A little under four years earlier, on the 31st of October 1517, Luther had posted his famous “95 Theses” to the door of the All-Saints’ Church in Wittenburg. This document expressed Luther’s growing concern of corruption within the Roman Catholic Church, and railed against a multitude of papal doctrines. Pope Leo X would later issue a Papal Bull (a public decree, or charter) against Luther, declaring him to be a heretic.
Consequently, in the aforementioned month of April, 1521, Luther found himself before the twenty-one-year-old ruler, and was told to either recant the “heresies” found within his literature, or reaffirm what he believed. Luther declared:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.
Luther’s position was a simple one: it is the Word of God, and the Word of God alone, that is the final authority for Christian doctrine and practice, not the word of the Pope, nor the traditions of the Church. This stance is what would become known as the “formal cause” of the Protestant Reformation – Sola Scriptura, Scripture alone.
Before we consider why this principle was so controversial at the time of its rediscovery, as well as examining what Sola Scriptura means, and what it doesn’t mean, it may well be worth briefly tackling one of the main arguments against this tenet: the Bible doesn’t explicitly teach Sola Scriptura. Unlike the other solas mentioned in previous articles, for which the biblical foundations have clear chapter and verse, it is perhaps trickier to find the same direct defence of this particular teaching.
Nevertheless, the assertion that “the Bible doesn’t explicitly teach that it alone is the final authority for Christian doctrine and practice” is true only in the shallowest of senses. This principle is implied and indicated in verses such as: Acts 17:11, where the Christians in Berea are commended for testing what the apostle’s taught against Scripture; 1 Corinthians 4:6, where the Apostle Paul instructs the believers in Corinth, “not to go beyond what is written” (ESV); and Mark 7:6-9, where the Lord Jesus Himself criticises the religious leaders for allowing traditions to overrule the clear commands of God.
Moreover, consider the following passages:
“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16,17 NASB 1995).
“Your word, LORD, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens” (Psalm 119:89 NIV).
“Thy word [God’s Word] is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Psalm 119:105 KJV).
“But he [Jesus] answered, ‘It is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”’” (Matthew 4:4 ESV).
The Word of God is clear: there is nothing more sufficient or authoritative, concerning the matters upon which it speaks, than the Holy Scriptures.
The themes of authority and sufficiency are key in the teaching of Sola Scriptura. The authority of the Bible stems from the fact that it is, “given by inspiration of God” (2 Timothy 3:16 KJV). The word usually translated in English as inspired, is from the Greek word “theopneustos” meaning, literally, “God-breathed”. Since Scripture comes from God, who Himself is unchanging (Numbers 23:19; Malachi 3:6; James 1:17), His Word is likewise: immutable (unchanging), inerrant (without error), and infallible (incapable of error).
This, of course, immediately brings us to a crucial point in our understanding of this Reformation principle: Sola Scriptura does not claim that the Bible is the source of all truth on every subject. There are a multitude of things to which the Bible says little or nothing at all, for example, the rules and nuances of English grammar, or the complexities of quantum physics. Rather, Scripture is a “more sure Word” that stands above all other truth in the certainty of all that it does speak to (2 Peter 1:19 KJV). Furthermore, Sola Scriptura doesn’t assert that everything Jesus, or the apostles, ever taught is recorded within the pages of the Bible. Indeed, the Bible indicates to the contrary (John 20:30; 21:25). Rather, everything that pertains “to life and godliness” has been given to us in Scripture (2 Peter 1:3 ESV). In this regard, Scripture is not only authoritative, but also sufficient.
But what made Sola Scriptura so controversial in the first instance? Again, like all the other tenets we have looked at, the problem lay in that little word “alone”. For over one thousand years, the Roman Catholic Church had developed a deep theological structure that, while including Scripture, also welcomed tradition (customs and rituals) as determined by the Magisterium (the teaching office of the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope himself being its head). The “river” of God’s Word, as it were, was filled by these two “streams”. The fourth session of the Roman Catholic Council of Trent states:
. . . seeing clearly that this truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself . . . [the Synod] following the examples of the orthodox Fathers, receives and venerates with an equal affection of piety, and reverence, all the books both of the Old and of the New Testament – seeing that one God is the author of both – as also the said traditions . . . preserved in the Catholic Church by a continuous succession.
