The Reformation Solas: Sola Scriptura

Not long ago I sat across from a young man who complained, “The Bible itself does not teach Sola Scriptura.” In that meeting I took him through several passages and because the divide between Reformed Protestants and Rome is as great as it ever was these texts bear unearthing in this series of articles. But let me be quick to say that these texts are not the only texts that one might use. How could I possibly introduce them all in this brief article? However, they are helpful in establishing what the slogan believed by the Church and made popular during the Reformation teaches, the Scripture teaches Sola Scriptura.

Let us begin with the obvious. Second Timothy 3:16 argues not only for the inspired character of Scripture but its fitted-ness or sufficiency for faith and life. Paul tells Timothy that this fitted character encompasses activities of teaching, rebuke, setting right and then bringing up believers in righteous thinking and behavior. Now, perhaps the objection might be raised that this passage only pertains to the Old Testament Scriptures. Certainly that is an objection we must consider.  So, among the many things we might say in answer to this objection, it seems enough to remind the reader that Peter equated Paul’s writings with the Old Testament Scripture.[1] Or consider Paul’s first letter to Timothy.  There Paul writes in 5:18, “For the Scripture says” followed by two citations. The first citation is from Deuteronomy 25:4. But what about the second citation, where is it from?  It is from Luke 10:7. The unmistakable conclusion is that Paul understands Luke’s gospel to be “Scripture.” 

What is more, in Romans 15:4 Paul enjoins us to read “the Scriptures” or as he also calls them “whatever was written in former days.”  Why?  The Scriptures were written for our instruction and encouragement.  As Paul said to Timothy they are well-fitted to our needs regarding life and godliness. In short, they are “able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”[2] He also called the Corinthians to the same kind of reading. In first Corinthians 10:11 he told his readers that these things that were written down were examples written down for our instruction. Incidentally, the word for instruction is not the same one used in Romans.  This word is nouthesia and has the idea of warning and even confrontation.  The Scriptures confront us, warn us and call us in the direction of righteousness.

Let me add one more text. It too comes from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and this text sets the limit that we might identify as Sola Scriptura. In I Corinthians 4:6 Paul urges his readers to learn from him and his companions “not to go beyond what is written.” Charles Hodge comments on this text saying, “But as the phrase always elsewhere refers to the Old Testament, which were the writings recognized as of divine authority, such is probably the reference here.”[3] Calvin thinks that the passage may refer to Paul’s writings or the Old Testament Scriptures he has marshaled.  For Calvin, the decision is not life changing because both would refer to Scripture.

However, allow me one further word before I leave you. We often think that the difference between Reformed and Rome is simple. The Reformed church believes in Sola Scriptura and Rome affirms Scriptura et tradition. However, that is not exactly the case. The Roman Catholic theologian John Eck said, “The Scriptures are not authentic, except by the authority of the church.”[4] Other similar citations from Rome could be offered but the sum total is this, Rome’s authority rests in sola ecclesia. Scripture and tradition derive authority from the church. For the Reformed Protestant matters are quite different. God is the primary author of Scripture. It is through the inspired Scripture that God speaks to His church and consequently Scripture alone is sufficient for the Church’s needs.

Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA.  He is also Professor of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Jeff is also an online instructor for Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA. He is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and has published academic articles and book reviews in various journals. Jeff is the Senior Editor of Place for Truth (placefortruth.org) an online magazine for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. 

 



[1] II Peter 3:14-16.

[2] II Timothy 3:15.

[3] Hodge, C. (1857). An exposition of the First epistle to the Corinthians (p. 70). New York: Robert Carter & Brothers.

[4] John Eck, Enchiridion, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1979, 13.