Sola Scriptura: “Scripture Alone”

Sola Scriptura

History 

The central cause of the Protestant Reformation could be boiled down to a recovery of the Word of God by his people. Similar to the story of Josiah in 2 Kings 22-23, the Protestant Reformation was birthed when God’s people re-discovered His Word and submitting to its full and exclusive authority in regards to truth and doctrine.[1]

Though they were birthed into a world marked by sola ecclesia (“church alone”), where tradition and the authority of the church (through the Pope) trumped Scripture, the Reformers recovered the biblical doctrine of sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”) through their personal study of the Bible. Many of them paid the price for their boldness and devotion to God’s Word, yet resolve marked their lives:

“Since then your Majesty and your Lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, neither horned nor toothed. Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.”[2]

The Roman Catholic response to the recovery of Scripture for the common man illuminates their understanding that sola Scriptura was destroying their stranglehold on the Christian faith.
Pope Pius IV, 1559, The Index of Forbidden Books[3]:

“Since experience teaches that, if the reading of the Holy Bible in the vernacular is permitted generally without discrimination, more damage than advantage will result because of the boldness of men, the judgment of the bishops and inquisitors is to serve as guide in this regard. Bishops and inquisitors may, in accord with the counsel of the local priest and confessor, allow Catholic translations of the Bible to be read by those of whom they realize that such reading will not lead to the detriment but to the increase of faith and piety. The permission is to be given in writing. Whoever reads or has such a translation in his possession without this permission cannot be absolved from his sins until he had turned in these Bibles.”

“The central development of the Protestant Reformation was the return to Scripture as supreme authority. The Reformers coined the slogan sola Scriptura (sometimes prima Scriptura) to summarize this conviction. Nothing judges Scripture. It judges everything else. As followers of Jesus, we take the same stance he did and receive the Bible alone as infallible, inerrant truth from God with full authority in our lives.”[4] 

Doctrine

The Reformers did not invent the doctrine of sola Scriptura. They were seeking to bring the church back to the foundation built by Jesus Christ.

As the incarnate[5] word, Jesus recognized the written Word’s absolute authority.

For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

Matthew 5:18

He also reprimanded the Pharisees for holding to tradition over Scripture:

And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “‘ This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!

Mark 7:6-9

The doctrine of sola Scriptura can be summed up in five parts, all inter-related and dependent upon one another. As the Reformers sounded the trumpet for sola Scriptura, they did so because they believed the Bible alone was (and would always remain) authoritative. The authority of the Scriptures comes from the fact that they are inspired by God, can be clearly understood, are sufficient for salvation, and remain inerrant and infallible.

1) The Bible is authoritative.

Westminster Confession of Faith, 1645

“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.”

Sola Scriptura means that Scripture is our “court of highest authority.”[6]

“The Bible is uniquely and solely God’s completely trustworthy revelation to us today. Scripture is the highest court of authority for Christians and their leaders, by which any alleged revelation from God is to be tested.”[7]

“The authority of Scripture means that all the words in Scripture are God’s words in such a way that to disbelieve or disobey any word of Scripture is to disbelieve or disobey God.”[8]

Paul claimed this level of authority as he wrote New Testament letters.

1 Corinthians 7:10-12
10 To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. 12 To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.

Paul is clearly putting his words to the Corinthian church on par with the words Jesus spoke while he was on earth (recorded in Matthew 19).

Additionally, Peter, in his second letter, recognized Paul’s letters as “Scripture.”[9]

2) The Bible is clear.

Theologians often refer to the perspicuity of Scripture, meaning the “clarity” or “understandability” of Scripture.

What is the meant by the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture is that the Bible is able to be understood clearly, as the Holy Spirit works through it to reveal the truth about God.

1 Corinthians 2:12

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.

Deuteronomy 30:11-14

“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. 12It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 13Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ 14But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

Psalm 19:7-8

The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; 8the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;

3) The Bible is sufficient.

“It is necessary to understand what sola Scriptura does and does not assert. The Reformation principle of sola Scriptura has to do with the sufficiency of Scripture as our supreme authority in all spiritual matters. Sola Scriptura simply means that all truth necessary for our salvation and spiritual life is taught either explicitly or implicitly in Scripture.”[10] 

Sola Scriptura is not solo Scriptura. Solo Scriptura “is the erroneous belief that truth is to be found only in Scripture and nowhere else.”[11]

2 Timothy 3:16-17

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

4) The Bible is inspired.

