A Reformation Debate
In 1518, Martin Luther, who had been the center of controversy in the church for some time, was called before church officials in Heidelberg to debate his beliefs. On one side were several imposing Catholic leaders with their arsenal of papers and books of canon law. On the other side was Luther with a couple of associates, armed only with the Hebrew Old Testament, the Greek New Testament, and a translation of the Bible.
As they debated, the Catholics would say things like, “The Council of Constance says . . .” or “This papal decree says . . .” or “Aquinas says . . .” and Luther would respond, “Yes, but Scripture says . . .” So it went, with the church officials quoting canon law and established tradition, and Luther countering with Scripture.
Here’s how one observer described what it was like to watch Luther in action a few months later at another debate in Leipzig: “He is in the vigor of manhood and has a clear, penetrating voice. He is learned and has the Scripture at his fingers’ ends. He knows Greek and Hebrew sufficiently to judge of the interpretations. A perfect forest of words and ideas stands at his command.”
The most important statements in that colorful description are that Luther “has Scripture at his fingers’ ends” and that he “knows the Greek and Hebrew sufficiently to judge of the interpretations.” Through his deep study of the Scriptures, Luther had come to see that the church’s teachings in key areas were out of accord with what he found in the Bible. He rapidly moved toward the view that the only firm ground on which to stand was the authority of Scripture, since the church is prone to error.
This view is what we know as the principle of sola Scriptura, the idea that the Scriptures alone are our ultimate rule for life and faith.
Only One Source of Authority
The Catholic Church, then and now, recognizes three sources of authority. Scripture is the first and primary source, but it is accompanied by two others. The second is the tradition of the church, which was allegedly handed down from Jesus and the apostles to the leaders of the early church, who memorized it and passed it down orally for two thousand years. The third source is the magisterium, the teaching office of the church, which consists of all the bishops, archbishops, and cardinals, in unity with each other and with the pope. Though the pope claims the authority to make binding doctrinal statements on his own, he doesn’t do this very often. More commonly, of all the teachers of the church come together to agree on or clarify “what the church has always and everywhere taught and believed.”
Luther’s view, and that of the Protestants who followed him, has been to place Scripture above any other authority. This does not mean that we refuse to value and learn from the collective mind of the church down through the ages. It does mean that everything we think we know must be evaluated in light of Scripture. Scripture has the final word because it is God’s inspired Word to us.
How do we know that the Bible is God’s Word and why can we trust that it is reliable? We don’t have space here to go into all the reasons why, so a few will have to suffice. We know this partly because the Bible itself tells us so, but also because any collection of books written by so many different authors over so long a period of time with so much consistency of theme and content cannot possibly be of merely human origin. We know it because of the way Scripture has been so carefully preserved down through the centuries, with only minor variations in some manuscripts, none of which affect any major doctrines. And we know it because, as we read Scripture or hear it preached, the Holy Spirit works in us to illuminate our minds and hearts to bring us to a knowledge of the truth.
Other Standards Subordinate to Scripture
Let’s look at this through another lens for a moment. I teach at a seminary that is part of a denomination that believes that the Bible is the Word of God. We put no authority above that. But we do use what we call a “subordinate standard,” known as the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, that was developed in the 1640s by a group of churchmen as a concise statement of the theology of the Bible as they understood it.
One reason I love the Westminster Confession of Faith is that it takes a stand on the authority of Scripture right in chapter 1. It says that “God was pleased to reveal his will to the church in Scripture.” And he did this “to better preserve and propagate his truth.” It says that God’s truth is clearly laid out in Scripture—not that everything in Scripture is absolutely clear to us, but that the main thrust of it is very clear—and that “its authority depends wholly on God.” That is, the church recognizes the authority of Scripture, but the church does not create the authority of Scripture. That’s a big difference. The church over time has attested that we have these 66 books of the Bible, but the truth of those books does not come from the church saying they are true; their truth comes from God himself, who impresses upon us through his Spirit that this is his Word.
