“The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.” — Westminster Confession of Faith
Over the next number of blogs I would like to examine the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura – Scripture alone. It may sound simple enough, but it is a doctrine that is often misunderstood, and is, unfortunately being rejected even by those within so-called evangelical Christianity. To truly understand this doctrine and its implications we need to take our time. We need to begin with some historical examination, understanding the origins within which the doctrine arose. We also need to engage in some theological definition and explanation. Finally we will we need to confront the objections to the doctrine that threaten its acceptance.* In this blog we begin with some historical background.
The church at the time of the Reformation claimed twin authorities – the church itself, including its theology and traditions, and Scripture. (NB: To be fair I need to acknowledge that this was not always the belief of the church and it was a somewhat debated issue at the time of the Reformation. Until the early 14th century the church believed in a form of sola scriptura; then the nominalist theologian William of Ockham changed it all.) The church conserved a ‘tradition’ of belief and practice, either derived from Scripture, or originating separately from it that was connected to the authority of Christ through apostolic succession. Essentially, the church believed that the truths of Scripture were entirely sufficient to determine all issues of faith and practice, BUT they acquired their authority as interpreted in the continuing life of the church. In this way, Scripture AND tradition were two stages in the transmission of a single source of truth. This understanding of the authority of the church meant that Scripture never became a witness against its beliefs and practices. Always, the two witnesses cohered together, however differently their scope was understood to extend. This meant that the Pope, or Councils could never err, nor could they be subjected to scrutiny from ‘Scripture alone’.
The Reformers did not like this at all; believing it to be contrary to the clear teaching of scripture. Beginning with Luther (Hus and Wycliffe believed similar things before him and Zwingli contemporaneously), the reformers believed that Scripture alone was the sole authority for the individual Christian as well as for the Church. Luthe defended himself constantly, and vehemently, against the church and its traditions by the use of Scripture alone. This is most clearly seen in his confession at the Diet of Worms in 1521; a Diet before the Holy Roman Emperor that was trying him for heresy on account of his teachings. When asked if he would recant his writings, he stated:
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 often err and contradict themselves, I am bound to the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand. May God help me. Amen.
Luther’s stand, and its subsequent outworking in reformational theology, thrust the traditional concepts of authority into question. In scripture, the reformers found a source of authority more impressive, more credible, and more venerable than the church. Luther used the imagery of parentage to express his point. He asked, and I paraphrase, ‘what child begets his parent?’; meaning, how can the church suggest it has birthed scripture, and thus has authority over it, when it is clear that scripture is the parent and the church the child? It was this rejection of the two-fold perspective of authority so long held by the church that placed the reformers in its cross-hairs. The reformers held the words of scripture against the words of the church which were to them only the words of fallible men. When the latter contradicted or opposed the former, scripture always won. Tradition, then, was not an equal authority alongside scripture which was passed down through apostolic succession in the popes and maintained faithfully by the magisterium of the church. Instead, popes, councils, and creeds were to be scrutinized through the lense of scripture as potentially errant. The reformers insisted that scripture was the sole rule by which to judge the church; that it was the church which was constantly subject to the authority of Scripture and not the other way around.
The reformers did not deny the authority of the church nor the traditions that it held, providing that they were under the authority of the Bible. Or to put it into latin so that you can impress all your friends, sola scriptura does not mean nuda scriptura or solo scriptura. Tradition had, for the reformers, a very important place. In fact, one of their main lines of defense of sola scriptura came from the belief that the theology of the great theologians of the past was in agreement with their perspective and that these greats would in fact stand in opposition to the belief of the established church. Tradition, did, and continues to have, an important place in the church and in our theology. It is the primary error of the anabaptists, at least historically, to turn sola scriptura into solo scriptura. It is also an error of the modern day church. It is sad that so many of our churches have no concept of church history and the development of Christian thought and thus they lack a proper understanding of this essential doctrine. Ours is a time when we need sola scriptura, but it is also a time when we understand it so poorly.
In my next few posts I would like to explore sola scriptura in greater theological and practical depth:
- Is it biblically defensible?
- What do we do with tradition if the bible is to be our sole authority?
- Does sola scriptura mean that anyone can read the bible properly without any training or aid? Or to put it another way, do I need help from outside of scripture to read scripture?
- If the Bible is our sole authority does that mean I am not under the authority of the church?
We will explore these and other questions in the blogs to come. If you have anything in particular you would like addressed, or you have a question, leave a reply below. I will either try to work it into a future blog post, or answer it independently.
Soli Deo Gloria
*I want to admit my indebtedness to many sources and works, some of which I will reference in these blogs, others I will not.