Sola Scriptura: Sure You Know What it Means?
In the cult classic, The Princess Bride, Vizzini, at various times of disappointment, spurts out “Inconceivable!”
Finally, Inigo Montoya confronts him, curiously: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Perhaps you’ve felt like Inigo Montoya after hearing someone throw out Sola Scriptura like it’s an ace dealt to a face card at a Black Jack table.
“Twenty-one, Mama! Looks like baby gets a new pair of shoes.”
Except, it’s usually an expression dealt from the sleeve after a theological discussion of some sort and the person knows just the verse to end the discussion.
“Sola Scriptura, Baby! You can’t argue with the Bible. Looks like you’ll have to take it up with God.”
To which I want to reply, “Sola Scriptura? You keep using those words. I do not think they mean what you think they mean.”
Of course that usually ends the discussion—not because the Sola Scriptura guy is right. But because it’s apparent he has no idea what he’s talking about, or what Sola Scriptura even means.
Which is cause to wonder, how many evangelicals actually understand what the expression means?
Sola Scriptura is one of five Solae that became the famous mantra of the Reformation. It’s Latin for “by Scripture alone.” It stands among four other expressions that speak to the nature of salvation and spiritual life in Christ: sola fide, meaning “by faith alone”; sola gratia, meaning “by grace alone”; solus Christus or solo Christo, meaning “by Christ alone” or “through Christ alone”; and soli Deo gloria, meaning “glory to God alone.”
Sola Scriptura expresses the notion that Scripture is the highest form of truth. Everything one needs to know about salvation and the Christian life is taught either explicitly or implicitly in the Protestant Bible—the canon of 39 Old Testament and 27 New Testament books. It is the final authority for all matters of faith and life (2 Peter 1:19-20 cf. 2 Timothy 3:15-17).
An Expression Born Out of Reformation
About five hundred years after its break with the Eastern Church, corruption in the Western or Roman Church was epidemic. John Calvin called its condition “very miserable, and almost desperate.” Simony (the practice of selling church offices), for example, was rampant; but it was the sale of indulgences that was the catalyst for the early confrontations between Luther and his Roman adversaries.
On October 31, 1517, it’s believed Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg, an event which historians mark as the formal launch of the Protestant Reformation.
What quickly emerged in the polemic debates was where the church derived its authority. Martin Luther contended it was from Scripture alone. Johann Eck contended it came from the Pope and the magisterium.
Simultaneously, the Anabaptist movement emerged. Called the radical reformers, these took a novel view of the Scriptures that had significant implications on the debate about church authority.
Thus, three basic approaches to Scripture emerged during the Reformation and influence the way people view the Scriptures, today.
Roman Catholic’s (similarly, Eastern Orthodox’s) View
The Roman Catholic tradition denied sola Scriptura as a valid approach. Instead, it affirmed sola verbum Dei (the Word of God alone) as the basis for church authority. By “the Word of God” the Roman Catholic Church means a three-tiered framework that includes Scripture, tradition, and the magisterium (the infallible determinations of the councils, and the teachings of the Popes, particularly when speaking ex Cathedra).
From the Roman Catholic point of view, oral tradition—which extends from the Apostles through the Popes—supersedes the written word (the graphe) and the church acts as the norma normans (rule that rules) that identifies and acknowledges which graphe are inspired. Therefore, the Scriptures are the norma normata (rule that is ruled).
The Roman Catholic position further asserted that while passages in the Bible that speak about Scripture’s authority indeed affirm its efficacy and worth, these passages do not teach that Scripture usurps the oral tradition of the Apostles.
Radical Reformers’ (Anabaptists’) View
On the other end of the spectrum, the radical Anabaptist movement cultivated a framework of belief rooted in solo Scriptura (only Scripture) or perhaps more accurately, nuda Scriptura (nude Scripture). In other words, they dismissed the creeds and confessions of the early and medieval church and attempted to interpret the Scriptures apart from previous commentary and discussion.
They were called radical partly because of the radical individualistic hermeneutic that dismissed the insights of the community of the faithful who previously sought to interpret and articulate the truths of Scripture.
Protestant Reformers’ View
The Protestant Reformers, however, sought a via media with regard to how they understood authority in the church. They held the graphe as the highest authority. Yet they did so standing on the shoulders of those that came before who identified with the catholicity of the apostolic tradition as it has been affirmed by Scripture and articulated in the ancient ecumenical creeds and councils.
