It was the conviction that the Scriptures alone are the Word of God and therefore the only infallible rule for life and doctrine—known as sola Scriptura—that provided the necessary fuel for the Reformation to ignite. Indeed, it was regarded as the “formal cause” of the Reformation (whereas sola fide was regarded as the “material cause”). The sentiments of this doctrine are embodied in Luther’s famous speech at the Diet of Worms (1521) when he was asked to recant his teachings:
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.
For Luther, it is the Scriptures, and the Scriptures alone, that are the final arbiter of what we should believe.
Of course, like many core Christian convictions, the doctrine of sola Scriptura has often been misunderstood and misapplied. Unfortunately, some have used sola Scriptura as a justification for a “me, God, and the Bible” type of individualism where the church bears no real authority and the history of the church is not considered when interpreting and applying Scripture. Thus, many churches today are almost ahistorical—cut off entirely from the rich traditions, creeds, and confessions of the church. They misunderstand sola Scriptura to mean that the Bible is the only authority, rather than understanding it to mean the Bible is the only infallible authority. Ironically, such an individualistic approach actually serves to undercut the very doctrine of sola Scriptura it is intended to protect. By emphasizing the autonomy of the individual believer, one is left with only private, subjective conclusions about what Scripture means. It is not so much the authority of Scripture that is being prized, but the authority of the individual.
The Reformers would not have recognized such a distortion as their doctrine of sola Scriptura. On the contrary, they were quite keen to rely on the church fathers, church councils, and the creeds and confessions of the church. Such historical rootedness was viewed not only as means for maintaining orthodoxy, but also as a means for maintaining humility. Contrary to popular perceptions, the Reformers did not view themselves as coming up with something new. Rather they understood themselves to be recovering something very old—something that the church had originally believed but later twisted and distorted. The Reformers were not innovators, but were excavators.
It is on this note, that I am looking forward to Carl Trueman’s new book, The Creedal Imperative (Crossway: Sept, 2012). Here is the description:
Recent years have seen a number of high profile scholars converting to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy while a trend in the laity expresses an eclectic hunger for tradition. The status and role of confessions stands at the center of the debate within evangelicalism today as many resonate with the call to return to Christianity’s ancient roots. Carl Trueman offers an analysis of why creeds and confessions are necessary, how they have developed over time, and how they can function in the church of today and tomorrow. He writes primarily for evangelicals who are not particularly confessional in their thinking yet who belong to confessional churches—Baptists, independents, etc.—so that they will see more clearly the usefulness of the church’s tradition.
No doubt this volume will be a welcome correction to common misunderstandings of sola Scriptura. It is my hope that it will aid the church in returning to a robust and well-balanced appreciation of tradition and creeds.