Scripture Alone (Sola Scriptura)


In our last post, we looked at the Reformation slogan "Justification by Faith Alone," or Sola Fide. Sola Fide is typically called the material cause of the Reformation. What we mean by that is the actual dispute between the Protestant Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church was over the issue of justification. If Sole Fide is the material cause of the Reformation, then Sola Scriptura (or "Scripture Alone") is called the formal cause; i.e., it was the deeper, more foundational cause of the Reformation.

Essentially what Scripture alone boils down to is a question of authority. Who, or what, has the ultimate authority in matters of faith and practice? This was the underlying dispute between the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church holds to a dual source of authority: 1) Scripture and 2) Tradition. Rome defines tradition as that collection of oral teachings not recorded in Scripture which the apostles of our Lord passed down to their successors (the bishops). This oral tradition, because it also claims an apostolic origin, is given equal weight with Scripture; which is merely the written tradition of the apostles. Paul's admonition to the Thessalonian church is often used in support of an apostolic oral tradition (2 Thessalonians 3:6).

In addition to this dual source of authority, Rome also teaches that the Roman Catholic Church is the sole infallible interpreter of both Scripture and tradition (1 Timothy 3:15). Only the Pope and the Magisterium (the official teaching arm of the Catholic Church) can interpret both Scripture and tradition. If you really think about, this is no longer a dual source of authority, but a single source of authority the Church. Scripture and tradition form the source material of divine revelation, but it is the Church that is able to infallibly interpret divine revelation; therefore, authority is invested in the Church alone (or Sola Ecclesia).

The Reformers rejected the idea of an infallible Church. They recognized that even the best of men could make mistakes. Only the word of God is declared to be divinely inspired (2 Timothy 3:16). As divinely inspired, only the Scriptures can rightly said to be infallible. Therefore, the Reformers broke away from the Catholic Church by declaring Scripture alone to be the only, infallible rule of faith and practice.

How did this dispute arise? It came about when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the church door of Wittenberg. Many of the disputes he noted were regarding practices in the Catholic Church (particularly the sale of papal indulgences) that did not have any support in Scripture. After this dispute reached its peak, Luther was called before the Diet of Worms (1521) to recant of his teachings against Catholic doctrine. After taking a day to think about his response, he answered the charges put before him with this famous statement: "Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other, my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe." That is the heart of the issue! Church officials and councils can and do err. The only thing that is completely free of error and deception is Scripture alone.

We've already stated that Scripture alone is the teaching that Scripture is the sole, infallible rule of faith and practice. It might be helpful to say what Sola Scriptura is not. What Scripture alone doesn't mean is that the bible contains knowledge on every subject and topic of interest to mankind. The bible is clearly selective in what it presents. It is a story of redemption in Christ. As such, it solely focuses on telling the history of redemption culminating the person and work of Jesus Christ. Scripture alone also doesn't mean that the Church doesn't have a role in teaching divine revelation. Pastors and elders are commanded in Scripture to teach "sound doctrine" and to "rightly handle the word of truth." Scripture alone also doesn't deny the fact that divine revelation came to man through means other than the written word. The writer of Hebrews says that God spoke to mankind in "many ways" (Hebrews 1:1). However, in God's providence, he commanded the writing down of his revelation. Scripture doesn't contain all of God's divine revelation, but it does contain that which God wanted preserved for his people. Finally, Scripture alone doesn't imply that the bible will always be correctly interpreted. That is why the bible warns us to always "test the spirits" (1 John 4:1) and why the Bereans were commended for checking the Apostle Paul's teachings with Scripture (Acts 17:11).

One of Rome's strongest critiques of Scripture alone is that it leads (indeed has led) to a splintering of the Church over differing interpretations of Scripture. This cannot be denied. However, two things can be said in response. One, that Protestants have divided (needlessly in many instances) over differing interpretations of Scripture is not an argument against the validity of Sola Scriptura as much as it an argument over our handling of that doctrine. Two, the Roman Catholic Church is nearly as divided in its teachings and practice as Protestant churches. Catholicism isn't the monolithic entity its supporters make it out to be.

Only Scripture is divinely inspired, only Scripture is without error, only Scripture can bind the conscience to obedience. As Protestants, we can, and should, come up with secondary standards that aid us in understanding what the bible teaches (such as the Belgic Confession or the Westminster Confession of Faith); documents that summarized biblical teaching and are held to be authoritative in the churches (insofar as they agree with Scripture). Furthermore, we should set up church structures and ecclesial authority to govern how churches operate. All of these things whether confessions of faith or denominational structures are secondary to Scripture and must be corrected or rejected if they contradict what Scripture alone teaches. Sola Scriptura is the heart's cry of the Reformation, and central to Reformed Theology.

Soli Deo Gloria!


The Series:
Faith Alone (Sola Fide): Rome calls "faith alone" a legal fiction; is it something more?
Scripture Alone (Sola Scriptura): Is Scripture really the sole source of inspired authority?
Grace Alone (Sola Gratia): What does God do and what does man do in salvation?
Christ Alone (Solus Christus): Is Christ or the church mediator between God and man?
The Glory of God Alone (Soli Deo Gloria): Does man do nothing to merit his salvation?

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Republished 5-20-13