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.
Ryan Pope says
In Church history, every Church council claimed to speak authoritatively for the Holy Spirit as we see in Acts 15.
Wouldn’t your presentation of Sola Scriptura render the entire concept of Church councils as heretical?
Great argument for my “all I need is the Bible” friends.
Chad Z says
“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.“
This presents a conundrum for the Christian. If anything less than infallible scripture should be rejected as ultimate authority, and all copies and translations contain error and are therefore fallible, then all copies and translations must be rejected as ultimate authority. This results in a simple syllogism:
All infallible things are to be rejected as ultimate authority
The NASB (ESV, KJV, NIV, etc) is fallible.
Therefore the NASB (etc) is to be rejected as ultimate authority.
What then is ultimate authority for the Christian? The critics? Strong’s Concordance? My Greek and Hebrew professors?
Similarly, if error is permitted in scripture, why is it not permitted in Papal proclamation, my experience (the Charasmatic movement), etc? To revamp Luther’s sentiment such that we can allow for error as long as we can collectively determine true doctrine with what we are 99% certain is accurate, is simply to say that something less than infallible is acceptable as ultimate authority. If the Protestant can accept fallible scripture as his ultimate authority,, why can’t the Catholic accept a fallible Pope and the Charismatic his fallible experience?
Ryan Pope says
It’s effectively the same thing though, as it allows one to overrule all of Church history if one believes it doesn’t accurately reflect Scripture.
Chad Z. says
Ryan: you make a good point…there is a difference between two things being the same in essence and the same in accident (things not essential). I suppose Luther would argue that way.
Also, to correct the syllogism, the first premise should read as follows:
“All fallible things are to be rejected as ultimate authority”
I mistakenly used the word “infallible” in the original post.
What a great and timely article! It reminds me how important sola scripture is, and I think of my JW friends. They use Pv 4:18 to allow them to come up with new doctrine. “But the path of the righteous is like the bright morning light That grows brighter and brighter until full daylight.” Yes, OUR PATH gets “brighter” as we draw close to Jesus, but HIS TRUTH does not change. (nor do the predicted dateS of His return. :)) Thank you for your reminder on what to guard against.
Chad Z wrote, “If anything less than infallible scripture should be rejected as ultimate authority, and all copies and translations contain error and are therefore fallible, then all copies and translations must be rejected as ultimate authority.”
Your second premise has not been established: Do all copies and translations of the Bible contain errors? Unless you can prove they do, your “simple syllogism” is simply begging the question.
I’m not familiar with Reformed Theology, so I can’t address the question from that perspective, but only speak as a layperson:
When we say that something or someone is in error, we’re saying that they don’t confirm to the standard of truth that we hold in common. We cannot know what is false, unless we know what is true, or how to test whether something is true.
If I understand the argument of the Reformers correctly, the Scripture is infallible because it is “God-breathed”, i.e., the authority of the Scripture is the authority of God; The Apostles are sent by God, they are His “ambassadors”, so their authority is also the authority of God. The Church Councils and other believers, do not have such ultimate authority. In other words, the Scripture is the ultimate standard of truth that everything else is measured against.
It is possible that some believers are inspired by the Holy Spirit, and can prophecy in the Spirit, if and when that happens, their words must necessarily be in accord with the Scripture, for the Spirit doesn’t contradict Himself. If anyone claims to be inspired by the Spirit, but contradicts the Scripture, he is not in the truth.
Your article is overflowing with truth.
Sola Scriptura protects us from man. And behind the abuse of believers is inevitably the abuse of Scripture. Yet this also happens in confessionally reformed churches.
Matt 23:8-10; Matt 15:9-10; 1 Cor 7:23; Jas 4:11-12 cf. Rom 14
Rolf Östlund says
“…other legitimate authorities in their life (their elders, classical creeds, etc.), but only Scripture is an infallible authority….” Good statement
Well, otherwise today’s proclamation and interpretations would be a bit “meaningless”, if you understand what I mean…!??
RÖ from Sweden
Mike Tisdell says
Chad Z wrote, “If the Protestant can accept fallible scripture as his ultimate authority, why can’t the Catholic accept a fallible Pope and the Charismatic his fallible experience?”
There are several problems with this premise.
1. In most places in Scripture, there is little to no debate about the meaning of the text. In these places all good translations communicate exactly the same message.
2. While no translation is perfect, the process of translation places boundaries on the kinds of errors that may be present in a translation and translations can be objectively compared to the source documents. This kind of objective evaluation cannot be made for Papal decrees or Charismatic experiences.
