The Lord Jesus Christ promised that he would build his church and that the gates of hell would not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18). This promise, however, did not come with a guarantee that the church would never be in danger of theological drift and corruption. Rather, both Jesus and the apostles warned us that false teachers and even false Christs would arise. They would seek to deceive the people of God like wolves in sheep’s clothing, enticing the saints with all manner of deceptive anti-Christian philosophies substituting imposter gospels for the true one. This alluring deception can take many forms, and no generation of Christians can rest on the assumption that sound doctrine is safe from assault.
1. See Matthew 24:5, 24; Acts 20:29; Colossians 2:8–9; Galatians 1:8–9.
Sola Scriptura: Background of the Doctrine
Historically, one of the most notorious departures from the true gospel came in the complex development of late medieval Roman Catholicism. With the gradual ascent of the Bishop of Rome to a place of preeminence combined with the belief that bishops were the successors to the apostles of Christ, many came to believe that the formal traditions of papal declarations, creeds, and councils carried the full weight of divinely revealed truth. This opened wide the gate for all manner of false doctrine to masquerade as truth, even when untethered entirely from the teaching of holy Scripture. Like the Pharisees of old, the Roman Catholic magisterial authorities had departed from the divinely given testimony of the prophets and apostles and were “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:7).
This widespread departure from the faith “once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) ultimately sparked the Protestant Reformation. Men like Martin Luther, Uldrich Zwingli, and John Calvin sought to recover true catholicity from the corruptions of Roman Catholicism. Many rightly regard the doctrine of justification by faith as the material principle of the Reformation—the central issue (the main matter).. For the Reformers, justification is the imputation of the righteousness of Christ alone (solus Christus) by faith alone (sola fide), through grace alone (sola gratia), and for the glory of God alone (soli deo gloria).
If justification was the material principle of the Reformation, then the issue of authority was its formal principle. What authority gives shape (form) to the doctrinal matter of the church? Is the content of the true Christian faith to be determined by the magisterial, top-down authority of an ongoing apostolic office (the bishops) with one preeminent head (the pope) or only by the inscripturated word of prophets and apostles in the Old and New Testaments? For the Reformers and their heirs, Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) meant that all Christian teachers (including popes and bishops), all Christian assemblies (including councils), and all Christian theological truth claims (including creeds) are to be judged by the words of Scripture. Martin Luther’s legendary speech at the Diet of Worms, when he was asked to recant his writings, encapsulates this commitment: “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 to the Word of God.”
2. Cited in Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013, reprint), 181.
Scripture Alone is What Exactly?
In order to grasp the significance of sola Scriptura for theological method, we need to consider what exactly the slogan is claiming. I often ask my students to fill in the blank: Scripture alone is _______. Many write something like “the only authority for the faith and life of the church.” While this response reflects a right instinct, this articulation of sola Scriptura is incomplete. Neither the Reformers nor their heirs believed that Scripture is the only authority in the faith and life of Christians. Rather, the Reformation emphasized the need for, and put to good use, other sources of theological and religious authority.
As a renewal effort, the Reformation prioritized the preaching of Scripture by qualified men who occupied the biblically defined office of pastor/elder/overseer. Preaching was certainly grounded in the authority of Scripture, but to follow Scripture’s own teaching meant recognizing the genuine—albeit secondary—authority of the men occupying the teaching office of the church. Additionally, the Reformers themselves had an interest in retrieving the teaching of the church fathers and the ecumenical creeds, because they recognized that such teachings have a regulative function in the life of the church to varying degrees. Furthermore, the Reformers and their heirs made a habit of drafting and affirming confessions of faith, which were intended to regulate the acceptable doctrine and practice of the faithful. Clearly, sola Scriptura did not mean that there is no other source of theological authority in the church. So what does it mean? How should we fill in the blank?
3. In the Institutes, Calvin’s defended the principle of sola Scriptura in part by citing Augustine as one who held to the authority of Scripture over the church. See Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. Mcneill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Vol. 1 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 76–77 (Book One, Chapter VII, 3).
4. For an insightful discussion of Calvin’s acceptance and use of the language of the fourth century church fathers, including the Nicene Creed, in Trinitarian controversies, see Michael A. G. Haykin, “‘Uttering the Praises of the Father, of the Son, and of the Spirit:’ John Calvin on the Divine Trinity,” SBJT 21.2 (2017), 53–65.
The formal principle of the Reformation, sola Scriptura, is the conviction that Scripture alone is the word of God written, and as such, is the ultimate authority in all matters pertaining to doctrine and faithfulness of life. When Paul tells Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim. 3:16), he excludes non-canonical writings. When Peter declares that “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21), he refers exclusively to the men who wrote holy Scripture (in Peter’s words, “prophecy of Scripture”). Because only Scripture is the word of God written, only Scripture is infallible and inerrant. All other sources of authority for the doctrine and practice of the people of God are subject to error because they are not the product of miraculous divine inspiration. All other sources of authority are judged by the Scriptures. The Second London Confession of Faith, a Reformed Baptist confession, states the matter plainly: “The supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Scripture delivered by the Spirit, into which Scripture so delivered, our faith is finally resolved.”