In other words, they maintained the creeds and confessions of the church to be authoritative, but submissive to Scripture because they come from Scripture. Unlike the Catholic tradition, they believed the creeds were the norma normata rather than a norma normans because they “were not organs of infallibility, and their formulae were not logia from God.”
John Webster explains it this way: “Holy Scripture is that collection of writings generated by and annexed to the self-communication of God. Because it is in this way a means of grace, and instrument through which God acts to lay bare the gospel, Holy Scripture is prior to and superior to all acts of confession, and all acts of confession are subordinate to Holy Scripture.”
And unlike the radical reformers, the Protestant Reformers held that the classic creeds articulate the meaning of Scripture in a given context in order to show its relevance in said context. Therefore, sola Scriptura meant Scripture alone was the authoritative basis for, and scrutinizing means by which, traditions, creeds, and councils seek to articulate, and also examine, Christian truth. As Michael Horton explains, “The ecumenical creeds confess the faith that we all share across a multitude of cultures and eras.”
John Calvin affirmed that “Scripture as the only infallible rule of faith and practice should serve as the final authority by which to judge Christian doctrine and practice, but it was not his only resource for theology.”
In other words, the reformers avoided both extremes—that of the Roman Catholic tradition that elevated tradition and the magisterium to a place of authority over the graphe, and the radical Anabaptist reformers who broke with all tradition and adopted a solo Scriptura viewpoint.
Sola Scriptura, therefore, Scripture alone, but not only Scripture. It acknowledges the traditions of the church via its creeds and confessions, but understands those creeds and confessions simply provide boundaries and context to the interpretation of Scripture.
What sola Scriptura does not mean
That said, to help curb some of the abuses of the expression, I offer five things sola Scriptura does not mean:
Sola Scriptura does not mean all truth is found in Scripture. While it does affirm that everything we need to know about salvation and living to the glory of God is available to us, it does not mean Scripture reveals everything God knows, or that is speaks to every form or kind of truth. Scripture has little to say about science, or the methods God used to create the world, for instance.
Sola Scriptura does not mean every word and act of Jesus and the Apostles is recorded and available to us. There are so many things Jesus did that could have been recorded that John says the world couldn’t hold the volumes of its record (John 20:30; 21:25). According to sola Scriptura, if it is necessary for our reconciliation and relationship with God, it’s in the Bible. If it is not in there, there’s no need to force it on others.
Sola Scriptura does not mean the Bible speaks in detail to every situation in life. There are issues that were not known when Scripture was penned, like what Christians should think about the immigration issues being debated in US politics, for example. For the gray areas we have been given biblical principles, reason, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It’s okay to rely on such gifts.
Sola Scriptura does not negate the interpretive principle of authorial intent. In other words, sola Scriptura does not mean the Scriptures can be cherry-picked to promote personal agendas and hopeful speculations. For example, Jeremiah 29:11 was written to Jews exiled in Babylon, not American prosperity seekers.
Sola Scriptura is not a leverage point to berate believers who understand the sense of a passage differently than you. For example, sola Scriptura would affirm baptism is a part of the Christian identity as a sign and seal of God’s covenant. But its mode and application are widely debated among committed believers. Sola Scriptura simply affirms that Protestant believers appeal to Scripture as the highest form of authority. It doesn’t mean we all understand that same authority in identical ways.
Now it’s your turn. What abuses (or proper uses) of sola Scriptura have you witnessed?
 Calvin, John. The Necessity of Reforming the Church. 1543. Reprint: Kindle Edition, 2010, lc. 6.
 Allen, R. Michael. Reformed theology. London: T & T Clark, 2010, 10
 Demarest, Bruce A. “The Contemporary Relevance of Christendom’s Creeds,” Themelios, No. 2, January 1982 7 (1982): 15.
 Webster, John . “Confession and Confessions.” In Nicene Christianity. Ft. Lauderdale: PDF Handout, Professor Dr. Michael Allen, Knox Theological Seminary, 2014, 125
 “Semper Reformanda by Michael Horton.” Ligonier.org. http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/semper-reformanda/ (accessed May 3, 2014).
 Manetsch, Scott M. “Is the Reformation Over? John Calvin, Roman Catholicism, and Contemporary Ecumenical Conversations,” Themelios, No. 2, August 2011 36 (n.d.): 199.
About Scott Postma
Scott lives in North Idaho collecting more books than he'll ever read in a lifetime. He shares valuable tips on writing and teaching, rich insights into theology and literature, and meaningful perspective on living a life of significance. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.