[Common Places] The Five Solas: Scripture Alone
This year we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation, looking back to Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and the theological debates kick-started by their posting. The Reformation continues to be lauded, cajoled, and debated in circles of all sorts today. At Common Places we will begin the year by focusing on some of the central principles and most relevant texts that shaped early Reformation theology and that have continued that conversation in the centuries that followed. Each month we will begin with a post related to an ongoing book project from Zondervan Academic that addresses the five solas of Reformation theology. We will then conclude each month with an annotated reading guide on classic and contemporary works that address that particular principle.
Since the sixteenth century, Protestantism (and its view of the Bible) have undergone an evolution in their identity. Movements such as the Enlightenment, Liberalism, and, more recently, postmodernism have elevated other voices to the level of Scripture or even above Scripture, and the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture have been abandoned, something Rome never would have done in the sixteenth century. Today, many reject that the Bible is God-breathed and truthful in all it asserts.
As Carl Henry pointed out in his magnum opus, God, Revelation, and Authority, the church throughout history has faced repeated attacks on the Bible from skeptics, but only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have the truthfulness and trustworthiness of God’s Word been questioned, criticized, and abandoned by those within the body of Christ. To the Reformers, this would have been unthinkable, yet this is the day we live in. Not only do Bible critics pervade the culture but now they have mounted the pulpit and sit comfortably in the pews.
If Carl Henry is right, then there is legitimate cause for alarm. Repeated attacks on Scripture’s own character reveal the enmity and hostility toward the God of the Bible within our own souls. One of the most significant needs in the twenty-first century is a call back to the Bible and toward a posture that encourages reverence, acceptance, and adherence to its authority and message.
But what is sola Scriptura exactly? Sola Scriptura means that only Scripture, because it is God’s inspired Word, is our inerrant, sufficient, and final authority for the church.
First, this means that Scripture alone is our final authority. Authority is a bad word in our day of rugged individualism. But the Bible is all about authority. In fact, sola Scriptura means that the Bible is our chief, supreme, and ultimate authority. Notice, however, that I didn’t say the Bible is our only authority. Sola Scriptura is too easily confused today with nuda Scriptura, the view that we should have “no creed but the Bible!” Those who sing this mantra believe that creeds, confessions, the voices of tradition, and those who hold ecclesiastical offices carry no authority in the church. But this was not the Reformers’ position, nor should it be equated with sola Scriptura.
Sola Scriptura acknowledges that there are other important authorities for the Christian, authorities who should be listened to and followed. But Scripture alone is our final authority. It is the authority that rules over and governs all other authorities. It is the authority that has the final say. We could say that while church tradition and church officials play a ministerial role, Scripture alone plays a magisterial role. This means that all other authorities are to be followed only inasmuch as they align with Scripture, submit to Scripture, and are seen as subservient to Scripture, which alone is our supreme authority.
Second, sola Scriptura also means that Scripture alone is our sufficient authority. Not only is the Bible our supreme authority, but it is the authority that provides believers with all the truth they need for salvation and for following after Christ. The Bible, therefore, is sufficient for faith and practice. As the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) says: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.” In short, the Bible is enough for us.
Third, sola Scriptura means that only Scripture, because it is God’s inspired Word, is our inerrant authority. Notice that the basis of biblical authority—the very reason why Scripture is authoritative—is that God is its divine author. The ground for biblical authority is divine inspiration. To quote the WCF once more: “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or Church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.” Scripture and Scripture alone (not Scripture and Tradition) is God-breathed and, on this basis, stands unshakable as the church’s final, flawless authority. What Scripture says, God says.
To receive a full picture of sola Scriptura, we need to go beyond saying that the Bible is inspired or God-breathed. Inspiration should lead to an understanding that the Bible is perfect, flawless, and inerrant. In other words, inerrancy is the necessary corollary of inspiration. They are two sides of the same coin, and it is impossible to divorce one from the other. Because it is God speaking—and he is a God of truth, not error—his Word must be true and trustworthy in all that it addresses.
Because inerrancy is a biblical corollary and consequence of divine inspiration—inseparably connected and intertwined—it is a necessary component to sola Scriptura. The God of truth has breathed out his Word of truth, and the result is nothing less than a flawless authority for the church. In saying this, I am aware that my inclusion of inerrancy in our definition of sola Scriptura will prove to be controversial, given the mixed identity of evangelicalism today. However, were we to divorce the truthfulness and trustworthiness of Scripture from its authority, disconnecting the two as if one was unrelated to the other, then we would be left with no doctrine of sola Scriptura at all. Should Scripture contain errors, it is unclear why we should trust Scripture as our supreme and final authority. And should we limit, modify, or abandon the total inerrancy of Scripture, we set in motion tremendous doubt and uncertainty regarding the Bible’s competence as our final authority. The ground for the believer’s confidence that all of Scripture is the Word of God is shaken. The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy makes this point as well: “The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded.”
What is often missed in retellings of Luther’s progress to the Diet of Worms is the question of why Luther’s stance on Scripture was so detested by Rome. After all, Rome also affirmed Scripture’s authority and inspiration. So what made Luther’s stance on biblical authority so different and so offensive to the Roman church? The answer is that Luther had the audacity to say that only Scripture is the inerrant authority. While popes and councils err, Scripture alone does not! For Rome, Scripture and Tradition were inerrant authorities. For Luther, Scripture alone is our inerrant authority.
What distinguished Luther and the rest of the Reformers from church leaders in Rome was their claim that as important as tradition is (and they thought it was extremely important), tradition is not without error. That honor goes to Scripture alone. In fact, it is because Scripture alone is inspired by God and consequently inerrant that the Reformers believed Scripture alone is the church’s final authority, sufficient for faith and practice.
Matthew Barrett (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Tutor of Systematic Theology and Church History at Oak Hill Theological College in London, as well as the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. He is the editor of The 5 Solas Series with Zondervan and the author of a number of books, including God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture. You can read more about Barrett at matthewmbarrett.com.
Common Places is a regular column on the Zondervan Academic blog with a focus on systematic theology. The loci communes or “common places” of Christian theology, drawn out of the Scriptures and organized in a manner suitable to their exposition in the church and the academy, have functioned historically as common points of reference for theological discussion and debate. This column will focus upon the classical loci of systematic theology, not as occasions for revision, but as opportunities for entering into the ongoing conversation that is Christian systematic theology. We invite you to join and dialog with us on the first and third Thursdays of every month. For more about Common Places, read the column introduction.
Our current series, The Five Solas, offers doctrinal and exegetical entries to the key principles of the Protestant movement in the sixteenth century.
Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors