Old Answers to New Questions

With Roman Catholicism proving increasingly attractive to some evangelicals, questions are being asked afresh about religious authority and the place of Scripture. Catholic apologists such as Scott Hahn are delivering an eloquent challenge to the traditional Protestant view of the authority of the Bible. This challenge is not new. Rob Smith highlights our need to rediscover how the Reformers dealt with these very challenges under the banner of Sola Scriptura.

I’m angry. Angry when I hear of long-standing Reformed Evangelical Protestants converting to Roman Catholicism. My anger is not so much a result of feeling threatened—although there is probably an element of this—but stems from a passion for the glory of God and a desire that men and women find the true path of salvation. Understandably, many questions come to mind: Why is this happening? What is it that these converts have rejected? What have they embraced? and so on.

Whatever the answers to these questions (which will probably be different in each case) the exodus is happening. In America especially, a small but growing number of evangelical Christians, some of them quite high profile, are converting to Roman Catholicism. Others, while not going this far, are increasingly willing to see Catholicism as a fellow-traveller on the road to heaven (see ‘Here we stand? ’ in Briefing #154). Some believe that we are seeing the tip of an emerging iceberg.

Religious authority is a key issue for many who are making their journey to Rome. Acceptance of Roman Catholicism entails an acceptance of the authority of the accumulated traditions and teachings of the Roman Church. As a result, it also must involve a rejection of the Reformed doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). Sola Scriptura, as we shall see, was the Latin phrase the Reformers used to summarize the supreme and final authority of the Bible.

Current Roman Catholic apologists argue that the principle of Sola Scriptura is unbiblical, unhistorical, illogical and unliveable. But having listened carefully to these arguments, I have been surprised to find that very few of the challenges are new. What is new is the surprising lack of understanding as to how the Reformers answered these challenges. Unfortunately, this lack of understanding is shared not only by contemporary Roman Catholics, but by an enormous number of evangelicals as well. All of this highlights our urgent need to rediscover our Reformation roots and, in particular, the meaning and implications of the Reformers’ doctrine of Solo Scriptura.

The meaning of Sola Scriptura

One way of understanding the theology of the Reformers is through the great catch cries of the Reformation: Sola Fide (Faith alone), Sola Gratia (Grace alone), Solo Christo (Christ alone), Soli Deo Gloria (to the glory of God alone) and Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). In fact, Luther’s colleague Philip Melancthon went so far as to describe Sola Scriptura as the formal cause of the Reformation with Sola Fide as the material one. This is revealing, for it indicates that as far as the Reformers were concerned, Sola Fide and the other sola formulae all flow from, and form a kind of exposition of, the notion of Sola Scriptura. In other words, the Reformers’ belief that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, is a belief derived ultimately from the teaching of Scripture alone!

This is not to suggest that in the sequence of events, the Reformers came first to affirm Sola Scriptura and then subsequently, the other Sola statements. To the contrary, it seems that it was through reflection on the Scriptures that the Reformers came to see the gospel clearly (i.e. grace, faith and Christ alone) and as a consequence of that ‘breakthrough’, came to see the necessity of affirming Sola Scriptura. This was certainly the case for Luther who, during the course of the Leipzig debate (July 1519), was driven to see the logic of his own position, and thus to consciously assert the principle of Sola Scriptura.

But what was new in this assertion? It was certainly not new to say that the Scriptures were God-inspired, God-given, and spoke with God’s authority. That was common ground between Luther and his Catholic opponents. Both sides could happily quote Augustine’s dictum, “What Scripture says, God says”. The new element in Luther’s teaching was that Scripture ‘alone’ has this status, function and authority. In other words, it was the Sola in Sola Scriptura which set the Reformers’ doctrine of Scripture apart and thus helped earn them the name ‘Protestants’.

It is important to note that the phrase Sola Scriptura was not original to Luther, but had its origins in medieval literature. Nevertheless, over the preceding centuries non-Scriptural tradition had acquired an independent and normative authority in the medieval church, thus rivalling Scripture as a second and equivalent source of revelation. It remained for Luther to articulate the full implications of Sola Scriptura. What, then, were these implications?

The implications of Sola Scriptura

i. Authority

The first idea implied by the principle of Sola Scriptura is that of the unique and supreme authority of the Scriptures, both for the conscience of the individual and for the corporate life of the church. For the Reformers, this assertion contained within it the notions of infallibility and inerrancy, in as much as the Reformers’ basic argument was that the teachers and traditions of the church could and did err, whereas Scripture never erred! Scripture was thus regarded as the norma nonnans (the ruling norm) by which all other teachers and teachings were to be judged and evaluated.

Sola Scriptura did not mean that Scripture was the only authority in the church (Nuda Scriptura, i.e. bare Scripture). What it did mean was that Scripture was the only infallible authority, and therefore the final authority. All other authorities (e.g., church tradition, human reason, religious experience, Christian preaching) were regarded as norma normata (i.e. ‘ruled norms’) which were to be continually tested by Scripture.

