Sola Scriptura: The Heart of the Reformation
Within a year of posting his Ninety-Five Theses, Martin Luther was summoned to appear before Cardinal Cajetan to be examined for his accusations against the Roman Catholic Church’s theology and practice. When the Cardinal pressed him on the issue of the church’s authority, Luther responded, “The truth of Scripture comes first. After that is accepted one may determine whether the words of men can be accepted as true.”[i] Now, Luther was not discrediting the words of men completely, rather, he was claiming that, far and above anything or anyone else, Holy Scripture was first and foremost. This led to the development of Sola Scriptura—“Scripture alone.” But in order to examine this principle within the context of the Reformation, we first need to explore the doctrine of Scripture itself. For the rest of this article, we will examine four foundational claims regarding the Word of God: its inspiration, inerrancy, authority, and sufficiency.
The Issue of Inspiration
The most dynamic and explicit passage in all of Scripture about the nature of the Bible’s own divine inspiration comes in 2 Timothy 3:16-17. The Apostle Paul writes:
“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.”
In the Greek, the word theopneustos is used to describe how Scripture came to be; it was literally “God-breathed”. It was as if the Lord took a deep breath in, and then exhaled Holy Scripture. Further, the means by which God brought Scripture about was through the pens of human writers—“men [who] spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformers did not disagree about divine inspiration. What was and is still contested, however, is the content of the revelation.
Paul’s use of the word “all” in 2 Timothy 3:16 leads us to examine: What books of the Bible are contained in the “all” of Scripture? This is the question of the canon. The word “canon” comes from the Greek word kanōn, meaning “measuring rod”, which came to be used in speaking of a “rule” or “standard”. And in the most general sense, the canon is “the authoritative books that God gave his corporate church.”[ii] Historically, the accepted canon consists of 66 books—39 Old Testament books (Genesis to Malachi) and 27 New Testament books (Matthew to Revelation).
During the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church asserted that there were additional books inspired by God, which belonged in the canon. What came to be known as the Apocrypha consisted of the books of Tobit, Judith, the Additions to Esther, the Additions to Daniel, the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus (also called Sirach), Baruch (Hebrew for Blessed), the Letter of Jeremiah, and 1st and 2nd Maccabees. In response to the Reformers’ claims that many of the Catholic Church’s practices were unbiblical, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) canonized the Apocrypha, thus deeming it to be the inspired and authoritative Word of God. But after 1,500 years of being absent from the canon, did the Apocrypha suddenly deserve to be included? Certainly not.
Contrary to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, the canon of Scripture was not decided by popes and councils. Rather, it was “determined by God and discovered by man.”[iii] Even as early as AD 68, the Apostle Peter notes that Paul’s writings stand alongside “the rest of the Scriptures” (2nd Peter 3:16), indicating an acknowledgment of an accepted canon (see also 1st Timothy 5:18). And while it took some time for the church to stand together on what they recognized as being Scripture, the Council of Laodicea (AD 363),[iv] Athanasius of Alexandria (AD 367), and the Third Council of Carthage (AD 397) acknowledged the 66 books of the canon, as we do today.
The Apocrypha, on the other hand, is not quoted or referred to in either the Old or New Testaments. Jesus and the Apostles never made reference to it. Many of the church fathers, as well as Palestinian Jews, rejected it. Further, the Apocrypha contains historical errors. Above all, however, there are doctrines and practices that directly contradict the teaching of the rest of Scripture! In short, the Apocrypha cannot be listed as belonging in the canon because it is not inspired by God. But the 66 books of the Bible are inspired by God—“breathed out”; they are the very word of God.
The Issue of Inerrancy
The Apostle Paul once wrote, “Let God be found true, though every man be found a liar” (Romans 3:4). God is a God of truth (Isaiah 65:16; Jeremiah 10:10; John 17:3; 1st John 5:20), and He cannot lie (Numbers 23:19; Titus 1:2; Hebrews 6:18). Since God is true, His revealed Word to us is true, as it reflects the truthfulness of His divine character. In His high priestly prayer, the Lord Jesus entreated the Father, saying, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth” (John 17:17).