5. 2LCF, Chapter I, “Of the Holy Scriptures,” Article 10.
Did Sola Scriptura Originate with the Reformation?
The slogan sola Scriptura (along with the other five so-called solas of the Reformation), emerged as a means of describing the key distinctives of the Protestant faith over against Roman Catholic beliefs. For this reason, some may assume that the doctrinal principle of sola Scriptura originated in the sixteenth century as a novel idea. This would be a faulty assumption. The influential theological writings of pre-Reformation Christians are rife with statements showing that the canonical books of Scripture are regarded as supremely authoritative and thus the standard by which the faithfulness of all other truth claims are measured.
6. For a discussion of the prevalence of this commitment among medieval Christian theologians, see Mark D. Thompson, “Sola Scriptura” in Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary, ed. Matthew Barrett (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 145–88.
Reformation and medieval historian and theologian Heiko Oberman has written extensively on the historic understanding of the relationship of the canonical Scriptures and the post-biblical tradition(s) of the church in theological formulation. Oberman laments the fact that the debate between Reformation Protestantism and Roman Catholicism is often framed in terms of tradition vs. Scripture when the real debate is actually between two different understandings of the role of tradition. Oberman has termed these two understandings of the role of tradition as “Tradition I” (the Protestant understanding) and “Tradition II” (the Roman Catholic understanding).
7. For a discussion of this nomenclature and some of the historical argumentation for it, see Heiko A. Oberman, “Quo Vadis: Tradition from Irenaeus to Humani Generis,” SJT (1963), 225–55. A form of this essay also appears in Idem., The Dawn of the Reformation: Essays in Late Medieval and Early Reformation Thought (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992). For a thorough analysis of the late medieval development of Tradition II, especially through the lens of the thought of Gregory Biel, see Idem., The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gregory Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000).
Tradition I is the view that extra-biblical doctrinal statements, including the teaching of the doctors of the church, creeds, and councils serve as a secondary source of authority. Because it is not the inspired word of God, tradition cannot articulate newly revealed truth. Rather, tradition is to be regarded as authoritative only insofar as it “hands down” (Lat. tradere) the truth revealed in Scripture. Oberman calls this view Tradition I precisely because it is the view that came first in church history. Oberman argues convincingly that this is the view of tradition in relation to Scripture that characterized the church fathers and the majority of medieval Christian theologians, including such giants as Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas.
Tradition II takes a radically different view: because the bishops are the successors of the apostles, and because the pope is preeminent among the bishops, the formal teaching of the bishops and the pope represents a source of divinely revealed truth—a second source of revelation to be regarded as equal to Scripture and even as the rule by which Scripture must be understood. This understanding of tradition, Oberman argues, rose to prominence in late medieval Europe through the development of canon law and through the writing and influence of such thinkers as William of Ockham and Gregory Biel. This view of tradition as divine revelation is called Tradition II because it comes later in church history. The Reformers’ efforts to renew the church’s commitment to Scripture alone as the inspired word of God did not represent a new idea in church history but a return to the conviction of the historic church and thus a return to true catholicity.
Systematic Theology and Sola Scriptura
Sola Scriptura is not only the formal principle of the Reformation; it is the formal principle of all Christian theology. The task of Christian theology is to articulate with clarity the judgments of divine revelation. The Christian theologian is, first and foremost, a recipient of the revealed word. The Scriptures do not contain undeveloped raw materials that need to be improved upon, clarified, and polished for more relevant applications. Rather, the Scriptures contain the entirety of the knowledge of the triune God and of all things in relation to God that he intends for his people to possess in the current epoch of redemptive history between the advents of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Just as Satan masquerades as an angel of light, so his wolves masquerade as sheep, twisting the very words of Scripture to sinister ends. For this reason, the Christian theologian often finds himself in need of conceptual terms that do not appear explicitly in the pages of Scripture. These terms, deployed faithfully, are not improvements upon the revealed words of Scripture but expositions of the truth revealed in the words of Scripture for the purpose of ruling out the false interpretation of the revealed words. When two parties claim mutually exclusive meanings of the same text of Scripture, it will not do to read the text back and forth to one another. Hence, the need for extra-biblical conceptual terminology, which is to be deployed in service to the revealed word, not as an effort to improve upon it.
8. For the distinction between judgments and conceptual terms, I am indebted to the essay by David Yeago, “The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma: A Contribution to the Recovery of Theological Exegesis,” Pro Ecclesia III.2 (1994), 152–164.
The wise Christian theologian will recognize that the Lord Jesus Christ has been building his church for some two millennia now. As such, many of the adequate conceptual terms needed to safeguard the church from perennial misunderstandings have been developed and defended already in the historic creeds and confessions of the Christian faith as well as by key Christian thinkers throughout church history. Thus, much of the search for adequate conceptual terminology in service to the revealed word will be an exploration of historic articulations of sound doctrine by the faithful. Whether a tested historical set of terms or new terminology coined to address the particular false doctrines of one’s present cultural moment, all extra-biblical conceptual terms are of value in Christian theology only insofar as they communicate the judgments of Scripture, which alone is the word of God written.