That may sound all well and good on the surface. However, as people came to read and understand Scripture for themselves, it became increasingly obvious that the two streams did not flow into the one river. Luther would argue:
When the teaching of the Pope is distinguished from that of the Holy Scriptures, or is compared with them, it becomes apparent that, at its best, the teaching of the Pope has been taken from the imperial, pagan laws and is a teaching concerning secular transactions and judgments, as the papal decretals show. In keeping with such teaching, instructions are given concerning the ceremonies of the churches, vestments, food, personnel, and countless other puerilities, fantasies, and follies without so much as a mention of Christ, faith, and God's commandments.
Put simply, the official teaching of Rome differed in many, crucial ways to that of Scripture. Since the Roman Catholic Church held significant influence over the lives of peasant and prince alike, for Luther, and others like him, to stand up to the authority of the Pope was a daring enterprise.
Yet, questions remain: what was so special about the Scriptures? And why was there such apparent animosity toward the word of the Pope, and the traditions of the Church? It’s important to note that it was not the Reformers’ intention, and certainly not Luther’s intention at least, to throw the proverbial baby-out-with-the-bathwater. Unlike many churches today which are almost ahistorical, the Reformers were quite happy to refer to councils, creeds, confessions, and the church fathers of the past.
However, since the Pope was considered to be the successor of the Apostle Peter – the so-called head of the Church and first Pope (a distorted interpretation of Matthew 16:18) – his official pronouncements (ex cathedra – “from the chair”) were, and still are, deemed to be as infallible as the written Word of God itself.
For the Reformers, this was the line in the sand, and their argument stemmed from, among other passages, Hebrews 1:1,2, “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world” (NASB 1995). Since God has given His final word through His Son, no ongoing revelation should be expected, and this extended to the pronouncements of the papal office. So, what makes Scripture so special over and above the word of man? As mentioned earlier, since the Scriptures come from God who cannot lie (Numbers 23:19; Titus 1:2; Hebrews 6:18), His Word is likewise, inerrant and true (Psalm 119:60; Proverbs 30:5). Simply put, Scripture is in a class of its own. The same cannot be said for man, whose being is tainted by sin, and thus very much fallible. The Bible tells us that, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), even bishops, and cardinals, and popes. Therefore, the fallible, sin-tainted word of man, cannot come close to the infallible word of the eternal God. Any other conclusion leads to a mockery of God, whose word would logically be no different to that of His creation.
Of course, Sola Scriptura has been misunderstood, and misapplied through the years, and potential for abuse still remains. Mishandling this tenet can lead to a sense of individualism; a “me, myself, and my Bible” type of mentality where 2,000 years of church history is abandoned, and centuries of debate, reason, interpretation, and thought are disregarded. Taken to this extreme, the authority of Scripture is diminished, and the authority of the individual exalted, since this individualism leads only to private, subjective interpretations of Scripture. A proper understanding of Sola Scriptura blocks such a path.
Moreover, Sola Scriptura guards against traditionalism. Christians, and those Christians in positions of leadership, authority, or respect in particular, should be careful not to bind the conscience of a fellow believer in areas where the Bible does not. Doing so can give rise to “traditions” that, if left unchecked, can be exalted to heights that such things should never see. Creeds, confessions, ideas, and opinions can be helpful, but, ultimately, the validity of all things concerning faith and practice must be considered through the lens of Holy Scripture.
In the final analysis, Jude writes:
“Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (v.3 ESV).
Although the documents of the New Testament had not yet been collected into a canon of Scripture, by the time Jude writes his letter to his fellow Christians in the mid-60s AD, “the faith” had already been fixed, established and could not be changed. However, it was under attack. The faith is still under attack today, and not only the Christian faith in and of itself, but the fact that it has been “once for all delivered” has endured pressure for millennia. God has nothing more to say to mankind outside of what has already been revealed. Anything that “seems” to be from God must be filtered through Scripture, and either discarded, or embraced.
The first challenge recorded in Scripture comes from Satan toward Eve. The words were simple, and yet the implications were profound: “Has God indeed said…?” (Genesis 3:1). The same challenge continues today. Has God said that a man is justified by faith alone, not by works? Has God said that there is only one mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus? Has God said that salvation from sin and judgement is a work of His grace alone? Yes, God has said, and His words are recorded, in their finality, in Holy Scripture.
It is the duty of every Bible-believing Christian to continue to defend, not only the Christian faith and the core elements of the gospel of Christ, but that Scripture alone is indeed the authoritative, and sufficient Word of God for all mankind.
“For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).