by the Holy Spirit, to seal his promises in the life of the one baptized. In fact the ambiguity of Calvin on this point can be traced all the way up to Living Faith in the modern church Our most recent confessional document insists that God acts in baptism, in the life of the one baptized, but refuses to go out on a limb and saw anything substantial about what that might mean. For my part, I’d prefer to go with the sometimes-strong Scots Confession which says:

“And thus we utterly damn the vanity of those that affirm sacraments to be nothing else but naked and bare signs. No, we assuredly believe that by baptism we are engrafted in Christ Jesus, to be made partakers of his justice, by the which our sins are covered and remitted…”

Paul’s language of baptism, across the epistles, implies that in baptism we are incorporated into Christ, engrafted into Christ. This doesn’t mean faith is irrelevant to our life with Christ, but it means simply what it says – that in baptism we belong to Christ in a decisive sense. Faith will inevitably and even necessarily follow.

So in relation to my own life, I confess and trust that God came graciously near to me in my baptism – sealing my life with the promise of new life of Christ – embracing me and touching me by the Spirit. But of course my ability to make this confession is mediated to me through the scriptures and through a community. But in any case, we can say that my baptism was not mere symbolic happenstance, irrelevant to my deepest identity. My baptism was not water poured momentarily over me and then evaporating to nothing. My baptism was not a speaking of God’s promises that left my life unchanged. No, my baptism was my engrafting into Christ, my being drawn into the life of Christ by the Spirit. As much as I may resist the logic of my own baptism – as much as I may be unfaithful to my own identity in Christ – as much as I may be unfaithful to the kingdom in the service of which I have been dedicated – by God’s grace these baptismal truths remain my identity.

And so we might add that my baptism drives me to the one in whom I have my identity. My baptism, we might say, drives me to understand the God who has embraced me in my baptism. My baptism drives me to the Spirit that has blessed me and filled me through the years. My baptism drives me to the scriptures to find a fuller account of what it means that I have died with Christ and been raised with him.

So if I am to discover more fully the truth of my baptism and of my identity, it is to the scriptures I must go – where else? There is only one place for answers, for growth, for deepening faith, for prayerful encounter with God by the Spirit. Sola Scriptura. Through scripture alone.

Where else can I learn of the one who is my life?

Where else can I learn of the kingdom present in him?

Where else can discern the beginnings of the community he formed?

Where else can I hear his clear call to walk in compassion and peace?

Even if the scriptures are mediated to me through the community of God’s people, it is only through scripture that I may see Jesus, and may discover the truth of my identity through baptism. Sola scriptura, yes. Only through the scriptures! But first there is and was the life-giving reality of my baptism.

So much for the first moment in this paper – on to the second. Our second moment is the moment of an adult baptism in contemporary Quebec. The details of this story could arise out of any number of congregations. There is a young woman who has grown up outside of the church, and outside of Christian faith – let’s call her Sarah. Sarah becomes friends with a Christian woman who belongs to an evangelical and Reformed congregation – and Sarah begins to learn about Jesus. That friend talks to Sarah about the person of Jesus, about his astonishing narrative, about the new life found in him, about the challenge of walking with him and in his way – the challenge of taking up the cross in the justice and compassion and service of his kingdom.

Sarah begins reading the bible for herself, begins attending a church where the scripture are read and interpreted. Through listening to sermons, through conversations with her friend, and through reading parts of the New Testament herself, she begins to find that this Jesus is compelling to her. She begins to believe that he is healing and hope and life – she beings to trust that he risen to new life – she begins to trust that he is a gracious Lord. And as Sarah walks this path of discovery and faith she suddenly knows she must be baptized. She is perhaps unable to fully articulate why she wants to be baptized – there is no abstract formula that can explain to a person when she should be baptized. But her identification with Jesus, and his identification with her, means, for her, baptism.