The inerrancy of Scripture means that the Scriptures are true in all that they claim, and are without error. And while it has been pointed out that there have been human mistakes in the process of transmission of the Bible, we affirm that no such errors exist in the original manuscripts—those written down by those who were “carried along by the Holy Spirit”. In fact, if the Scriptures be found to err in even the smallest detail, we would have to question the character of the Author—would God inspire error? Surely the Holy Spirit did not “carry men along” into error, as that would be the height of deception; not the mark of the truthfulness of the Lord.
The Issue of Authority
The heart of the battle over Sola Scriptura is a battle over the issue of authority. Who has the right to tell people what to believe and what to do? If the Bible is inspired by God, and thereby inerrant, then it is also authoritative. In other words, the revealed commands of God in Scripture are binding on the believer. When Scripture speaks, God speaks. However, during the medieval period, the Catholic Church raised “tradition” to a place of equal authority with Scripture. Terry Johnson writes:
‘Tradition’ included a host of extra-biblical practices and beliefs which had been received into the church over centuries, whether by common acceptance or by the decisions of Popes and councils. ‘Holy writ’ and ‘Holy tradition’ were both accepted as authoritative sources of divine truth. Over both stood the church’s magisterium, its infallible teaching office, to which belongs final authority in interpreting both tradition and Scripture.[v]
Even today, the Catechism of the Catholic Church[vi] notes, “the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, ‘does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence’” (§82). Not only is this a denial of the principle of Sola Scriptura, it is a rejection of the inherent authority of the Word of God. Further, it is claimed that “the task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and the bishops in communion with him” (§100). Therefore, according to the essential documents of the Roman Catholic Church, the elite spiritual hierarchy in Rome is uniquely vested with sole authority to create, institute, and mandate all religious belief and practice for every Christian in the world.
In 1870, at the First Vatican Council, it was decreed that when the Pope speaks ex cathedra (“from his chair”), he is speaking on behalf of God, and thereby, his words are infallible. And so, today, not only is the Magisterium of the Catholic Church deemed to be authoritative in all matters of faith and practice, but the Pope himself wields the power and authority of God when he is speaking ex cathedra. But the question must be asked, by what authority has the Magisterium claimed ultimate authority?
The Supposed Apostolic Succession of Popes
According to the Catechism, the Lord Jesus entrusted Peter with the unique mission of being the universal leader of the church. Citing Matthew 16:18, it asserts that “because of the faith he confessed Peter will remain the unshakeable rock of the Church” (§552). Further, Peter is believed to have been entrusted with “a specific authority”—“the keys of the kingdom of heaven”—which is nothing short of the “authority to govern the house of God, which is the Church” (§553). Based primarily on this text, it is believed that Peter was commissioned by Christ to be the very first Pope, thus beginning a line of papal succession which has continued even until today.
Matthew 16 is not about Christ granting to Peter the authority over the church; it’s about Christ declaring His intention to build the church! And the “rock” on which Christ builds is not Peter himself, but rather, his earlier confession of faith in Jesus (verse 16): “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!”
While it’s true that Peter’s name (Petros) means “rock” in Greek, Matthew records the word in the feminine form (petra), thus leading the reader to a different conclusion. It’s almost as if Christ was saying, “You are Peter (petros, a “rock”), and on this rock (petra, “mountain top” of faith), I will build My church.” Now, it may seem futile to wrangle over such grammar, but the question persists: Is Peter the rock on which the church is built?
Ephesians 2:20 teaches that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” Elsewhere, Christ is called “the stone which the builders have rejected…which has become the chief cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22; Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:10; Luke 20:17; Acts 4:11). The apostle Paul wrote, “for no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11). Further, he asserts that even during their wilderness wandering, the Israelites “drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1st Corinthians 10:4). Even Peter himself taught that Jesus Christ was the “the cornerstone” (1 Peter 2:4, 6-7); and Christians are “living stones… being built up as a spiritual house” (verse 5); they are built squarely on Christ.
