Sola Scriptura: What It Is and Isn’t

“[T]he Bible alone is the written Word of God, and as such is the only infallible, definitive standard in matters of controversy in the church.”  — Robert M. Bowman, Jr., Orthodoxy and Heresy

2timothy316-hcsbIf you are a Christian (and maybe if you aren’t), you have probably heard of the term sola scriptura. It is one of the “Five Solas”, Latin phrases that came out of the Protestant Reformation and represent central, theological principles held by the Reformers in opposition to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Given its origin, it’s not surprising that sola scriptura is held most dearly by those who identify with a conservative and “Reformed” theology. Other groups, Protestant and otherwise, may claim to hold to some form of “sola scriptura”, but it is often a misrepresentation or misunderstanding of what the term actually means. Even some who identify as Reformed can be a bit confused as to what it does and doesn’t mean.

So,… What does sola scriptura mean?

Translation of the Latin phrase is “Scripture alone” (or, “only Scripture”), and the principle is based on passages like II Timothy 3:14-17 and II Peter 1:20-21. But, obviously that needs to be fleshed out a bit. In his book Scripture Alone, James White observes that the term is often taken to mean something like, “Scripture in isolation, Scripture outside of the rest of God’s work in the church.” But, he says a much more accurate definition would be,

“‘Scripture alone as the sole infallible rule of faith for the church.’… A rule of faith is that which governs and guides what we believe and why.”

White later gives a longer definition, which he used in a debate years earlier. But, what I’d like to cite instead are a couple sections of the London Baptist Confession of 1689, which White also quotes and which I think puts it quite well (if somewhat archaically)….

“The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience, although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and his will which is necessary unto salvation….

The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy 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.”

There is more, but I’ll leave it at that. I want to get to a section of Robert M. Bowman’s book, Orthodoxy and Heresy, where he explores the topic by identifying some common misperceptions….

orthodoxy-and-heresy-by-bowman“Taken in its true sense, this [“Sola Scriptura”] means that only Scripture is an unerring verbal expression of the mind of God for the church prior to Christ’s return. Unfortunately, the doctrine of sola scriptura is often misunderstood and misapplied in our day. Often the ‘Bible-only’ kind of approach criticized by Catholic and Orthodox Christians is actually a distortion of the protestant (with a small ‘p’) principle. [Here, Bowman is referring to the first of four principles for identifying and exposing heresy, which I quoted at the top of this post and which is summarized by “sola scriptura”.] So let me specify very clearly what sola scriptura does not mean.

First of all, the protestant principle should not be interpreted to mean that truth can be found only in Scripture. There are many truths — mathematical, scientific, historical, psychological, and other sorts of truths — that are not found specifically in the Bible. All such truths, if indeed they are truths and not mistaken notions, must cohere with the Bible. Sometimes our knowledge of the Bible will lead us to correct our mistaken notions about history or science or psychology. On the other hand, sometimes advances in our knowledge in these fields will force us to reexamine and refine, even correct, our understanding of the Bible. This happened, for example, when Galileo proved that the earth revolves around the sun and therefore that the earth moves, contrary to the standard interpretations of the Bible at that time. The motto “all truth is God’s truth” is itself true. Granted sometimes people accept as true theories and speculations that are not, but that is an abuse….

Second, the protestant principle does not mean that all traditions are based on falsehood. Traditions that cannot be found in the Bible are not thereby proved false. To prove a tradition false, it must be shown to contradict the Bible. If this cannot be done, then the tradition must be evaluated on the basis of the historical evidence for its authenticity. For example, the Bible never identifies explicitly any of the authors of the four Gospels. However, that does not invalidate the traditions that they were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

On the other hand, traditions that cannot be substantiated from the Bible should not be made binding on Christians. That is, Christians should not be required to accept as dogmas traditions that do not have biblical warrant. This is the aspect of the protestant principle that is most troublesome to Catholics….

Third, the protestant principle should not be interpreted to forbid using words not found in the Bible to express biblical doctrine. For example, the idea that the Bible is a “canon,” or rule of faith, is biblical even though the word canon is not found in the Bible. The idea that God is “self-existent,” meaning that his existence depends on nothing other than himself, is biblical even though the word self-existent is not in the Bible. [I would add that the same goes for “Trinity”, which is commonly pointed to by skeptics, Muslims, and Unitarians.]

scripture-alone-by-whiteA related point is that necessary deductions or inferences from the Bible are as normative as the statements of the Bible themselves. That is, any statement that logically follows from the express statements of Scripture is just as true and binding as the statements of the Bible themselves. For example, once we understand that the biblical statements that God is not a man and God is spirit (among many other statements in Scripture) logically imply the statement God is incorporeal (that is, God does not have a body), then to be faithful to Scripture we must agree that God is incorporeal. It is perfectly valid for the church to require, as a test of orthodoxy, that Christians confess that God is incorporeal, even though this statement is never found in the Bible. (By the way, this statement is speaking of God in his eternal divine nature, and does not deny that God became incarnate in a bodily form in Jesus Christ.)”

Some of the above explanation may sound obvious, but some people do indeed try to make such arguments against the Bible and orthodox (small ‘o’) doctrine. In fact, White gives a few more in an imaginary dialogue between a “Reformed” Christian and a Roman Catholic.

The following definition of sola scriptura from The Cambridge Declaration (1996) of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (also cited by White) may be helpful, as well:

“We affirm the inerrant Scripture to be the sole source of written divine revelation, which alone can bind the conscience. The Bible alone teaches all that is necessary for our salvation from sin and is the standard by which all Christian behavior must be measured. We deny that any creed, council or individual may bind a Christian’s conscience, that the Holy Spirit speaks independently of or contrary to what is set forth in the Bible, or that personal spiritual experience can ever be a vehicle of revelation.”

Two notes on this: 1) Notice that it begins by assuming inerrancy, which is a separate but related issue. As White says, “trying to defend an errant view of sola scriptura always results in defeat.” 2) While I lean strongly Reformed these days, I am not totally convinced of cessationism. However, if the Holy Spirit does still speak via prophecy or “words of knowledge”, we know that it will be in accordance with God’s written word in the canon of Holy Scripture.

I’ll finish by attempting my own summary statement: “Sola scriptura, or ‘Scripture alone’, is the principle that the Bible is the sole, divinely-inspired and reliable revelation in written form and the ultimate authority in matters of salvation, doctrine, and right-living. This does not deny, however, the existence of other sources of truth, the active working of the Spirit in the lives of believers, or the authority of elders in the church, etc.”

That’s it for this week. I hope it was helpful.


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