Thesis: The Bible is the final rule of Christian faith and practice because it alone is the Word of God.
- The importance of the issue
- The Argument
- Where Sola Scriptura stands in theology
- Beliefs RC and P hold in common/where they differ
- The Protestant position (Scripture alone because of inerrancy and others)
- Main point
“This is a solemn topic. This is no time for games. We must be searching for the truth. God has declared that whoever adds or takes away from His Word is subject to his curse.” (Sola Scriptura! Pg. 2) A solemn issue indeed! All religions are based upon some sort of revelation–either from a supernatural being, from nature, or from within oneself. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, Revelation is found in nature and in that which is inspired by God. Christianity is a religion of the Bible. During the Reformation, there was highlighted two very different forms of ultimate authority–The Church, and the Bible. While the material and obvious cardinal issue of the Reformation was Justification, the “formal” or foundational issue was one of Authority. If the foundation is faulty, then anything that builds on it will also be faulty, and thus the issue of whether the church was the final authority or the Bible was the final authority was, philosophically, the most important issue of the Reformation. Nobody highlights this better than Martin Luther, who evolved in the late 1510’s from the “Sola Ecclesia” view to the “Sola Scriptura” view. It was during several debates that he realized that if “Popes and Councils” can and do err, then the only source of revelation from God that does not err must be scripture. Luther did not then discard all tradition as useless. But he did discard it as having any authority over Scripture. As R.C. Sproul narrates for us in his work on Scripture:
“For Luther the sola of Scriptura was inseparably related to the scriptures’ unique inerrancy.” (Scripture Alone, pg. 17) and this is the basic form of our argument in this paper: we will contend that the Protestant collection of 66 books alone is authoritative for Christians because it is God-breathed, and nothing else can qualify as being God-breathed that the Church possesses today. More specifically, the Protestant position is that because Scripture is inspired by God and therefore inerrant, it is a rule of faith, and because nothing else is inspired and inerrant, Scripture alone remains our ONLY rule of faith. Other rules such as traditions and persons (or church teachings) fail to evidence themselves to be inspired and inerrant because they show themselves to be contradictory to themselves or to scripture.
What do we mean by “Sola Scriptura”? We do not mean that Scripture contains ALL truth. Scripture itself (such as Romans 1) and common sense all attest to the existence of truth outside of Scripture. We also do not mean that Scripture is the only source of revelation-strictly speaking, God is the only source of revelation, but he reveals himself both through nature and through his Word. We also do not deny that other apostolic and inspired teaching existed in the early church (such as other sermons of Jesus or other letters of the Apostles) but what we deny is their normativeness for the Christian today. We also affirm that tradition is an important and oft-neglected aspect of church thought today, and we don’t deny its importance of bringing context and clarity to issues and doctrines, as well as being evidence of the providence of God throughout history. To reject something as the final authority is not to reject its derivative and lesser authority.
It is helpful to frame the doctrine of “Sola Scriptura” in the context of the Roman Catholic and Protestant disagreements, both because the precise doctrine was highlighted during the reformation and because it continues to be sharpened and discussed in this context. It is also helpful to highlight where protestants agree so that the differences might be set in high relief.
Catholics and Protestants agree that all revelation comes from God. They both agree that Scripture is from God, and that it is inspired and inerrant. They both agree that revelation ceased in the first century, which means that all of the differences in teaching stem from already given revelation. Catholics don’t formally have any disdain for Scripture, though it may fairly be said that Protestants see the value (or are at least consistent) in placing more time and effort in reading, memorizing, and exegeting scripture. The chief difference is that Catholics do not restrict the “Word of God” to Scripture, while Protestants do.
