What Is Sola Scriptura?

I’m quite certain that almost every evangelical church in Canada includes in its statement of faith something about Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone)—although they probably don’t use these precise words. My guess is that the vast majority of evangelical Christians would answer yes if they were asked if they affirmed Sola Scriptura. But what exactly does it mean? The answer might surprise you.

When most people hear the phrase Sola Scriptura, they assume it refers to the inspiration of the Bible. Paul writes, “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16). This means that the Holy Spirit used the human authors in such a way that what they wrote was His, not theirs. The Bible, therefore, isn’t the product of human invention; rather, it’s the Word of God.

While this is an essential truth, it doesn’t quite capture the meaning of Sola Scriptura. At the time of the Reformation, there was no disagreement among the opposing sides as to the inspiration of Scripture. All agreed that it was “breathed out by God.” There was, however, profound disagreement as to the sufficiency of Scripture. The main question was this: Where does ultimate authority lie? Three main answers emerged.

The Church

For the Roman Catholics, the answer to the question was the church. Their position on ultimate authority crystallized between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. Simply put, they insisted that Scripture and Tradition are two distinct sources of divine revelation; therefore, both constitute the inspired Word of God.

“Saving truth and rules of conduct” are “contained in the written books and in the unwritten traditions, which, received by the apostles from the mouth of Christ Himself, or from the apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down to us … God is the author of both” (Session 4, Council of Trent, 1546). For the Roman Catholics, the right and responsibility to interpret Scripture and Tradition (together constituting the inspired Word of God) rested with the church – namely, the pope.

The Individual

For the Radicals (that is, the Anabaptists and, later, the Quakers), the answer to the question was the individual. They disagreed with the Roman Catholic position regarding the inspiration of Tradition, and they upheld the inspiration of Scripture. However, they argued that God’s revelation isn’t limited to Scripture, but occurs whenever the Holy Spirit speaks to the individual.

On this basis, the Radicals urged people to turn to the “inner light” to hear God’s voice. They were convinced that they could discern the Holy Spirit speaking within them. Moreover, they insisted that, while Scripture is indeed precious, their discernment of the Holy Spirit’s internal voice is the supreme authority when it comes to direction for Christian living and thinking.

The Bible

For the Reformers, the answer to the question was the Bible. They disagreed with the Roman Catholics over the inspiration of Tradition because they discovered (rightly so) that Tradition often contradicted the Bible. And they strongly disagreed with the Radicals over their expectation of new revelation. In brief, they affirmed that God gives the Bible as the means by which He gives the Holy Spirit.

This conviction was central to the Reformation, which involved a major shift in emphasis in the formulation of Christian theology and the cultivation of Christian spirituality. The Reformers were convinced that the Spirit of God only works in the people of God through the Word of God (Scripture). William Perkins, for example, asserted that “the holy use of the Word” is the means “whereby we draw near unto heaven itself.”[1] For this reason, they argued for the sole sufficiency of Scripture—that is to say, they maintained that the nature of the Holy Spirit’s work in the authors of Scripture was unique, and that the Holy Spirit now illumines what He then inspired.

Conclusion

Both the Roman Catholics and the Radicals appealed to the Holy Spirit to legitimize their view of extra-biblical revelation; but the Reformers insisted upon the inseparability of Scripture and the Holy Spirit. “In order to guard against the prophetic pretensions of enthusiasts and the Roman Catholic appeal to the guidance of the Spirit in her Magisterium, the Reformers … strongly guarded their doctrine of the Holy Spirit by a stress on the objectivity of the written Word. In the Reformed tradition, revelation was confined to Scripture.”[2]

The Reformed position on the sufficiency of Scripture received creedal sanction in 1646 with the publication of the Westminster Confession of Faith: “The whole counsel of God … 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 [i.e., the Radicals], or traditions of men [i.e., the Roman Catholics]” (1:6).[3]

Since the Bible is the only deposit of divine revelation, it is sufficient for God’s people. It alone is the means by which God imparts His grace to us. It alone is the instrument by which the Holy Spirit effects our union with Christ. It alone is the way by which Christ comes to us. For this reason, Scripture stands alone at the center of the life of the Christian and the church. And this is Sola Scriptura.


 

[1] William Perkins, A Godly and Learned Exposition upon the Whole Epistle of Jude (London: Felix Kingston, 1606), 64.

[2] Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1979), 263.

[3] Also see The Baptist Confession of 1689, 1:6.

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