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[Common Places] Five Solas: Sola Scriptura by Jennifer McNutt

Categories Theology Common Places

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.


Few theological concepts are more prominently and singularly attributed to Protestant ideology, praxis, and identity than sola Scriptura. As the seventeenth-century Anglican William Chillingworth once famously declared, “…by the ‘religion of protestants,’ I do not understand the doctrine of Luther, or Calvin, or Melanchthon…nor the harmony of protestant confessions; but that wherein they all agree, and which they all subscribe with a greater harmony as a perfect rule of their faith and actions; that is, the Bible. The Bible, I say, the Bible only, is the religion of protestants!”[1] Yet, does this moniker accurately reflect the theology and practice of the tradition?

The 500th anniversary year of the Reformation is a good time to recognize that the simple Latin phrase of sola Scriptura is not nearly as straightforward as it may seem. In the past, the origins of the phrase and its meaning within Reformation legacy have too often been misunderstood among Christians and even misrepresented in scholarship.

In response, a growing historiographical consensus is countering past assumptions about the term by grounding the meaning of the concept in its original usage and praxis, including how the reformers actually interpreted Scripture and developed theology. Consequently, more and more scholarly accounts of sola Scriptura seek to bring attention to historical context and hermeneutical method in order to bring to light the intended purpose and function of this important theological concept as well as to remedy the prevalence of distortions today.[2]

Reconsidering Leipzig

Traditionally, the emergence of the phrase sola Scriptura within the Protestant Reformation is attributed to Martin Luther’s contribution to the Leipzig Disputation (1519) against Johann Eck. Martin Brecht’s translated biography offers a thorough account of the debate, yet this remains one of the most under-researched incidents of Luther’s life in English and German scholarship.[3] While the original printed versions of the debate are found,[4] the original handwritten notes are assumed lost. The Karlstadt-Edition project is conducting groundbreaking work toward recovery,[5] and the most recent summary of the state of research is provided by Markus Hein and Armin Kohnle’s German collection of essays.[6]

From what is known, Luther’s thirteenth thesis on the primacy of the pope became a critical focal point of the Leipzig debate. Luther claimed that the pope’s primacy was grounded in human law rather than divine and stood as an innovation from early church fathers, particularly the Greeks. Luther also challenged the standard interpretations of Matthew 16 and 18, and he claimed that while councils could err, Scripture could not.[7] In this way, the Leipzig debate became the context for Luther’s affirmation of the primacy of Scripture’s authority above all others, thereby challenging both Petrine supremacy and conciliarism. In defiance, he declared, “There is but one thing that we have to believe, namely, what Scripture teaches.”[8]

Though the essential role of Scripture’s teaching in the life of the believer is clearly conveyed here, notably, the Latin slogan sola Scriptura is lacking from this exchange.

Complicating the Narrative

Mention of the phrase sola Scriptura is harder to find in Luther’s works than one would expect.[9] Even Luther’s well-known statement at the Diet of Worms (1521) that his “conscience is captive to the Word of God” conveyed the primacy of Scripture rather than its exclusivity. That is, Luther did not declare that he was bound to the Word of God alone though he was ultimately captive to it. Other examples from Luther’s writings further complicate the simple narrative of engaging with only Scripture.

Though Luther made it clear in his Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of his German Writings (1539) that Scripture was to be favored above all other authoritative voices, he did not describe it as an exclusive authority. He wrote, “Neither councils, fathers, nor we, in spite of the greatest and best success possible, will do as well as the Holy Scriptures, that is, as well as God himself has done.”[10] Luther’s point here was that the fathers and certainly Luther’s own writings should point to God’s Word rather than take the place of God’s Word.

We do find the phrase in his Letter to the Christian Nobility (1521), in which he writes, “Scripture alone is our vineyard in which we must all labor and toil.” However, this claim was immediately followed by the declaration that Scripture should be the “foremost reading for everybody” both at university and school.[11] Scripture as “foremost” here indicates that further qualification is necessary in explaining the phrase sola Scriptura.

A Growing Historiographical Consensus

Reformation scholarship is increasingly mindful of clarifying and nuancing the understanding of the meaning and usage of sola Scriptura.

Anthony Lane claims that no first generation reformer used the phrase as a motto though the sentiment was expressed.[12] He combats the notion that a Protestant emphasis on Scripture was intended to disengage Protestant Christians from other epistemological resources (such as experience, reason, or church tradition); rather, Lane shows that Scripture was taught by reformers as “the final authority or norm for Christian belief.”[13] In other words, Scripture was not meant to be the sole resource but the supreme resource or the norma normans non normata, “the norm that rules but is not itself ruled.”

Timothy Wengert further confirms this understanding. For Luther, Scripture was the fount of wisdom but not the only source of wisdom. Thus, Wengert concludes that Luther’s “sola Scriptura did not eliminate the use of other authorities.”[14]  Similarly, Randall Zachman’s work has shown that John Calvin appreciated extrabiblical evidence for scriptural interpretation stating, “Calvin also reads Scripture directly in light of a larger world of meaning outside of Scripture and does so precisely to understand the meaning of Scripture itself.”[15]

In particular, greater focus on how the reformers engaged with the church fathers has been critical to nuancing scholarly assessment of the nature of Scripture’s authority during the Reformation thanks to the work of scholars such as Irena Backus.[16] It is worth acknowledging that Luther’s critique of Rome was not merely that the church had left the Bible “forgotten in the dust under the bench”[17] but that the church had also “forgotten” the best of the fathers and the councils.[18] In fact, even when Luther declared that he was “subject to the Holy Scriptures alone…independent of the books of all the fathers and saints,” he immediately pointed to the example of Augustine as setting the precedent for that approach.[19] Today, scholars readily acknowledge the multifaceted engagement of Protestant reformers with the biblical and theological resources of the greater Christian tradition, thanks particularly to the work and legacy of David Steinmetz, who set the methodological standard for conducting historical theology of the period.

