Scripture Alone?

(This blog is based on a sermon delivered at Rehoboth Fellowship Christian Reformed Church, Toronto on Oct. 30, 2011.)

One of the major themes from the Reformation is “Scripture Alone” or, in its Latin form, sola scriptura. Although this is a popular theme among Protestant Evangelicals especially, I think many have actually misunderstood its meaning, and hence, misapplied it. So, in the spirit of the Reformers, I want to reform – to form again – what I believe are distortions about sola scriptura. My main scholarly source here is Alister McGrath’s Reformation Thought (Blackwell 1993).

What is Sola Scriptura?

First of all, what is this theme or principle of Scripture Alone? It’s this: that Scripture alone is our authority for the Church’s faith and practice. Now, to understand it more fully, I need to put this in historical context and to expand or nuance this so that we see more clearly the differences.

There are three main streams of Christianity in 16th century Western Europe – the Roman Catholic Church, the Magisterial Reformers (that is Luther, and Calvin, etc.) and the Radical Reformers (so called for going further than what the Magisterial Reformers prefer). And I have a little table here to show their different emphases concerning Scripture.

16th c. Roman Catholic

Magisterial Reformers

Radical Reformers

Scripture and Tradition are our authorities for the Church’s faith and practice.

The Church, i.e. the Pope and Bishops, (with the Holy Spirit’s help) is the Final Interpreter of Scripture.

Scripture alone is our authority for the Church’s faith and practice (but tradition, especially the long tradition of how Christians have interpreted Scripture, is helpful).

Scripture Alone is the Final Interpreter of Scripture (with the Holy Spirit’s help) but we need resources/aids in interpreting scripture.

Scripture Alone is our authority for the Church’s faith and practice (and we don’t need Tradition at all.)

Scripture Alone is the Final Interpreter of Scripture (and the only help we need is the Holy Spirit).

16th Century Roman Catholic Position

In the 16th century, the Roman Catholic Church’s position is: Scripture and Tradition are our authorities for the Church’s faith and practice. And a related principle is: The Church, i.e. the Pope and Bishops, (with the Holy Spirit’s help) is the Final Interpreter of Scripture. Individual Christians have to subject their understanding of Scripture to the church authorities. So, there are two authorities for the Church’s faith and practice – one authority is Scripture; the other are decrees, practices and beliefs passed on from generations or handed down by Popes through the history of the Church and this is called Tradition.

The Reformers, like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, were reacting to this dual authority principle. For them, scripture alone, not scripture plus tradition, is the authority and basis for deciding what the church should believe and practice. So, a lot of the arguments and differences between the Protestants and the Catholics at that time boiled down to this principle of sola scriptura. Are certain beliefs and practices justified by Scripture alone apart from Tradition?

Magisterial Reformed Position

So, the Magisterial Reformed position can be summed up as: Scripture alone is our authority for the Church’s faith and practice (but tradition, especially the long tradition of how Christians have interpreted Scripture, is helpful). And, Scripture Alone is the Final Interpreter of Scripture (with the Holy Spirit’s help) but we need resources/aids in interpreting scripture. This is why the early Reformed churches produced Catechisms, Confessions and theological manuals like John Calvin’s famous Institutes of the Christian Religion. All these works were resources to help individual lay Christians who didn’t have access to all the commentaries of past great theologians – to help them to read Scripture rightly for its theological truths.

And you find this emphasis on “scripture alone” in the early Reformed Confessions like the Belgic Confession, for instance. In article 7 of the Belgic Confession, it says, “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.” All that is listed here as things which we cannot make equal to Scripture is what the Roman Catholic Church back then would call, “Tradition”. So, tradition is not equal to Scripture but can still be helpful for us.

Radical Reformation Position

Now, this Scripture Alone principle of the Reformers is very often misunderstood and, therefore, distorted by many Christians, back then and even today. For the Radical Reformation, the Scripture Alone principle means this: Scripture Alone is our authority for the Church’s faith and practice (and we don’t need Tradition at all.) And the secondary implied idea is: Scripture Alone is the Final Interpreter of Scripture (and the only help we need is the Holy Spirit).  Every individual Christian can interpret Scripture on their own, and that alone, is all we need to make decisions about beliefs and practices. And we have to reject all tradition and start from scratch every time, so to speak, and anything that is NOT explicitly taught in Scripture must be rejected as tradition. Hence, the radical reformation produced the Anabaptist movement because they couldn’t find infant baptism explicitly written in the Bible. And some other movements within the radical reformation even denied the Trinity because it wasn’t explicitly taught in Scripture either. The result, however, of this distortion of sola scriptura is rampant individualism and chaos. Unfortunately, much of the radical reformation degenerated into violence and cult-like practices.

Present Day Distortions of Sola Scriptura

The Magisterial Reformation, therefore, was caught in the middle between two extreme positions. But it is still relevant for us today. Today, many Protestant Evangelical churches are following the radical reformation’s distortion of sola scriptura, all the while thinking they are being faithful to the magisterial reformers’ version of scripture alone. So many Christians today think they can simply read the Bible literally and think they can totally understand everything in the Bible and interpret everything correctly. Some Christian groups even disparage commentaries or think Bible scholars and academics are bad things, as if the Holy Spirit cannot work through Christians with brains. So many Christians today seem to act as if the Holy Spirit only works apart from your thinking! And we get all kinds of conflicts and arguments, probably more than ever before!