The Reformers taught the verbal plenary[12] inspiration of Scripture, meaning, the totality of Scripture is inspired by God.

2 Timothy 3:16: All Scripture is breathed out by God

  • All Scripture consists of God’s words, written down by men.[13]
  • Scripture is breathed by God, transmitted through humans.

“Breathed” = theopneustos: God-breathed: God breathes it and human agents write it down.[14]

2 Peter 1:19-21

And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

 

5) The Bible is inerrant and infallible.

Inerrant means “without error.”

Infallible means “incapable of error.”

John Frame described the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy: “So, I think it is helpful to define inerrancy…by saying that inerrant language makes good on its claims. When we say that the Bible is inerrant, we mean that the Bible makes good on its claims.”[15]

In a world where the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church held themselves to be both inerrant and infallible, the doctrine of inerrancy/infallibility in regard to Scripture alone was vital for the Reformers.

“We may trust unconditionally only in the Word of God and not in the teaching of the fathers; for the teachers of the Church can err and have erred. Scripture never errs. Therefore it alone has unconditional authority. The authority of the theologians of the Church is relative and conditional. Without the authority of the words of Scripture, no one can establish hard and fast statements in the Church.”[16]

Implications:

John Calvin:

“If true religion is to beam upon us, our principle must be, that it is necessary to begin with heavenly teaching, and that it is impossible for any man to obtain even the minutest portion of right and sound doctrine without being a disciple of Scripture.”[17]

If we believe sola Scriptura we should embrace a Berean mindset.

Berean Mindset:  

Acts 17:10-11

The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. 11 Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.

“The practice of the Bereans is praised in the Bible. They are called noble because they evaluated everything on the basis of the written Word of God. If we would be faithful children of God, if we would be noble, we must proceed as the Bereans did. We must follow the example of Moses, Paul, and our Lord Jesus. We must not rest our confidence on the wisdom of men who claim infallibility. Rather, we must stand with the apostle Paul, who wrote in 1 Corinthians 4:6: “Do no go beyond what is written.”[18]

The five characteristics of a Berean mindset are:

1) Reception of the Word.

2) Passion for the Word.

3) Diligence in the Word.

4) Submission to the Word.

5) Transformation by the Word.

1) Reception of the Word: “they received the word”

Pastors, Elders, and Teachers should set the tone for reception of God’s word in a local church context by internalizing the word themselves and then faithfully passing it on.[19]

“The audacious claim of Christian preaching is that the faithful declaration of the Word of God, spoken through the preacher’s voice, is even more powerful than anything music or image can deliver.”[20] 

Biblical Preaching is the “exposition and application of a biblical text.”[21]

The content of our preaching must be the Bible.

Alistair Begg: Preaching for God’s Glory begins by talking about the “eclipse of expository preaching” in our day.

“We have instead become far too familiar with preaching that pays scant attention to the Bible, is self-focused, and consequently is capable of only the most superficial impact upon the lives of listeners. Worse still, large sections of the church are oblivious to the fact that they are being administered a placebo rather than the medicine they need. They are satisfied with the feeling that it has done them some good, a feeling that disguises the seriousness of the situation. In the absence of bread the population grows accustomed to cake! Pulpits are for preachers. We build stages for performers.”

Expositional preaching must be met by expositional listening:

“Expositional listening gives us a clear ear with which to hear God. It helps us to focus on God’s will and to follow Him. Expositional listening protects the gospel and our lives from corruption. It encourages faithful pastors. It benefits the gathered congregation.”[22]

How do you become an “expositional listener?”

1) Meditate on the sermon passage during your devotional time.

2) Join a small group (or class) so that you can discuss and apply the sermons during the week.

3) Develop the habit of addressing any questions you have about the text itself.

4) Cultivate humility in your life.

5) Stay caught up on the sermons through audio and video resources.

2) Passion for the Word: “they received the word with all eagerness”  

Psalm 1:1-2

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; 2but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.

Get out of the middle.

3) Diligence in the Word: “examining the Scriptures daily” 

1 Timothy 4:16

Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. 

2 Timothy 2:15
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.

Charles Spurgeon:

“We may not say of the Scriptures that they contain the truth, but that they are the truth.”

Our diligence in the Word will lead us to Jesus.

