One of the foundational convictions of the Reformers was, of course, this doctrine we call Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). Simply put, this is the belief that the Scriptures are the highest and most ultimate authority in the life of the Christian.
Contrary to popular misunderstandings, it is not the belief that the Scriptures are the only authority. Christians have other legitimate authorities in their life (their elders, classical creeds, etc.), but only Scripture is an infallible authority. For more on this point, see here.
At the heart of Sola Scriptura, is the recognition that fallen humans are always looking to replace God’s authority with some other human/creaturely authority. After all, that was the essence of the very first sin in the garden. The rebellion of Adam and Eve was fundamentally a rejection of God’s word that if they ate of the fruit they would surely die.
Ever since, humans have been remarkably inventive in the variety of authorities they erect in place of God. Sola Scriptura is designed simply to prevent these other authorities from ruling the Christian and to keep God’s Word rightly as our ultimate guide. Here are three examples of such authorities:
Traditionalism: “Church tradition is our guide”
Not surprisingly, the number one motivation for Sola Scriptura was that the Roman Catholic church had erected human tradition–whether from the pope or church councils–as equally authoritative as Scripture. Luther rejected this on the grounds that these other sources of authority are not infallible whereas the Scriptures are.
Of course, one does not have to be Roman Catholic to struggle with traditionalism. Protestants need to be ever mindful of allowing other authorities to rule over the Bible. As important as confessions are, for example, we must be careful they don’t subtly migrate into the position only reserved for Scripture.
And there is more at stake here than we think. To allow human tradition to rule the church is to rob people of their Christian liberty. Only God, through his Word, can bind the conscience of the believer. To do otherwise does not bring freedom but tyranny. Humans make lousy gods. Only in regard to divine law can it be said, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt 11:30).
Individualism: “My Own Private Bible Interpretation is My Guide”
It is often forgotten that Sola Scriptura was designed to battle more than Rome. For Luther, he was equally concerned about the opposite problem. Many in the so-called “radical” Reformation had taken a posture of individualism, disregarding the history of the church, the classical creeds, and the church fathers.
We might think here of Menno Simons (1496-1561) who refused to consider the Council of Nicea or consult the church fathers.
But, such a posture of individualism is not at all what the Reformers had in mind. They were continually quoting the church fathers and appealing to the history of doctrine, laboring to show that they were not coming up with something new, but rather that the Roman church had departed from the original apostolic path.
Put simply, the Reformers were not innovators but excavators. Like archaeologists, they viewed themselves as merely uncovering what had been lost in the sands of time.
One might argue, therefore, that Sola Scriptura has much to say to the modern evangelical church which struggles profoundly with this individualistic tendency.
Existentialism: “Who Needs the Bible? Religious Experience is My Guide”
For Luther, it was not just Catholicism and Individualism that presented challenges. It was also the “enthusiasts” who had effectively kicked the Bible to the curb. Sure, they would affirm the inspiration of the Bible on paper, but functionally it did not play a meaningful role.
Instead, religious experience was the new guide for the church. Divine encounters and direct spiritual connections to Jesus were the focus of the enthusiasts.
Luther recognized the validity of religious experience, but argued that such experience should never be disconnected from the Word. And when that critical cord is cut, then the church is adrift on a sea of existentialism.
This is a very real problem for evangelicalism today. For many believers, the Scriptures play no meaningful role in determining correct doctrine or proper behavior. One might even argue that the confusion over sexual ethics in the modern church is due to precisely this issue. People are relying on what they “feel” must be right rather than what the Word clearly states.
In the end, these three movements–traditionalism, individualism, existentialism–capture what Sola Scriptura was designed to prevent. And thus we see something that is perhaps surprising on this Reformation anniversary: one need not be Catholic to reject Sola Scriptura.
Indeed, it seems that it is Protestants who needs this doctrine now more than ever.