Sola Scriptura. It is a Latin term which translates to “by Scripture alone.” It is defined as: a theological doctrine held by some Christian denominations that the Christian Scriptures are the sole infallible rule of faith and practice. It was adopted predominantly during the course of the Reformation of 1517, and has been accepted by a majority of protestants. It is considered the utmost of the five Solas of the Reformation, conceived by Martin Luther in contrast to the tradition of the Catholic Church. While I don’t want to dwell too much on the history here, I do want to make it very clear that this is in no way an argument against the integrity of Scripture, neither is it in any way meant to discourage anyone from the study of Holy Scripture. What I am writing, what my study is, is a Biblical look at whether or not Scripture is to be the only authority in the Church. Sola Scriptura is not just the doctrine that Scripture is perfect, nor that it is the word of God; rather it is the doctrine that proclaims that Scripture is the only authority that we should look to, that it is not only the source of authority in the Church, but that it alone is the authority of the Church.
See, one of the greatest follies of the Reformation in general, and of Luther specifically, was this idea that Scripture alone was the penultimate authority in manners of the Church. They rejected the authority of the Church, they rejected the teachings of the fathers of the Church, they rejected any and everything that was already in place as far as the Church itself went, proclaiming that it was the written word of God alone that had authority over all matters. That this was such a folly was immediately displayed when two prominent figures of the Reformation itself, Luther and Ulrich Zwingli (in Zurich), were unable to agree on the teachings of Scripture concerning the Eucharist. This occurred at the Marburg Coloquy in 1529 in Germany. I find it very interesting to consider that Luther taught that the body and blood of Christ were truly present during the taking of communion, whilst Zwingli taught, as most Protestants believe, that the bread and wine were merely symbolic of what had already happened. While what each of them believed is irrelevant to this thesis, it is important to note that something as revered as the Lord’s Supper, until the time of the Reformation considered one of the most important sacraments of the Church, was now, under the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, reduced to nothing more than a “grey matter” about which agreement was no longer considered even important. It reduced the Lord’s Supper to a distant faded memory in the eyes of many believers, rather than a real and present Sacrament in which believers are active participants in.
However, while the theology of each is irrelevant in light of this topic, what is of the utmost importance is this; when Scripture alone is considered the ultimate authority in all matters, it is not the Scripture itself which becomes the ultimate authority, but rather each individual’s interpretation of Scripture. When we eschew the traditions of the Church in lieu of Scripture, and yet here, even two of the founders of the Reformation, cannot agree on something as vital to the Church as communion, what does that say about the doctrine itself? If it is Scripture which is the sole authority, then why do we have teachers to explain to us what different passages mean, why do we have an entire science dedicated to “properly interpreting Scripture?” See, when I look at a passage in Scripture that declares, “if any among you is sick, bring him before the elders that they may pray and lay hands on him, and the prayer of faith will make him well.” (James 5:15), and then consider that the Reformation teaches us that “Scripture alone is the sole authority,” the last thing I would ever expect to see in the “Reformation Study Bible” (written by men) commentary is, “There is no special ‘prayer of faith’ that has healing power.” To the contrary, I would expect them, more than any other group claiming the name of Christ, to be arguing for it, not standing against the very words of Scripture.
See, the very Evangelicals who claim aloud the five Solas, arguing against any Church tradition, don’t even realize that they have embraced a tradition all their own, and their’s not even Biblical, ironically, considering that Sola Scriptura is the very tradition that they use to disallow any other tradition to have a foothold in their theology. It’s the irony of our faith that to live by Sola Scriptura means to understand that Scripture itself never claims itself to be the sole authority. To the contrary, the majority of what we see in the text applies the traditions of the Church held up to Scripture to be tested, and once they are found to be of God, then adhered to. Scripture itself can never be the authority, because it’s so open to a multitude of interpretations. Mark the Ascetic teaches us to “read the words of Scripture by putting them into action, not spinning out subtle interpretations, becoming puffed up with conceit.”
And yet, so often, this is exactly what we do. We’ve taken this doctrine, created 1500 years into the history of the Church, and used it to justify every sort of heresy imaginable. And we’ve done that by removing the governing power of the Church, reducing every single verse to what we “feel” it means; or what it “means to us,” arrogantly claiming that our own wisdom exceeds that of 2000 years of Church history. Peter warns us against this very thought, warning us that “no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for no prophecy of Scripture came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:20-21). Removing the “subtle interpretations” that Mark warns us against, what does this passage say? No prophecy comes by personal interpretation, but was given by holy men of God moved by the Holy Spirit. If we truly embrace Sola Scriptura, then there is no interpretation that could change what the word of God says, except that the word of God says that we rely on holy men of God and not our own interpretation. And yet, when we claim “Sola Scriptura,” we contradict the very word of God that we claim to be our sole source of authority, because we argue against the Scripture itself. When we claim Sola Scriptura, every prophecy becomes personal interpretation and no one can ever be wrong. Love or hate Joel Osteen, he quotes Scripture and no one has the right to tell him he’s wrong, because he is quoting Scripture and there is no authority beyond Scripture to tell him he’s wrong. To proclaim him as wrong is to accept the teachings of the Church and it’s interpretations, which flies in the face of Sola Scriptura. We end up with Zwingli stating that, during communion, there is no blood or flesh and Luther teaching that there is blood and flesh and have to proclaim both of them as right even though they are diametrically opposed in their stances, we create a theological relativism for which there is no cure.
