Sola Scriptura (Part 1) by Pastor John Samson
"Sola scriptura, the formal principle of the Reformation, is essential to genuine Christianity. Yet this doctrine is under attack like never before. Christians who want to defend their faith must have a basic knowledge of this doctrine, know how to support it with Scripture proofs, and be able to discern the enemy's attacks against it." - Dr. John MacArthur
"Let God-inspired Scripture decide between us; and on whichever side be found doctrines in harmony with the word of God, in favor of that side will be cast the vote of truth." - Basil of Caesarea (c. 330 - 379 A.D.)
"We affirm that a confession of the full authority, infallibility, and inerrancy of Scripture is vital to a sound understanding of the whole of the Christian faith. We further affirm that such confession should lead to increasing conformity to the image of Christ. We deny that such a confession is necessary for salvation. However, we further deny that inerrancy can be rejected without grave consequences, both to the individual and the church." - Chicago Statement of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy
"...have you not read what was spoken to you by God..." - Jesus Christ (Matt. 22:31)
There has been an unprecedented crisis in the Church in the last 200 years as to the question "Can we trust the Scriptures?" There has been a wholesale loss of the sense of authority.
To understand the issues involved in our day, I am convinced that we need to know something about the 16th Century Protestant Reformation. The central issue was Justification by faith alone (Latin: sola fide). Yet often overlooked is another controversy which was equally as serious for the life of the Church. Whilst the material issue of the Reformation concerned the debate over justification by faith alone, the formal issue (the structure in which the whole debate ensued) was the issue of final authority - who or what speaks for God?
Martin Luther had two debates with the leading Roman Catholic theologians of his day (Martin Ek and Cardinal Cajerton). As Ek and Cajerton debated the subject of justification, they pointed out that Luther's views differed significantly from the official position of the Church. For the Roman Catholic Church, both the former Church councils and the Papal declarations were binding upon all those in the Church. These men were able to demonstrate that Luther was in disagreement with both Church Councils and the Pope himself.
Martin Luther was perceived by many as being the most arrogant and pompous individual imaginable. They could not understand how one man could do as Luther was doing. They would say to Luther, "Who do you think you are that you would presume to know more than the Church Councils or the Holy Father in Rome?"
In these debates, Luther was asked if he stood against Pope and Councils. Luther admitted that indeed he did. In his opinion, Church Councils could err, as well as the Pope himself. Of course, this was hugely disturbing and even considered blasphemous. Luther was quickly likened to the Bohemian John Hus, who had, around a hundred years earlier, made similar statements to Luther's, and was burnt at the stake as a heretic. Complete uproar ensued. Luther was excommunicated with a price put on his head.
Finally, in 1521, an attempt was made for one final resolution. Officials and princes of both Church and State met at an Imperial Diet convened in the town of Worms in Germany, in the presence of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles. Luther was summoned, after being given a safe passage of conduct, which meant that he was able to travel to and from Worms without the fear of being arrested or killed. His inquisitor demanded an answer: "I ask you, Martin answer candidly and without horns - do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?"
Luther responded with the immortal words: "Since then Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convinced by sacred Scripture or by evident reason - I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other - my conscience is held captive by the word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to act against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand! I can do no other. God help me! Amen."
Notice especially the words, "My conscience is held captive by the word of God." For Luther, God's words were binding and had an authority far beyond the respected words of Church leaders or even Popes.
Luther left the Diet of Worms, riding off into the night. On his way home he was kidnapped by his own people, transferred to the Wartburg Castle where he translated the Bible into German, the vernacular of the people. The Reformation sparked by Luther swept most of the countries of Europe.
SOLA SCRIPTURA - BY THE SCRIPTURES ALONE
At Worms, the second slogan of the Reformation became established because of Luther's defiance of all other ecclesiastical authority in the light of the Scriptures. That slogan was "Sola Scriptura," which was the Latin phrase meaning "by the Scriptures Alone."
What is "by the Scriptures alone?" Luther was saying that the ONLY written source in this world that had the level of authority to bind the conscience of a person is the Bible itself.
Luther had enormous respect for the insight, wisdom and collective teaching of the great theologians of the past, and that the Creeds and Confessions of the Faith were not at all to be despised. He knew that it would be unspeakably arrogant to create theology without any reference whatsoever to the guidance of the great teachers God had set in the Church. Yet, Luther and the other Reformers believed that no written document of men, no confession of faith, no creedal statement and no Council declaration had the authority to bind the conscience. The only person with such authority is God Himself, and only the word of God carries that authority.
This belief in the authority of Scripture alone to bind the conscience, as Dr. James White states, "does not mean that the Reformers rejected everything that every Christian in earlier ages has said: indeed, they often cited the early Christians as supporters of their own positions. However, they recognized that those earlier believers were not inspired, were not inerrant, and, in fact, quite often made errors in their judgments and beliefs, just as people do today. The only infallible rule of faith, they argued, is found in the pages of Holy Writ."
The issue of Sola Scriptura was an issue regarding the question of authority. Specifically, "is God's authority invested in a book or in an Institution (the Church)?"
The Protestant Reformers believed in Sola Scriptura (the Scriptures Alone), and would declare the Roman Church to believe and practice Sola Ecclesia (by the Church Alone), for quite simply, what the Roman Catholic Church says to be true, is true because the Church speaks with infallibility and cannot possibly be wrong.
The response of the Roman Catholic Church was to remind the Reformers that the Church would not even have had the Bible except that Church councils actually defined what the Bible actually was. The reasoning went like this: if the Church is the Institution that declares the Bible to be the Bible, does not that indicate that the Church would have at least the same authority as the Bible, or even more?
Both Martin Luther and John Calvin responded to this by reminding Rome that the key word the Church used, when it did define the Bible, was the Latin word "Recipimus," which means "we receive." The Church declared "we receive these books as sacred Scripture."
In the New Testament, we are told, "as many as received Him (Christ) to them He gave the authority to be called the children of God." (John 1:12)
When someone receives Christ as Lord and Savior; they are certainly NOT giving any authority to Jesus He doesn't already have. Jesus possesses all authority in heaven and earth, for He is Lord, whether or not a person acknowledges Him as such.
When the Church said, "Recipimus," she was humbly acknowledging her submission to the authority of the Bible.
Dr. James White, in his book, "The Roman Catholic Controversy" has provided a very helpful synopsis of the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura by outlining both what it is, and what it is not.
WHAT SOLA SCRIPTURA IS NOT
1. First and foremost, sola scriptura is not a claim that the Bible contains all knowledge. The Bible is not a scientific textbook, a manual on governmental procedures, or a catalog of automobile engine parts. The Bible does not claim to give us every bit of knowledge that we could ever obtain.
2. Sola scriptura is not a claim that the Bible is an exhaustive catalog of all religious knowledge. The Bible itself asserts that it is not exhaustive in detail (John 21:25). It is obvious that the Bible does not have to be exhaustive to be sufficient as our source of divine truth.
3. Sola scriptura is not a denial of the authority of the Church to teach God's truth.
4. Sola scriptura is not a denial that the Word of God has, at times, been spoken. Rather, it refers to the Scriptures as serving the Church as God's final and full revelation.
5. Sola scriptura does not entail the rejection of every kind or form of Church "tradition." There are some traditions that are God-honoring and useful in the Church. Sola scriptura simply means that any tradition, no matter how ancient or venerable it might seem to us, must be tested by a higher authority, and that authority is the Bible.
6. Sola scriptura is not a denial of the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding and enlightening the Church.
WHAT SOLA SCRIPTURA IS
1. The doctrine of sola scriptura, simply stated, is that the Scriptures alone are sufficient to function as the regula fidei, the infallible rule of faith for the Church.
2. All that one must believe to be a Christian is found in Scripture, and in no other source. This is not to say that the necessary beliefs of the faith could not be summarized in a shorter form. However, there is no necessary belief, doctrine, or dogma absolutely required of a person for entrance into the kingdom of heaven that is not found in the pages of Scripture.
3. That which is not found in the Scripture either directly or by necessary implication is not binding upon the Christian.
4. Scripture reveals those things necessary for salvation (2 Tim. 3:14-17).
5. All traditions are subject to the higher authority of Scripture (Matt. 15:1-9). There can be no understanding of the sufficiency of Scripture apart from an understanding of the true origin and the resultant nature of Scripture. The Reformers had the highest view of the Bible, and therefore had a solid foundation on which to stand in defending the sufficiency of the Scriptures.
The Westminster Confession of Faith, a key statement of the faith fought for in the Reformation, states: The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God. (1:4)
It goes on to say: We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to a high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man's salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it does abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts. (1:5)
The very heart of the doctrine of sola scriptura is then laid out in the next two paragraphs:
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed. (1:6)
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (1:7)