Protestants confess that Scripture alone has ultimate objective religious authority in the life of the Christian and the church. This does not mean, however, that divine revelation comes only through Scripture, a common mistake made by some evangelicals. Though the Scriptures reveal Christ immediately, or directly, more subjective forms of authority have also had a proper and important place. This is often denied by the more rationalistic sorts of Reformed Christians.

I would most definitely include, in a proper understanding of authority, holy tradition. By this I refer to the Holy Spirit speaking to the church down through the ages in the various ways that Christians have heard him through Scripture leading the church and helping Christians reach consensus about important subjects. We also listen for the Spirit’s voice in reason, properly understood as thinking God’s thoughts after him and not as rationalism. The same is true in experience, where real change leading to obedience is the obvious result of the Spirit’s work upon us and the church. By experience we gain insight into God’s nature and our human conduct. This happens regularly, for example, as Christians reflect upon nature and natural revelation. (Non-believers cannot understand this revelation since they willfully reject it; cf. Romans 1:18-23.) Simply put, we can and should gain insight that does not come to us directly from Scripture. To deny this will have huge negative consequences. These consequences are most often seen in various rigid expressions of modern Protestant fundamentalism.

There are two ditches to be avoided. One ditch presents to us an opportunity to fall into a Scripture alone position that, in effect, acts as if God speaks to us only in Scripture. In this ditch the Bible becomes a collection of proof texts for all kinds of bizarre and suspicious conclusions but the interpreter is assured that he is correct since he always has the Bible on his side. No one need listen to any previous church teaching on the subject since we have the text to guide us perfectly. This is not the real Protestant view of sola Scriptura at all, though you could fool many proponents of the view. The other ditch we can fall into presents the very grave danger of basing revelation entirely, or finally, upon our thoughts, or experiences, without testing every word by the Scripture’s clear witness to Christ. (The Scripture is, in the proper Protestant view, the Supreme Court!) In this ditch the error is to reshape the Scripture to fit what we know or understand without a proper and careful appeal to the written Word. Scripture is the final word about Christ. But remember: It’s purpose is to show us how we go to heaven, not how we understand the heavens. (It’s purpose is to show us how to live a godly life but it is not the last word, for example, on medical science and how it might help us improve life. This is how certain kinds of Christian counseling ["so-called"] go awry.)

We must keep Scripture in its primary place without surrendering the gains of tradition, human insight and common experience. This process is never tidy and thus is precisely one of the major reasons why our Catholic friends reject our Protestant principle on authority and argue for a holy magisterium. (I respect their concerns profoundly but remain convinced of the Protestant principle, rightly defined and rightly used!) We would help the situation considerably if we stopped using a fundamentalist approach that does not give Christian tradition its proper place. One sure way to do that is to stop treating Catholic and Orthodox Christians and churches as something other than historically valid churches. We should not consign these older and historic churches to the "cult" bin the way fundamentalism has done for almost a century. (You can still raise a lot of money for your cause, at least in many Protestant corners, if you are anti-Catholic enough in your rhetoric.)

Vatican II opened the door to important dialogue and meaningful new ways for us to go forward. There is simply no place for anti-Catholicism in our time, especially if you have a genuinely historic view of the development of the truth and of God’s church. We who are Protestants didn’t arrive on the scene out of nowhere. When we think this way we act more like Protestant Gnostics than real Christians. It is time we confess that we should be properly catholic and apostolic, rather than sectarians who use the Bible for our own end. Roman Catholics and the Orthodox will still insist, in good conscience, that they are the catholic and apostolic church but this debate is a different matter and must be discussed in a different way. I fear for a Protestant future that continues to promote sectarianism as essential to sola Scriptura.

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  1. Helen January 24, 2007 at 11:51 am

    John, thanks for explaining what Sola Scriptura does and doesn’t mean.
    You wrote: “remember: It’s purpose” [Scripture, that is] “is to show us how we go to heaven, not how we understand the heavens. (It’s purpose is to show us how to live a godly life but it is not the last word, for example, on medical science and how it might help us improve life. This is how certain kinds of Christian counseling [“so-called”] go awry.)”
    I understand the point you’re making and I agree with what you say Scripture isn’t.
    But your descriptions of what Scripture is: “its purpose is to show us how to go to heaven” and “its purpose is to show us how to live a godly life” – wow, to me they sound so me-centered and reductionistic; is this really what you think the purpose of Scripture is?
    I’m not saying that it might not be one of the purposes but – THE purpose?
    Tell me if I’m being too nit-picky or obsessed with details 😉

  2. John H. Armstrong January 24, 2007 at 8:44 pm

    No, you are not “nit-picky” at all. I was being simplistic, on purpose, really. Quite obviously Scripture is ultimately about revealing God to us and thus displaying his glory to humankind, made in his image. It is his great glory to save his people and conform them to his Son so in this sense it is about “us” as a people, as a community, not just as free-standing individuals.

  3. Steve Scott January 24, 2007 at 11:39 pm

    I think I see what you mean, but could you clarify a few things? First the extreme Sctipture alone idea. Last year, an athlete was quoted as saying he didn’t believe dinosaurs existed because they weren’t written about in the bible. Would this be an example of your point? Also, could you give maybe a few short examples of what would fall under your label of “holy tradition”? Thanks!

  4. Helen January 25, 2007 at 8:01 am

    Thanks John – I figured you probably were being simplistic in order to make a specific point.
    I like your emphasis on ‘us’ not ‘me’.
    I do understand that the whole emphasis on ‘me’ came about to make a point – the point that we are individually called to a transformed life. Based on my knowledge of church history this probably originated (most recently) with Luther – but my knowledge is so scant perhaps I’m wrong.
    The problem is when the point is forgotten and the emphasis used to make the point has turned into an inflexible and inviolable rule or principle. According to the gospels I think this was one of the things Jesus was most upset with the Pharisees about. When people only remember the rules and forget the reasons for the rules they lose the ability to interpret and apply them in a context of grace. (imo)

  5. ECCLESIAL AWAKENING January 25, 2007 at 8:01 pm

    John Armonstrong Writes NevinesqueWords

    One person who has tremendously impacted my life and the way I currently view things is John Armstrong.  Whether Mr. Armstrong would like being compared with J.W. Nevin or not is another matter, but I think his recent post on Sola Scriptura sounds in …

  6. Randy S. June 25, 2007 at 4:40 pm

    I’m a bit confused; perhaps I just haven’t read enough of your posts. But what’s the bottom line? If your reason, holy tradition, or experience is at odds with a clear biblical statement which wins?

  7. John H. Armstrong June 26, 2007 at 9:58 am

    Thanks for your concern. Please read my post very carefully. I give Holy Scripture primary place, thus it judges all in the end. I am a Protestant but I am not a modern evangelical in the sense that I think we can “proof text” everything we claim or do by simply quoting verses from the Bible. This is a major problem and one that often passes for the doctrine of sola Scriptura falsely.

  8. jls August 18, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    Poking around on the Internet, I ran across this exceptionally clear article by Tom Wright on what it means for the Scripture to be authoritative:
    It’s a real gem.

  9. Rick Schnetz August 18, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    Thank You for sharing that!

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