A major tenet of Protestant theology is the authority and finality of the biblical revelation. This principle is often poorly stated but the essential point is that Scripture serves as the supreme court in all matters of faith and practice.

scripture For some all one needs to do is quote a verse and the issue is settled. For others they are aware of the difficulty of some questions and realize Scripture does not directly address some doctrinal and ethical issues with complete clarity. The Westminster Confession of Faith puts this principle rather clearly:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

Here, and elsewhere, the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura reflects a nuanced tension between the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture necessary for final authority, and the occasional need for its meaning to be revealed by careful exposition (Hebrews 5:12).

The errors made by many Protestants regarding this truth are too numerous to engage in through one post. They are legion and they are often extreme.

Sola scriptura teaches that the only doctrines which should be admitted or confessed are found directly within Scripture or indirectly therein by using valid logical deduction or valid deductive reasoning discovered within scripture. But, and this is vitally important, sola scriptura is not a denial of other authorities governing Christian life and devotion! This is the error large numbers of modern evangelicals have made by appealing wrongly to sola scriptura. What the principle simply says is that all other authorities are subordinate to, and to be corrected by, the written word of God.

Luther Another major error is to believe that sola scriptura ignores Christian history and tradition when interpreting the Bible. In principle the doctrine sees the Bible as the only final authority in matters of faith and practice but not the only authority. Martin Luther thus said, "The true rule is this: God's Word shall establish articles of faith, and no one else, not even an angel can do so.

One of the more important aspects of this doctrine is the idea of efficacy of Scripture. Scripture, united with the power of the Holy Spirit, not only demands, but creates the acceptance of its clear teaching. Thus a proper teaching of Scripture produces faith and obedience. The Holy Scripture is not a dead letter, an academic tool box. By the power of the Holy Spirit inherent in its witness it is powerful and living in the human soul. Put more clearly, Scripture compels more than intellectual assent to its doctrine. By the power of the Spirit it works to create the living agreement of faith. The Smalcald Articles affirm, "in those things which concern the spoken, outward Word, we must firmly hold that God grants His Spirit or grace to no one, except through or with the preceding outward Word.” This statement does not deny that divine revelation comes through other means (e.g., in nature, etc.) but simply affirms that the spoken teaching of the Christian faith must firmly hold to the canon of the written Scriptures and then proceed in the power of the Spirit.

I do not write these things to debate with Catholic apologists, though they any are welcome to disagree and post their response. What I write these things to establish a basic principle, one I believe taught by the Reformers and the early church Fathers as well. While Luther’s doctrine of faith, at least as he put it, is not clearly found in the writings of the earliest Christian theologians (Alister McGrath has established this beyond any reasonable doubt in his magnum opus, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification), the doctrine of the authority and finality of the Holy Scripture is abundantly evident in the writing of early church fathers. Consider these few quotations:

We have received the disposition of our salvation by no others, but those by whom the Gospel came to us; which they then preached, and afterwards by God's will delivered to us in the Scriptures, to be the pillar and ground of our faith. (St. Irenaeus, Lib. III. c. 1)

Let the shop of Hermogenes prove that what it advances is written; or if it be not written, let it fear the malediction uttered against those who dare to add or to retrench. (Tertullian c. 160-240, adv. Hermog.)

There is one God, whom we do not otherwise acknowledge, brethren, but out of the Sacred Scriptures. For as he, who would profess the wisdom of this world cannot otherwise attain it, unless he read the doctrines of the philosophers; so whosoever will
exercise piety towards God, can learn it no where but from the Holy Scriptures. (St. Hippolytus c. 170-c.235, adv. Noetum, c. IX)

250px-Origen2 In the two testaments every word that pertaineth unto God may be sought and discussed, and out of them all knowledge of things may be understood. And if anything remains which Holy Scripture does not determine, no other third scripture ought to be received to authorize any knowledge, but we must “commit to the fire” what remains, that is, reserve it unto God. (Origen c. 185-c.254, Hom. in Lev.)

When I arrived in the district of Arsinoe, when as you know this notion had long been widely held, so that schisms and secessions of entire churches had taken place, I called a meeting of the presbyters and teachers of the village congregations, with any laymen who wished to attend, and urged them to thrash out the question in public. So they brought me this book as positive and irrefutable proof, and I sat with them for three days on end from
dawn to dusk, criticizing its contents point by point. In the process I was immensely impressed by the essential soundness, complete sincerity, logical grasp, and mental clarity shown by these good people, as we methodically and good-temperedly dealt with questions, objections, and points of agreement. We refused to cling with pig-headed determination to opinions once held even if proved wrong. There was no shirking of difficulties, but to the limit of our powers we tried to grapple with the problems and master them; nor were we too proud, if worsted in argument, to abandon our position and admit defeat; conscientiously, honestly, and with simple-minded trust in God, we accepted the conclusions to be drawn from the proofs and teachings of Holy Writ. (Eusebius, in The History of the Church, quoting Dionysius c. 200-c. 265, bishop of Alexandria)

The holy and divinely inspired writings are sufficient of themselves alone to make known the truth. (St. Athanasius 296-373, Orat. Contr. Gent. Tom. I)

If you desire a new quotation, if you pretend to affirm anything besides what is written, why do you dispute with us, who are resolved to hear nothing, and to say nothing, besides what is written? (St. Athanasius, De Incarn. Chr.)