In the Book of Acts, we learn of Philip finding an Ethopian eunuch reading from the prophet Isaiah. And Philip asks him if he understands what he is reading, to which the eunuch replies, “how can I unless someone teaches me.” (Acts 8:26-40). That is the very image of us and the authoritative Church. We see in this parable the Scripture, the prophet Isaiah; the Church, Philip; and us, the Eunuch. If Isaiah is the sole authority, then how does Philip have the ability to explain it to the Ethopian. This is us, we are the Ethopian, only instead of saying “how can I unless someone explains it to me,” we are standing in the darkness of our own pride saying, “no, the Church can’t tell us what this means, my own interpretation is sufficient.”
Consider this fact for a moment. For one thousand years, there was one Church, the Church of God. In 1054, the great Schism happened and the one Church split into two. Then, for nearly 500 years, there were two churches. Then, in the 501 years since the Reformation, there have formed nearly 40,000 various denominations. Consider that fact, 40,000 different variations, different denominations, different beliefs; each teaching different truths, and each based on different interpretations of the exact same Scripture. Each one being led by someone who, like Luther, being “wise in their own eyes” (Proverbs 3:7), puffed up with arrogance and pride, thought that they knew better than 1500+ years of these “holy annointed men of God,” the wisest of theologians, the most devout of monks. These men, laboring in their own arrogance, truly believed that they had found the secret things which had been missed by over a thousand years of people whose entire lives had been dedicated to nothing more than seeking after the Lord.
While none of the apostles warn against this idea of “Sola Scriptura” quite as bluntly as Peter did, it must be remembered that the idea was unfathomable during the time of the apostles. None of them would ever have considered the idea that someone would trust their own belief, their own mind, over the teachings of those who actually walked with the Lord. However, it must also be noted that each of these apostles did warn against similar circumstances, which would have been more realistic in their era. In Acts, we see the apostolic counsel, perhaps the best image in all of Scripture about the authority of the Church in contrast to what we see in Scripture. It displays for us the Church in meeting, using the Holy Scriptures as their foundation, determining doctrine which all new believers must adhere to. In his letter to the Thessalonians, we see Paul teaching the believers to “stand fast and hold the traditions which have been handed down, whether by word or by epistle.” (2 Thessalonians 2:15), further affirming the authority of the traditions, whether they are oral tradition or they are written.
Through the application of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, we find that it is itself unbiblical at best, and heretical at worst, leading multitudes away from the authoritative system which the Lord has set in place. We find a tradition of man, set in place 1500 years after the foundation of the Church for the purpose of removing the governing power from the Church, and a heresy openly embraced by so many who found the constraints of the Church too harsh. It was the fleshly response to our beloved Lord’s demand to “deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow Me.” (Matthew 16:24). We embrace this concept that the word of God is the only authority and that the Church has no power to govern, and then question when churches begin to embrace the sins of the world. When we begin to see Christians embracing those things which the Scripture and Church call sin, we have no room to complain that deny that the Church has the power to interpret the Scripture. Though drunkenness, sexual immorality, and the like were rampant throughout the history of the world, and even present in the history of the Church, they were never embraced by the Church when the Church had the power to govern, they were only accepted by those in power once the Church was divided into a multitude, the root become a branch shattered to splinters; by a doctrine which said that the Church should have no power to govern.
Lastly, on the topic, I would like to add that in various places in Scripture, we find references oral tradition being prevalent in terms of the theology of the believers. In the Book of Acts, Paul references words spoken by our beloved Lord Jesus, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35). Though he here affirms these words of our beloved Lord, nowhere in any Gospel are these words recorded. To the contrary, John closes his Gospel by stating that “there are many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:25). In Matthew 2:23, it is written that “it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene,'” which was never written in the Old Testament, though it was “spoken by the prophets.” In his epistle, Jude writes of a fight over the body of Moses, which there appears for the first time in all of Scripture. The moral being that, though these things were not written of, they were passed down by oral tradition.
My brothers and sisters, Paul writes of refusing to use “excellence of wisdom or speech” when teaching the Gospel, but not all have his integrity. We must be especially careful, as were the Bereans, to test the spirits against the Scripture, to see that they are in fact of God. The doctrine, the tradition, if you will, of Sola Scriptura, defeats itself when held against the Scriptures themselves; it is a tradition created by man which states that tradition created by man has no authority, only the Scriptures. And, it serves the purpose of causing divisiveness in the body of Christ by appealing to the same sinful desires the serpent used in the garden; it tells us that we can individually determine what the Lord meant, that we have the freedom to interpret the words of Scripture rather than obey them. And, even worse than the serpent in the garden, it has convinced us that even the very Church itself can not correct us on the meaning of Scripture.
Luther was right in his diagnosis of the Church. The Roman Catholic Church, through the weakness of man, had allowed corruption to seep in. Much as Jude had warned us about, “certain men have crept in unnoticed…ungodly men…who turn the grace of our God into lewdness” (Jude 1:4). But, as is so often the case, he was wrong in his treatment. As GK Chesterton said, “the reformer is always right about what’s wrong, however he’s seldom right about what’s right.” To gaze upon the Church and see the direction it is going, to see the corruption that has gained entrance, it seems that the correct reformation would have been to go back before the corruption and see what had changed since and correct that, not to abandon the concept of the Church and begin anew. The answer to corruption is correction, not to make the corruption the new norm.
We must not be mistaken, Scripture alone is infallible. but we are not. And to leave all of Scripture open to our own personal interpretations doesn’t make Scripture the authority, but rather it makes us the authority. We must cling to God’s word, and we must cling to the teachings of the Church and it’s fathers, always testing the teachings, through the presence of the Holy Spirit, to assure that those teachings are in fact of God, lest we be led astray, wandering off into myths, fairytales, and our own personal desires, justified by our own twisted interpretation of Scripture. I can find a verse here or a passage there that could suit any sinful desire, but when I look to all of Scripture and to the fathers of the Church, then I find the truth that I had chosen to blind myself to because of my own desire.
May the grace of the Lord be with you all, my beloved brothers and sisters.