Similarly, my own archival research has shown that even Reformation-era vernacular Bibles from Protestant camps did not distribute Scripture alone to the priesthood of all believers. A survey of the material history of Protestant Bibles clearly shows that Scripture was consistently coupled with a variety of charts, diagrams, marginalia, textual apparatuses, scriptural cross-references, prefaces, summaries, confessions, catechisms, denominational liturgies, and instructions on how to read and interpret Scripture. The reader was hardly ever left alone with just the text.

Scripture Supreme

In at least the last twenty years, Reformation scholars have increasingly worked to spread the word that sola Scriptura does not merely mean “Scripture alone.” As general editor for InterVarsity Press’s Reformation Commentary on Scripture, Timothy George noted, “It is ironic that the Reformation principle of sola scriptura, though much misunderstood, has led to the neglect among Protestants of the biblical commentaries of the reformers.”[20]

Consequently, efforts to nuance sola Scriptura and encourage broader engagement with the resources of church history and Christian theology are more frequent. As Carl Trueman has written, “The very founding fathers of Protestantism were eclectic in how they related to previous theological tradition but relate to it they did. To deny this or merely to ignore it or to present their theology as arising simply out of them reading the Bible for themselves is to miss the way in which their thinking was itself shaped by, and dependent upon, the past.”[21]

The phrase sola Scriptura indeed marked an important reorientation of authority as reformers taught that Scripture is the only necessary, sufficient, and infallible voice guiding the Christian life. For the reformers, Scripture held unique pride of place because it came from God, points to Christ, and is confirmed by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, by its very nature, Scripture alone is unfailingly trustworthy unlike any human authority. And yet, when the reformers sought to understand the work of God in their world it was not to scripture alone that they turned.


Jennifer McNutt (PhD, University of St. Andrews) is Associate Professor of Theology and History of Christianity at Wheaton College. She has written Calvin Meets Voltaire: The Clergy of Geneva in the Age of Enlightenment, 1685-1798 and has recently edited The People’s Book: The Reformation and the Bible (forthcoming this year from IVP).


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


[1] William Chillingworth, The religion of Protestants: a safe way to salvation, vol. 2 (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1799), 426-427.

[2] See Matthew Barrett, God's Word Alone---The Authority of Scripture: What the Reformers Taught...and Why It Still Matters, The Five Solas Series (Zondervan, 2016).

[3] Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His road to Reformation, 1483-1521 (Fortress Press, 1993).

[4] See LW 31; Otto Seitz, ed. Der authentische Text der Leipziger Disputation, 1519: aus bisher unbenutzten Quellen (C.A. Schwetschka: Berlin, 1903):; W.H.T. Dau, ed. The Leipzig debate in 1519: leaves from the story of Luther's life (St. Louis: Concordia, 1919).

[5] Special thanks to Fulbright Scholar, Princeton Theological Seminary Ph.D. student, and Karlstadt-Edition project contributor Alyssa Evans for her assessment of the field on this matter.

[6] See Die Leipziger Disputation 1519 (Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2011).

[7] Dau, 167.

[8] Dau, 166.

[9] Timothy Wengert traces the frequency of Luther’s references to the solas (Scriptura, gratia, and fide) throughout his writings only to discover the rarity of sola Scriptura compared to more than a thousand references to sola fide: Reading the Bible with Martin Luther (Baker, 2013).

[10] Erik H. Herrmann, trans. “Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings” in The Annotated Luther, vol. 4: Pastoral Writings, ed. Mary Jane Haemig (Fortress Press, 2016), 480.

[11] James M. Estes, trans. “To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Improvement of the Christian Estates,” in The Annotated Luther, vol. 1: Roots of Reform, ed. Timothy J. Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), 453.

[12] Anthony Lane, "Sola Scriptura? Making Sense of a Post-Reformation Slogan," in P.E. Satterthwaite and D.F. Wright, eds. A Pathway Into the Holy Scripture, (Eerdmans, 1994), 297-327.

[13] Lane, “Sola Scriptura?,” 323.

[14] Wengert, Reading the Bible with Martin Luther, 19.

[15] Randall C. Zachman, “Gathering Meaning from the Context; Calvin’s Exegetical Method” in The Journal of Religion, vol. 82, no. 1 (Jan. 2002), 2.

[16] Irena Backus, ed. The Reception of the Church Fathers in the West (Brill, 1997). See also Lane’s John Calvin: Student of the Church Fathers (Baker, 1999) and the Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology, eds Robert Kolb, Irene Dingel, L’UbomÍr (Oxford University Press, 2016).

[17] Herrmann, trans. “Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings,” 479. For critique of Luther’s characterization, see Andrew Gow, “Challenging the Protestant Paradigm: Bible Reading in Lay and Urban Contexts of the Later Middle Ages” in Scripture and Pluralism: Reading the Bible in the Religiously Plural Worlds of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (Brill, 2005), 161-191.

[18] Herrmann, trans. “Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings,” 481. Luther practices selectivity in favoring “some church fathers and councils”: Ibid., 479.

[19] Herrmann, trans. “Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings,” 481.

[20] Timothy George, Reading Scripture with the Reformers (IVP: Downers Grove, 2011), 25.

[21] See “History, Evangelicals, and Protestantism” in First Things (March 12, 2015).

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