Sola Scriptura: Scripture Alone
The fourth of the five “solas” of the Reformation is sola Scriptura, which means “Scripture alone.” Many religions and cults claim authority for their holy books, sometimes alongside the Bible. But only the Bible is “breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16), a trustworthy book of divine origin composed by men who “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). Just as “there is salvation in no one else” (Acts 4:12) besides Christ—solo Christo—there is also no other authoritative source of divine revelation besides “the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17)—sola Scriptura.
The Reformers recognized that in the medieval church, the authority of the ecclesiastical hierarchy and its traditions had come to outweigh the authority of Scripture itself in the life and teaching of the church. The Latin Bible commonly in use was not accessible to ordinary Christians, and even many clergy were woefully ignorant of its contents. Conventional wisdom suggested that only the educated elite needed to read the Scriptures; the average Christian simply needed to trust implicitly in the church, content to experience grace through its sacramental rituals, not through direct, personal access to the word of God. After all, it was thought, the Bible’s authority rests on the more fundamental authority of the church. But the Reformers realized that this was backwards. It is the church that rests “on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20); the church must look to Scripture for authority and authentication, not the other way around.
As a result, the Reformers sought to pare away the unbiblical traditions that had accumulated around the church’s teaching, worship, and life and to bring God’s people back to the word of God. The Reformation also saw a flowering of Bible translation into the common languages of Europe and a great increase of Biblical literacy in both pulpit and pew; William Tyndale famously aimed to “cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture than” the bishops that opposed him (Fox’s Book of Martyrs).
The Reformers’ commitment to the principle of sola Scriptura did not mean that they denied the value of the church’s past in supplying needed wisdom and boundaries for its present teaching and practice. They were committed, for example, to defending the truths articulated in the early creeds about key doctrines like the Trinity and the incarnation. But why? Ultimately because they recognized these creeds as faithful articulations of what Scripture teaches. Thus, when the Reformation produced mature doctrinal summaries of its own, those very confessions of faith readily pointed out that “the supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.10).
Grace-Based Action Point
The principle of sola Scriptura continues to be of great importance today. It is still continually threatened by false religions, cults, and erroneous church tradition, but that’s not all. In contemporary Protestant evangelicalism, the culture of celebrity can tend to orient the church around powerful personalities instead of God’s word. Unbiblical understandings of Christian experience teach people to look for new revelation instead of embracing the sufficiency of Scripture. Social activism and political fervor of many stripes subtly tempt the church to adopt a “Scripture and …” foundation for doctrine and practice. But it is the Scripture alone that “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” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The foundation for the faith and life of every faithful church, every God-fearing family, every godly Christian is today what it always has been: sola Scriptura.
Yours in Christ,