A more long-range benefit of the Reformation’s placing ultimate authority in Scripture was that, when coupled with the principle of the priesthood of all believers, sola scriptura required absolute and universal literacy if it were going to work. The Protestant imperative toward every believer’s being able to read Holy Writ for him- or herself excited the drive toward literacy that in turn accelerated the drive toward rationalism and from there to Enlightenment and from there straight into the science and technology and literature and governments that characterize our lives today. There were, of course, some disadvantages.
The most obvious problem of universal literacy is that if one teaches five people to read and then asks them each to read the same document, there will be at least three different interpretations of what the five of them have read. While we may laugh and say that divisiveness was Protestantism’s greatest gift to Christianity, ours is a somber joke.
–Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why, p.46
Food for thought when I first read this a little while ago. Regardless whether one agrees with her semi-millennial thesis, this book has a lot of good observations for due considerations. In fact Phyllis Tickle is at her best as an observer, with the book providing a good overview of the thinking of many others as well as herself. Here she draws a direct link between the sola scriptura of the Reformation and a string of philosophies one might suggest form the basis — or at least the essence — of modernism.
Interesting too, she observes that despite access to what was considered an “authoritative” source, what is apparently lacking is an authoritative interpretation of that source. As she points out later in the book, “Where now is our authority?” is always the major cry and distinguishing point in these great movements, each shifting it’s understanding of the locus of authority from one point to another.