Jesus did not announce or intend that Peter would be the first pope, nor did He impart to him any kind of authority as Head of the Church; Christ Himself “is the head of the body, the church” (Colossians 1:17). And the “keys of the kingdom” were given collectively to the Church, to be exercised under the spiritual authority of Christ’s true vicar—the Holy Spirit (John 14:16-17; 16:5-15). Neither the Pope nor the Magisterium has the authority to speak for God; only the Holy Spirit speaking through His living Word (Hebrews 4:12). And so, recognizing the inherent authority of the Word of God, we must affirm Sola Scriptura. John Calvin writes, “Our conviction of the truth of Scripture must be derived from a higher source than human conjectures, judgments, or reasons; namely, the secret testimony of the Spirit.”[vii]
Rome has no true power; the emperor has no clothes. Rather, Scripture is vested with the full authority of Jesus Christ, as it is His revealed Word. And if the Word of God is inspired, inerrant, and authoritative, then we must also concede that it is altogether sufficient.
The Issue of Sufficiency
The danger comes when the traditions of men assault the authority of the Word of God. This was the reason for Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees in Matthew 15 when they asked Him why His disciples violated the tradition of the elders. He responded, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Verse 3). Because for years, they had been burdening believers with the yoke of legalistic religion and placing their traditions above God’s revealed commands. So, Jesus rebuked them saying, “You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “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”” (verses 7-9).
Even Paul warned the church to “see to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elementary spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8). Again, tradition is fine, but not when it supersedes the Word of God, and takes captive the believer. No, we are “not to go beyond what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6). John warns, “if anyone adds to [the revelation of Scripture], God shall add to him the plagues which are written in [the Bible]” (Revelation 22:18). Scripture alone is our authority—not traditions, no councils, not denominations, not popes, not even the angels in heaven (Galatians 1:8).
The Lord Jesus claims for Himself all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18; John 3:35; 5:22-24), and He has given us His Spirit, who has given us His Word. And it is sufficient for us. W. Robert Godfrey writes, “The Protestant position…is that all things necessary for salvation and concerning faith and life are taught in the Bible with enough clarity that the ordinary believer can find them there and understand.”[viii] In summation, Matthew Barrett writes: “Sola Scriptura means that only Scripture, because it is God’s inspired Word, is our inerrant, sufficient, and final authority for the church.”[ix]
How did the Roman Catholic Church respond to the Protestant declaration of Sola Scriptura? In 1559, Pope Pius IV said:
“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 a guide in this regard.”[x]
And with that, Rome banned all Bible translations except the Latin Vulgate, placing them on a list of “forbidden books.” The Pope added, “Whoever reads or has such a translation in his possession without…permission cannot be absolved from his sins until he has turned in these Bibles.”[xi] This was nothing less than an attempt to wrestle authority away from the Word of God and confer it on the Magisterium. We have a living God who speaks to us presently through His Word. And through the word of truth—the Gospel of our salvation, we are saved and sanctified; our conscience held captive to the Word of God.
This article first appeared on Theology for Life and was adapted from Nate’s book, Why We’re Protestant: An Introduction to the Five Solas of the Reformation.
[i] Mark D. Thompson, “Sola Scriptura,” in Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary, ed. Matthew Barrett (Wheaton: Crossway, 2017), 153.
[ii] Michael J. Kruger, The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013), 40.
[iii] Mike Gendron, Preparing for Eternity: Do we trust God’s Word or religious traditions? (Plano: PTG, 2011), 14.
[iv] With the exception of Revelation.
[v] Terry L. Johnson, The Case for Traditional Protestantism: The Solas of the Reformation (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2004), 20-21.
[vi] Catechism of the Catholic Church. New York: Doubleday, 1995.
[vii] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (1559; reprint, Peabody: Hendrickson, 2008), 33.
[viii] W. Robert Godfrey, “What Do We Mean By Sola Scriptura?” in Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the Bible, ed. Don Kistler (Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2009), 2.
[ix] Matthew Barrett, God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 23.
[x] Godfrey, “What Do We Mean By Sola Scriptura?” 9.