Results tagged “Sola Scriptura” from Reformation21 Blog

Faith at Work: Sola Scriptura

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Tradition is helpful, but even Protestants can be guilty of treating Augustine and Calvin as a magisterium. This week, Dan Doriani encourages readers to have a proper understanding of Sola Scriptura.


The difference between Catholic and Protestant teaching is more subtle than people realize, for Catholics confess that Scripture is inspired, infallible, and authoritative. It is wise to remember, too, that the first Reformers were encouraged to study Scripture by scholarly Catholics: Staupitz told Luther to get his doctorate in biblical studies, Erasmus encouraged Zwingli's studies, and Faber Staupulensis and Lorenzo Valla inspired others. The difference lies in our views of the sufficiency of Scripture.    

The Catholic position is that Scripture is part of God's revelation. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) said Scripture "is the true rule and a foundation of faith for Christians." Notice "a foundation," not the foundation. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) explained: "The controversy between the heretics [Protestants] and ourselves focuses here on two points: first, when we affirm that the Scripture do not contain the totality of necessary doctrine, for faith as for morals... Apart from the Word of God written, it is necessary to have his non-written Word, that is to say, divine and apostolic traditions."

So the RCC affirms prima scripture, the primacy of Scripture. Scripture is the primary source for theology, but not the final source. Tradition and church teaching effectively limit Scripture's authority. If a matter is uncertain in Scripture, and tradition has an authoritative interpretation, then it has the final word...


Head over to Place for Truth to read the rest of the article! 

Last month, I participated in a Protestant & Roman Catholic dialogue about the Reformation at a nearby Christian university. The experience has left me reflecting on the fundamental issues that continue to divide Protestants and Roman Catholics, one of which is the authority of Scripture vis-à-vis tradition and living ecclesiastical authorities (the magisterium). As Protestants we maintain that Scripture alone constitutes God's inspired, infallible Word, and, without denying the legitimacy of subordinate authorities (creeds, confessions, church councils, general assemblies, etc.), we nevertheless deny the status of such subordinate authorities and their proclamations as divine (and therefore infallible) Word.

A fairly common rejoinder to a Protestant articulation of sola Scriptura is: "where does Scripture teach that?" Roman Catholic apologists love to ask Protestants to demonstrate sola Scriptura from Scripture, and -- if and when they struggle to do so -- suggest that Protestants either cannot prove this basic article of their faith from their own acknowledged infallible and authoritative text (at which point the article crumbles), or that they must appeal to some extra-Scriptural authority to defend the claim of Scripture's sole authority, thereby rendering the principle of Scripture's exclusive authority self-defeating de facto. The demand to prove sola Scriptura from Scripture, in other words, is intended to leave Protestants tongue-tied and thereby receptive to arguments for infallible authorities above and beyond the biblical text.

As an apologetic strategy, asking Protestants to prove sola Scriptura from Scripture may be effective. But it's nevertheless devious, because it violates one of the most basic principles of logic, which is that positive affirmations, not denials, require proof.

If, I would argue, Protestants are too effectively maintain their position on sola Scriptura moving forward, they might do well to buttress it with familiarity and efficiency with another Latin phrase, onus probandi, and what that Latin phrase entails in the realm of epistemology.

Onus probandi means "burden of proof," and in philosophy it communicates the idea referenced above; namely, that entities making positive claims are required to bring forth arguments and data in support of their claim. Those denying such claims aren't required to do anything until some positive proof lies on the table. So, for instance, if I claim that the Lochness Monster actually exists (which, I think we can all agree, she does), the onus probandi rests on me to demonstrate such. If I respond to your denial of Nessie with "prove that she doesn't exist!", I've not won the argument or validated my claim, even if I left you perplexed about how to continue the conversation. Likewise, if I claim that Chinese fortune cookies are a medium of divine communication, the burden of proof rests on me to make my case. Merely insisting that you prove otherwise and then sitting back with a smile on my face as you fail to demonstrate the un-divine provenance of fortune cookies is bad form to say the least.

But this is essentially what Roman Catholic apologists do when they insist that Protestants prove sola Scriptura from Scripture. After all, Protestants and Roman Catholics agree that Scripture is "breathed out by God and profitable for doctrine, for reproof, etc." (1 Tim. 3:16). They agree that Apostolic written testimony regarding Christ's person and work is "the Word of God," not "the word of men" (1 Thess. 2:13). Protestantism's claims regarding the existence of a divine Word from God stop there (and so remain far more modest than Rome's claims). To put the matter another way, Protestants can sound a hearty "amen!" to the Council of Trent's claim that the "written books" of Scripture constitute a fountain of "saving truth and moral discipline" (Fourth Session). It's Trent's further claim that "tradition" equally constitutes a fountain of saving truth and moral discipline that gives Protestants pause, not to mention the claims eventually made by Rome (at the First Vatican Council) for the infallibility of the magisterium when it adjudicates theological issues.

Rome essentially claims the same status for tradition and magisterium as it does for Scripture. It claims, that is, that tradition and magisterium belong to the category of "Word of God" rather than "word of men." Whether true or false, the onus probandi rests entirely on Rome to validate such claims. In my experience, proofs proffered in defense of Rome's claims regarding tradition and magisterium fall rather short. More often than not, defenders of Rome's claims simply seek to shirk the onus probandi for their position, and/or illegitimately transfer it to Rome's detractors.