The urgency in all of this was that many of the traditions that had developed over the centuries (such as the practice of indulgences) were, according to Luther, “noxious parasites” on the gospel and only served to ensnare people’s consciences and obliterate a true knowledge of salvation. For this reason, all things had to be brought to the bar of Scripture. It alone was the “genuine tradition” (i.e. divine/apostolic tradition), and by it all other “lesser traditions” (“the traditions of men”) must either stand or fall.

For Luther, the supreme authority of the Scriptures could be established on two fronts. Firstly, the Scriptures were authoritative on the grounds of their unique inspiration. To quote Luther: “Holy Scripture has been spoken by the Holy Spirit”. As we have seen, Luther’s opponents did not dispute this point, but claimed that the church also spoke infallibly by the Holy Spirit. However, for Luther, not only did the New Testament disprove such a claim, but history itself made nonsense of it. Hence Luther’s now famous statement at the Diet of Worms (1521): “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the word of God.”

The second front on which Luther argued for the Scriptures’ final authority had to do with their gospel content. The Scriptures are authoritative because “they are the manger in which Christ lyeth”. This, for Luther, was more important than even their apostolic origins. Hence his striking exclamation that “[whatever does not teach Christ is not apostolic, even though St Peter or St Paul does the teaching. Again, whatever preaches Christ would be apostolic, even if Judas, Annas, Pilate, and Herod were doing it.” This, of course, is akin to a point made by Paul himself (Gal 1:8-9). Nevertheless, what is instructive here is that for Luther the formal principle of the Reformation (Scripture alone) is bound up with the material principle (justification by faith alone). In other words, only Scripture could be relied upon to faithfully and infallibly reveal Christ and his saving gospel to us!

For the enemies of the Reformation, however, the appeal to Sola Scriptura was thought to be self-contradictory. For who determined what books actually constituted the Scripture, if not the church? In this vein, John Eck, Luther’s opponent at Leipzig, argued strongly that “Scripture is not authentic without the authority of the church”. The Reformers, however, contended that this was not so—Scripture is the Word of God, not the word of the Church. Moreover, the church is not the master of Scripture but is itself created by Scripture. Thus, the Reformers believed it was the Spirit of God (and not the church) who authorized the canon, and then led the fathers of the church to recognize and confirm his work. The church’s recognition of the canonical books, therefore, was simply analogous to a child recognizing its true parents—and, says Luther, “who begets his own parent? ” or “Who first brings forth his own maker?”.

Along similar lines, Calvin saw that whilst the supreme authority of Scripture could be demonstrated by numerous so-called “proofs”, it is ultimately “self-authenticating” and thus carries inherent final authority. Whilst Catholics have labelled this view as subjective, it must be thecase. For if some other authority is needed to validate Scripture’s authority, then it (and not Scripture) becomes the final authority. And a final authority, by nature of the case, must be self-authenticating. Biblically, historically and logically, the church could not make this claim. But, unlike the church, says Calvin, the Scripture bears witness to its own divine authority. This we know as the Spirit “seals it in our hearts” by his own testimony, that what we hold is “the unassailable truth”.

ii. Necessity

The second element contained in the Reformers’ doctrine of Sola Scriptura is that of Scripture’s ‘necessity’. By ‘necessity’ they meant that because God gives us actual, reliable and objective knowledge of himself only in Scripture, Scripture is indispensable in bringing men and women to salvation. It is in this sense ‘necessary’. However, in saying this, the Reformers did not mean that Scripture was ‘absolutely necessary’, as if God could not have infallibly made salvation known in some other way. Rather, they considered Scripture necessary because of the way it speaks about itself in terms of God’s good pleasure in making the written Word the seed of the church. On this point Francis Turretin speaks eloquently:

For two thousand years before the time of Moses, he instructed his church by the spoken word alone; so he could (f he wished) have taught in the same manner afterwards, but only hypothetically (on account of the divine will) since God has seen fit for weighty reasons to commit his word to writing. Hence the divine ordination being established, it is made necessary to the church, so that it pertains not only to the well-being (bene esse) of the church, but also to its very existence (esse). Without it the church could not now stand, So God indeed was not bound to the Scriptures, but he has bound us to them.1

The Reformers affirmed the necessity of Scripture in conscious opposition to two errors. On the one hand, they were contending with the Roman Catholic assumption that the church takes precedence over Scripture; on the other with the Anabaptist’s belief that the Scriptures were a dead and impotent testimony, the true Word of God being spoken directly to people’s hearts by the Spirit. 2

As to the first of these errors, Calvin answered his opponents from Ephesians 2:20. The church is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets. This foundation has been preserved in Scripture, and thus for the church to remain true, it must stand under the authority of the Scripture.



1 See F. Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol 1. (ed. J.T. Dennison, Jr.). Phillipsburg:
Presbyterian & Reformed, 1992, p. 57.

2 By ‘Anabaptists’, I mean the radical wing of the
Reformation, encompassing a range of groups.

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