Now it is true to say that the scriptures have informed this young woman’s journey into faith – led her to the point of baptism. But is also true to say that this young woman doesn’t know the scriptures terribly well. She is by no means fully versed in what the scriptures teach. She doesn’t know the Old or New Testament like the back of her hand. She is not familiar with the history of scriptural translation. She is not familiar with questions of interpretation or inspiration or canon-formation. But she knows enough to trust that God gives creation as gift and grace, that God has given the gift of re-creation in Jesus. She knows enough to know that she wants to be baptized – needs to be baptized

And so that’s what happens. She is baptized in a local congregation – with water poured over her in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. As she receives baptism, she offers a confession of faith in her own voice, even as the congregations voice is raised in confessing the faith in the God of covenant and creation. Through her baptism she shares in the death and resurrection of Jesus – she shares in his identity as the beloved Son of God – and she knows the blessing of Christ through the Holy Spirit.

Now if we stop for a moment to compare our first two moments – if we compare my experience with that of this young woman, we notice that there is a different sequence of events, in terms of our theme for today. In my experience the starting point is my baptism – and it is baptism that leads toward the scriptures – to the scriptures being open and read and explored. But in this second moment, in this young woman’s life, the scriptures have made an explicit appearance earlier in the narrative, before the moment of baptism – before baptism was even on the radar. The scriptures come to life in the conversations between this young woman and her friend, even if the scriptures were not directly referenced. The scriptures themselves are read on the way to a discovery of Jesus and his life for the world – his compassion, his justice, his new life, his forgiveness. Scripture, then baptism.

Scripture – Baptism – Scripture

But even here, I would want to say that we can’t neglect the significance of baptism itself. “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:27). “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:4) To receive baptism is to put on Christ. To receive baptism is to be buried with Christ and raised with him. As I said of myself, so we say of this young woman: Her baptism is not mere symbolic happenstance, irrelevant to her deepest identity. Her baptism is not water poured momentarily over her and then evaporating to nothing. Her baptism is not a speaking of God’s promises that leaves her life unchanged. Her baptism touches her and renews her and transforms her in Christ.

And having been baptized, she is driven back to the scriptures in a new way, in a different way, in a more engaged way –to discover more, on the path of becoming who she is in Christ. Again, even if the scriptures are mediated to her through the community of God’s people, it is through scripture alone that her identity may be discovered and understood. Sola scriptura. Through scripture alone. But first, the life-giving reality of her baptism.

And then we press on to our third moment.

We have the first moment of my baptism as an infant.

We have the second moment of a young woman’s baptism in modern Quebec.

And third we have the experience of someone coming to faith in the earliest church.

Now at some level I want to say that this third moment is similar to the first two moments. And yet the context of this third moment is so distant from our first two moments that in some ways it is hard to get our heads around this person’s experience.

As we attempt to describe this person’s life and world, we first of all point out that baptism was adopted as a distinct and Christian practice very early in the history of the church. The early letters of Paul – Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians – each already express a sophisticated theological understanding of baptism. These texts, of course, date to the 6th decade of the first century. And some New Testament scholars also believe that within Paul’s letters he may deploy pre-existing baptismal liturgies – Galatians 3:27-28 would be such an example. And if this is the case, then the composition of these liturgies is likely back into the 5th decade – which places them in the first 25 or so years of the church – the first 25 or so years of their being a community of Jesus-followers.

And of course the impulse to generate such written liturgies would itself have been driven by older, already existing practices within the church – which means that we are speaking about baptism as a commonplace of the church in the earliest years of its life. In fact, we have little reason to doubt the narrative of Luke-Acts, which suggests that baptism was a basic ritual of Christianity from the very beginning – an act tied to the baptisms performed by John, and tied to the baptism of Jesus himself.

Washing with water in the name of Jesus – washing with water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – washing as an expression of one’s new through the messiah of God – was undoubtedly a very early practice in the Christian movement.