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  1. Dan August 1, 2011 at 8:30 am

    Even before I returned to the Roman Catholic Church, I didn’t believe in Solo or Sola Scriptura…at least not in terms of it being “that all other authorities are subordinate to, and to be corrected by, the written word of God.” It simply never made sense to me.
    I remember getting into a disagreement in one of my Theology classes with a young woman convinced that all and everything we (can/should) do in the church is given to us by scripture. Tradition, oral or “extra-canonical” writings, should never be our source for anything we do in the church. I then asked her, “How is it that the early Corinthian church required correction by Paul on how to properly engage the LORD’S Supper?” Her response was that they were obviously being unjust and that’s why they needed correction.
    What she couldn’t wrap her around was that none of the believers at Corinth had scriptures telling them how or even that they should have LORD’S Supper. The only reason they were doing it (wrong or otherwise) was because of oral teaching. It was the writings, the scriptures, that agreed with the oral teaching…not the oral teaching that agreed with the writing.
    She simply couldn’t wrap her head around that, got very angry with me and my point, and so I decided to quietly back out of the conversation.
    This problem I had with sola/solo scriptura is one of the reasons I returned to the RCC. Which scriptures are canonical? Who gets to decide the cannon? On what basis is a cannon decided? Who gets to decide what a valid basis for cannon is? Who gets to interpret the scripture? Who or what gets to declare a person is actually eligible to interpret scripture?
    To simply answer these questions with – The Holy Spirit – is not acceptable…for innumerable reasons, logical, historical, and scriptural.
    Catholic apologist or not, I’ve yet to hear any biblical or systematic theologian answer these questions satisfactorily…and I don’t mean to just my sensibilities…I mean to satisfy logic and reason.
    All other authorities cannot be subordinate to scripture. Tradition, Scripture, and Reason (in my opinion) should always be in agreement for the church to declare a revelation to be true. If not, Wesley’s fourth leg, Experience, then becomes the superior authority, and although most schismatics would deny it, it is Experience to which all church splits are ultimately rooted in…and God hates divorce. (Malachi 2:16) (I’m sure if I looked I’d find a similar scripture in Maccabees, Tobit, or Sirach…LOL)

  2. cheap nba jerseys August 2, 2011 at 3:43 am

    Here, and elsewhere, the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura reflects a nuanced tension between the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture necessary for final authority, and the occasional need for its meaning to be revealed by careful exposition (Hebrews 5:12).

  3. gerardo.cogpsy@gmail.com August 4, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    Very well put Dan. It is incredibly frustrating when I hear people answer these questions with “the Holy Spirit.” I often ask, “so then you are an infallible interpreter since the Holy Spirit guides your understand right?” People will ofcourse answer no, which leads to the question of why should I should feel comfortable with pastor so and so’s interpretation of John 6. What authority does he have as a *fallible* interpreter of scripture?
    Heck, the bible does not even give us a list of books that should be in the bible. It does not give us a single verse that says, “Mark wrote the gospel of Mark.” People would answer this objection with, “well.. it doesnt matter who wrote it.”
    So frustrating to hear this kind of reasoning. I too was convinced of the inadequacy of sola scriptura before I became a devout Catholic.

  4. Duncan August 4, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    The two (obviously, not only two) paradigms are fascinating and worth walking around in one another’s shoes. I, for one, have a hard time relating to the notion that there is value in identifying a “co-authority” along with scripture. Scripture endures. People do not. As such, the paradigm that I live in doesn’t want or expect pastor so and so to be an authority on interpreting John 6. I want and expect him to share what he has discerned from scripture with (although theoretically ‘with or without’) the illumination of the Holy Spirit. And then, if he lives in the same paradigm as I (though this is somewhat irrelevant), we both want and expect me to be like a Berean (Acts 17:11) and search the scriptures to be reassured of his interpretation — and to correct him if/when appropriate. This sort of ‘check and correct’ translates into the fact that pastor so and so has no authority other than scripture. I don’t know of another meaningful way to interpret Acts 17:11 (“Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true”), since testing the ‘authority’ (though it seems more like ‘teaching’, to me) of someone as august as the Apostle Paul is pretty heavy stuff, unless scripture says it is okay to do, which it clearly teaches since the Bereans were considered noble for having done it. In fact, I did this exact thing this week and was outrageously blessed for having dived into the Greek of Galatians 5:1 — which I did precisely because I felt that the pastor overstated a point. I believe that I got a lot more out of the sermon for having studied and bathed in the Word, rather than receiving some authoritative word from some guy. In short, that guy is fallible and has absolutely no authority over me and yet he and I love that God has placed him there to share God’s Word. The church can declare something to be true, but in my paradigm, it does so with no binding authority.
    While I respect the talents of others, I am intrigued and continue to seek to understand what could allow me to regard them as authoritatively equal to scripture. I certainly appreciate a paradigm in which the detailed research of others gives me a recommended viewpoint, but I absolutely expect any implied directives to be able to be tested against scripture. And when scripture appears silent, I am happy to concede about practical matters. (For example, the church might say: “we will meet every Sunday because scripture teaches that we should”, I say, ‘cool’. Then they say, “so, we will meet at 123 Main Street because that is the space that we rented (and we have biblical support for organizing diaconal responsibilities to collect tithes and manage stuff, even though scripture is not prescriptive regarding specific locations)” and I say ‘cool’.) But, other than stuff like that, please help me to know why I should recognize a human authority. Please.

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