Revisiting Sola Scriptura
Revisiting Sola Scriptura

Revisiting Sola Scriptura

The Reformers' understanding of Sola Scriptura is forthrightly opposed to what many have come to take as its meaning.

November 1 st 2012
Appears in Fall 2012

Sola scriptura neither fell from the sky nor sprang up spontaneously. It arose in the hurly-burly of that dynamic period in Western European history: the Reformation. Revisiting how the Protestant Reformers came to, and what they meant by, their shared affirmation of this principle of religious authority is necessary in the present day. Many Protestant Christians have missed the Reformers' mark in this regard.

The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century had profound consequences, not only for the city of God, but also for the city of man. Whether treating the development of representative government, of capitalism, of the Industrial Revolution, or of colonialism—to name no others—one simply must acknowledge the seminal role of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation as a formative factor if one is going to do justice to how the West got to be the way it is.

Even so, that Reformation was not principally concerned with any of these issues. It was a thorough-going attempt to deal with the problems that had arisen in the teaching and practice of the Christian faith. That is, the Protestant Reformation was at heart and primarily a religious movement. Initiated by Martin Luther's struggles to find peace with God, the Reformation pursued how to think about, appropriate, and follow the Christian faith.

Of course, it was not as if Christianity had disappeared from Western Europe. Everything was related to the faith—but the largely unchallenged assumptions that had guided too many in their teaching and practice and the sheer bulk of Christianity's presence had allowed all sorts of ideas and practices to be viewed as somehow within acceptable Christianity. Yet this clutter had also caused the basic message of the Christian faith— God's free mercy in Christ—to become overlaid with a welter of other notions. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, even a monk as devoted to monastic lifestyle (supposedly the surest way to find a right relationship with God) as Martin Luther could not figure out how to find peace with God.

Luther's keen intellectual gifts were recognized by his superiors, and he was favoured with the best education which contemporary scholasticism could offer. He pursued his studies so assiduously that he eventually earned a Th.D. (Doctor of Theology), a feat in his day. But even with all this study of doctrine and Scripture, he was unable to be confident that God had accepted him. This quest continued to motivate him in his early career as Professor of Bible at the University of Wittenberg.

Finding Grace In Cloaca

Magnificently learned as he was and steeped as he had been in monastic practice, Luther could not find a gracious God. No matter how many good works (in the teaching of the Church) he performed, no matter how much he practiced (and extended) the monastic vigils, no matter how thoroughly he followed the Church's teaching, he could find no peace with God. Divine demands for righteousness in order to stand in God's presence, as Luther had learned and accepted them, were unattainable. Luther's quest had continued year after year, without finding the answer he so desperately desired.

And then, in performance of his professorial duties, Luther took on another book of Scripture to expound in his teaching. The choice fell on St. Paul's "Letter to the Romans." What resulted is well known: Luther came to Romans 1:16-17 and was perplexed by the apostle's comments. Luther read there, "In it [the Gospel of God] the righteousness of God is revealed," and knew what that had always meant to him—that this righteousness of God is the unflinching standard by which he judges all. For Luther, how could that be "good news" (the meaning of euaggelion, "Gospel")? For him, it had always been exactly the opposite! Even so, Luther recognized and dealt honestly with the text: what he had always found terrifying, St. Paul revelled in. How was that possible? How could the apostle hold such a view?

As Luther pondered this anomaly, preparing for the lectures he would soon be giving to his students, it eventually dawned on him that he had misunderstood this phrase, "the righteousness of God." Luther came to see that the apostle was not excited by a standard God insisted upon, but by a righteousness divinely granted to those who believe in Christ. Luther found a sudden peace with God as he pondered this new way of thinking about divine righteousness. He ransacked his fertile memory for other passages related to the complex issue of a sinner's standing with God and found delight that they could be understood in this liberating manner. This experience transformed his life, his understanding, his view of Christianity, and the ways he viewed society, although all this took a number of years to work its way out in Luther's views. Luther found relief. Peace with God was finally his.

It is worth noting the humour of God in this event. Luther described this discovery as taking place in cloaca. This has commonly been referred to as Luther's "tower" experience—as if it transpired in an upper room study of this "tower," where Luther found his answer after his many years of exacting investigation. While it was possible that Luther had such a study in this "tower," the term cloaca referred not to the tower as a whole, but to one section of it—the toilet! (This may explain, in part, why Luther frequently resorted to scatological language in his invective: if God could bring him relief in the toilet from the spiritual constipation he had known for so many years, then crude language need not be rejected in dealing with issues and problems.) The Protestant Reformation began with what happened in a toilet!