3. Sometimes Papal decrees and/or Charismatic experiences directly contradict Scripture.
Mike Tisdell says
Nemo says, “Your second premise has not been established: Do all copies and translations of the Bible contain errors? Unless you can prove they do, your “simple syllogism” is simply begging the question.”
There is not 100% agreement in any of the manuscripts we have today, nor is there 100% agreement among any of the translations we have today. Even for a single version, like the ESV, KJV, or NASB, there are revisions that have attempted to fix the errors found in prior revisions and there are still identified errors in the current revisions. And there are places where the meaning of the source text is in dispute and communicated differently in different translations. In general, these issues do not affect any central doctrines of Christianity, and they do not characterize the text as a whole, but to deny they exist is to approach this issue with blinders on.
Mike Tisdell wrote, “There is not 100% agreement in any of the manuscripts we have today, nor is there 100% agreement among any of the translations we have today.”
There are many variants in the manuscripts, yes, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are “disagreement” or errors. For example, there are different ways of saying the same thing (this is true for all languages I know), or different perspectives of the same event, etc.
I was responding to, or challenging if you will, the sweeping assertion that all translations contain errors. To argue that some text has errors, implies that one knows what the correct text is, so not all texts are incorrect after all.
As for “central doctrines”, I’ve heard this line of argument from evangelical scholars, e.g., Dr. Daniel B. Wallace. People might disagree on what is “central” to Christianity, so I won’t get into that, but will try to focus on the texts of the Scripture instead.
Lois Westerlund says
You cite the “error” of individualism. To me, this has become a catch-word. Did not the Reformation happen because an individual, Luther, read Romans with fresh eyes and received what God was saying? And another individual, Zwingli, read the Scriptures, and, viewing the long lines seeking forgiveness at the shrine outside his window, thought no, it is Christ who saves, and Christ saves everywhere.
To the contrary. the chief problem today is that people do not individually read the Scriptures for themselves, seeking God. I believe they will be guarded from significant error if they read rightly: in humble dependence on God, with a single eye to pleasing him, with surrendered will, not imposing a personal agenda but having a teachable spirit, letting Scripture interpret Scripture which means applying themselves to serious study. And of course, when puzzled, seeking help from those more mature in the faith, past and present. Above all, reading because they are seeking God. We are to grow in the knowledge of God, and we know Him in in His Word, His living, transforming word. That is the authoritative Word that alone has power to change us. By that Word, we have been born again. I Peter 1:22
Yes I think there is such a thing as biblical individualism/personal responsibility/Christian liberty (as mentioned in the Traditionalism paragraph above)
Our relationship with Christ is a personal one, yet is also corporate and family like. A scissors, paper rock kind of thing.
And it is inspired Scripture that is foundational as we move and have our being.
Guymon Hall says
A creed is now an authority? Seems to not be in keeping with Sola Scriptura…
a legitimate authority is different to Scripture as an infallible authority. A creed still carries weight as a summary of Scripture. The Apostles Creed holds legitimate authority.
Guymon Hall says
“A creed still carries weight as a summary of Scripture.”
Oh? Now a creed is the summum bonum of Scripture? How interesting…
Bob S says
In light of the command to teach and preach sound doctrine (1 Tim. 4:13, 2 Tim. 3:16, 17, Tit. 2:1), the Westminster Confession 1:8 states that the Old and New Testaments, ‘being immediately inspired by God, and, by His singular care and providence kept pure in all ages’ are therefore authentic. IOW the church has a complete, sufficient, providentially preserved infallible Bible now and is not waiting for the discovery of a long lost book or even better and older manuscripts per se.
Further, we know Scripture is infallible, even as fallible creatures ourselves, never mind translation, printer or copyist errors which are comparatively minor. We also know that the pronouncements of men such as Rome “infallibly” emits and individual charismatic revelations are condemned by Scripture. Any supposed conundrum then becomes how someone can, without deceit or confusion, affirm the authority of Scripture at the same time they affirm the authority of the Roman magisterium or charismatic utterances (cf. WCF 1:10) Two into three does not go evenly. It is an all or nothing proposition. Scripture is either the supreme authority or it is not. Neither does Scripture as the alone infallible authority rule out other legitimate and subordinate authorities (such as again confessions, creeds and church councils).
In short, if the salient distinctions are not made – and the ten paragraphs of Chapter One of the Westminster Confession on the doctrine of Scripture do it quite well – error and confusion result. Ergo the modern “evangelical” and even reformed church.