A Return to Sola Scriptura

Martin Luther, WittenbergMany Christians have never heard the Latin term sola scriptura. It means simply “only Scripture” or “Scripture alone.” It was probably the main war cry of the Reformation. Replacing sola scriptura (in reference to all of Scripture) with the Great Commission has resulted in a movement called Neo-Evangelicalism. Once a mission is put ahead of authority, the mission becomes the authority.

Recent polls have revealed that fewer Americans claim to be Christian. And, although some forms of evangelicalism are growing in America, the cults (Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular) are growing at a fast rate. We hear of evangelicals converting to liturgical religions (Catholicism, Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church) or other religions entirely. Why? Because the Scriptures became something less than the supreme authority.

The Authority Question

One of the big questions Christians must ask is, “What is the final, infallible authority to determine what I believe?” For some, the answer is “what my parents taught me.” For others, it is “what my church teaches.” For most evangelicals, it seems, the answer now is “what my heart tells me is true.” But for those of us who embrace sola scriptura, the answer is “our understanding of what the Scriptures clearly teach, fairly understood.”

When we say that we embrace sola scriptura, we are not saying that the Scriptures are the only authority there is. The Scriptures themselves mention a variety of authorities, both in society and the church. What we are saying is that the Scriptures are the only infallible authority. All other authorities are to be tested and, in the case of the church, corrected by the Scriptures. Every attempt to add an infallible authority in addition to the Scriptures reduces the authority of the Scriptures. In such instances, the Bible always plays second fiddle, never first. We then begin to interpret the Scriptures by the authority rather than evaluate the authority by the Scriptures.

The idea that the Scriptures are infallible and sufficient (no other infallible authority is needed) is clear in the Word itself. Take a look at 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (NIV, emphasis added).

Note here that God has inspired all Scripture, that all of it is profitable for teaching (doctrine), and that the Scriptures thoroughly equip us. The Bible (and its implementation) offers us everything we need for spiritual maturity.

Find a similar concept in 2 Peter 1:3-4. Note that everything we need for spiritual life has been given us by God’s power through His promises (His Word): “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.”

Sufficient Answers

The Bible offers us everything we need for salvation, according to 2 Timothy 3:15: “and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

This is not to say that the Bible answers all our questions. Indeed, the temptation is to find answers to theological questions in sources other than Scripture. Yet Deuteronomy 29:29 warns us to accept our areas of ignorance rather than gravitate toward developing beliefs from other spiritual authorities: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” We must content ourselves with the revelation of God’s Word—and the limits of that revelation. Otherwise, our insistent theological curiosity can become our downfall.

And herein lies the problem. When we view other authorities as infallible (a hallmark of false religion), we are seeking answers to “the secret things” questions which “belong to the Lord our God.” False religions have answers for nearly everything, which lures people who are looking for a sense of security. Part of our walk of faith is not having an answer for everything.

Some religious groups go to the other extreme and forbid written doctrinal statements or creeds. This approach confuses authority with infallible authority.

For example, God has given some authority to church leaders (Hebrews 13:17). But that authority is not absolute or without limit. If we use a creed, like the Apostles’ Creed, it is not an infallible authority. But it is an authority, and it is infallible to the degree that it is consistent with the truths of Scripture. We believe that God is one being Who is three persons—not because of the Nicene Council, but because the idea of the Trinity is consistent with and summarizes all the information found in Scripture.

In Jude 3, Jesus’ brother (Jude) not only urges us to “contend for the faith,” but he also informs us that the most significant contents of “the faith” had already been delivered in his day. He wrote, “Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.”

Our Responsibility

Since the Scriptures are our final authority, it is crucial for every Christian to know the Word. This is what keeps a church on target. When I preach, for example, I work hard to interpret the Scriptures fairly and objectively. But I make mistakes. I am fallible. When the elders make decisions, we try our best to be Scriptural, but we make mistakes. Every believer is a priest to God, and every believer has a right to inquire or challenge, based upon the Word of God (especially where the Word is clear).

Supposedly “lost Gospels” (writings of heretical sects well after the time of Jesus) and “oral traditions” might be considered authorities for some, but they do not hold up to examination in light of Scripture. They are certainly not dependable, infallible authorities.

The questionable must always be challenged by the sure. Everything is subject to the dividing sword of the Word. “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).

Evangelicalism has moved away from the Scriptures. By some definitions, I am a conservative evangelical; by other definitions, I am a fundamentalist. But whatever label I wear, I am a firm believer in the authority of Scripture. Are you?

If so, let us strive to be like the psalmist who gave us the words of Psalm 119:98-100:

Your commands make me wiser than my enemies, for they are ever with me. I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes. I have more understanding than the elders, for I obey your precepts.

