Why Sola Scriptura Matters

When I traveled to Scotland in 1988 for my paternal grandfather’s funeral, my grandmother gave me his Bible to keep. It sits on a shelf in my church office. There are hand-written notes in its margins and on loose sheets scattered throughout its pages. Every so often, I peruse these notes in search of some gem from the past. Here’s one of my favourites: “The Bible is supernatural in origin, eternal in duration, inexpressible in value, infinite in scope, infallible in authority, universal in interest, personal in application, regenerative in power, and inspired in totality.” What a tremendous description of God’s Word! Because it’s the means by which God speaks to us, it stands alone at the center of the life of the Christian and the church. That’s Sola Scriptura.

I’m convinced that today’s church needs to re-capture the full import of the significance of Sola Scriptura.  I can’t touch on all the reasons why, but here are what I consider to be the four most pressing.

It establishes the parameters for what we believe

“Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down.” Does that little ditty bring back memories? If so, you must be over forty. If not, let me fill you in on a cultural phenomenon from the 1970s. Weebles were little egg-shaped plastic figurines, weighted in such a way that—when knocked over—they would bounce back. No matter how hard or how often they wobbled, they always returned to their default position. So, what’s my point? Simply this: when it comes to doctrine, we’re not unlike Weebles. That is to say, we have a default position. When left to ourselves, we naturally gravitate to error.

This is one of the reasons why we need to be absolutely clear on Sola Scriptura. The Bible contains all the truths that form the content of our theology. While we might not always agree on the some of the finer points, we at least acknowledge Scripture as the final authority. “It is not what sense says, or reason says, or what the fathers say, or what general councils say, or what traditions say, or what customs say, but what Scripture says. That is to be the rule of faith and life. Whatever is contrary to Scripture, or beside Scripture, or not rationally deducible from Scripture, is to be rejected as spurious and adulterate.”[1]

It strengthens our confidence in the power of God’s Word

Paul tells us that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). In other words, the Bible is the means by which the Holy Spirit produces and nurtures faith in us. Our greatest need, therefore, isn’t for better methods, newer techniques, and flashier programs. Our greatest need is for the Bible. We need churches filled with the Bible. As John Calvin remarks, “When it pleases the Lord to work, the Word preached becomes the instrument of His power.”[2]

This realization ought to shape our strategy for church growth, evangelism, and discipleship. It ought to determine our strategy for dealing with broken marriages, wayward children, and those struggling with sin. It ought to inform our strategy for dealing with bereavement, persecution, rejection, and every other affliction that comes our way. When the Spirit of God accompanies the Word of God, it becomes effectual in accomplishing all that God purposes.

It corrects our tendency to question all authority external to ourselves

When the Reformers championed Sola Scriptura, they were affirming that Scripture alone is the inspired Word of God. However, we shouldn’t interpret this to mean that they disparaged church tradition. While denying that it was inspired, they insisted it was useful. They recognized that they stood on the shoulders of 1,500 years of church history. They weren’t prepared to disregard the church’s confession of the truth over the centuries.

I’m afraid we’ve lost sight of that. Many of us think that Sola Scriptura means we disregard anything the church has said prior to our own day. The Enlightenment is, in large part, responsible for this mentality. It shifted ultimate authority to the individual’s mind; as a result, many of us now think that ultimate authority resides in us. “I don’t need the Apostle’s Creed.” “I don’t need the Nicene Creed.” “I don’t need any of the great confessions of faith that emerged from the Reformation.” “I’m the final arbiter of truth—just me and my Bible!”

That’s a far too common sentiment among evangelicals. But it isn’t the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. The Bible alone is the inspired Word of God, but we need to listen to the historic witness of the church as expressed in its creeds and confessions. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that we ought to be very nervous around those who think their personal opinion trumps the historic consensus of the church.

It challenges the subtle mysticism that pervades evangelicalism

Simply put, mysticism is the belief that God’s revelation is something that happens inside of us. More to the point, it’s the notion that we can attain an immediate knowledge of God and His will through personal experience as we listen for His voice in our hearts—a voice we discern in our feelings.[3] Regrettably, such mysticism has become the presumptive position within large segments of evangelicalism. Many believe they’re able to sense the Holy Spirit working directly (apart from the Bible) within them, producing impulses and intuitions as a means of communicating His will to them. In so doing, they’ve made their relationship with God contingent upon nebulous feelings. Even more troubling is the fact that they’ve severed the Spirit of God from the Word of God, thereby divorcing Him from the only infallible and sufficient revelation that He has given us—namely, the Bible.

The mystic often assumes that words are a problem—an obstruction to the soul’s bare communion with God. This is a false premise. In reality, words are absolutely essential to our relationship with God. How can we know God unless He speaks to us? He has. His words come to us in the Bible. We don’t need to try to ascend to God by descending into ourselves in search of His voice. Rather, we hear Him in His Spirit-given words: the Bible.

Conclusion

People sometimes argue that Sola Scriptura detracts from Jesus because it elevates a book over a person. “Jesus is a person, not a proposition!” I’ve heard it said many times, but it’s really a false dichotomy. If the Bible is God’s Word, then to believe in Jesus is to believe the Bible. To know Jesus is to know the Bible. To love Jesus is to love the Bible. He’s the author of all its truths, commands, promises, assurances, rebukes, exhortations, and warnings. There’s no knowledge of Him apart from His Word. “You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68–70).

 


[1] George Swinnock, The Works of George Swinnock, ed. James Nichol, 5 vols (London, 1868; rpt., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1992), 2:440.

[2] John Commentaries on the Epistle of the Apostle Paul to the Romans, in Calvin’s Commentaries, 22 vols (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2003), 19:401.

[3] For helpful analyses of this trend within evangelicalism, see J. I. Packer and Carolyn Nystrom, Guard Us, Guide Us: Divine Leading in Life’s Decisions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008); and Sinclair B. Ferguson, From the Mouth of God: Trusting, Reading, and Applying the Bible (Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth, 2014).

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