This past week I listened to two lectures on the doctrine of sola scriptura (Latin for “scripture alone”): one by a Protestant scholar and the other by a Roman Catholic apologist. One of the things that stood out in the lecture given by the Protestant was his insistence that the doctrine of sola scriptura is something that can actually be found in scripture. The person who spoke from a Roman Catholic perspective, on the other hand, argued quite strongly that the doctrine of sola scriptura cannot be found in scripture. Now it might come as a surprise to some people but in this case I would say that I actually agree with the person who was speaking from a Roman Catholic perspective: I don’t think that the doctrine of sola scriptura can actually be found in scripture. But, unlike the Roman Catholic apologist, I don’t think that makes the doctrine of sola scriptura wrong.
What is Sola Scriptura?
According to many Roman Catholic apologists, it would be inconsistent for a Protestant to believe in sola scriptura if the doctrine of sola scriptura can’t actually be found in scripture. While this argument might sound fairly strong on first examination, the reality is that it is based, at least in part, on a misunderstanding of what the doctrine of sola scriptura actually is. Unlike what so many people think– both on the Roman Catholic and on the Protestant side – the doctrine of sola scriptura does not mean that scripture is our only authority when it comes to what we believe and what we do as Christians; the doctrine of sola scriptura means that the Bible is our ultimate authority, under God, for what we should believe and do as Christians. As Protestants, scripture is not our only authority – but it is the authority by which all other authorities need to be measured. This is how it is worded in the Westminster Confession of Faith:
|Westminster Confession of Faith (Chapter 1.10)
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 can rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.
The Belgic Confession says something similar:
|Belgic Confession (Article 7)
Therefore we must not consider human writings – no matter how holy their authors may have been – equal to the divine writings; nor may we put custom, nor the majority, nor age, nor the passage of time or persons, nor councils, decrees, or official decisions above the truth of God, for truth is above everything else.
So sola scriptura does not mean that the Bible is our only authority when it comes to what we believe and do as Christians – but it is our highest authority, the authority by which every other authority is to be judged.
Why We Should Believe in Sola Scriptura
So the question that we need to ask now is this: why should we believe in the doctrine of sola scriptura?
There are basically two reasons why we should believe in sola scriptura – and we need both, otherwise the argument isn’t very strong.
1. The first reason why we should believe in sola scriptura is because we believe that scripture is inspired by God and that it is completely trustworthy when it comes to what we should believe and do as Christians. Of course we could get into a debate about whether or not scripture actually is inspired by God, whether or not scripture actually is trustworthy, or how do we really know which books should be in the Bible. But none of those points are really at issue here. During the Protestant Reformation, both sides were in agreement on this point. Of course, there eventually would be debate about the scope of the Old Testament (i.e. do the apocryphal/deuterocanonical books belong to the Old Testament) but even that isn’t really fundamental to this debate: during the Protestant Reformation both sides believed in the inspiration and trustworthiness of scripture.
But the inspiration and trustworthiness of scripture isn’t really enough to bring a person all of the way to the doctrine of sola scriptura – there is one more ingredient that is needed.
2. The second reason why we should believe in sola scriptura is because we don’t believe that any other source of authority is inspired by God and is completely trustworthy for what we should believe and do as Christians. As Protestants we don’t believe that the Pope is infallible, even when he speaks ex cathedra. (As a side note, Luther’s opponents in the sixteenth century clearly had a higher view of papal infallibility than the Catechism of the Catholic Church does today and certainly more than Roman Catholic apologists do today. I wonder if this is because, from our perspective today, it is all too clear that popes can and do make serious theological mistakes). As Protestants, we respect the ecumenical and other councils of the church, but we don’t believe they are infallible. And as Protestants – at least the early Protestants like Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Bucer, Calvin, etc. and those who follow closely behind them – we read and respect the accumulated wisdom of the church fathers, but it is pretty easy to show that they were not infallible. No matter how close they might come to the truth, as Protestants we can never be sure that they are completely trustworthy because in too many instances they have shown themselves not to be trustworthy. That was the point that Martin Luther was trying to make at the Diet of Worms:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason – for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves – I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.
Notice that Luther didn’t base his belief in sola scriptura on the fact that sola scriptura is found in the Bible. Luther’s belief in sola scriptura is based on his view of the inspiration of scripture and the fact that two of the highest authorities for the Roman Catholic Church – popes and councils – are not completely trustworthy because they have often made mistakes and contradicted each other. And because Luther believed these two things, that meant that every other authority needed to be judged on the basis of scripture because scripture is the only authority that can be considered to be completely trustworthy for what we believe and do as Christians.
But Whose Interpretation Should We Follow?
The person who was arguing from the Roman Catholic perspective also brought out one other point that needs to be considered: he said that the doctrine of sola scriptura assumed an infallible interpreter. The Roman Catholic Church, he said, has the teaching authority of the church, the magisterium, to give them an authoritative interpretation of scripture. Protestants, on the other hand, have simply transferred the authority to interpret scripture from the church to the individual – which is a recipe for chaos.
What should we say in response to this? There are three quick things we can say in response to this:
a) First, it is fairly easy to show on the basis of individual examples that the teaching authority of the church is not infallible. They can make mistakes and they have made mistakes. So when the teaching authority of the church makes mistakes, scripture trumps the teaching authority of the church.
b) Second, Protestants traditionally do believe that the church and tradition have the ability to guide believers in the right interpretation of scripture. We would be fools to think that we as individuals are capable of getting everything right while everyone else is wrong. That is one reason why we need to have pastors and teachers and scholars to help God’s people understand scripture. That is one reason why we need to read church history and get as much wisdom as we can from Christians who came before us. And that is one reason why we need to be accountable to a larger church body so that it’s not just me or my small group and the Bible. If we think that sola scriptura means me plus the Bible and that’s it, that is a complete misunderstanding of how the early reformers understood the doctrine of sola scriptura. So we would be fools not to gain wisdom from the teaching authority of the church and tradition.
But with all of this in mind, we still need to recognize that the teaching authority of the church and tradition still need to be placed under the authority of scripture because they are not infallible. If the teaching authority of the church and tradition contradict scripture, scripture trumps them both.
c) Third, some people might think that I’m too much a child of the enlightenment but I actually do believe that there is objective meaning in the text and that that objective meaning is publically available. With the right training and the right presuppositions, Christian leaders should be able to come to a fairly good consensus on what scripture teaches in most cases. That is one reason why I think biblical theology is so important: it’s because I firmly believe that a more careful reading of scripture and how scripture fits together will bring us closer to what God actually wants us to believe and do as Christians. While I don’t think that Christians will ultimately agree on every issue (there are a lot of factors that go into how we form our theology!), I do think that a more careful reading of scripture will bring us closer together on many points. But even if everyone is not as optimistic as I am, I still think that scripture is clear enough that we can say that some teachings are definitely wrong and that some teachings are definitely right on the basis of what scripture has to say.
Again, I don’t think that sola scriptura is found in scripture. But that was never the point. The point is that both sides during the Reformation believed in the inspiration and trustworthiness of scripture – the difference is that the Reformers didn’t believe that other sources of authority were infallible. This meant that scripture needed to be the authority by which every other authority needed to be judged because only scripture is completely infallible. And that is the doctrine of sola scriptura – not the only authority but the highest authority for what we believe and do as Christians.
 Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart; New York: Image Books, 1992), 39.