Charles Spurgeon:

“Jesus Christ is the Alpha and Omega of the Bible. He is the constant theme of its sacred pages; from first to last they testify of him…The Scriptures are the swaddling bands of the holy child Jesus; unroll them and you find your Saviour. The quintessence of the word of God is Christ”

4) Submission to the Word: “to see if these things were so”

Jonathan Edwards:

“It seems to me that God would have our whole dependence be upon the Scriptures, because the greater our dependence is on the Word of God, the more direct and immediate is our dependence on God himself. The more absolute and entire our dependence on the Word of God is, the greater respect shall we have to that Word, the more shall we esteem and honor and prize it; and this respect to the Word of God will lead us to have the greater respect to God himself.”

2 Timothy 4:3-4  
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.

5) Transformation by the Word: “these Jews were more noble”

The impact of Scripture for us is more about transformation than information.  

It is through the word that we are saved.

James 1:21  
Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. 

1 Peter 1:23-25

since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” And this word is the good news that was preached to you.

Salvation is not a matter of a “transaction;” it is a process of transformation.

We MUST saturate our lives with God’s word.

 

 

Bibliography: For Further Study

Begg, Alistair. Preaching for God’s Glory. Crossway: Wheaton, IL, 1999. 

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Eerdmas: Grand Rapids, 1989. [One Volume]

DeYoung, Kevin, Taking God at His Word. Crossway: Wheaton, IL, 2014.

Driscoll, Mark and Gerry Breshears. Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe. Crossway: Wheaton, IL, 2010. [Particularly chapter 2: “Revelation: God Speaks”]

Ferguson, Sinclair, et al. Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the Bible. Reformation Trust: Orlando, 2009.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Inter-Varsity Press, Warfield, Benjamin. The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible. Presbyterian and Reformed Press: Philadelphia, 1948.

Mohler, Albert. He is Not Silent. Moody Publishers: Chicago, 2008.

Montgomery, John Warwick, ed. God’s Inerrant Word. Bethany: Minneapolis, 1974.

Sproul, R.C. Explaining Inerrancy. Ligonier: Orlando, 1996.

Sproul, R.C. Scripture Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine. P&R Publishing: Phillipsburg, 2005.

Young, Edward J. Thy Word is Truth. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1957.

[1]The translation of the Scriptures into the English language by John Wycliffe in the 1380’s, the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in 1450, Erasmus’s Greek New Testament translation in 1516, Luther’s original German translation of Scriptures, and many more similar events led to massive accessibility of the Bible for common people, fueling the Reformation.

[2]Martin Luther on April 18, 1521 at the Diet of Worms [trial of Luther before Emperor Charles V for perceived errors found by Pope Leo X in his 95 theses].

[3] Quoted by W. Robert Godfrey in Chapter 1 in Sola Scriptura: The Protestant View on the Bible, pg. 19.

[4] Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe, 66.

[5] “in flesh” John 1:1, 14

[6] Driscoll and Breshears, Doctrine, 68.

[7] Driscoll and Breshears, Doctrine, 41.

[8] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 73.

[9] 2 Peter 3:15-16: And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.

[10] John MacArthur, “The Sufficiency of the Written Word” in Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the Bible, pg. 79.

[11] Driscoll and Breshears, Doctrine, 68. “Scripture itself speaks of lesser courts of lower authority that Christians should obey: we should submit to the authority of pastors, government, and parents up to the limits of disobeying the highest authority of Scripture.”

[12] Latin word plenus meaning “full.”

[13] OT Prophets: “Thus says the Lord.” They were speaking on behalf of God, as God would speak His word to them they would deliver it directly from Him. God spoke “through” the prophet (1 Kgs 14:18, 16:12, 2 Kgs 9:36, 14;25, Jer 37:2).

[14] God used the prophets/writers personalities and experiences, but what they wrote down was not simply their own words, but His inspired words through them.

[15]John Frame, “The Inerrancy of Scripture” in The Doctrine of the Word of God. For a phenomenal article that summarizes Frame’s view on inerrancy, see http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2011/09/16/inerrancy-and-infallibility-truth-claims-and-precision/

[16] Paul Althaus summarizing Martin Luther’s train of thought on inerrancy. Quoted in Scripture Alone by R.C. Sproul, pg. 17.

[17] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.6.2.

[18] W. Robert Godfrey, “What Do We Mean by Sola Scriptura?” Chapter 1 in Sola Scriptura: The Protestant View on the Bible, pg. 15.

[19] 2 Timothy 2:2 : and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

[20] Albert Mohler, He is Not Silent, 17.

[21] He is Not Silent, Mohler, 16.

[22] Thabiti Anyabwile, What is a Healthy Church Member? Pg. 20-22.