Dr. Joseph Kim shares his insights on the first of the 5 Solas.


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Sola Scriptura

September 29, 2017

The post originally appeared on Dr. Joseph Kim's blog, Theologish. You can read it here.

As you already know, unless you've been living like one of the Desert Fathers, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is coming up soon. As a Protestant theologian, I simply cannot ignore that (not that I want to)! In honor of the upcoming anniversary, I will spend the next five posts reflecting on the five solas of the Reformation. Sola is Latin for "alone," and the five solas are five statements that have been used to summarize the key theological distinctives of the Reformers:

  • Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone)
  • Solus Christus (Christ Alone)
  • Sola Gratia (Grace Alone)
  • Sola Fide (Faith Alone)
  • Soli Deo Gloria (For the Glory of God Alone)

In this post I will consider sola Scriptura, what Philip Schaff called the "formal principle" of the Reformation (The Principle of Protestantism, Chambersburg, PA: Publication Office of the German Reformed Church, 1845, p. 70). By "formal principle," Schaff meant the principle which establishes the church in its knowledge of true doctrine.
Of all the solas, sola Scriptura may be the most misunderstood by both friends and foes of the Reformation. As Schaff's observation points out, the issue at stake here for the Reformers was the locus of the church's doctrinal authority. In late medieval Roman Catholicism, what authorized the church's doctrine was Scripture and tradition, as interpreted and articulated through the authoritative teachers of the church, the Pope and the bishops (also known as the magisterium). Contrary to some popular misunderstandings, the Roman Catholic Church did not hold to tradition instead of Scripture (nor do they to this day). But tradition is held to be an additional authority alongside (and coherent with) Scripture. Furthermore, tradition was not seen to be static, but as something that can develop through the leading of the Holy Spirit through the history of the church. The recognition of genuine developments of doctrine in keeping with the tradition and Scripture is the responsibility of the magisterium, and ultimately, the Pope.

In the hands of the magisterium, the Catholic tradition was used to authorize doctrines such as purgatory and the granting of indulgences, neither of which are found in Scripture. Now, in defending these doctrines, Catholic teaching will cite Scripture in support, but the passages cited do not clearly teach the doctrines they are said to uphold. For instance, the granting of indulgences is inferred as a particular exercise of the "power of the keys," the privilege of "binding and loosing" as mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 16:19. This power is understood by the Catholic church to have been conferred specifically on Peter and his successors (the popes), and includes the power to grant absolution (forgiveness of sin), as well as the power to require acts of penance for those who sin, or to grant indulgences (the remitting of temporal punishments for sin in purgatory). Whether this is what Jesus really meant by "the keys of the kingdom," and whether absolution, penance, and indulgences are legitimate implications of what he meant are questions of interpretation. But in the Catholic system, these are not open questions, since the magisterium considers the Catholic church's interpretation to be authorized by the tradition.

In the Catholic system, though, it is actually not necessary to give scriptural validation, since doctrinal beliefs can rest on tradition apart from Scripture, or even on the pronouncement of the Pope alone (speaking ex cathedra). What this does in effect is to place the decisions of the magisterium beyond any question. The ultimate authority then is not Scripture, but the magisterium (headed by the Pope), since it is the magisterium that dictates the proper understanding of the Scriptures and the tradition. It is this state of affairs that the Reformers' affirmation of sola Scriptura addresses.

The Reformers saw that placing authority in the statements of one man (or a group of men) was open to abuse. Even the best-intentioned leaders are still prone to error, and the preceding two centuries had provided ample reason to doubt that those in power always acted according to good intentions. As Luther stated in his reply at the Diet of Worms, "I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves" (this and the following quotes from the Diet of Worms taken from Luther's Works, Fortress Press, 1958, vol. 32, 109-113). Previously, he had stated that he would renounce any errors in his works that could be shown from Scripture: "I ask by the mercy of God, ... anyone at all who is able, either high or low, bear witness, expose my errors, overthrowing them by the writings of the prophets and the evangelists," and then later, more simply, "Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, ... I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God." Luther is demonstrating here the Reformers' insistence on sola Scriptura: the Scriptures and their clear teaching are the authority for true doctrine, and neither the magisterium nor the pope himself can compel belief in a doctrine which contradicts Scripture.
A common Roman Catholic criticism of sola Scriptura is that it leads to doctrinal chaos, as each individual interpreter decides what Scripture says. The result is that each person becomes his own "pope." This idea is cleverly communicated in this parody of a computer error message.

