2 Timothy 3:14-17 (NRSV)
14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, 15 and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.


Comedian Emo Phillips tells a joke that has been ranked by several publications as the funniest religious joke of all time. Would you like to hear it? The joke goes something like this:

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!”

He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?”

He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me too! Protestant or Catholic?”

He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me too! What denomination?”

He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me too!”

“Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879 or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die heretic!” And I pushed him over.

The joke is funny precisely because of our tendency, in organized religion, to divide ourselves over small and seemingly insignificant points of doctrine…while ignoring the vast majority of things we share in common. Presbyterians are no different in this respect, although hopefully none of you have ever resorted to shoving someone off a bridge!

For 11 months out of the year, I like to preach on things like Faith, Hope, Love, Community–values we share with most other Christian traditions, and most religions in general. But for just one month out of the year, I like to focus on some of the things that make us distinct: Our history and heritage as Reformed Presbyterians, and some of the ideas that are baked into our historic culture and DNA.

This is not for the purpose of condemning or excluding people of other persuasions. While I am proud to be a Presbyterian, and I think we have some great ideas, some great distinctives, I don’t think that we are right and everyone else is wrong. Ultimately, that’s for God and individuals to sort out for themselves.

The purpose of Reformation Heritage Month here at First Presbyterian Church is a lot more like looking at a family scrapboook–in remembering and appreciating where we have come from, we remind ourselves who we are and where we’re headed. So this October, we’ll be looking at some classic teachings from the 16th century when the Presbyterian movement began, how those teachings connect to scripture, how they have evolved through the years, and how they can still be relevant for us today as 21st century people of faith.

Wait a minute, Pastor…did you just say “October?” It’s still September.

There are four Sundays in October this year, and the specific teachings we’ll be considering are known as the “Five Solas” of the Reformation.” So in order to fit them all in, we’re getting a head start.

The Five Solas are called this because of the Latin word “sola” which is related to the Spanish word “solamente” and means “only” or “alone.” They are, in order (and there will be a test, and bragging rights, and maybe prizes): Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus, and Soli Dei Gloria. If you’re wondering what all that Latin translates to…you’ll have to come to church for the next four Sundays to find out!

Today, we’re talking about Sola Scriptura, which means “scripture alone” or “only scripture.” Obviously, to the 16th century reformers, the scriptures of the Old and New Testament were important. So important that people like John Wycliffe, Martin Luther and John Calvin worked passionately for the Bible to be translated from Latin into the common languages of Europe. We take this for granted, but there was a strong belief in the medieval church that the scriptures were too complicated for common people to understand, and only those educated in Latin should be able to read and teach them.

Sola Scriptura. Scripture alone.

This strong emphasis placed upon scripture has often been misunderstood in subsequent centuries, and in the 19th and 20th centuries, was used to justify a new (and surprisingly recent) doctrine that is still popular in many Evangelical and Fundamentalist churches today: The “inerrancy” of scripture, or the idea that the Bible is free from all errors, faults or inconsistencies. For most the past 2,000 years since the time of Christ, mainstream Christians (and Presbyterians) did not believe this.

Those who did, and those who do, often rely on a misunderstanding of the classic Reformed doctrine of “Sola Scriptura” combined with a misunderstanding of today’s scripture passage from 2 Timothy 3:16 that “All scripture is inspired by God.” I want to make the case that both of those things need to be taken in context to be properly understood.

First, let’s consider the misunderstanding of “Sola Scriptura.” Taken out of its 16th century context, looking at just the words “Scripture alone” many have taken it to mean that scripture alone (and nothing else) is true. Scripture alone (and nothing else) is what we are supposed to read, study, and teach.

But it’s pretty obvious from any reading of Calvin or Luther or Knox that these men read widely, citing both Christians and non-Christians in their own writings. They read and compared different (and often conflicting) manuscripts of scripture, and were not afraid to choose one over the other, or to bring all of this knowledge to bear in their preaching and teaching. Calvin’s school in Geneva encouraged the study of science, art, philosophy, and even pre-Christian literature. They believed that the scriptures were true, but they also acknowledged that God’s truth was manifest in many ways throughout God’s creation.

When the reformers articulated the doctrine of “Sola Scriptura,” it was specifically aimed at a practice in the medieval church where church traditions or specific church leaders were given equal (and sometimes greater) weight with scripture. Sola Scriptura meant that where scripture and tradition were in conflict with one another, or where scripture and church leaders were in conflict with one another…scripture alone would have the final say. Sola Scriptura.

I’d like to turn now to our scripture passage in 2 Timothy. The book of 2 Timothy is framed as instructions to a young pastor in the early days of the Christian movement. The author of the letter urges his student to be wary of false teachings, and to stick with “what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it.” He references in verse 15 the “sacred writings” that “you have known since childhood.”

What were those sacred writings? Does he mean the books of the New Testament, from Matthew to Revelation? I think that’s highly unlikely, since some of those books weren’t even written until the second century, and for several centuries after that, conflicting lists of books circulated among early church leaders. The final, definitive list in the West wasn’t agreed upon by the Roman Catholic Church until the year 1545. Even after that, Protestant Reformers continued to remove books from the list that had been widely accepted as sacred scripture for centuries.