Our model is the Berean church in Acts 17:11: “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” Let us follow that example.


Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic in in Cicero, Illinois. During his senior year in high school (in 1974), Cicero Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed later felt a call to ministry and enrolled at Moody Bible Institute (B.A., Pastoral Studies/Greek). After graduating, he served as pastor of Victory Bible Church of Chicago (a branch work of Cicero Bible Church) and married Marylu Troppito. In 1983, the couple moved to Kokomo where Ed began pastoring Highland Park Church, where he still serves. Ed and Marylu have two adult children, Hannah and Luke. Ed loves to write. He has written over 500 weekly columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and populated his church’s website with an endless barrage of papers. You can access them at www.highlandpc.com.

2892 reads

There are 11 Comments

Charlie's picture

Ed, this is a great post. If only they would post this in the Kokomo Tribune! I had to laugh, though, when I saw you write almost word for word what I was castigated for on SI a few weeks ago.

Quote:
When we say that we embrace sola scriptura, we are not saying that the Scriptures are the only authority there is. The Scriptures themselves mention a variety of authorities, both in society and the church. What we are saying is that the Scriptures are the only infallible authority. All other authorities are to be tested and, in the case of the church, corrected by the Scriptures.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Ed Vasicek's picture

Thanks, Charlie. The difference between authority and infallible authority is an important reality. Nouthetic counseling makes the same mistake, in my view. It is as though there is only infallible authority or no authority. The idea of another tier of authority which is fallible (but perhaps often true) is eliminated by such black and white (hot and cold) thinking.

In some ways, Sola Scriptura, along with hermeneutics (and I am not even talking about dispensational vs. covenant) is the big issue of the day. With post-modern thinking, it is possible to say that the Scriptures are true and yet also say that we cannot arrive at any conclusions as to what they say. In other words, a true but worthless book when it comes to specifics. Thus we negate the infallible authority as a true authority. It just becomes a suggested approach. But that would be another article.

"The Midrash Detective"

Alex Guggenheim's picture

Ed,

Good read, well written. Question though.

You made two statements, apart from one another but which appear to be elements of the same thought or general thesis, here they are:

Quote:
Recent polls have revealed that fewer Americans claim to be Christian. And, although some forms of evangelicalism are growing in America, the cults (Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular) are growing at a fast rate. We hear of evangelicals converting to liturgical religions (Catholicism, Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church) or other religions entirely. Why? Because the Scriptures became something less than the supreme authority.

Quote:
Evangelicalism has moved away from the Scriptures. By some definitions, I am a conservative evangelical; by other definitions, I am a fundamentalist. But whatever label I wear, I am a firm believer in the authority of Scripture. Are you?

I have placed in bold the relevant portions. So here is my inquiry. Do you consider "liturgy" or its use, a form of departure, no matter how small, from sola scriptura?

While it is true in your listing of liturgical churches or religions you list two non-evangelical ones, the third in some quarters is still quite evangelical (but even for the sake or debate let's say the Episcopal church is not evangelical). But, more than that, the Lutheran Church, WELS and LCMS which are both liturgical and evangelical, are both expressly sola scriptura. It seems there is a certain flavor in your use view of liturgy that might imply a slight move away from sola scriptura. Your use of the descriptive "liturgical" was interesting to me since the prominent issues evangelicals have with the Catholic, Orthodox and Episcopal churches are doctrinal and not their order of worship. It might be that within the "liturgy" there is some divine power itself that is stated by one of these churches, hence your use. I look forward to your response.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I think it's great if people give more thought to the adjectives here. I've never subscribed to "only" authority, but "supreme" and "final" etc. have always seemed inadequate to me. The reason is that "final" and "supreme" suggest a sort of "last place we look" attitude, as in Supreme Court... "What you say is final, but we're not going to ask you until we ask everyone else."

"Infallible," on the other hand, tells the truth precisely and addresses the relationship between Scripture's authority and other authorities, and--as Ed pointed out here--speaks to sufficiency. But as far as terms go, it doesn't really address primacy very well. Of course, you'd think that if you have a source of truth in your hands that is a) infallible and b) accessible it would also be the first and most frequent source you'd consult... it would not only be your highest authority but your "favorite" authority [Ha! My Firefox spellchecker wants it to be "favourite"! Hey, FireFox, this is America.... maybe it's because I'm using Ubuntu ].