In fact, Scripture says scripture is not easy to understand all by itself! In Acts 8:26-40, within the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, Philip asks the eunuch, “Do you understand what you are reading?” and he replied, “How can I, unless someone explains it to me?” Scripture is not always very clear for us. Elsewhere, in 2 Peter 3:16, Peter says that the apostle Paul’s “letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”

Eventually, of course, all this individualism, confusion and chaos needs to be controlled and then you end up overreacting to the 16th century Roman Catholic position, in practice, if not in theory. The very same Christians who give lip service to Scripture Alone may very well in practice elevate the authority of human pastors, or thinkers, or human writings to the same level as Holy Scripture in deciding what we believe and practice as a Christian church. For instance, we get the unwritten rule that you cannot disagree with the Pastor’s interpretation of the Bible or you will be cast out of church. Or, another version, you may not question the writings or teachings of John Calvin, or Martin Luther, or Abraham Kuyper, or name your favourite theologian. Whatever they taught must be gospel truth and to disagree with the Tradition that these great thinkers have passed down to us must be heresy. Or sometimes we elevate the human confessions – like the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt – to the level of Scripture. God forbid that you disagree with anything written down in these confessions. I find it ironic that Reformed Christians have distorted the use of the confessions and turned them into infallible documents. They need to read article 7 of the Belgic Confession more closely, I think.

We need to stick to the spirit of the magisterial reformers and stick to the middle ground, so to speak. We cannot throw out these confessions, the commentaries, tradition and simply rely on our puny individual minds, as if the Holy Spirit only works through individuals and not through community and tradition too. We will be throwing out the proverbial baby with the bath water. But neither can we, on the other hand, elevate this fine tradition, these human writings, into an equal authority with Scripture. We box ourselves in a 16th century human interpretation of Scripture. We have to take them seriously, as very useful and important guides, as brothers and sisters from the past who can help us interpret and understand Scripture but they are not infallible; they are not scripture.

Is Scripture our Authority on Everything?

But there is another distortion of this Scripture Alone principle in our time: Scripture Alone is our Authority on Everything. In other words, scripture is not only our authority on the church’s faith and practice, but also on non-church or non-spiritual or non-theological matters and practices, like, science, history, economics, psychology, politics, etc. Scripture becomes a textbook on anything and everything. This distortion often comes from thinking that if all Scripture is God-breathed, as it says in 2 Timothy 3:16, and God is perfect and God cannot lie, and God cannot make mistakes, so the Bible must be totally correct in everything it speaks of, including science, history, etc. The problem with this kind of thinking is that it fails to read the context of 2 Timothy 3:15-17:

How from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. (NRSV)

Yes, Scripture is divinely inspired but what is it inspired for? To give us information on anything and everything? No, it is God-breathed to make us wise for salvation. That is God’s purpose in giving us the Bible – not to give us an encyclopaedia of knowledge but to make us wise for salvation. Again, scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in … what? In knowledge of science and history? No! For training in righteousness so that all God’s people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. Scripture is about making us wise for salvation and equipping us in righteousness for God’s good works in the world.

So, do we worry if the Scriptures are not totally accurate in scientific and historical things? As long as the core message of God’s salvation for us is not jeopardized, we have nothing to worry about. Because that is what God gave us the Scriptures for: to make us wise for salvation. Even John Calvin, the 17th century Protestant Reformer, thought that the gospel writer Matthew was not being scientifically accurate in calling what was more likely a comet a star in the Christmas narrative:

“It was not agreeable to the order of nature, that it [i.e. the star] should disappear for a certain period, and afterwards should suddenly become bright; nor that it should pursue a straight course towards Bethlehem, and at length remain stationary above the house where Christ was. Not one of these things belongs to natural stars. It is more probable that it resembled a comet, and was seen, not in the heaven, but in the air. Yet there is no impropriety in Matthew, who uses popular language, calling it incorrectly a star.” (Commentary on Matthew 2:1-6)

Regardless if Calvin was right or wrong, the point is that the 17th century Reformer have no issues with disagreeing with scripture when it comes to science, in this case, astronomy. He did not expect the ancient biblical authors to be authoritative on matters outside of faith and theology.

So, let us learn the right lessons from the Reformation. Let us not distort the Reformation theme of Scripture Alone and, therefore, lose the spirit of the Reformation.

Do you agree that Christians have misunderstood and misapplied the Reformation’s scripture alone principle? Where have you observed this?

Related Posts: Bible: GPS or Map? Bible as Map Part 2, Reading the Bible as Literature

6 thoughts on “Scripture Alone?

  1. Interesting thoughts.
    I agree; though much of the Bible is understood from a simple reading, one cannot apply a proper hermeneutic without a proper understanding of an ancient culture, history, and grammar.

    As far as Scripture as Authority on Everything – I think this can be a slippery slope, and one we’d ought not to take lightly. You’ve made a great case for the purpose of Inspiration – but nonetheless, without a deep understanding of how Inspiration (God-breathed) works, one might deduct that God is not omniscient if certain facts are given ad hoc. I don’t mean to say that you’ve implied this – but it is worth noting that we ought to beware that that is what’s at stake.

    Good read – appreciate your blog.


    1. Thanks! And yes, thanks for your cautionary comments.

      You are right that we should not go to the other extreme end on the Scripture as Authority of Everything point. Of course, the nature of revelation or inspiration itself deserves a blog post of its own. In brief, I believe in the theory of accommodation – another Protestant Reformation idea – that God accommodates his message to ancient human cultures and thought patterns as he inspired the biblical authors. John Calvin, too, used this imagery of God accommodating to us like a nurse lisps to a child. So, just as a parent’s accommodation to a 4 year old does not imply that the parent’s IQ is that of a 4 year old, neither does God’s accommodation of his revelation to us is any reflection of God’s omniscience or lack thereof.

      Thanks again.


What is your opinion?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s