Sola Scriptura – Foundation of Protestant Orthodoxy
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (Second Timothy 3:16-17, ESV)
“The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, 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, 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.” (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1.6)
“The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.” (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1.10)
The foundation stone of the Protestant Reformation was the doctrine of “Sola Scriptura” (“Scripture Alone”). The Reformers took their stand on the truth that the Bible and the Bible alone is the only special, redemptive revelation of God, and therefore Scripture alone is the only infallible rule for Christian faith and practice and life. This was in contrast to the position of the Roman Catholic Church, which taught that both Scripture and Tradition were infallible sources of special Divine Revelation. As Dr. R.C. Sproul explains in his excellent book, Grace Unknown: The Heart of Reformed Theology:
“The term sola Scriptura simply means “by Scripture alone.” This slogan declared the idea that only the Bible has the authority to bind the consciences of believers.”(1) He goes on to say, “Though the Reformers distinguished between general and special revelation, they insisted there is only one written source of special revelation, the Bible. This is the sola of sola Scriptura. The chief reason for the word alone is the conviction that the Bible is inspired by God, while church creeds and pronouncements are the works of men. These lesser works may be accurate and brilliantly conceived, capturing the best insights of learned scholars; but they are not the inspired Word of God.”(2)
Romanists and others who reject Sola Scriptura sometimes criticize this Protestant doctrine by claiming that it leads to a disdain for the role of the church and of church councils, and caters to a radically-individualistic (“just me and my Bible and the Holy Spirit in my prayer closet, apart from the church”) approach to interpreting the Bible and living the Christian life. This criticism may be true of certain historic and contemporary distortions of the doctrine of Sola Scripture (such as the radical individualism, anti-authoritarianism and low-churchism one finds in much of contemporary evangelicalism). But it is not true of the Protestant Reformers themselves, nor of the historic orthodox Protestant churches. Neither Luther nor Calvin nor any of the other Protestant Reformers rejected the authority of the church nor the validity of creeds or church councils. They would have regarded such a “just me and my Bible apart from the church” approach to Scripture and the Christian life to be dangerous fanaticism. Rather, they recognized that these other authorities were secondary, and subject to judgment and correction by the only infallible rule for faith and practice, namely, the inspired Scriptures. Again, to quote from Sproul: “Protestants did recognize other forms of authority, such as church offices, civil magistrates, and church creeds and confessions. But they saw these authorities as being derived from and subordinate to the authority of God. None of these lesser authorities was deemed absolute, because all of them were capable of error. God alone is infallible. Fallible authorities cannot bind the conscience absolutely; that right is reserved to God and his Word alone.”(3)
As I hope the reader can see, the doctrine of Sola Scriptura is foundational to the historic Protestant Orthodoxy that we who are historic Protestant Christians believe and confess. This foundational doctrine stands against a number of heresies and errors:
1. Sola Scriptura condemns Romanism and other forms of “Scripture plus Tradition”
Protestants are not against biblically-based traditions, nor against legitimate traditions that are permitted by and do not run contrary to the Scriptures. “Tradition” in the legitimate sense is simply “that which is passed on.” Traditions in the church can play an important, secondary role, as long as they don’t undermine the authority or the doctrines of Holy Scripture; and thus not all traditions are to be condemned. (For example, many historic Protestant churches have sought to pass on the faith from one generation to another by using the pedagogical/teaching method known as “catechesis.” Teaching and having young people and new converts memorize biblically-based, doctrinally-sound catechisms is an example of a legitimate Protestant “tradition,” as long as such catechisms are not viewed as being Divinely inspired or equal in authority to the Bible.) At the same time, Protestant Sola Scriptura stands against the notion that any human tradition (even church tradition) is to be equated with Divine Revelation or made equal in authority to the Bible. Beliefs and practices which contradict the Bible are to be repented of and avoided, even if they enjoy the pedigree of “Tradition.”
2. Sola Scriptura condemns Charismaticism and other forms of Mysticism
The historic Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura affirms the sufficiency of Scripture. God has spoken His final Word in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1-2), and the church is built upon the foundation of the teachings of the apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2:20). The Word of Christ and of His inspired new covenant Apostles and Prophets is found in the completed canon of the New Testament Scriptures, unto which nothing is to be added by way of “new revelations of the Spirit.” The very last book of the New Testament (the Book of Revelation) pronounces a solemn curse and warning against any who would add to or take away from God’s Word (Revelation 22:18-19). The fanatical and heretical notion, common in Pentecostal and Charismatic circles, that God continues to grant new revelations of the Spirit, runs directly contrary to the truth of Sola Scriptura, and thus is anti-Protestant. God has spoken His final Word. The canon of Scripture is complete. New revelations have ceased. In the words of a great hymn: “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in His excellent Word. What more can He say, than to you He has said? To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled.”
Some might object to this implication of Sola Scriptura by saying, “But does that mean God no longer speaks to us?” No, we do indeed affirm that God continues to speak. But He speaks through what He has spoken (namely, His infallible, inerrant, authoritative Word, the Bible)! We also recognize, as the Scriptures teach, that the illumination of the Holy Spirit is necessary for a saving understanding of those things which are revealed in the Word. But when Christians talk like they have a direct pipeline to God (“The Lord told me to…”; “God spoke to my heart…”; etc.), they are wandering away from Sola Scriptura and wandering into the dangerous territory of mystical fanaticism and charismaticism. The Spirit does indeed speak to us; but He speaks to us in and through the written Word of God (correctly interpreted and properly applied), as the Spirit illumines our minds to understand and embrace the Word.