The Confession also says that “All synods and councils since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err and many have erred. Therefore, they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice but to be used as a help in both.” The Westminster Divines were themselves a council, and they knew that, even though they had studied the Scriptures carefully for several years in order to write these standards, some of their views could potentially be in error. They took a posture of humility toward the Bible, not putting themselves on a par with Scripture, but making themselves subordinate to it.
This is very different from the Catholic view, which values Scripture but sees tradition and the teaching office of the church as equal authorities to it.
Approaching Scripture with Humility
So, what does all this mean for us? First and foremost, it means that we, like the Westminster Divines, must approach Scripture with humility. It is the inspired Word of God, given to us for our benefit, to tell us of the nature of our sin and God’s gracious means of salvation for us through Jesus Christ. It is both human and divine, in that God’s Spirit worked through the human authors to provide us with exactly what God wanted us to have so that we might know ourselves and him in right perspective. Scripture alone holds ultimate authority and serves as our sole rule for life and faith.
As we approach Scripture with humility, what happens?
- We read the Bible holistically, not so much for advice on, say, how to have a good marriage, as to understand its teachings about Christ and his sufferings and glories on our behalf.
- We read the Bible confidently, believing that it actually is true, and that the faithful witness of believers down through the centuries, often at the cost of their very lives, testifies to its truth and power.
- We read the Bible with open hearts and minds, believing that theHoly Spirit working through Scripture will transform our souls into greater and greater conformity with Christ.
When we read the Bible this way, we will see that it has serious implications for our lives. If we believe God’s message in the Bible, it transforms us. Our reading of Scripture can also change the lives of others we know. If we want to have something to say to our friends, neighbors, or coworkers who have questions about the Bible or are searching for God, we need to read Scripture this way and we need to read it every day. In my experience, when somebody asks me a question, there’s usually something I read in the Bible in the last few days that will answer that question.
If we believe what God teaches, if we believe it from Scripture and not tradition, then we need to act like it by reading the Bible, meditating on it, and praying over it day by day. When we do that, the Lord will speak to us, if we have a will to do his will.
Sola Scriptura Today: An Ongoing Reformation
We started this discussion at a debate in Heidelberg in 1518. Let’s close with another scene from a few years later, at the Diet (or Council) of Worms in 1520. Luther had again been called to face church authorities and defend his views, or so he thought. What he found when he got to Worms was not a debate, but an ultimatum. These officials showed Luther a display of the books and pamphlets he had written and asked him, “Are these your books?” He answered, “Yes, these are my books.” Then they asked, “Do you recant?”
This was a defining moment for the Reformation. If Luther recanted, he would be renouncing all the work he had done over several years as God made his gospel burn brightly again. If he refused, there was the very real possibility that he would be executed and all his work would be for nothing anyway. Luther asked for time to think about it, and they allowed him do that.
The precise words he spoke when he came back to face the council are open to debate, but what he said, in essence, was this: “There are three kinds of books here. There are books of Christian piety; no one would disagree with anything I wrote there. To renounce them would be senseless. There are books that denounce corruptions in the church. To recant on those would be to endorse corruption. I cannot do that. There are other books that may be a bit harsh or intemperate, and I repent of my intemperate language. Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”
We know the rest of the story. The Reformation that began from the spark Luther lit continued to spread throughout Europe and eventually impacted every area of religious, civil, personal, and public life. It changed the world in ways that are still being felt 500 years later. And one of the core elements of that change was the doctrine of sola Scriptura.
Sadly, some branches of the church have not always been faithful to this doctrine. But sola Scriptura remains central to the confessional standards of denominations like the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and to institutions like Covenant Theological Seminary, where we train people to “have Scripture at fingers’ ends” and to “know Greek and Hebrew sufficiently to judge the interpretations” as we raise up the next generation of church leaders. That’s what this Seminary is all about.
As we continue to celebrate the legacy of the Reformation, I encourage all of us to remember the importance of sola Scriptura and to think about the ways we can say, with Luther, “Here we stand. We can do no other. God help us. Amen.”
Dr. Dan Doriani is VP of Strategic Academic Initiatives and Professor of Theology at Covenant Seminary and the author of many books, including Getting the Message, Putting the Truth to Work, The New Man, The Sermon on the Mount, and numerous biblical commentaries.