But alongside baptism it is perhaps also worth pointing out that conversion to Jesus and his way – a declaration of his Lordship – seems also to have been accompanied by dramatic, if not ecstatic experiences in the Spirit. We can’t say whether such experiences were commonplace or limited to a narrower group of converts. But the texts of the New Testament at least point to such experiences as common in the earliest Christian community. In Acts chapter 10, Peter speaks to a gathering of gentiles that includes Cornelius, and as he preaches we read that the Holy Spirit fell on those who heard the word. We don’t know what happens, but evidently there is something dramatic and obvious about this drawing near of the Spirit. The result is that this group of gentiles is immediately baptized. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul makes similar reference to the dramatic experiences of those to whom he writes –dramatic experiences had when the first came to faith in Christ Paul writes to them “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit are you going to now end with the flesh? Did you experience so much for nothing…” Presumably they had some powerful, memorable experience in the Spirit at the time of their conversion to Christ. And then of course there is also the experience of glossolalia referenced in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. This was a community that clearly thought of itself as spiritually superior, which experienced the Spirit in dramatic ways. Over-against this self-assessment, Paul of course sees this community as one that has failed to take seriously the goodness of human bodily existence – and one that has failed to take seriously the disciplined life to which they are called in Christ. But Paul also does not diminish, deny, or refuse their experiences in the Spirit. He says, in fact: “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than any of you.”

So we have this wider context in which to locate our third moment – which we’ll try to describe in the following way:

A woman comes to faith in Jesus in the earliest years of the Christian movement. Somehow, beyond all odds, she is present when the good news of Jesus is being taught. And not only present, but capable of understanding this message. More, she is somehow intrigued by and open to the news that Jesus is the beloved Son of God. She is perhaps Jewish, perhaps not. She could live in Judea or in the wider Mediterranean region

Hearing this message, and coming to believe this message, and having a dramatic experience of the Spirit’s presence – she is baptized. That’s just what you do in the earliest church. If you come to faith in Jesus – if you declare your faith and trust in him – if you believe that living in the way and holiness of Jesus is your life – then you are baptized. Perhaps at her baptism that litany later quoted by Paul is read aloud:

As many of you as have been baptized in Christ have been clothed with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek. There is neither slave nor free. There is no longer male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

But then what? How does this individual grow in the faith? How does she learn more about the way of Jesus? How does she discover what it means to belong to the community of God’s people?

In our first moment and our second moment today we have said that my baptism, and the baptism of a young woman in modern day Quebec drive us to the scriptures to find a fuller account of what it means to have died with Christ and risen with him. If we want to understand our baptism – sola scriptura; if we want to fill out the meaning of our baptism into Christ and into his death and resurrection – it will be through scripture alone, even if scripture as mediated to us through the church. Through the scriptures our faith may be filled out – our knowledge and love for Christ filled out and deepened – our commitment to the ways of his kingdom strengthened – by the Spirit. Sola Scriptura

But what do we do here, in this third moment? Are there scriptures to which this early Christian woman may turn – are there narratives that can explain what it means to belong to Jesus? Are there letters that explain what it means to be part of his Body? Is there poetry that gives expression to the humility and lordship of Jesus, or the power of the Spirit he breathes on us? If baptism drives us to the scriptures, to what scriptures is this earliest Christian driven.

Well at one level we can say that the earliest Church went to the scriptures of the Old Testament to articulate their understanding of who Jesus was – to explain the meaning of his life, his death, his resurrection. As Harry Gamble writes:

One of the most urgent tasks of the Christian movement in its infancy was to support its convictions by showing their consistency with Jewish scriptures. Messianic Jews who sought to persuade their fellow Jews to their faith necessarily developed scriptural arguments, and there is every reason to suppose that the primitive church turned immediately to the study and interpretation of scripture and began to adduce those texts that enabled Jesus and the events of Christian experience to be understood and presented as outworkings of the divine will revealed in the Torah and Prophets.[1]

So the earliest Christian community was never without a text – never without scriptures. Through the narratives, the poetry, the law, the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, the truth of Jesus was affirmed and defended. So this woman’s baptism into Christ – her experience of the Spirit that Christ has sent to his people – these realities may drive this woman and her church community to the Hebrew scriptures.

