Thursday, July 15, 2010

What is Sola Scriptura?

The following post aims to lay out the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Please limit comments and questions to matters of definition and not whether or not Sola Scriptura is true (there are and will be other posts for that).

I. Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone)

A. Scripture is the final authoritative norm of doctrine and practice
"Within the reciprocal nexus of Scripture, Church and the rule of faith then, Scripture occupies an absolutely unique place and role. It alone is verbally and completely inspired by God from its first word to its last. It alone is always and everywhere the very Word of the living God. Scripture alone, therefore, can function as the 'canon,' the rule, the final authoritative standard of truth against which all else is measured. Yes, it is the Church which does the measuring, and yes the rule of faith provides basic parameters of measurement, but it is Scripture and Scipture alone that is that standard norm" (Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura, 262).

1. Scripture is inspired (theopneustos)

a. The Holy Spirit selected and influenced certain men and used them for the infallible communication of His mind without overriding their individual styles and personalities. Still, what they communicated, God communicated without error.

b. Some of the verses appealed to are: 2 Pet 1:21, 2 Tim 3:16

2. Scripture is infallible

a. If something is infallible, it is unable to err (inerrancy means there simply are no errors).

b. The apostles and prophets were not inherently infallible (Gal 2:11-13).

c. Since Scripture is inspired and God-breathed, it is inherently infallible.

3. Scripture has unique authority

a. It has the binding authority of God Himself and no man or church shares this particular type of authority (2 Thess 2:4).

b. The church is the pillar and ground of truth (1 Tim 3:15), but just as Jesus claimed to be the truth itself (John 14:6), so also Scripture claims to be truth itself (John 17:17). There is a qualitative difference between truth itself and the pillar of truth.

4. The supreme normativity of Scripture

a. Because Scripture has unique, infallible and final authority, it stands as the church's supreme norm. Only Scripture can be described as the "absolute norm" because only it is God-breathed. "The supreme normativity of Scripture is the logical corollary of its inspiration, infallibility, and unique authority" (Mathison, 266). If Scripture carries the authority of God Himself then its supreme authority is self-evident.

b. The writings of the fathers, canons, decrees of councils...ect are not God-breathed and therefore are of lesser authority. All of these must submit and conform to Scripture.

-Notice this doctrine does not claim that Scripture is our only authority. There are other authorities that are subordinate to Scripture.

B. Scripture is the only source of normative revelation after the apostolic era

1. Scripture has the quality of perfection

a. Scripture in itself is a perfectly complete and adequate source of revelation. It contains "all the words of God he intended his people to have at each stage of redemptive history, and that it now contains everything we need God to tell us for salvation, for trusting him perfectly, and for obeying him perfectly" (Grudem, Systematic Theo, 127).

-Notice this doctrine does not teach that Scripture is the only thing needed for the Christian faith and life...Scripture fulfills the revelatory role.

-Verses proponents appeal to are: Deut 29:29, Luke 16:29, 2 Tim 3:15

2. Scripture has the quality of sufficiency

a. "Our final authority is Scripture alone, but not a Scripture that is alone...[it] is inspired and inherently infallible...but Scripture does not exist in a vacuum" (Mathison, 259). The Bible cannot preach or teach itself and the church must read and interpret it.

C. Scripture is interpreted in and by the church

"There is a reciprocal relationship between the Spirit-inspired Word of God and the Spirit-indwelt people of God" (267).

1. Ecclesiastical authority

a. The church is a subordinate authority recognized by the early church and the Reformers. Furthermore, Jesus Himself gives the church the authority to bind and loose...something not given to every individual member within the church (Mtt 18:18).

b. The church has the authority to teach and make disciples of all nations (Mtt 28:18-20) and is described as the body and bride of Christ (Eph 1:22-23, 5:32, Rev 21:9). It is the instrument God uses to make His Word known (Eph 3:10).

c. Many of the Reformers (Luther and Calvin) also held that it is only within the visible church that one can find the gospel and forgiveness although many protestants now hold that all that believe and put their faith in Christ are part of the church. Some call this the "invisible" church.

d. The fallibility of the church does not make her authority invalid. One only needs to look at human mothers to see this is true. It is up to the church to look at and correct herself according to the infallible word of Scripture.

e. Francis Turretin lays out three essential aspects of the church's authority: 1) articles of faith 2) ordaining or making canons/constitutions for good order 3) the judicial and exercise of discipline (Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 3:281).

f. The church's authority derives from and depends upon her conformity with the inherently authoritative Word of God. "The Church may be likened to a court of law, but she is not to be confused with the source of law" (Mathison, 270).

2. Private and Corporate Judgment

a. There is a difference between the role of the conscience in the individual and in the church. Individuals should read Scripture, but final ecclesiastical authority does not rest in the individual member. The Individual however, is ultimately responsible before God.

b. The individual should not study the Bible in isolation from the rest of the church (past and present). One can read the Scriptures by themselves, but should not read it individualistically.

c. "Excommunication is an authoritative judgment of the communion of saints as the covenantal body of Christ. And teaching the Word is the authoritative duty of the communion of saints as the covenantal body of Christ" (Mathison, 271).