3. Sola Scriptura condemns Experientialism and Hyper-Subjectivism
Modernist and Neo-orthodox Theology often speak of the Christian having an “experience of the risen Christ” or of having a “personal encounter with God.” (Ironically, this kind of subtle, deceptive doublespeak is sometimes spouted off by heretics who themselves reject the real, historical resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and who instead view the “resurrection” of Jesus as something that happened within the subjective consciousness of the disciples – the “Easter experience” – rather than as a real, literal historical event that happened to the body of Jesus in real space-time history nearly 2,000 years ago.) As a hymn writer once wrote, “He lives! He lives! Christ Jesus lives today! He walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way. He lives! He lives! Salvation to impart. You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart!” Such drivel is pure subjective poppycock. We know our Lord Jesus Christ lives, not because He lives within our hearts (although if we are saved then He does indeed indwell us by His Holy Spirit); but because we have an inspired, historical record of the resurrection event recorded in the Gospel accounts as contained in the infallible Word of God!
Historic Protestants recognize that there is indeed a legitimate place for religious experience in the Christian life. For example, personal repentance from sin and saving faith in our Lord Jesus Christ can involve powerful emotional experiences (although not every believer’s experience of conversion involves a life-shattering crisis; sometimes conversion is gradual and relatively “uneventful” at an emotional level). But our faith is not based upon subjective feelings or emotional experiences. Our Christian faith is based upon objective reality, upon God’s objective, outside-of-us supernatural interventions in history for the salvation of His people, as recorded for us in the infallible Scriptures (Sola Scriptura). Classical liberal/modernist theology places ultimate religious authority in personal and ecclesial (church) experience, and in that regard is very similar to the error of mysticism. On the other hand, historic Protestant orthodoxy places ultimate religious authority in the infallible Scriptures alone, and recognizes religious experience as only a very secondary, derivative authority.
4. Sola Scriptura condemns all forms of Rationalism
Historic Protestants are not against “reason” or against rational thought. We wholeheartedly affirm the laws of logic (such as the law of non-contradiction), and recognize the importance of loving the Lord our God not only with heart and soul and will, but also with our minds. At the same time, we recognize that our capacity for reason can be distorted and clouded by the effects of sin upon our minds (what theologians call “the noetic effects of sin”). The fall of mankind in Adam has radically impacted our minds, and thus human reason cannot serve as the ultimate religious authority in the church. Rather, we must rely ultimately on Divine Revelation. Special (Redemptive) Divine Revelation is given to us in one place and one place only — the Bible, God’s infallible Word.
5. Sola Scriptura stands against conforming the Faith to Cultural Trends
God’s Word never changes because the God who inspired the Word never changes. God’s truth is not historically relative, and His moral law remains the same in all generations. Right and wrong, good and evil, truth and error, are fixed, unchanging realities, no matter what passing generations and the cultural trends of this age may assert to the contrary. That means that historic Protestants who adhere to Sola Scriptura will not cave into or cater to cultural trends that run contrary to or contradict the clear teachings of the Bible. While consistent, confessional Protestants will seek to communicate the gospel in a culturally-sensitive manner (one that does not erect unnecessary barriers to unbelievers giving the gospel a serious hearing); at the same time historic Protestants will let the Scriptures, not the culture, determine its faith, ethics, worship and practice. For example, the Bible clearly condemns homosexuality as a serious sin (for example, Romans 1:24-27); therefore a truly Protestant church (one that adheres to Sola Scriptura) will continue to teach biblical sexual ethics, uphold the virtue of sexual purity, and thus stand against the legitimization of homosexuality (while at the same time seeking to bring the good news of forgiveness and new life in Christ to those enslaved by homosexual sin and same-sex attraction). The Bible, while affirming the complete spiritual equality of women and men before God and in the church (Galatians 3:28), clearly bars women from the ordained office of minister of the Word (not because the Bible is “sexist,” but because of the creational order ordained by God for men and women; see First Timothy 2:11-15). Therefore, a truly Protestant church that holds to Sola Scriptura will restrict the ordained offices to men alone, in spite of the feminist-based cultural pressures to open up any and every vocation to women. In our post-modern, pluralist, relativist society there is great pressure to embrace the pluralist heresy which says that there are many different paths to salvation. But a truly Protestant church will continue to confess and proclaim that Jesus Christ is the one and only way to salvation, for Christ Himself taught that about Himself (John 14:6), and apostolic doctrine upholds this as an essential gospel truth (Acts 4:12). Many other examples could be given.
Tradition. Experience. Reason. Culture. All of these things can have value and can serve as secondary authorities for the Christian and for the church (insofar as they do not contradict the Word). But the Bible alone is the Word of God, and thus it is the only infallible rule for Christian faith and practice. This is the foundation of our orthodox Protestant faith. Dear reader, I hope that God’s Word is the foundation upon which you are building your faith and life.
(1) Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, copyright 1997 by R.C. Sproul; p. 42
(2) ibid., p. 43
(3) ibid., p. 42