In the most famous verse of 2 Timothy, verse 16, the author says “All scripture is inspired by God.” In Greek, this is just three words: πᾶσα γραφὴ θεόπνευστος (pasa graphe theo-pneustos). The first word, πᾶσα is defined by Strong’s Greek Dictionary as “all, any, or every kind of.” The word γραφὴ is defined by the same dictionary as “writing.” It’s a very common word in Greek, and where we get the words “graphic,” “graph,” and “graphite.” And then the third (compound) word is θεόπνευστος, literally “God-breathed” — a word that appears only once in the entire Bible, right here, and so could mean “inspired” but also could mean something else entirely. We have no real way to tell.

So put that together, and 2 Timothy 3:16 could mean “All scripture is inspired by God.” But it could equally well be translated as “Any (or every kind of) writing is God-breathed.” That’s hardly a ringing endorsement for the inerrancy of all 66 books of the Bible, as adopted 13 centuries after these words were written.

I DO think it’s likely that the author of 2 Timothy was referring to some specific writings that he believed were good, solid, reliable teachings. But we have no way of knowing what that collection was, and in any case, I don’t think he’s saying “These words are perfectly true in every way, and all others are false.” No, I think he has a different, more simple purpose in mind for his student. Listen to the second half of that famous verse: “All scripture is inspired by God AND is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”

This is precisely what the 16th century reformers like Luther, Calvin, and Knox wanted to do with the scriptures–not to diminish them as just one of many equal sources of authority (the approach of the medieval church) and not to place them upon a pedestal and worship them as the one and only true thing, putting God’s word over and above God himself (the approach of modern evangelicals and fundamentalists). No. The scriptures are USEFUL for all these things–for teaching, for challenging, for shaping and growing–and so we should *use* them at every opportunity.

As we begin to wrap things up, I want to ask what Sola Scriptura looks like (and ought to look like) for progressive, 21st century Presbyterians, and how it shapes our lives here at First Presbyterian Church.

I think there is wisdom in an expansive translation of 1 Timothy 3:16 — All writing, every kind of writing is God breathed, and useful. That’s not to say all writing is good–remember, I was a 9th grade English teacher before I was a pastor…I’ve seen some really *bad* writing. But the ability to write, the letters, the alphabets, the complex systems of vocabulary and grammar, communication that transcends time and distance, is truly a gift from God, and probably the most useful invention humanity has known.

And there is a lot of writing out there. If we’re counting books alone (which is just a fraction of all writing) there are over 130 million published books. It would take 26 thousand of the world’s most voracious readers to read all of those books over the span of 70 years.

Even if we limit that to just sacred writings, religious or spiritual texts, there are probably still enough to fill several multi-story libraries, and certainly more than any one of us could read in one lifetime.

So here’s a thought: Pick one. That doesn’t mean you can’t read any others, but pick one to explore as fully and deeply as a person can in one lifetime. Pick one, just one, to live your life by. That doesn’t mean you have to buy into every word as absolute truth, perfect and flawless in every situation. But you do have to try hard to understand it, to take it seriously, to give it the benefit of the doubt, and to preference it above all others.

This is, incidentally, what we do when we choose a person to marry. We don’t assume they’re perfect or flawless (even though it may seem like that sometimes!). We choose to give that one person–and that person alone–preference and commitment for a lifetime.

That one relationship won’t solve all your problems (in fact it may even create some) but there is no doubt that it’s useful. On the very worst day, that kind of relationship will challenge you, stretch you, and force you to grow. And on the best days, it can be downright beautiful, pointing you to greater things beyond yourself–things like love, kindness, and generosity.

When you are in that kind relationship, you still interact with other people, learn from other people, care for other people…but you reserve that special status, that intimate relationship for only just one. Solamente.

And so, if you’re going to choose one book to occupy a special place in your life…might I suggest a book that has inspired millions of people for thousands of years? A book that inspired Michaelangelo and Rembrandt and Johan Sebastian Bach? A book that inspired William Shakespeare, and Mother Theresa, and Martin Luther King, Jr.?

If you’re going to choose just one book, might I suggest a book with great diversity, written by and about a variety of people and cultures spanning thousands of years and countless different passions, styles, interests and topics?

Choosing that kind of book should at least narrow your options a bit from the 130 million available.

And how about choosing a book that comes with a great built-in book club–one that includes millions of people around the world? Democrats, Republicans, people from North America and South America and Europe and Africa and Asia? A book club that includes highly educated people and working class people, people of every race, color, and language? A book club that meets every week, rain or shine, for a lifetime, and always finds new things to say, new ways of looking at its cherished old stories?

By now, we’re probably down to a handful of books that can boast all of those features and still hold your interest for a lifetime.

I’m not going to tell you that one of those books is right and all the others are wrong. I couldn’t possibly know enough–even about this limited handful of books–to make that kind of assertion.

I can tell you that I chose one book, and that this community has chosen one book. For some of us, it was the family book that we have inherited. For others it was the book that we discovered, to our surprise, along the way. For some, it was simply the one that happens to inspire us the most.

It’s not the only book we read, not the only book we study, and not the only book where we find beauty and truth.

But it is the only book that occupies this one, singular, special place in our hearts and in our minds. It is the only book that we will keep coming back to again and again, by choice, by conviction, and by commitment.

So what does Sola Scriptura look like for 21st century Presbyterians? I think it looks like this:

The Bible is not our only true book.

It is the only book that is truly ours.