I’m working on a “Reformation” themed service for this Sunday PM at Howick Baptist Church.
Its, 1521, day two of the great Diet of Worms, Martin Luther is standing before the Roman Emperor, the princes of the Roman Empire, and Eck – the Pope’s theologian:
The official opened the proceedings: “Martin Luther, yesterday you acknowledged the books published in your name. Do you retract those books, or not ? This is the question we before addressed to you, and which you declined answering, under the pretext that it was a question of faith we were putting, and that you had need of time for reflection ere you replied, though a theologian like you must know very well that a Christian should always be ready to answer any questions touching his faith. Explain yourself now. Will you defend all your writings, or disavow some of them?”
Luther replied: “‘I am man, and not God, I would not seek to shield my books under any other patronage than that with which Christ covered his doctrine. When interrogated before the high-priest, as to what he taught, and his cheek buffeted by a varlet: “If I have spoken evil,” he said, “bear witness of the evil.” If the Lord Jesus, who knew himself incapable of sin, did not reject the testimony which the vilest mouths might give respecting his Divine Word, ought not I, scum of the earth that I am, and capable only of sin, to solicit the examination of my doctrines ?
“I therefore, in the name of the living God, entreat your sacred majesty, your illustrious highnesses, every human creature, to come and depose what they can against me, and, with the Prophets and the Gospel in their hands, to convict me, if they can, of error. I stand here, ready, if anyone can prove me to have written falsely, to retract my errors, and to throw my books into the fire with my own hand.
“Be assured I have well weighed the dangers, the pains, the strife, and hatred that my doctrine will bring into the world; and I rejoice to see the word of God producing, as its first fruits, discord and dissension, for such is the lot and destiny of the Divine Word, as our Lord has set forth: I came not to send peace, but a sword, to set the son against his father.
After a strong rebuke from Eck, Luther continued:
“Since then your imperial majesty and your highnesses demand a simple answer, I will give you one; brief and simple, but deprived of neither its teeth nor its horns. Unless I am convicted of error by the testimony of Scripture, or by manifest evidence (for I put no faith in the mere authority of the pope, or of councils, which have often been mistaken, and which have often contradicted one another, recognising, as I do, no other guide than the Bible, the Word of God), I cannot and will not retract, for we must never act contrary to our conscience.
“Such is my profession of faith, and expect none other from me. Here I stand: God help me! Amen!”
Luther took His stand on the Word of God.
Yes, the Reformation “rediscovered” Justification by Faith Alone, Through Grace Alone, in Christ Alone, to the Glory of God Alone. However, if it were not for the reestablishment of the Holy Scriptures as the final authority for faith and practice there would have been no Reformation.
So what is Sola Scriptura? And does Sola mean “sole” or “only?”
“Sola Scriptura” means Scripture alone has the authority to bind a person’s conscience. All ideas, traditions, creeds, councils, and practices must be judged by the authoritative Word of God. This is the basic presupposition of all protestant doctrine.
A. A. Hodge helpfully addressed the doctrine of Sola Scriptura in his Outlines of Theology by way of a series of questions and answers.
What is meant by saying that the Scriptures are the only infallible rule of faith and practice?
Whatever God teaches or commands is of sovereign authority. Whatever conveys to us an infallible knowledge of his teachings and commands is an infallible rule. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the only organs through which, during the present dispensation, God conveys to us a knowledge of his will about what we are to believe concerning himself, and what duties he requires of us.
What is necessary to constitute a sole and infallible rule of faith?
Plenary inspiration, completeness, perspicuity or clarity, and accessibility.
What arguments do the Scriptures themselves afford in favor of the doctrine that they are the only infallible rule of faith?
1st. The Scriptures always speak in the name of God, and command faith and obedience.
2nd. Christ and his apostles always refer to the written Scriptures, then existing, as authority, and to no other rule of faith whatsoever.–Luke 16:29; 10:26; John 5:39; Rom. 4:3;2 Tim. 3:15.
3rd. The Bereans are commended for bringing all questions, even apostolic teaching, to this test.–Acts 17:11; see also Isa. 8:16.
4th. Christ rebukes the Pharisees for adding to and perverting the Scriptures.–Matt. 15:7-9; Mark 7:5-8; see also Rev. 22:18, 19, and Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Josh. 1:7.
In what sense is the completeness of Scripture as a rule of faith asserted?
It is not meant that the Scriptures contain every revelation which God has ever made to man, but that their contents are the only supernatural revelation that God does now make to man, and that this revelation is abundantly sufficient for man’s guidance in all questions of faith, practice, and modes of worship, and excludes the necessity and the right of any human inventions.
In 2011, Christian Smith wrote two interesting and sadly, influential books: 1) How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps & 2) The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture.
Step #47 [in Smith’s 95 steps to move from evangelicalism to Catholicism] is to “realize that the doctrine of sola Scriptura is itself not biblical but, ironically, is received and believed as a sacred (Protestant) church tradition… sola Scriptura is the belief that Christians have the Bible alone and no other human tradition as authority.” Later, he challenges his readers to find biblical passages that teach that “Scripture or the written word of God is the sole and sufficient authority for Christian faith.”
However, neither the Reformers nor their heirs concluded that Scripture is the “sole” authority, nor did they deny the relative authority of human teachers. (If Calvin believed the Bible was the “sole” authority, why so much effort and time devoted to reading Augustine and Chrysostom?) As Smith himself points out, the Scriptures themselves point to human teachers and leaders who are to be honoured as authorities. Smith is also correct that the New Testament writers encourage Christians to honour apostolic traditions. No argument there, but that’s because Smith has missed the point.
The argument is not about “sole” authority but “final” authority.
Please understand, Sola Scriptura has never meant, “all you need is your Bible and the Holy Spirit.” No, Luther, Calvin, Knox, and all the rest of the Reformers read and wrote a massive amount of literature. And believe me, I am not advocating an, “all I need is the Bible and the Holy Spirit” attitude either. I have a very large library and read a good bit of extra-biblical literature as I am able.
Spurgeon: “It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.” – C. H. Spurgeon, Commenting and Commentaries (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1876), 1.
Packer: “Tradition is the fruit of the Spirit’s teaching activity from the ages as God’s people have sought understanding of Scripture. It is not infallible, but neither is it negligible, and we impoverish ourselves if we disregard it.” – J.I. Packer, “Upholding the Unity of Scripture Today,” JETS 25 (1982): 414
R. C. Sproul: “Although tradition does not rule our interpretation, it does guide it. If upon reading a particular passage you have come up with an interpretation that has escaped the notice of every other Christian for two-thousand years, or has been championed by universally recognized heretics, chances are pretty good that you had better abandon your interpretation.” – R. C. Sproul
Michael Horton: “The best way to guard a true interpretation of Scripture, the Reformers insisted, was neither to naively embrace the infallibility of tradition, or the infallibility of the individual, but to recognize the communal interpretation of Scripture. The best way to ensure faithfulness to the text is to read it together, not only with the churches of our own time and place, but with the wider ‘communion of saints’ down through the age.” – Michael Horton, “What Still Keeps Us Apart?”
The question is, “What is our conscience bound to?”
In our generation it is so easy to spend weeks on end reading books (even good books), listening to sermons (even good sermons), and not spend even five minutes looking into that One Book which is profitable to make the man of God competent, equipped for every good work.
When we ourselves are not being formed and shaped by the very Word of God and transformed by the Gospel contained therein (Rom. 1:16-17), we are not Sola Scriptura people.