Post Author: Bill Pratt
If you call yourself a Protestant Christian, then you’ve probably been taught at some point that Protestants believe in the principle of sola Scriptura. If you are Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, then you have been taught that you deny the principle of sola Scriptura.
If we are going to have this intramural disagreement, we might as well all get straight on what we are disagreeing over. So what does sola Scriptura mean anyway?
According to Norman Geisler and Ralph MacKenzie in Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences,
By sola Scriptura orthodox Protestants mean that Scripture alone is the primary and absolute source of authority, the final court of appeal, for all doctrine and practice (faith and morals). . . . What Protestants mean by sola Scriptura is that the Bible alone is the infallible written authority for faith and morals.
Geisler and MacKenzie claim that sola Scriptura implies several things:
First, the Bible is a direct revelation from God. As such, it has divine authority, for what the Bible says, God says.
Second, Scripture is the sufficient and final written authority of God. As to sufficiency, the Bible—nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else—is all that is necessary for faith and practice. In short, “the Bible alone” means “the Bible only” is the final authority for our faith. Further, the Scriptures not only have sufficiency but they also possess final authority. They are the final court of appeal on all doctrinal and moral matters. However good they may be in giving guidance, all the church fathers, popes, and councils are fallible. Only the Bible is infallible.
Third, the Bible is clear (perspicuous). The perspicuity of Scripture does not mean that everything in the Bible is perfectly clear, but rather the essential teachings are. Popularly put, in the Bible the main things are the plain things and the plain things are the main things.
Fourth, Scripture interprets Scripture. This is known as the analogy of faith principle. When we have difficulty in understanding an unclear text of Scripture, we turn to other biblical texts, since the Bible is the best interpreter of the Bible. In the Scriptures, clear texts should be used to interpret the unclear ones.
There are several misconceptions about sola Scriptura that can be cleared up with Q&A.
1. Does sola Scriptura exclude all truth outside of the Bible? No. Geisler and MacKenzie write:
This, of course, is untrue, as is revealed by Luther’s famous quote about being “convinced by the testimonies of Scripture or evident reason” (emphasis added). Most Protestants accept the general revelation declared in the heavens (Ps. 19:1) and inscribed on the human heart (Rom. 2:12–15). However, classical Protestantism denies any salvific value of natural (general) revelation, believing one can only come to salvation through special revelation.
2. Does the sola Scriptura idea of perspicuity mean that the whole Bible is clear? No. Only the teachings essential to salvation.
3. Does sola Scriptura mean that all church traditions – creeds, councils, church father writings – should be ignored? No. Geisler and MacKenzie explain the role these things play for Protestants:
This is not to say that Protestants obtain no help from the Fathers and early councils. Indeed, Protestants accept the pronouncements of the first four ecumenical councils as helpful but not infallible. What is more, most Protestants have high regard for the teachings of the early Fathers, though obviously they do not believe they are without error. So this is not to say that there is no usefulness to Christian tradition, but only that it is of secondary importance. As John Jefferson Davis notes, “Sola Scriptura meant the primacy of Scripture as a theological norm over all tradition rather than the total rejection of tradition.”
Hopefully we have cleared up some of the more popular misconceptions about sola Scriptura. Now we can focus on disagreeing on what we really disagree on!