X Close Menu


Sola Scriptura

Sola scriptura is one of the most misunderstood and maligned slogans from the Reformation. Today's opponents of the doctrine mistakenly attack positions that bear little resemblance to the original doctrine as articulated in the sixteenth century. Being richer and more complex than most doctrines, we will build up a definition slowly, drawing heavily on church history.

With the Protestants, the early Anabaptists cherished sola scriptura. The Anabaptists "followed rigorously the principle of sola scriptura: only the Bible is to be followed."106 The prominent Anabaptist leader Menno Simons supported sola scriptura: "I dare not go higher nor lower, more stringent nor lenient than the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit teach me; and that out of great fear and anxiety of my conscience, lest I again burden the godfearing hearts who now have renounced the commandments of men, with those commandments. Self-conceit and human opinions I hate, nor do I desire them; for I know what tribulation and affliction they have caused me for many years."107

Most contentious with the doctrine of sola scriptura is the relationship of Scripture to tradition. Several views can be found in church history in understanding this relationship. The oldest, called Tradition I, states that tradition describes the church's understanding of Scripture.108 Tradition is not an addition to Scripture; Scripture and tradition "coinhere" and are "coextensive" with each other.109 Tradition is essentially the church's exegesis of Scripture. "Tradition I, then, represents the sufficiency of Holy Scripture as understood by the Fathers and doctors of the Church. In the case of disagreement between these interpreters, Holy Scripture has the final authority."110 As a corollary to the Tradition I viewpoint, extrabiblical tradition is rejected by Tradition I advocates. The earliest post-apostolic church leaders affirm a Tradition I view. Irenaeus and Tertullian, "deny most decidedly the existence of extra-scriptural tradition."111 Other advocates of the classical Tradition I position include Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian, John Wycliffe, John Huss, and the sixteenth century Protestants.

In contrast to the early Tradition I view, a second view known as Tradition II crept into the church after 325 AD. Tradition II teaches that tradition contains material beyond the interpretation of Scripture, representing a distinct source of revelation. Tradition becomes an addition to Scripture. Tradition II also endows tradition with co-equal authority to Scripture. "Ecclesiastical traditions, including canon law, are invested with the same degree of authority as that of Holy Scripture."112 Tradition II thinking is quite similar to rabbinic Judaism's view that "oral Torah" was given at Sinai, apart from written Torah, and that it represents a distinct body of revelation. Rabbinic Judaism spent centuries debating and elaborating the contents of oral Torah, such as details concerning Sabbath observance, washings, and dietary laws.

Within Christianity, while faintly emerging in the fourth century, Tradition II advocates clearly blossomed by the late middle ages, typified by William of Occam.113 At the time of the Reformation, in reacting against the Protestants, the Roman Catholic church clung to Tradition II, despite its historic novelty. For this reason, a substantial amount of the Protestant polemic against the Roman Catholic church amounted to citations of the church fathers, demonstrating that Protestant doctrines were original and that the Roman Catholic church was the innovator: "Within this historical context, the Reformers saw themselves not as introducing some new teaching about `Scripture alone', but as overturning the dangerous innovation brought in by the growth of Tradition II, and recovering for the church as a whole the early church's `Tradition I' position. For the Reformers, sola scriptura meant a return to Tradition I. In other words, the Reformers had a high regard for the authority of inherited traditions of biblical interpretation, and of the views of earlier generations of widely respected theologians, as well as for the church's role in providing a context in which Scripture can properly be understood."114

In distinguishing between Tradition I and Tradition II, one must be clear that sola scriptura does not teach that Scripture is the only authority, but that it is the only infallible authority.115 Other authority does exist, such as the received wisdom of the early church, but such authority is subordinate to Scripture. Another way of framing this distinction draws on an analogy to faith and works. While we are saved by faith alone, we are not saved by a faith that is alone—that is, true faith always produces works. Similarly, "our final authority is Scripture alone, but not a Scripture that is alone."116 Other subordinate authorities are useful aids in comprehending and obeying the only infallible authority of Scripture.

Another view concerning the relationship between Scripture and tradition, popular in modern evangelical churches, states that Scripture is not only the sole infallible authority, it is the only authority. This "Bible and me" doctrine has largely flourished because of the rise of individualism and weak-group thinking and is radically different from Tradition I thinking. This view has been termed Tradition 0, because it allows for no room for tradition.117 Being so different from sola scriptura, Tradition 0 has been called solo scriptura.118 Solo scriptura, in contrast to sola scriptura, exalts the individual's private judgment over the corporate judgment of the church. Solo scriptura, by encouraging the autonomy of the individual, lays the groundwork for church division. Weak-group churches go hand-in-hand with solo scriptura. Besides promoting division, another serious flaw of solo scriptura is that it does not adequately confront the prejudice and bias which all readers naturally have:

Everyone who reads the Bible does so with a set of expectations and assumptions, some consciously held and some subconscious, that have been handed on to them. It is dangerous, of course, if these are misleading expectations and assumptions. What is often equally dangerous is to deny that one has them at all. Indeed, in practice, communities that espouse Tradition 0 cannot usually avoid adhering to some kind of tradition, in order to provide coherence in faith across the community, and to avoid falling into an anarchy in which each one does and believes simply what is right in his own eyes. They therefore smuggle `tradition' in, without identifying it as such, in the form of a senior position in the community given to one or more individuals judged to be especially gifted in discerning the voice of the Spirit in Scripture.119

Not surprisingly, then, solo scriptura can supply the fertile soil for the growth of charismatic (sometimes abusive) leaders.

Some are uncomfortable with saying that Scripture is the only infallible authority—should not that be reserved for God? To answer that question, we recall the presentation from chapter 6, where we saw that God's word and God Himself are closely bound, and that God's word is invested with God's very authority. Scripture's status as being the sole infallible authority comes directly from its status as God-breathed.

By now, it should also be clear how poorly misunderstood sola scriptura generally is. "It does not deny the necessity of traditions of biblical interpretation, creedal formulations of biblical faith, and inherited church practices that help to express and pass on the faith. Rather it ensures that all those traditions serve Scripture, the supreme authority, rather than compete with it. Sola scriptura means `Scripture supreme'."120 Sola scriptura can be defined in a single sentence: the Scriptures are the only infallible authority, in a Tradition I sense. This interpretative principle has a powerful binding effect upon the church, promoting the unity that Jesus earnestly sought. Sola scriptura combats against the divisiveness of unchecked individualism (Tradition 0) as well as autonomous and corrupt institutions (Tradition II).

Kuruvilla, Finny. King Jesus Claims His Church: A Kingdom Vision for the People of God (Kindle Locations 1396-1462). Anchor-Cross Publishing. Kindle Edition.