The Protestant position with regards to “Sola Scriptura” is intimately intertwined with the notion of sufficiency. Indeed, The very first sentence of the London Baptist Confession reads “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge…” (Chapter 1 section 1). Because Scripture is sufficient, nothing else is needed. Thus, the burden of proof is upon someone else to come along with another form of revelation, something that can disprove the assertion of 2 Timothy 3:16 that: “The man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” by the Scriptures themselves. Dr. James White painted an example in a debate on this subject by brandishing a pen to his audience, and telling them that his assertion was easily falsifiable–he was asserting that his “pen” was scripture alone, and that to disprove it, one only had to furnish another pen like it! (youtube, 2018).
Another theological term crucial to “Sola Scriptura” is inerrancy. The Doctrine of inerrancy, according to Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology is: “…that Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything contrary to fact.” (Grudem, 91). This is the standard understanding for most evangelical Protestants. Inerrancy itself flows out of the idea of inspiration and authority. Basically, because the Bible is the revelation of God, and because God does not and indeed cannot lie, all of the words of Scripture are true. We then move to the doctrine of sufficiency both because the doctrine of inerrancy suggests it, but also because Scripture itself makes the case for its sufficiency and because the history of the early church supports that interpretation. It is to these last two arguments that we now turn.
It is especially because of the Protestant position and understanding of scripture that the main support of exclusivity come from scripture, while in the Catholic understanding, a main vein of argumentation can come from tradition. For Protestants, the historical arguments, while not inconsequential, only serve to buttress the Biblical interpretation, and demonstrate the contradictions of Rome’s assertions that history supports their side.
We will begin with Deuteronomy 4:2: “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you.” A similar command is also given in chapter 12. The overall idea is that Scripture is something that cannot be added or taken from. Basically, “The word that I command you” sets the boundaries for the faithful Israelite’s rule of “keeping the commandments.” Psalm 119 says that God’s law (the written instruction) is perfect, right, and pure. This Psalm is important because it cannot refer to oral teaching since in the history of Israel, the law was written down and thus codified.
In the New Testament, we find the example of Jesus himself using Scripture alone to battle with Satan and settle the theological issues between them in Matthew 4. Dr. James Anderson makes the observation that when looking at all of the statements of Jesus, he only ever refers to 2 sources as divine revelation: the Old Testament Scriptures, and his own words as God incarnate. (RTS Lecture 9, Pastoral & Theological Studies) Another example with Jesus is in Mark 7 when he chastises the Pharisees for putting the traditions of men above the command of scripture.
Moving past the gospels we find possibly the closest proof-text for Sola Scripture in Scripture itself, in 1 Corinthians 4:6: “I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another.” (Italics mine). This is even more amazing considering that this was written during a time of new revelation by an actual apostle! Paul still sets the limit at scripture for how (in this specific case) to evaluate pastors. Also, this phrase “What is written” was almost a synonym for “Scripture.” And it was well-known. Leon Morris writes, commenting on the verse: “Paul must be referring to a well-known saying, a catch-cry familiar to Paul and his readers.” (Morris, Pg. 74). Of course, the locus classicus text for the exclusivity of Scripture is found in 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reports, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” The key word here for our purposes is the greek word “artios” which means “complete”. The man of God does not need anything else in order to be fully furnished as a mature Christian. Once again we refer to our line of argumentation: Scripture alone is our authority because it is the word of God, and as such, it is sufficient for Christians. For something else to be needed it must also be the word of God.
We now turn to the historical evidence for Sola Scriptura. As was mentioned before, there is a marked difference between Catholics and Protestants in the use of Church history, because protestants subject anything said by anyone in church history must be subjected to the Scriptures, while Catholics can actually argue de-facto using figures and events (such as the Pope or a Council) as authoritative. What we will be doing is merely to buttress the Biblical case by showing that influential church figures have supported the Biblical case laid out above, and do not contradict it.