It wouldn't be an issue at all except for the fact that there are many who embrace "infallible," "final," and "supreme," who are nowhere near "favorite" or "primary."
I think it only makes sense to hold Scripture in high regard as the authority we consult first, last and like-crazy in between.
(Which, by the way, means that if it answers a question, we need no other answer). I think there are few at SI would disagree with that, but there are a few.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Alex Guggenheim wrote:
Ed,

Good read, well written. Question though.

You made two statements, apart from one another but which appear to be elements of the same thought or general thesis, here they are:

Quote:
Recent polls have revealed that fewer Americans claim to be Christian. And, although some forms of evangelicalism are growing in America, the cults (Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular) are growing at a fast rate. We hear of evangelicals converting to liturgical religions (Catholicism, Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church) or other religions entirely. Why? Because the Scriptures became something less than the supreme authority.

Quote:
Evangelicalism has moved away from the Scriptures. By some definitions, I am a conservative evangelical; by other definitions, I am a fundamentalist. But whatever label I wear, I am a firm believer in the authority of Scripture. Are you?

I have placed in bold the relevant portions. So here is my inquiry. Do you consider "liturgy" or its use, a form of departure, no matter how small, from sola scriptura?

While it is true in your listing of liturgical churches or religions you list two non-evangelical ones, the third in some quarters is still quite evangelical (but even for the sake or debate let's say the Episcopal church is not evangelical). But, more than that, the Lutheran Church, WELS and LCMS which are both liturgical and evangelical, are both expressly sola scriptura. It seems there is a certain flavor in your use view of liturgy that might imply a slight move away from sola scriptura. Your use of the descriptive "liturgical" was interesting to me since the prominent issues evangelicals have with the Catholic, Orthodox and Episcopal churches are doctrinal and not their order of worship. It might be that within the "liturgy" there is some divine power itself that is stated by one of these churches, hence your use. I look forward to your response.

Perhaps I should have written, "Non-evangelical liturgical religions." I am not meaning to say that liturgy and Sola Scriptura are necessarily incompatible, so your point is well taken. Although the vast majoiriy of people who attend liturgical churches are not evangelical, some are. It is unfair to lump them all together.
The movement, however, seems to be mostly from evangelical to non-evangelical liturgical (or religions apart from Christendom), which is how I should have worded the point.

I do think that it is a bit fuzzy, though, to say that the main difference evangelicals have with Catholic, Orthodox, and Episcopal churches are doctrinal and not their order of worship. If by "order" you mean sequence, that might be the point; but we tend to have differences about HOW and WHO they worship. This involves the marrying of false doctrine to worship practices.

We reject sacerdotalism (including a select priesthood apart from the priesthood of all believers), the sacrifice of the mass, praying for souls in purgatory, we believe all the glory should go to God and that the worship due Him should not be diverted to Mary or the saints, etc. These are doctrinal issues, but they are also major worship issues at the same time. I am much more comfortable with Jewish liturgy than I would be with some purported Christian liturgy. But liturgy - as long as it does not contradict the Scriptures -- becomes more a matter of preference or perhaps personal judgment.

"The Midrash Detective"

Ed Vasicek's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
I think it's great if people give more thought to the adjectives here. I've never subscribed to "only" authority, but "supreme" and "final" etc. have always seemed inadequate to me. The reason is that "final" and "supreme" suggest a sort of "last place we look" attitude, as in Supreme Court... "What you say is final, but we're not going to ask you until we ask everyone else."

"Infallible," on the other hand, tells the truth precisely and addresses the relationship between Scripture's authority and other authorities, and--as Ed pointed out here--speaks to sufficiency. But as far as terms go, it doesn't really address primacy very well. Of course, you'd think that if you have a source of truth in your hands that is a) infallible and b) accessible it would also be the first and most frequent source you'd consult... it would not only be your highest authority but your "favorite" authority [Ha! My Firefox spellchecker wants it to be "favourite"! Hey, FireFox, this is America.... maybe it's because I'm using Ubuntu ].

It wouldn't be an issue at all except for the fact that there are many who embrace "infallible," "final," and "supreme," who are nowhere near "favorite" or "primary."
I think it only makes sense to hold Scripture in high regard as the authority we consult first, last and like-crazy in between.
(Which, by the way, means that if it answers a question, we need no other answer). I think there are few at SI would disagree with that, but there are a few.

Point well taken. I agree. The Scriptures are not merely the final authority, but also our "working authority." We need a Psalm 1 and Psalm 119 attitude toward them.

"The Midrash Detective"

Charlie's picture

It is worthwhile to examine what the people who coined the phrase "Sola Scriptura" meant when they said it. The distinction between only (not true) and only infallible (true) is important for the Reformers. Consider this statement about Luther:

“[Luther insisted ] as a precondition for debate that consonance with Scripture, with the Fathers, with canon law, and with reason and experience, be accepted (in that order) as the basis on which the validity of arguments were to be tested.” D.V.N. Bagchi, "Sic Et Non: Luther and Scholasticism," in Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment," edited by Carl Trueman and R. Scott Clark (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1999), 9.

