Sola Scriptura

Martin Luther once said that an uneducated layman armed with the Scriptures was to be believed above popes and councils without the Scriptures. As a seminary president and professor of theology, no one valued education more than Luther. He simply valued the unvarnished Word of God to the polished trappings of the academy and church hierarchy. So high was Luther’s view of God’s Word that he was condemned by Catholic authorities with a very ironic statement: “The impatient monk is more scurrilous than becomes the gravity of a theologian. He prefers the authority of Scripture to the [church] Fathers…” What a blessed condemnation!

The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century was driven along by two very important doctrinal commitments. These two doctrines came to form the core of what it would mean to be evangelical. The first was the doctrine of justification which is rightly understood as the material principle of the Reformation. Justification deals with how sinners are reconciled to God. The second elemental doctrine of the Reformation, sometimes called the formal principle, was the doctrine of Scripture. These two doctrinal commitments were forged in the midst of crisis. The church, having become corrupt, perverted the biblical understanding of justification. In addition, the church had pronounced as infallible, sources of authority other than Scripture. Popes, councils, and church tradition were believed to speak with equal authority as the Bible. From that crucible was forged several battle cries. Commonly referred to as “the solas,” they were to act as a kind of compass guiding the church out of its self-imposed exile in the darkness.
Led by reformers like Knox and Latimer in Great Britain, Luther and Melancthon in Germany and Calvin and Beza in Geneva the infallible authority of the papacy and the pronouncements of councils was being aggressively challenged. It was Luther who became the theological pit bull of the movement. His feverish writings, lectures, and sermons led to the declaration of “Sola Scriptura” or “Scripture alone.” At the heart of Sola Scriptura is the belief in the inspiration, infallibility, and clarity of the Bible. In other words, the origins of Scripture are divine, its content is without error, and its meaning is clear. Practically speaking Sola Scriptura upholds the sufficiency of Scripture. All the truth we need to attain to salvation, grow in faith, and guide the church is found in the Bible.

The Bible is not merely a theological source book. It is instrumental both to govern our doctrine and also to instruct us in godliness. As much as God rules over us (and delights to do so) His intention is also to walk with us in loving fellowship. But a close relationship can only happen when those involved know each other. God knows us even to the extent of having our hairs numbered. The means He has given us to know Him is His Word for we can know nothing of Him unless He tells us. J.I. Packer has written, “God sends His Word to us in the character of both information and invitation. It comes to woo us as well as to instruct us; it not merely puts us in the picture of what God has done and is doing, but also calls us into personal communion with the loving Lord Himself.” Sola Scriptura is good news because it affirms the Bible’s sufficiency for both our need to know about God and to know God. Any doctrine of Scripture that fails to deal with this instruction / intimacy dialectic is inadequate.

Sola Scriptura is under attack in our day (it probably always has been). Perhaps most disturbing, however, is that in evangelical circles the doctrine of Scripture is undergoing a steady softening. Not long ago I was reading a book by the leading pastor/writer/speaker in the “emergent church” movement which is a very influential force within evangelicalism. He wrote that the solas of the Reformation are “dangerous” because they are “too restrictive.” He has also written that he is uncomfortable calling the Bible “The Word of God” and yet he maintains that he has a very high view of the Scriptures. It hasn’t helped that our congregations are increasingly biblically illiterate and that pastors are seeing the Bible as increasingly impractical for preaching. These are prime times for pastors to return to the Bible in their preaching. It will require a humble tenacity. “Humble” because, though Scripture is infallible, we are not. “Tenacity” because the spirit of the age will constantly tell us that as long as we uphold Scripture in all our preaching and worship we will be hopelessly irrelevant.

I conclude with Luther’s famous words before the Diet of Worms where he was condemned as a heretic. The authorities demanded that Luther recant his writings. He refused.

“Since then Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted 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 tot eh Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”


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