With this insight, Luther claimed that he had rediscovered the heart of Christianity. We are "justified" (that is, accounted as righteous in God's sight) not by our good works—whatever they might be, commended in Scripture or by Church—but by faith. That faith is in Christ alone as our righteousness before God. It was not long before this insight came to be known as "justification sola fide"—justification "by faith alone." The other Protestant Reformers— Ulrich Zwingli, Johannes Oecolampadius, Martin Bucer, Philip Melanchthon, William Farel, and, in the next generation, John Calvin—all professed this doctrine. With it, those Reformers claimed that they had rediscovered the Gospel itself. And they proclaimed it bravely, constantly, and assiduously in a Western Christendom that had been built upon the Christian faith but had allowed all kinds of (doubtlessly well-intended) ecclesiastical and doctrinal clutter so to pile up over that apostolic message that it had been lost to view.

But how could this reorientation of Christian teaching be defended? What legitimized Luther and the other Protestant Reformers in this refocus of Christian teaching? Concern for a better understanding of the faith is one thing; claiming that one had found it is another. By what authority did the Reformers claim their message was the truth of Christianity? The answer is well-known among Protestants, down to the present day: the Protestant Reformers urged sola scriptura—"Scripture alone."

Aye—and there's the rub! Far too often, what we contemporary Protestants assume the Reformers meant by their appeal to "Scripture alone" becomes our ostensible legitimation for views the Reformers resolutely repudiated. In much of present-day Protestantism, "Scripture alone" functions as if it means there is no religious authority but Scripture—which can be understood and interpreted individualistically. That is, the believing individual Christian need appeal to nothing more than his or her own understanding of one or more scriptural passages to argue for the veracity of whatever they claim to be divine teaching. This subjective and individualistic approach to Scripture (and what it allegedly teaches, on this basis) has spawned some extraordinary viewpoints and orientations. Is this what the Reformers intended with their sixteenth-century affirmation of sola scriptura?

No matter what some contemporary Christians may believe, no matter what some pastors have declared, and no matter what some Protestant theologians may have taught, the Reformers taught nothing of the kind. Indeed, the Reformers' understanding of sola scriptura is forthrightly opposed to what many have come to take as the meaning of the phrase. In order to get into what the Reformers meant by sola scriptura, we need to consider what religious authority was as the sixteenth century dawned. With that background, we can then consider how Luther and the other Protestant Reformers dealt with religious authority and came to embrace sola scriptura, and what they meant by that affirmation.

Where To Begin

It may be helpful to start by recognizing how religious authority operates among twentyfirst century Protestants. While many have a general sense that Scripture is our religious authority, a lot of other religious authorities function significantly in Protestant circles. All of our Protestant churches have certain expectations which we have imbibed to some degree—the demands or expectations that we will attend church services every Sunday (and sometimes twice), that we support certain worthwhile causes, that we read our Bibles devotionally on a regular basis, and that we engage in individual and family prayer—serve to direct what we do (and the guilt we feel when we don't). These expectations function as religious authority over us, demanding our acceptance. Further, what we have gotten used to in our denomination or particular congregation, simply by virtue of its being there since before we knew it, functions as authority for us: it could be the specific order of service, which anyone tries to change at his or her peril, or it could even be the time of the morning worship (10:00 am for Reformed, 11:00 am for Presbyterians and Baptists), which many view as virtually sacrosanct. What we do regularly takes on a self-evident-ness that demands obedient submission. In this way, all sorts of things function as religious authorities among us.

Something similar had taken place within Christendom as the fifteenth century came to a close. Medieval theologians recognized that, in some undefined sense, Scripture played a leading role. But other practices and declarations had become religiously authoritative. The sheer force of inertia in the liturgical practice of the Church, with its structured service following the lectionary assiduously, was an imposing authority. The teachings of the church fathers and the creedal declarations of the ecumenical councils stood as ancient authorities for Christendom. The doctrinal pronouncements of the various scholastic theological faculties of respected universities also offered the considered opinions of the learned. Moreover, papal pronouncements through the centuries carried a certain hoary weight: papal decrees and decretals were the focus of intensive study and declarations on the part of "canon lawyers"—whose views, in interpreting what those decrees and decretals required, carried authority as well.

The result of this historical development was that, as the sixteenth century opened, religious authority was a considerable, undifferentiated, and unwieldy mass that had accumulated over the centuries and demanded adherence in the present. It all came with the self-evident force of what had always (as far as anyone at the time could see) been the case. It was all, somehow, authoritative for theologians, clergy, and laypeople alike. And the very lack of guidance for sorting out the weight and strength of these various (and sometimes conflicting) religious authorities made for confusion and lack of clarity in many regards—including how one might find a gracious God.