Also, Calvin's Institutes was not just a list of Scripture proofs, but features (for example) a running dialogue with Cicero in Book I. Almost every Protestant in the 16th century juxtaposed his doctrine of the Eucharist with the teachings of the later scholastics and appealed to Augustine and Cyril as authorities. In other words, the Reformers envisioned Sola Scriptura as the final word in a conversation that included the early Church Fathers, the logicians, the scholastics, and the state of canon law as very real participants. They did not, as some later proponents of a new kind of Sola Scriptura did, seek to read the Scriptures as if no one had ever before read them or expressed opinions concerning them.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Ed Vasicek's picture

Charlie wrote:
It is worthwhile to examine what the people who coined the phrase "Sola Scriptura" meant when they said it. The distinction between only (not true) and only infallible (true) is important for the Reformers. Consider this statement about Luther:

“[Luther insisted ] as a precondition for debate that consonance with Scripture, with the Fathers, with canon law, and with reason and experience, be accepted (in that order) as the basis on which the validity of arguments were to be tested.” D.V.N. Bagchi, "Sic Et Non: Luther and Scholasticism," in Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment," edited by Carl Trueman and R. Scott Clark (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1999), 9.

Also, Calvin's Institutes was not just a list of Scripture proofs, but features (for example) a running dialogue with Cicero in Book I. Almost every Protestant in the 16th century juxtaposed his doctrine of the Eucharist with the teachings of the later scholastics and appealed to Augustine and Cyril as authorities. In other words, the Reformers envisioned Sola Scriptura as the final word in a conversation that included the early Church Fathers, the logicians, the scholastics, and the state of canon law as very real participants. They did not, as some later proponents of a new kind of Sola Scriptura did, seek to read the Scriptures as if no one had ever before read them or expressed opinions concerning them.

And this, in itself, raises the question of original meaning and current meaning of Sola Scriptura. I think it is fair to say, that, in our circles, Sola Scriptura does not preclude looking at other authorities or opinions (I've shelves of commentaries, for example, as do many SI members). Yet neither does it demand it. Refusing to even consult other authorities may not be the wisest of actions, but it still can fall under the broad umbrella of Sola Scriptura (as the concept is now understood). We cease to be Sola Scriptura when it is no longer our one and only infallible and final authority.

Luther and Calvin and many of their modern counterparts somehow seem (or seemed) to believe that the antiquity of church leaders implied they had a better understanding. I do not necessarily agree with that. I personally believe that once the church was led by gentiles, they distanced themselves from the Jewish roots of our faith -- and the understanding that went along with that.

I think in the days of the Reformation, with the corruption of theology as it was, their assessment was correct. Augustine was much more Scripturally accurate and perceptive than Pope Leo in Rome. So going back further in time meant improvement -- then. I would really challenge that mentality today, however. I think someone like D.A. Carson, for example, is much more Scripturally astute when compared with many of the church fathers For that matter, I would argue that Calvin was a much better interpreter than Iraneus or Cyprian.

I think (later) some other formative groups were not as attached to church history (they were more into Reconfiguration than Reformation) as Calvin or Luther, and Sola Scriptura became amplified more than in the Reformer's (original) version of the doctrine. If you think about it, almost all of us (even if we view ourselves in the Reconfiguration camp) find some attachment to church history (for example, our church celebrates Good Friday, Palm Sunday -- with palms --, Easter, and Christmas) but in varying degrees. Coming from a "Bible Church" sort of mentality, I would give less credibility to the judgments of the early Fathers than might someone from a Reformed or Lutheran background. A Lutheran theologian would probably be more influenced by tradition than would a Reformed theologian, and a Baptist theologian less than a Reformed.

"The Midrash Detective"

Rev Karl's picture

Ed,

My dear wife and I lived 5 years in Oak Park, IL. Upon reading the short bio at the end of the OP, I was tempted to reply "Can *any* good thing come out of Cicero???" Biggrin But I know it can happen, having been blessed by your ministry here on SI.

Ed Vasicek wrote:
Replacing sola scriptura (in reference to all of Scripture) with the Great Commission has resulted in a movement called Neo-Evangelicalism.

I've never heard this said quite this way before. Puts a whole new spin on many different ministries, not just NE.

Many Thanks!

Ed Vasicek's picture

Cicero was famous for its great gangsters. I used to deliver papers to the house Al Capone once owned!

"The Midrash Detective"

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.