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Historian Mark Noll helps unravel the uses and misuses of ‘the Bible alone.’

It’s been a hallmark of Protestantism for 500 years, but what do we mean when we base our faith on “the Bible alone”? Is it even possible to read the Bible without being influenced by the social and theological contexts in which one is immersed? Hasn’t this doctrine, more than any other Reformation doctrine, been responsible for the fragmentation of the church?

To help unravel such questions, editor in chief Mark Galli interviewed a scholar who has given much thought to the place of Scripture in the church’s life: Mark Noll, recently retired from the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492–1783, as well as an essay in Protestantism After 500 Years entitled, “Chaotic Coherence: Sola Scriptura and the Twentieth-Century Spread of Christianity.”

Though the idea of sola scriptura predates Martin Luther, when did the idea surface in his life?

It came in controversies with people defending indulgences and unquestioned obedience to the pope. In these disputes he appealed directly to the Bible—as with his dramatic statement to the Holy Roman Emperor at Worms in 1521: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God.” He took his stand on Scripture alone.

The tension came when other Protestants asserted, “Well, the Bible alone clearly teaches that when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, this is a symbolic supper.” That’s when Luther said, “No, that’s not right. You have to read the passages about the Lord’s Supper in connection with all the other passages and the best interpretations of past theologians.”

And so hermeneutical debates (controversies over interpretation) …

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