This is post #4 of 6 in a brief series on the doctrine of Scripture called “Scripture Alone.” I’m convinced that Christians today need to constantly reaffirm our convictions about God’s Word in order to avoid drifting into error, and in order to effectively serve and honor Christ. This was a core conviction at the heart of the Protestant Reformation. So, in each of these brief articles, with the help of the reformers, we’ll be unpacking the question, “What do we believe about the Bible?”
It’s important to understand that the Roman church in the reformers’ day did believe that Scripture was true, but they also believed Scripture was not God’s sufficient source of revelation.
Their view of authority went like this: The Bible is God’s Word, and therefore has authority in the church. However, there is also a Tradition (with a capitol “T”) that has been passed from Jesus, to the apostles, to the leaders and bishops of the church, and that Tradition has equal authority. Also, there is the authority of the Pope and bishops themselves which they exercise to offer the official interpretation of both Scripture and Tradition. Some have called this the “three-legged stool” on which Roman Catholic authority rests.
And this was one of the main reasons for Luther’s protest. Luther recognized that God had indeed given pastors, teachers, and leaders to the church. However, he wrote in 1518, “The truth of Scripture comes first. After that is accepted one may determine whether the words of men can be accepted as true.”1 For Luther, there was not a three-legged stool of authority, but the singular authority of the Word. And as Luther experienced the blatant errors of the popes and church councils of his day, his emphasis on this point only strengthened.
Now, it’s important to stress that Luther and the reformers like him did not argue that we should throw tradition away entirely. They just wanted tradition put in its place, under the authority of Scripture. So, we should not mistake the doctrine of Sola Scriptura to mean that we should plug our ears, ignore the last 2000 years of church history, stop going to church, and get in the woods with our Bibles to hear from God.
That’s an extreme way of putting it, but we live in a time where personal, inward, subjective feelings and experiences rule, and talk of tradition is often viewed as constraining and oppressive. And when that kind of thinking invades the church, and we act as if we are the first people ever to really understand what the Bible says, we open ourselves up to all kinds of error.
No, there are giants of the faith who went before us who are worth listening to and learning from. Luther constantly referred back to Augustine and other church fathers to support his points. But at the end of the day, he placed Scripture as the sole sufficient authority of truth, and so should we.
Men can err, God does not. And Scripture alone is our sufficient word from him.
- Quoted by Mark J. Thompson in Matthew Barrett, Reformation Theology. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017. 153. ↩