It is true that some (okay, many) in the Protestant tradition have indeed acted this way. An infamous example is Alexander Campbell, who along with Barton Stone was the founder of the Disciples of Christ church, and the Restorationist movement. Campbell disavowed denominations, creeds, or any guides to interpretation apart from his own understanding of it. He once made the astonishing claim that he read the Bible every time he came to it as if he had never read it before: “I have endeavoured to read the scriptures as though no one had read them before me; and I am as much on my guard against reading them to-day, through the medium of my own views yesterday, or a week ago, as I am against being influenced by any foreign name, authority, or system whatever.” (“Reply” to a letter from Robert B. Semple of Virginia, published in The Christian Baptist, vol. 3 [April 3, 1826], p. 204, available here.)
One marvels at the self-deception inherent in this strategy, if he meant it seriously!

Campbell's approach has been dubbed nuda Scriptura, an abandonment of every source of knowledge but the Bible. Of course, this is a practical impossibility in the first place, since even deciding what is to be read as Scripture and what is not (i.e., the composition of the canon) requires interaction with tradition. More directly to the point, however, this is in no way what the Reformers meant by sola Scriptura. The Reformers did not deny the importance of tradition. To the contrary, they insisted that their understanding of biblical authority, as well as the doctrinal emphases they promoted, were in line with the tradition of the church.

This view only makes sense if we recognize an enduring continuity to the church. If Christ is indeed the one who builds his church (Matthew 16:18), and if the Holy Spirit has gifted teachers and leaders (1 Corinthians 12:4-7) in the past and has guided the people of God safely through controversies (John 16:13), those gifts did not evaporate with the passing of those saints. They were not infallible, but as they had insight and illumination as to the central doctrines of Christian belief, and as they articulated them for the church, their legacy is a valuable influence on the believers who followed them.

What the Reformers emphasized in affirming sola Scriptura was that the Scriptures contain fully the substance of Christian doctrine, and that as the inspired Word of God, they are the norma normans, the "norming norm" of Christian belief. In other words, no doctrine should be believed that is not taught in Scripture or clearly deducible from what is taught. Any teaching or tradition is only valid as it articulates what the Scriptures teach, and any teaching that contradicts Scripture is not to be believed, confessed, or taught. A corollary of this is that what Scripture does clearly teach ought to be believed, confessed, and taught by the church.
Far from rejecting tradition, this should lead us to value it as a check against doctrinal novelty. Luther's discovery that justification is by faith apart from works was not put forward as new doctrinal innovation, but precisely as the clear teaching of the apostle Paul in Scripture. The Reformers held in high esteem the teaching of Augustine (and other Fathers) because he argued for the same truths from Scripture in his day. Tradition is a good and helpful guide insofar as it articulates properly the teaching of Scripture. Calvin explains this in his discussion of the authority of the councils in the ancient church:

What then? You ask, will the councils have no determining authority? yes, indeed; for I am not arguing here either that all councils are to be condemned or the acts of all to be rescinded, and (as the saying goes) to be canceled at one stroke. But, you will say, you degrade everything, so that every man has the right to accept or reject what the councils decide. Not at all! But whenever a decree of any council is brought forward, I should like men first of all diligently to ponder at what time it was held, on what issue, and with what intention, what sort of men were present; then to examine by the standard of Scripture what it dealt with—and to do this in such a way that the definition of the council may have its weight and be like a provisional judgment, yet not hinder the examination which I have mentioned.

Thus councils would come to have the majesty that is their due; yet in the meantime Scripture would stand out in the higher place, with everything subject to its standard. In this way, we willingly embrace and reverence as holy the early councils, such as those of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus I, Chalcedon, and the like, which were concerned with refuting errors—in so far as they relate to the teachings of faith. For they contain nothing but the pure and genuine exposition of Scripture, which the holy fathers applied with spiritual prudence to crush the enemies of religion who had then arisen. (Calvin, Institutes, IV, ix, 8, Battles translation).

Sola Scriptura, then, is a vital principle for faithful churches today. Its appreciation for tradition protects the church from the historically unmoored, idiosyncratic pronouncements of tribal "popes" of various sects, and from the individualistic "what the Bible means to me" mentality so often seen in churches today. And while it does not settle all interpretive disputes, it enjoins God's people continually to return to the Scriptures to plumb their depths in conversation with the believing community past and present. And since the Scriptures are the "sacred writings that are able to make [us] wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 3:15)," this is just what we need.

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