Our first supporter of the Biblical position is Saint Augustine of Hippo, regarded by both Protestants and Catholics as one of the most influential theologians in the western church corpus:
“What more shall I teach you than what we read in the apostle? For Holy Scripture fixes the rule for our doctrine, lest we be wiser than we ought…Therefore, I should not teach you anything else except to expound to you the words of the teacher.” (Quoted in “Sola Scriptura!” pg. 39)
And again from Augustine: “I must not press the authority of Nicea against you, nor you that of Ariminum against me: I do not acknowledge the one, as you do not the other; but let us come to ground that is common to both–the testimony of the holy scriptures.” (Quoted in Sola Scriptura! Pg. 42) The first quote is self-explanatory, but the second one is even more profound because Roman Catholics usually cite Church Councils as authoritative, but here Augustine is citing Nicea but saying that it doesn’t matter because councils are to be judged by Scripture.
The second Church figure we will quote is Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria. Athanasius is particularly relevant to the issue of Sola Scriptura because he actually argued against the majority position of the Catholic Church (Arianism) and of the Roman Bishop. Though it is hard to imagine, the Council of Nicea, convened in 325 A.D. (and attended by Athanasius) did not produce any sort of unity about the nature of Christ in the short term. In fact, Athanasius and orthodoxy were in the minority for awhile. As Dr. K.S. Latourrette writes in A History Of Christianity:
“While, viewed from the vantage of the centuries, it is quite clear that the council of Nicea was an important stage in the attainment of the Catholic Church…for more than a generation it was not at all certain that the definitions arrived at by the council would prevail. Indeed, it looked as though Arius, although anathematized and exiled, would win. (Latourette, 157)
Athanasius staunchly defended the Nicean position on Christ against the Arian majority. He was kicked out of his Bishopric five times, exiled by Constantine and again by the Bishop of Rome, and threatened with military force. The point is that from Athanasius’s point of view, Ariansim was the Church tradition. The Arian Councils were the authoritative ones. If you go by the majority, the “Church Militant” side, then you had to cede to the Arians. It begs the question–If Church traditions were authoritative, why didn’t Athanasius bring them up? Why didn’t he appeal to them? There are some quotes that seem that way, but when examined further prove to be about basic Christian doctrines obvious from Scripture. Instead, Athanasius appealed to Scripture, not tradition:
Vainly then do they run about with the pretext that they have demanded Councils for the faith’s sake: for divine Scripture is sufficient above all things; but if a Council be needed on the point, there are the proceedings of the Fathers, for the Nicene Bishops did not neglect this matter, but stated the doctrines so exactly, that persons reading their words honestly, cannot but be reminded by them of the religion towards Christ announced in divine Scripture. (Quoted from Sola Scriptura! pg. 51)
To summarize, we have looked at a definition of Sola Scriptura, a defense of it in Scripture, and a small look at how it has been used by some Church Fathers.
In conclusion, we must view this matter as important, because how one understands the authority in the Church will shape what one believes about everything else the church teaches. It is for this reason that there are such vast differences between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant church–Works vs. grace, Marian doctrines, purgatory, the Pope, etc. One side vests the final authority with the church (Sola Ecclesia) and the other with Scripture (Sola Scriptura). To anticipate a Catholic rebuttal: Having the proper authority does not guarantee that it is always used correctly, and Protestants have erred and differed in their understanding of Scripture. The problem is, Rome has differed and erred as well, though she hasn’t produced the same level of variation as can be found among Protestants. The misuse of something good is not an argument that the issue lies in that which is good–and the misuse of Sola Scripture is not an argument for the authority of the Church.
Grudem, W. (1994). Systematic Theology. 1st ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Kistler, D., Horton, M. and White, J. (1998). Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the
Bible. 1st ed. Morgan: Soli Deo Gloria Publications.
Morris, L. (2018). 1 Corinthians. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.
Sproul, R. (2005). Scripture alone. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub.
The Baptist confession of faith, 1689. (2012). Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust.
YouTube. (2018). The Great Debate II - The Sola Scriptura Debate - Matatics. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pmYWBwIvejY&t=8306s [Accessed 23 Jun. 2018].