Monday, March 30, 2015

Sola Scriptura: A New Reformation with Celtic Spirituality

This was first published as a guest post on Tyler Tully's blog "The Jesus Event" on March 11, 2014.

Martin Luther, along with many other reformers, founded the Reformation on the phrase Sola Scriptura (only scripture). Over the years the Church had developed rites and practices that were based on tradition more than scripture. Many of those practices were abused and according to the reformers, idolatrous. Reformers admonished their flocks to return to reading the scripture for their spiritual practices instead of worshiping images and saints. Whereas the Holy Bible previously was only available in Latin, the reformers translated it into the common languages of the people, making the printed word accessible to everyone, not just the learned clergy.

The printed page became the basis not only for the reshaping of the church, but also the reshaping of the mind. Linear thought, the scientific method, and individual rights grew from the influence of the new medium of print. It was the foundation of what became the Modern Age. Sola Scriptura was the perfect rallying cry of the Reformation.

The printed page, although still around, is loosing influence to images, which are becoming more and more important as screens replace books as the medium of choice for most people. Images are more ambiguous and less linear that the written word. Sola Scriptura, as a written form, is loosing its ability to retain the imagination of seekers of God in a post-modern world.

Perhaps, like John Eriugena, a teacher of Celtic spirituality, we should look to another form of Scriptura. “God speaks to us in two books,” taught Eriugena. “One is the little book, the book of scripture, physically little. The other is the big book, the book of creation, as vast as the universe” (Newell, 2008, p. 50). The book of creation as God speaking to us has largely been ignored since the Industrial Revolution. Nature was to be exploited and used for our material gain, not something deserving reverence. This misuse of creation has caused untold devastation and alienation. 

Pelagius, one of the original Celtic theologians, debated with Augustine about creation. Augustine thought that God created the world ex nihilo; out of nothing. Pelagius countered that God created the world ex Deo, out of the very essence of God. How much different would we treat creation if we considered it coming from the very essence of God rather than out of nothing? J. Philip Newell contends that Augustine’s view of creation is materialistic, and as such, served the Roman Empire well in exploiting the natural resources it needed to extend its empire. Every empire since has exploit the earth’s resources in similar fashion. Augustine’s view of creation ex nihilo became the standard belief of Christendom and the reformers accepted it as well. Pelagius was condemned as heretic.

The objectification of nature and its exploitation has taken a huge toll. Many younger people are worried about what will happen to their future and their children’s future if something isn’t done to restore creation to God’s original intention. The big book, God’s good creation, “has been groaning in labor pains until now” (Rom. 8:22 NRSV). God is calling us through creation. It is time for the next Reformation to begin. It is time for God’s children to rally around a new emphasis on Sola Scriptura, the big book of scripture: creation. Creation that comes out of God’s very essence.

J. Philip Newell calls this reading of the creation “listening to the heartbeat of God.” “If God were to stop speaking,” wrote Newell, “the whole created universe would cease to exist” (Newell, 1998, p. 35). We need to stop and listen to this eternal song, which is found in all of creation, ourselves included. “The deeper we move in the body of creation and in the inner landscape of the human soul,” writes Newell, “the closer we come to the Presence. Christ carries a tune that is at the heart of matter.” (Newell, 2008, p. 97)

In order for us to take the Scriptura of nature seriously, we need to quiet ourselves and listen to its tune. We can listen within, where our souls bear the stamp of our God-imageness. We can listen to our neighbors and get in touch with their God-imageness. We can listen all around us, to the rhythm of the seasons, the beat of the animals or the song of the wind. There is a longing within us and within all of creation for wholeness, for restoration, for resurrection (Rom. 12:8). Listening to the “Heartbeat of God” within the cosmos, which Celtic spirituality teaches, helps the restoration.

“When we hear the Heartbeat of God, whether in our own soul or in the heart of another, whether in the body of creation or in the vast expanses of the cosmos, we experience ourselves as being called ‘by name’” (Newell, 2008, p. 120).

Sola Scriptura. Time to allow ourselves to be reformed by the other book of scripture.

J. Philip Newell, Listening for the Heartbeat of God: A Celtic Spirituality (Paulist Press, 1998).
J. Philip Newell, Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation, 1st ed. (Jossey-Bass, 2008), p.50.