As clarity came to Luther in his understanding of the Gospel itself, he recognized the need to sort out the claimants to religious authority. He recognized that neither the academic theological training he had received nor the pronouncements of theological faculties at the universities made that Gospel clear; to Luther and the other Reformers, these were not legitimate religious authorities. Furthermore, he considered and then rejected canon law, for it also failed to emphasize the divine mercy in Christ. He surveyed the whole tangled ball of undifferentiated religious authorities and recognized that Scripture alone presented the Gospel of divine grace forthrightly. With this, Luther cut through the Gordian knot of religious authority in his affirmation of sola scriptura.

With his typical boldness, Luther vigorously urged justification sola fide and sola scriptura. Not surprisingly, his views were challenged; at the Diet of Worms in 1521, the archbishop of Trier denounced Luther for subjectivism, the proud arrogance that acted as if he alone in the history of the Church knew the truth. While many Protestants today would likely shrug off such an accusation, Luther was rattled. In the Wartburg Castle, where he was secreted away after the diet, he wrestled with that charge. This drove him to an increased study of the ancient Church. He already respected the church fathers and the creedal deliverances of the ancient ecumenical councils, and he found in them both the teaching of God's free grace in Christ and the defense of what had been passed down from the apostles. These did not stand on their own as religious authorities, but they nonetheless served as subordinate religious authorities, to guide Christians subsequently in the proper understanding of Scripture.

Sola Scriptura:
The Genuine Article

Returned to Wittenberg, Luther both denounced subjectivism and affirmed the necessity of standing with the historic witness of the ancient Church—which, though covered by the medieval accretions that had obscured the heart of the faith, nonetheless found its witnesses in all the centuries of the Church. For Luther and the other Reformers, sola scriptura did not imply a free-wheeling individualism that could engage in subjective expositions of Scripture, unrelated to the historic faith. When they encountered that, they repudiated it vigorously—Philip Melanchthon's denunciation of Servetus (who denied the deity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity) is a fine example of a Reformer standing against the misuse of sola scriptura. Instead, Melanchthon gladly pointed out that Luther stood humbly with the church fathers as they taught Scripture well and embraced the creeds as defenses of the faith "once for all delivered to the saints." In all this, the other Protestant Reformers held the same viewpoint.

For them, sola scriptura meant that Scripture was the only unquestioned religious authority, not the only religious authority. Patristic teaching stood as a subsidiary religious authority, as did the creedal deliverances of the ecumenical councils. As conforming to Scripture, they were beneath it and were normed by it—but they were religious authorities, for all that. Scripture was the only ultimate religious authority, normed by none other. For the Reformers, a freebooting, individualistic subjectivism could not defend itself by appeal to sola scriptura. For the Reformers, rather, it entailed following in the hallowed path of the faithful teaching of the church fathers and adhering to the creedal statements adopted at the ancient ecumenical councils.

In all this, the Protestant Reformers did not expect that every Christian would not only read the Scriptures but also peruse patristic literature; that would have been impossible for most of them then, and it would remain so for Christians today. The Reformers did not expect a learned familiarity with the great tokens of faithful Christian antiquity, but they did expect that those who purported to teach what Scripture says not contravene that faithful witness.

In our day, in the last quarter-century or so, a remarkable revival of interest in patristic teaching has arisen in Protestant circles. This serves as a welcome return—whether the practitioners know it or not—to the Reformers' perspectives. May it help us better approximate that perspective on sola scriptura articulated by the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers as foundational to the Protestant Reformation.

Topics: Religion
James R. Payton, Jr.
James R. Payton, Jr.

James R. Payton, Jr., is Professor of History at Redeemer University College (Ancaster, Ontario). He and his wife Sharon have four children, six grandchildren—and three Bengal cats! Jim began his scholarly career in late medieval/Reformation-era studies, but his interests have increasingly moved eastward, to the history of Eastern Europe and of Orthodoxy. He has taught at McMaster Divinity College (Hamilton, Ontario); at Evangelical Theological Seminary (Osijek, Croatia); and at Matthias Flacius Illyricus Faculty of Theology (Zagreb, Croatia). He has lectured in the liberal arts program at Crimean Medical University (Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine); at St. Clement of Ohrid Orthodox Theological Seminary (Skopje, Macedonia); and has delivered the "Annual Lectures in Christian Thought" for the Department of Religious Studies in the University of Calgary.


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