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Sola Scriptura has been a point of contention between Roman Catholics and Protestants for centuries. In recent years, a large number of books critical of the doctrine have been published. Many of these have been written by former Protestants who have converted either to Roman Catholicism or to Eastern Orthodoxy. The one common claim all of these authors make is that, after long years of study, they have discovered that the doctrine of sola Scriptura is Biblically, historically, and theologically implausible. Too many Protestants have found these arguments persuasive and have followed these authors into the Catholic or Orthodox communions.

A great deal of the difficulty surrounding this issue stems from the failure of all sides in the debate to adequately and honestly deal with the historical context of the Reformation doctrine of Scripture. The doctrine of sola Scriptura did not suddenly appear in the sixteenth century in the middle of a theological vacuum, and in order to understand this doctrine, some knowledge of its historical and theological context is necessary.

The first myth that must be discarded is the idea that the debate can be accurately framed in terms of Scripture vs. tradition. What we find throughout church history, including the Reformation, are competing concepts of the relationship between Scripture and tradition.

For the first three centuries of the church, there was a general consensus regarding the source of authority. The New Testament, which came about as the apostolic proclamation was put down in writing, together with the Old Testament was considered to be the sole source of revelation and the authoritative doctrinal norm. Scripture, however, was to be interpreted in and by the church within the theological context of the “rule of faith.”

The “rule of faith,” or regula fidei, as explained by Irenaeus and Tertullian, was essentially the doctrinal content of the profession of faith that every new Christian was asked to recite from memory before his or her baptism. It was the summary of the Christian faith. Its content (in a more developed form) is now found in writing in the Nicene Creed. Neither the church nor the regula fidei, however, were considered second sources of revelation. The church was considered to be the interpreter and guardian of the Word of God, and the regula fidei was the hermeneutical context of the Word of God. But according to this one-source position, Scripture alone was the very Word of God Himself. The first hints of a two-source view of revelation are not found until the fourth century in the writings of Basil and Augustine. It is difficult to prove conclusively that either man actually embraced such a view, but their ambiguity on this point laid the foundation for its future acceptance.

Martin Luther and John Calvin did not invent a new doctrine of Scriptural authority.

Both the one-source view and an undeveloped two-source view of revelation had adherents throughout the medieval church, but the one-source view was dominant until the late Middle Ages. In fact, the first theologian to expound a fully developed two-source view was William of Ockham (1280–1349). Part of the reason for this late medieval shift was the gradual move from a more allegorical method of interpreting Scripture to a more literal method. One result of this hermeneutical shift was that theologians began to notice Scripture said nothing about certain doctrines of the church. These doctrines had been defended by means of the allegorical method of interpretation, but a literal method of interpretation left them with no support. These doctrines gradually began to depend upon appeals to a second source of revelation, sometimes termed “tradition.”

By the end of the fifteenth century, several different positions on the relationship between Scripture, the church, and tradition were being advocated. The Franciscans, following Ockham, continued to advocate a strong two-source position. The Thomists advocated a position that combined Aquinas’ one-source view with developing views of papal supremacy. The modern Augustinian school advocated a strong one-source position. The two-source view, however, had become the dominant position by this point in history. The shift away from allegorical interpretation also continued, and this led to a more obvious separation between the apostolic Scriptures and the post-apostolic traditions. In addition, the Roman Catholic Church continued to fall further into worldliness. All of these factors set the stage for the debates of the sixteenth century.

The ongoing debate between adherents of differing views of authority exploded in the sixteenth century Reformation. Unfortunately, Protestants and Catholics alike often misconstrue this phenomenon. Martin Luther and John Calvin did not invent a new doctrine of Scriptural authority. Their debate with the Roman Catholic Church was part of an ongoing medieval discussion. Their complaint against Rome arose because the church had forsaken the apostolic life and teaching, and had insulated itself against any and all possibility of criticism and correction. The Reformers appealed to the ancient one-source concept of Scriptural revelation as a corrective. They also taught that Scripture was the sole source of revelation; that by virtue of its unique inspiration Scripture was the only inherently infallible norm of doctrine and practice; that Scripture was to be interpreted in and by the church; and that Scripture was to be interpreted within the context of the Christian rule of faith.

The Reformers believed that the church must be reformed, not by creating a new church but by returning the existing church to her ancient beliefs and practices. Their desire was to remove the obvious post-apostolic abuses that had crippled the church and were obscuring the Gospel. To do this, they appealed to the older one-source concept of revelation. In self-defense, Rome appealed to the late medieval two-source theory to defend its un-Scriptural doctrines and practices. Although these two positions had co-existed within the church for several centuries, the heat of the Reformation debate made their continued co-existence within the same communion virtually impossible. Ultimately, Rome dogmatized the two-source view at the Council of Trent.

The Reformers believed that the church must be reformed, not by creating a new church but by returning the existing church to her ancient beliefs and practices.

This means that the classic Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura is not a novel doctrine of Scriptural authority, as Rome claims. Sola Scriptura is really nothing more than the sixteenth-century expression of a doctrine that was universally held for the first three centuries of the church and continued to be held and taught by many in the church throughout the Middle Ages. It was, in fact, the Roman Catholic doctrine that was relatively novel. This two-source theory was unheard of until the fourth century, when the first hints of it were voiced, and it was not until the late Middle Ages that a fully developed two-source theory of revelation emerged.

Although Luther and Calvin did not advocate a new doctrine of Scripture, there were those who did. The Anabaptists rejected both the Roman Catholic position and the magisterial Reformers’ position. They argued that Scripture was not merely the only infallible authority, but that it was the only authority altogether. Tradition was not allowed in any sense; the authority of the ecumenical creeds was dismissed; and the church was denied any subordinate authority.

In eighteenth-and nineteenth-century America, this Anabaptistic individualism combined with Enlightenment rationalism and democratic populism to create the radical doctrine of Scripture that has prevailed within most of evangelicalism to this day. The advocates of this view continue to use the slogan sola Scriptura, but their view could more properly be referred to as “solo Scriptura.” And just as the Roman Catholic position inevitably leads to institutional autonomy, the popular evangelical position inevitably leads to individual autonomy. While it claims to elevate Scripture to the place of supreme authority, it always elevates the mind of each individual to the position of final authority. The result has been theological chaos.

The patristic and Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura is a minority position today within evangelicalism. In the Lordship Salvation controversy of the 1980s and ‘90s, we learned that many believers were being taught a version of sola fide (“faith alone”) that was completely foreign to the Reformation doctrine. The same thing has happened with the doctrine of sola Scriptura, only it has happened over a much longer period of time and the counterfeit version has become much more entrenched. Unfortunately, many Christians are completely unaware that the version of sola Scriptura they have been taught has nothing in common with the classical Reformation doctrine.

The sixteenth-century Reformers fought a battle on two fronts. They adamantly objected to the two-source doctrine of Rome that was being used to justify all kinds of un-Scriptural doctrines and practices. But they objected just as strongly to the individualistic and autonomous doctrine of the radical Anabaptists. If we are to follow in their footsteps, we too must continue the battle on both fronts. We must reject ecclesiastical tyranny, but we also must reject ecclesiastical anarchy.

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The Whole Counsel

Keep Reading Sola Scriptura

From the August 2001 Issue
Aug 2001 Issue