And yet the distinctiveness of her confession of faith – and the distinctiveness of her baptism in to the death and resurrection of Jesus – and her profound experience of God by the Spirit – it demands more, it invites more, it seeks more. There is everything she has heard from the mouths of preachers and teachers – but questions abound.

What more can be said about this Jesus?

What’s the story of his life?

What’s the meaning of his death and resurrection?

What is this Spirit he has sent?

Who are we as his people? How are we different?

Upon being introduced to Jesus, and learning of Jesus, and being baptized into his life, death, and resurrection – seeking him ultimately required more than what the Hebrew Bible offered. The Christian tradition, as Gamble argues, was always a literary tradition – first in relation to the scriptures of the Jewish people – and very soon after with collections of the sayings of Jesus – and possibly collections of miracle narratives – and then with letters of Paul – and then with gospels that each in their own way filled out who this Jesus was that the church had encountered and who accompanied his people day by day. What I am in effect saying is that faith in Jesus Christ, and the reality of baptism, drove or compelled the writing of the scriptures. Yes, there were narratives in the background – stories, oral traditions – but the writing of the scriptures was compelled by women and men finding their identity in Christ, through baptism.

Story of Jesus – Baptism – Scripture

We have come some distance in articulating the priority of baptism when it comes to the question of sola scriptura, and I simply want to identify a few principles that flow from these narratives:

There is room for abstraction in our talk of sola scriptura. Discussions of the sufficiency of scripture and the authority of scripture and even the primacy of scripture can very quickly become abstract if we do not attend to the reality and experience of baptism. Sola Scriptura is fundamentally about the reality of God’s love in Christ, a love that has touched our being and reshaped us and recreated us by the Holy Spirit. It’s not about simply applying some complex or abstract formula for determining to what extent we will defer to this set of texts and traditions. It is about understanding our identity and our experiences and the realization that there is only one place that we can go, in the first instance, to understand what we have experience and who we are. That place is the scriptures, as they are mediated to us through the community where we first learned of Jesus.

It becomes clear here, secondly, that our experiences are not pure experiences. Yes, God may act and does act in our lives by the grace of Jesus Christ and through the moving of his Spirit –but when it comes to our understanding of this reality, we can explain our experience apart from the language and community of the church. To clarify what I’m saying, I would say that the same logic of our gender applies here – we do not have direct and unmediated access to our gender identity. I don’t have direct or unmediated access to my male identity, so that it may be lived out in some pure way. My male own experience of my male identity is mediated to me through a particular, complex web of language and culture. So it is with my identity in Christ and my experience of my baptism. It is only through a given community and a given narrative and a given vocabulary that I discover the meaning of my identity and experience. So beginning with the experience of baptism is not finally to say that my experience trumps all – because it’s not even clear what it would mean to say that my experience can be given priority or can be definitive. Scripture, in some profound sense, provides the interpretive and meaning matrix for my experience – but it is also true to say that the scriptures have little or no meaning apart from that experience.

Finally, we also need to say that our approach to our own baptism builds upon, or depends upon, or must be conceived in parallel to, the experiences and interpretations of the earliest Christians – those who knew Christ, who walked with Jesus, and were driven to write the New Testament and interpret the Hebrew Bible out of their experience of Christ and the Spirit. These narratives are not authoritative simply because we insist that they are somehow authoritative, but because if our experience is not read through the lens of their experience then we are no longer talking about the same experience – no longer talking about our life in Christ in continuity with their life in Christ – but talking about some other life and experience that we are having. Sola Scriptura – through scripture along – means that we insist on understanding who we are in parallel to and in relation to those who were driven to write the scriptures. This means trusting that their lives and world are to some extent accessible to us – that their history and our history may intersect in some meaningful way. We are not cut off from each other by the ugly ditch of history. By the Spirit, and through union with Christ, what is true of my identity in baptism (as explained to me through scripture) is true of their identity, also. We are the Body of Christ, the Church, the communion of saints. Thanks be to God.

[1] Harry Gamble, Books and Readers in the early church, 23.


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