What does it mean to follow “the Bible and the Bible alone”? This phrase, often referred to as sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”) by the Protestant Reformers, is one that took on many new meanings in an American context. A group at the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies recently chose this volume as the inaugural book for a voluntary student and faculty book club because, although we come from many cultures from around the world, this volume explores what it means to have “all of life” directed “from the Bible” (3). As the first book in a three-volume series, this is a must-read for all pastors and students of Scripture because sola Scriptura has become such a loose term used by so many different religious groups, therefore making it especially difficult to ascertain precisely what this term means in its everyday use and application.
The book illustrates this point at the very beginning of the chapter “Protestant Beginnings” (30–48). Bible translations played a pivotal role during the Reformation. One key passage was Romans 3:28. William Tyndale translated the text as, “We suppose therefore that a man is justified by faith without the dedes of the lawe” (quoted by Noll, 39). Afterward Luther, in 1522, made explicit the implicit idea of “only” in order to make the passage clearer. The “principle of biblical authority ran out clearly, but the practices of Bible translation and Bible interpretation were never so clearly dispositive” (39). Thus out “of the Reformation came a sharpened focus on biblical authority” even if the appeal to Scripture, including the phrase sola Scriptura, was a frequent ideal from the fourteenth century onward (46). Early Protestants sought to “purify Christian tradition, not throw it away” (48). The problem was that many different possible meanings arose out of the many meanings of sola Scriptura.
A primary case in point, for Noll, is the precise use of a Bible translation in early America. During this early time the only book a family owned was the Bible (114). One would expect the ubiquitous Coverdale Bible (or even the Geneva Bible) to dominate, but instead the King James Version (KJV) loomed large across America (66–70). It was a literary masterpiece that showcased superior scholarship and language, yet it was also a highly political translation. The KJV was the “perfect fit” to undergird the king’s authority (66). Much of the beauty of the prose should be credited to Tyndale, and some significant credit is also due (somewhat surprisingly) to the Roman Catholic Douai-Rheims (61). Yet the most significant aspect of the Bible in America was the versification of Scripture. This was a relatively modern innovation that allowed people to divide up Scripture into manageable portions to “proof text” and exert greater control over Scripture, rather than letting the Bible speak in its original context. Altogether this meant that the history of Scripture in America is the history of a versified Bible (59).
The democratic spirit encouraged lay believers to appropriate Scripture for their own purposes and control (178). One of the most common early American tropes was to compare the role of early Americans as fulfilling the role of modern Israel as they settled a new land, or God’s care and protection similar to the early New Testament Church (107). Even norms about worship changed. The long-standing Puritan/Presbyterian prejudice against singing hymns not based directly upon Scripture gave way to the nationalistic hymns of Isaac Watts. Instead, only “rarely did the Bible itself figure as the focus of the song” (157). Even new conflicts, such as the Indian Wars and the Jacobite rebellion, showcase just how easily new religious perspectives could mesh within a new international framework. Noll goes on to argue that a fundamental cause of the American Revolution was religion (296). The Bible clearly condemns rebellion, but American preachers during the American founding era either ignored or reinterpreted such problem passages (323). “Clearly . . . exegetical precision was not required in order to enlist the Bible for the patriot cause” (303).
Another significant factor was American revivals and revivalism that were largely based upon a personal appropriation of Scripture for individual use. As a Seventh-day Adventist, I found this especially interesting because it created a greater openness to other sorts of divine revelation, including dreams, visions, and direct messages from God (202, 203). Revivals also sanctioned populist interpretations of Scripture with an emphasis upon a “plain reading” oriented toward chapter-and-verse proof texting (205). Such proof texting showcases “the persistent Protestant dilemma of Supreme trust in Scripture accompanied by divergent interpretations of Scripture” (322). This book demonstrates from history that sola Scriptura should not be about “proof texting” to make the Bible conveniently say what we want it to say, but instead it is absolutely imperative to let the Bible speak in its original context through careful exegesis by prayerfully listening to the Word of God. If the Bible always agrees with your opinions instead of challenging, confronting, and/or convicting your heart, then perhaps it is high time to do some prayerful heart-searching to make sure that you do not manipulate God’s Word.
Such a perspective should furthermore provide a healthy dose of humility in going about such Bible study. Thus, pastors will find Noll’s tracing of the Bible in early America a sobering wake-up call when he warns that this is a “general truism that when Scripture comes into a fight that is already under way, it becomes all but impossible for the Bible to exercise an objective, unprejudiced authority” (314).
—Reviewed by Michael Campbell, PhD, assistant professor of theological-historical studies, Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies, Silang, Cavite, Philippines.