I, along with most of you, am a Protestant. One of the cries, probably the second most important cry, of the Protestant Reformation was sola Scriptura, or “Scripture alone.” In combating the corruption they saw in the Catholic Church, the Reformers came to a unanimous conviction: our ultimate authority as believers must be Scripture itself, not any magisterium, pope, or other mere man. Only Scripture can speak to us infallibly on matters of Christian faith and practice.
Unfortunately, like many doctrines, sola Scriptura has been subject to much misrepresentation and misunderstanding, even by its adherents. See, sola Scriptura also has a common straw man version sometimes called solo Scriptura or nuda Scriptura. They also mean “Scripture alone,” but in a very wrong way. What makes solo Scriptura so dangerous, besides simply being wrong, is that not only do many of sola Scriptura‘s opponents equate the two, but so do many people who profess to believe it! For this reason, I want to lay out the basics of what sola Scriptura does and does not actually say.
What Sola Scriptura Does Say
- That Scripture is the only infallible source for Christian belief. Sola Scriptura rejects the belief that the Church can infallibly teach Scripture, and the belief that there is an infallible unwritten tradition. Only in Scripture can we find guaranteed perfect truth. The Church can sometimes teach falsehood, and Christian traditions can be mistaken, but Scripture is fully true.
- That Scripture is the final authority for the believer. Sola Scriptura also rejects the belief that there is any higher authority than Scripture, or that there is even an equal authority to Scripture. Catholicism teaches that Sacred Tradition and certain declarations of their Magisterium or Pope have authority on par with Scripture, and somewhere in the world there are people who would say their priests, teachers, or other positions have an authority greater than Scripture. Sola Scriptura denies either of those possibilities, instead holding that all other authorities must yield to Scripture.
- That Scripture is sufficient for salvation and sanctification. We also contend with sola Scriptura that Scripture contains enough information to enable us to find salvation in Christ, and to grow in our knowledge and pursuit of Him. Even if we have no other source of information on Christianity except for Scripture, we can come to be conformed to the image of the Son of God.
What Sola Scriptura Does Not Say
- That Scripture is the only source for Christian belief. Sola Scriptura does not deny that other sources of truth, even spiritual truth, exist for the Christian. Natural revelation tells of things of God, reason can expand what we know by deduction from revealed truth, tradition shows us how God’s people have known Him through the ages, and Spirit-led teachers can give us insights that are not obvious from Scripture alone. Creeds and confessions can articulate doctrines taught by Scripture but not clearly explained in Scripture. All of these are legitimate sources for Christian belief, but sola Scriptura holds that none of these are infallible but can instead make mistakes, and only Scripture is entirely trustworthy.
- That Scripture is the only authority for the believer. Sola Scriptura also accepts that other authorities exist for living the Christian life. Pastors are a kind of authority, as well as the ancient traditions of the Church at large. Creeds like the Nicene Creed, Apostles’ Creed, and Athanasian Creed also serve as authorities for the boundaries of the Christian faith. All sorts of authorities exist for us, but none of them are final or infallible except for Scripture. Any authority which contradicts Scripture must be set aside, at least at the point of contradiction.
- That no outside sources are useful or necessary to understand Scripture rightly. Scripture is not written in magic language. God did not inspire every sentence in Scripture so that everyone who ever lived could interpret it rightly with common sense. Sola Scripture understands that Scripture was written in a certain historical, cultural, and linguistic context, and that the content of Scripture is heavily shaped by such context. This means that we need some outside information to understand it rightly, especially given that we live in a radically different historical, cultural, and linguistic context. We need to put ourselves in the place of the original audience to get much of it properly, and that’s not completely possible all the time. So we need traditions, commentaries, creeds, and historical scholarship if we wanted to understand Scripture faithfully. Now, this also does not mean that Scripture is of no use on its own. On the contrary, simply by translating Scripture into contemporary English we can understand a great deal of it rightly. John’s Gospel claims to be alone sufficient to find salvation, and the Gospels are quite easy to understand for the most part. The story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection speaks powerfully in every context. Again, even without these outside aids, Scripture is clear enough that one can reasonably find salvation and the power to grow in the Spirit without any help.
For more understanding of what sola Scriptura is and why we should believe it, I suggest an excellent 10 part series by the awesome Michael Patton. Here are all the links. By the end of reading it, you too can be assured that we can trust Scripture alone.
- In Defense of Sola Scriptura – Part One – Authority Across the Spectrum
- In Defense of Sola Scriptura – Part Two – Martin Luther
- In Defense of Sola Scriptura – Part Three – An Argument for the Dual-Source Theory
- In Defense of Sola Scriptura – Part Four – What Did John Believe?
- In Defense of Sola Scriptura – Part Five – What is Tradition?
- In Defense of Sola Scriptura – Part Six – Apostolic Succession?
- In Defense of Sola Scriptura – Part Seven – What about the Canon?
- In Defense of Sola Scriptura – Part Eight – What about All the Divisions?
- In Defense of Sola Scriptura – Part Eight(b) – What about All the Divisions?
- In Defense of Sola Scriptura – Part Nine – A Biblical Defense
- In Defense of Sola Scriptura – Part Ten – A Historical Defense
Alternatively, you can download the whole series as a single PDF file: In Defense of Sola Scriptura – By C. Michael Patton.