D. Scripture is interpreted according to the regula fidei

1. Tradition: The Rule of Faith (regula fidei)

a. Tradition was the doctrine committed to the Church by Christ and the apostles through oral and written forms. The content was identical. What was once primarily an oral tradition was gradually written down in the canonical Scriptures.

b. The regula fidei was a summary of the apostolic doctrine that was taught and preserved by the church. It functioned as a hermeneutical context for the church after the deaths of the apostles.

2. Creeds and Confessions

a. Creeds and confessions aim to establish boundaries within the church. They are beliefs held to by the church (corporate).

-Many evangelicals have an aversion to established creeds because they misunderstand the way in which they are authoritative and/or their summary nature. They might agree with everything in a particular creed while denying the ultimate authority of a human summary of Scripture. Also, some find individual church creeds are needlessly divisive when they require adherence to denominational distinctives (Calvinism, Views on the last days, age of the earth..ect). Some may believe creeds are good and necessary, but that individual members should not have to sign statements that go beyond the rule of faith.

-Almost all churches (even ones that think of themselves as non-creedal) require members to be interviewed and affirm the basic tenants of the Christian faith.

3. The Perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture

a. The authority of ecumenical creeds is held to in light of the belief in the perspicuity of Scripture on basic and essential matters. They are a confession of what the church as a whole has read in the Scriptures.

b. Charles Hodge says, "If the Scriptures be a plain book, and the Spirit performs the functions of a teacher to all the children of God, it follows inevitably that they must agree in all essential matters in their interpretation of the Bible. And from that fact it follows that for an individual Christian to dissent from the faith of the universal Church (i.e., the body of true believers), is tantamount to dissenting from the Scriptures themselves" (279).

c. There can be new insights into the Scriptures (perhaps unnoticed or not articulated by previous eras), but these need to be consistent with the rule of faith.

-This doctrine does not claim that every part of Scripture is clear and easy to understand-- a point many Protestants, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox misunderstand about the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.

-Many modern evangelicals who advocate a tradition 0 approach try to affirm the perspicuity of Scripture while rejecting the use of creeds!

Keith Mathison's The Shape of Sola Scriptura informed most, but not all of the explanation of Sola Scriptura in this post.

Many Protestants find 1 Cor 4:6 to be an important principle for Sola Sriptura. "Now, brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, 'Do not go beyond what is written.' Then you will not take pride in one man over against another."


Noah Johnson said...

"It [Scripture] alone is always and everywhere the very Word of the living God."

Can you clarify what you mean by "very Word of the living God"? Is Scripture in some way identified with the Divine Logos, the Son of God, Christ. Is He also another that is alone the very Word of God? or is He somehow one with Scipture that is the very Word of God. This point always confuses me.

Jnorm888 said...

I know Reformed/Prespyterian protestants that reject Keith Mathison's interpretation of Sola Scriptura. They feel it is too close to Rome.

Either way, there is really no one true view of what Sola Scriptura means.

There are multiple interpretations. And so what might be "Sola Scriptura" to you may not be "Sola Scriptura" according to another protestant I might argue with online.


Catz206 said...


"very Word of the living God" = these are the words God has spoken.

Jesus is the second person of the Trinity and the words spoken/written in the Bible are His words too ;)


I have not only drawn from Keith Mathison's work (although I did like the way he arranged the material). I think the prob many other protestants might have with his presentation is perhaps due to a misunderstanding of how the Rule of Faith functions in relation to Scripture (Mathison views the two as having identical contact). His reading seems to square with the early Reformers though. Perhaps you could give me some specifics on the prob of the def of Sola Scriptura as I laid it out here?

As for there being "multiple interpretations"...there are prob slightly diff nuances, but I believe the def I have provided would be acceptable to all proponents of Sola Scriptura. However, not all who claim to be following Sola Scriptura actually are or even understand what it really means. Many who advocate a tradition 0 approach would fit into this camp. One only needs to look at the earliest Reformers and see that Sola Scriptura differs from Solo Scriptura.

It is not enough that another blogger merely claims a different def. I have an Eastern Orthodox friend who claims the church doesn't teach that it is infallible...doesn't make it so.

Michael Gormley said...

Some Protestants have the notion that Catholics do not “believe” in the Bible, so they bring up Second Timothy 3:15-16 to support their belief of Sola Scriptura:"... from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness."

Certainly Catholics believe in the Bible (Catholics put together the Bible!) but this verse does not really support the belief of Sola Scriptura; it does not say that scripture alone is an adequate guide to the faith For that matter, the whole Bible does not say that we should believe in the Bible alone, nor does it say which books are inspired by God. This is only one hole in the belief of Sola Scriptura; there are many more.

David N. said...


2 Tim 3:15-16 does not prove Sola Scriptura by itself, but it does go a long way. It shows that everything needed for "training in righteousness" and for doing "every good work" is contained in Scripture, so that supposedly infallible documents and/or a magesterium outside of Scripture is not necessary (and make no mistake, the Catholic church does not simply claim that it if a helpful guide to the Bible, it claims to be a necessary addition).

Further, you have not actually demonstrated any holes in SS. Why does the Bible need to tell us which books are inspired in order for SS to be true? SS only means that whatever is "God-breathed" is infallible and binding on all Christians, and only Scripture itself is God-breathed, infallible and binding. Denying SS, then, would mean that there is some other source of God-breathed, infallible, binding revelation (such as the Catholic magesterium).

So the fact that Daniel doesn't tell me that Jeremiah is inspired doesn't really pose a problem for SS.