The lost art of scripture

‘Sola scriptura!’ Only the scriptures!

This was one of Martin Luther’s more memorable slogans, which helped to trigger the Reformation in the 16th century. In asserting it, he denied that the church (meaning the Catholic Church) could apply to believers binding insights that arose from its own traditions.

Luther focussed on the sale of indulgences, the means whereby a person could release the soul of a loved one from purgatory by making a financial contribution to the Church.

His critique, however, was more wide-ranging. He denied the authority of the church in a profound way, calling for a return to the wellsprings of faith, the Bible, bypassing the accretions of centuries of church power.

It was revolutionary and liberating.

It promised a return to a more compassionate understanding of the gospel.

Sadly, the promise was, at best, partially fulfilled.

Following Luther’s lead, other scholars and leaders of the Reformation discovered interpretations of the scriptures that were different to Luther’s, notably about the correct understanding of the Eucharist.

They argued and they fought with each other.

In promising liberation, the Reformation created multiple splinter groups who, at times, directed as much hatred towards each other as to the Catholic Church.

A further tragic outcome of the Reformation was the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), which caused 8 million, mainly civilian, casualties.

How could a fresh reading of the scriptures lead to such devastation?

Many years previously, Augustine had asserted a vital principle of scriptural interpretation – any valid interpretation should engender charity and compassion for others.

The Reformation, and the Enlightenment that followed it, lost sight of this and promoted a distorted understanding of spiritual truth, which continues to this day.

We believe that study and the use of reason lead to spiritual truth.

We have bypassed love.

Such a notion of spiritual truth necessarily reduces scripture to a one-dimensional plane of right and wrong. It suggests that scripture can be dissected and analysed as an object.

(Exclusivist interpretations of the much-abused verse, ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life’ [Jn 14:6] remind us how limiting this approach is. The equally well-known hymn to love found in I Corinthians 13, is too often sidelined.)

In her recent book, ‘The Lost Art of Scripture’ Karen Armstrong makes a compelling case for reconnecting with ancient practices of scripture interpretation.

While involving study, they also required meditation and contemplation, the use of imagination, and disciplined ethical practice. (For those familiar with neuroscience, the approach that Armstrong commends involves use of the right-brain as well as the left brain.)

This approach reclaims scripture and spiritual truth as innately multi-dimensional. A Muslim scholar, Ibn al-Arabi, claimed that every time a Muslim recited a verse of the Koran, it should mean something different to them.

We have lost this perspective. As Armstrong writes, ‘Instead of reading scripture to achieve transformation (personal and social), we use it to confirm our own views.’

Armstrong’s book is one of the most important and inspiring I have read in several years. I commend it to you.