In sum, sola Scriptura, Protestants would do well to remember, is only a positive claim insofar as it posits the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture. The onus probandi for that positive claim does indeed rest on us. It falls to us, in other words, to defend our positive claims about Scripture. But in dialogues with our Roman Catholic friends, a defense of Scripture's status as "breathed out by God" should be rather easy since that claim constitutes common ground. In all other regards, sola Scriptura constitutes the rejection of claims advanced by others -- claims for the inspired and infallible status of some extra-Scriptural word (whether of the Mormon, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, or vanilla evangelical variety). The onus probandi for those claims rests on others. Until convincing proof for the inspired and infallible status of the Book of Mormon, tradition, the magisterium, fortune cookies, or any other proposed medium of divine communication forth comes, we can and must stand our ground, so help us God.

Accommodating Rome?

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Probably the most interesting Reformation celebration that I had the privilege of participating in last month took place in a Roman Catholic Church. The Center for Evangelical Catholicism here in Greenville, SC graciously invited me to join with two other Protestants and three Roman Catholic scholars to discuss the Reformation. I was grateful for the warmth of my reception and for the valuable interaction.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this event was the panel discussion, in which the host priest asked a number of insightful questions. For instance, he asked us to consider how things might have been different if the Roman Catholic establishment had been more patient and accommodating with Martin Luther. The idea was that Leo X (nobody's favorite pope) handled Luther with such clumsy arrogance that he provoked the great schism that resulted. Might there have been a Lutheran order within the Roman church, he wondered, if the pope was more sophisticated and skillful?

My answer--which provoked a fair amount of unhappiness--was that it was inconceivable that the movement of the Protestant Reformation should have accommodated Rome simply because of the irreconcilable stances towards the Bible. Christians who adhered to sola scriptura - the authority of Scripture alone - could never endure a papacy that demanded that its tradition stood beside (and in practice above) the plain meaning of Scripture. Moreover, by study of the Bible, the Protestants came to the conclusion that the papacy was an utterly illegitimate and usurping office. In fact, wherever the Bible was embraced as supreme, the denunciation of the pope soon followed, a situation quite unlikely to permit a Lutheran movement inside the Roman tent. Furthermore, Roman Catholicism was just as opposed to the authority of Scripture as the Reformers were opposed to the papacy. It was for this reason that Rome so vigorously suppressed the spread of the Bible, going so far as to burn at the stake those who made it available to the common people.

As you can imagine, the warmth of my reception began to chill during this discourse. Especially my claim that Rome had suppressed the spread of Scripture was denounced as a false and tired canard! The host priest protested: "Why, Rome has done more for Bible translation than any other Christian body! Only in England was Bible translation suppressed, and that was done by the secular authority and not the church!"

This claim incited me to go back and study the evidence for Rome's suppression of Scripture. To say the least, it is extensive!   Consider the following:

  • Pope Gregory VII: forbade access of common people to the Bible in 1079, since it would "be so misunderstood by people of limited intelligence as to lead them into error."
  • Pope Innocent III: compared Bible teaching in church to casting "pearls before swine" (1199).
  • The Council of Toulouse (France, 1229): suppressed the Albigensians and forbade the laity to read vernacular translations of the Bible.
  • The Second Council of Tarragon (Spain, 1234) declared, "No one may possess the books of the Old and New Testaments, and if anyone possesses them he must turn them over. . . that they may be burned."
  • In response to the labors of John Wyclif, the English Parliament (under Roman Catholic influence) banned the translation of Scripture into English, unless approved by the church (1408).
  • The Council of Constance (Germany/ Bohemia, 1415) condemned John Hus and the writings of Wyclif because of their doctrine of Scripture and subsequent teachings. Hus answerd: "If anyone can instruct me by the sacred Scriptures. . . , I am willing to follow him." He was burned at the stake.
  • Archbishop Berthold of Mainz threatened to excommunicate anyone who translated the Bible (1486).
  • Pope Pius IV expressed the conviction that Bible reading did the common people more harm than good (1564).

It is true that in many cases, the papacy suppressed Scripture because it was being used to teach against the church. But this is exactly the point the Reformers argued: Rome would not allow the Scripture to speak with authority and for that reason suppressed it. Wyclif wrote: "where the Bible and the Church do not agree, we must obey the Bible, and, where conscience and human authority are in conflict, we must follow conscience." For this doctrine and its further implications, his body was exhumed and burned, his ashes scattered in a nearby river, and his Bible translation banned. So much for the Protestant "canard" regarding the Roman Catholic attitude to Bible translation, teaching, and distribution!

The record shows that if there was a single conviction that motivated and guided the Protestant Reformation, it was the authority of Scripture alone to speak for God in matters of faith and life. On this vital matter, the great John Wyclif and his martyr-disciple John Hus spoke with all the clarity that would burst forth through Martin Luther and others in the 16th century. Wyclif did not live to see a widespread Reformation, but died under harassment and scorn. Yet by wonderful providences, his writings spread far away to Bohemia where John Hus advocated them with zeal and power. Hus, too, did not live to see a Reformation, but died in solitary disgrace amidst the flames of a scornful church. Yet his influence endured, through the spread of Scripture, so that Martin Luther exclaimed, "We are all Hussites!"

The Protestant Reformation, which we have been celebrating these past weeks, was above all a Reformation of and by the Word of God. What compelling evidence Wyclif, Hus, and Luther gave to Isaiah's claim that God's Word will not go forth in vain but shall succeed by God's power (Isa. 55:11)! It is for this reason that accommodation with Rome would have been unthinkable to Luther and his followers, since sola scriptura compelled them to stand against false teaching with the Word of truth. Their courageous stance, blessed by God's mighty aid, reminds us that we also will never send forth God's Word in vain. If we will stand within the secular church of America, and yes, of evangelicalism, and hold forth the Word of God, he will not fail to bless it with the saving and reforming power our generation so greatly needs.