The original title of this paper was Nicene Trinitarian Interpretations Against Sola Scriptura Constraints – I changed that because I felt it portrayed too blank-and-white a picture of the issues at hand. Sola Scriptura as a notion, however, remains a pillar in my thinking and draws me toward the Protestant tradition afresh, for it powerfully draws us back to the text and tries to say: “only you are authoritative”. Of course in practice that is a lot harder to do, as “the plain meaning of the text” is usually (if not always) coloured by the interpretations we have received about those texts from others. Those “others”, for believers, are faith-communities and authorities to whom they belong, and with whom it is often not straight forward to disagree or even reflect “plainly”. Nonetheless, it was used by the reformists to make that symbolic separation between what is tradition and the canon of Scripture of itself.
What I did not know, was, like with my modern understanding of monotheism, that my current-day understanding of the Protestants’ “rallying cry” of Sola Scriptura had undergone development and change from its earlier usage . Through their “rallying cry”, the reformists were challenging the Catholic Church over the authority base of the Bible; it is not the case, they said, that the Scriptures plus the Catholic (Pope-blessed) teaching together make God’s plumb-line. However, this expression Sola Scriptura can be found centuries earlier in a very entirely different context. A 12th Century-born Oxonian theologian named Robert Grosseteste seems to provide one of the earliest references to the sola scriptura principle – it would seem at some point between 1230 and his death in 1254. Grosseteste beautifully states:
‘The Scripture alone (sola scriptura) so inscribing the mind, elevates the person beyond himself and all the way to God, calling that person to unite with God, he creates one spirit, and causes that person to live in divine manner… Scripture is the only text that illuminates the mind, and forms the will, whereas all other texts at the disposal of the theologian darken the mind and deform the will’.
For some of these lesser-known medieval theologians like Grosseteste, who no doubt were preparing the way for the later protests against the Catholic Church’s grip, there was something unique to the Scriptures themselves, not just in terms of the intellectual, factual or theological knowledge that could be drawn from them, but also in the way in which they bring spiritual transformation to Christians, elevating them, uniting them with God, illuminating them and shaping their will (presumably to align will and action). Perhaps we should study these theologians more!