The Bible is amazing. The God who created all the universe and each tiny flower in a mountain meadow decided to communicate with people in their own language, and to inspire people to write it down for future generations to read! Even the Bible talks about about invaluable and awe-inspiring the Scripture is. God gave the law through Moses, and after he re-hashed it all to the Israelites in the plain of Moab (Deuteronomy means “second [statement of the] law”), Moses said, “They are not just idle words for you—they are your life” (Deut 32:47). God spoke through Isaiah, “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word” (Isaiah 66:2). When Jesus quoted a difficult passage of the psalms, he parenthetically remarked, “And the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). The Bible is fully authoritative, life-giving, and amazingly clear (indeed, often far too clear for our comfortable self-deceptions). I do not think we can speak highly enough of God’s gracious gift of Scripture. But it is possible to speak inaccurately of it.
“Sola Scriptura” is one of the five Reformation “solas” (the plural ought to be solae, or rather soli, since one of them is masculine). It is called the “formal principle” of the Reformation, meaning what distinguishes Protestant theology’s method from the theology of Roman Catholics. But “sola Scriptura” has come to mean many different things to different people. It seems to me that some of these meanings are true, but some of them are false. We must evaluate these meanings in turn.
But as we turn to these meanings, it is important to keep in mind that nothing I write here in any way undercuts the full authority and gracious clarity of Scripture. Most critics of the doctrine of “sola Scriptura” wish to impugn one or the other; they will answer for their views. That is not at all my intent! My goal is instead to better understand this gracious gift of God in the context of God’s character and all his other gracious gifts. To that end, I have found at least five different definitions of “sola Scriptura”:
- Only the Bible is inspired by God (Wesminster Confession I.2-3)
- The Bible is the sole infallible rule of faith and practice (Wikipedia)
- The Bible is the only final authority for all doctrinal disputes (Wesminster Confession I.10)
- Nothing outside the Bible is necessary for salvation (Wesminster Confession I.7; John MacArthur)
- Christians cannot be obligated (“bound in conscience”) to believe anything not contained in Scripture (John MacArthur)
Some people define “sola Scriptura” as the doctrine that only the Bible is inspired by God. While the literary romantic movement spoke of poets seeking “inspiration” from any available Muse, and recent purveyors of “the power of positive thinking” have retailed “inspiring moments” and such things, that is not what biblical inspiration means. Instead, the notion of “in-spiration” means “breathing into” the Bible, drawing from Paul’s second letter to Timothy:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
That is, in a very real sense, the Bible is the message God spoke. It is his word, even as it was composed by human authors. God guided the human authors to compose the words in accordance with his will. In the special case of prophecy, Peter wrote: “For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).
That is all very true, and very important, but it is also the definition of what makes a certain writing Scripture. To say, then, that the Bible is inspired, is a theological doctrine, if one includes a rich notion of inspiration, but to say that only the Bible is inspired is tautological. It is what we mean by Scripture: the collection of writings inspired by God. It is a meaningful statement to assert that these particular 66 books are inspired and therefore belong in the Bible, but that is not a theological doctrine. So while the statement that only the Bible is inspired is true, it hardly needs a separate catch-phrase. It is no wonder, then, that everyone who invokes the label “sola Scriptura” means much more than this.
Sole Infallible Rule
Another common definition of “sola Scriptura” is that the Bible is the “only infallible rule of Christian faith and practice.” I entirely agree that the Bible is the infallible and fully authoritative rule of Christian faith and practice, and Christians ought to believe and act in accord with it. It is God’s gracious gift to his people to guide us in his paths!
But “infallible” means “without error.” If I write on a piece of paper, “The Father is God, Jesus is God, but Jesus is not the Father,” then that piece of paper is without error. That is a very incomplete “rule of Christian faith,” and is not inspired, but that piece of paper is infallible. In other words, sufficiently short expositions of the Christian faith (such as the Nicene creed) can also be infallible rules, precisely because they are derived from the Bible. Scripture’s infallibility does not preclude other texts from being infallible, if they represent correct interpretations of God’s inspired Word. The Bible is still fully authoritative, but it is not the only infallible rule of Christian faith and practice.
Other Christians interpret “sola Scriptura” to mean that the Bible is the final authority for all Christian reasoning and theological discussion. One might wish to appeal to councils, church fathers, and the like, but when someone quotes the Bible, that has more authority than all the rest put together. As the old saying goes, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.”
The Bible is fully authoritative, as I have insisted and will continue to insist. It does function in this way in disputes. But of course, the Bible’s authority is derived from God, who has vested his inspired Word with his own authority. The Bible does not have authority in itself apart from God, and yet the notion of the Bible as the only final authority focuses on the text itself, apart from the gracious King who gave it. If one is only talking about texts, the Bible is the only text with the final authority over all other texts, but God himself has final authority over everything. This is not just pedantic: many critics of the doctrine of “sola Scriptura” complain that the Bible is not in every case perfectly clear, and therefore ask how one can have a final authority when people dispute its meaning. (I maintain that the Bible is more than clear enough for our sinful preferences, and most disputes of Bible meaning have more to do with willful human misreading than honest mistakes, but sometimes there are honest mistakes.) But if the Bible’s final authority is from God, then we will be accountable to Scripture’s divine Author for our interpretations of God’s Word. So this meaning of “sola Scriptura” may be true if one understands the implicit scope of reference to be texts, but is false without that scope.
Necessary for Salvation
Other Christians interpret “sola Scriptura” to mean that the Bible contains all knowledge necessary for salvation. One can be saved without knowing anything that is not in the Bible. This interpretation came up in the context of a misguided Reformation-era debate about whether one could be saved without knowing about church councils and church fathers’ writings.
But of course, we are not saved by our knowledge (that would be gnostic heresy), and some people were saved even before any part of the Bible was written. (Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, and Sarah are candidates for such pre-Scriptural saved people.) This means that not even the Bible is necessary for salvation. It is therefore true that one can be saved without knowing anything outside the Bible; one can also be saved without knowing anything inside the Bible. This is vacuously true, and not a useful theological formulation.
Binding the Conscience
The final meaning which I am aware of flying under the heading of “sola Scriptura” is the notion of what Christians are obligated to believe. This is a similar notion to Scripture as the final authority, but says that I cannot tell you as a Christian that you ought to believe something (whatever pet assertion I am making) unless I can prove it to you from the Bible itself. Christians are not obligated to believe anything which cannot be demonstrated from the Bible. This is Luther’s refusal to recant at the Diet of Worms: “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason… my conscience is captive to the Word of God.”
While I agree with the converse (that Christians are obligated to believe everything that is in Scripture), this statement about only the Bible binding the Christian conscience logically refutes itself, for one must ask on what basis I ought to believe it. Nowhere in Scripture does God say that Christians should not believe anything that they cannot find in the Bible. The Bible, when it speaks about God’s Word (e.g. Psalm 119) emphasizes how useful and authoritative Scripture is, but God also uses other means to get Christians’ attention and instruct them, for example through preaching, brotherly exhortation, spiritual hymns, insight into the created order, or even direct revelation (as in prophecy). If God is communicating by whatever means, we are obligated to listen! This understanding of “sola Scriptura” logically refutes itself because it is not itself based upon the Bible. God’s grace has given us a clear and authoritative Bible, which does indeed bind our conscience and obligate us to believe him (and it), but God is even more gracious and speaks to us in many different ways (never in contradiction to his inspired, infallible Scripture, of course)!
The Reformation slogan of “sola Scriptura” has come to mean many different things. Yet it seems to me that every meaning of “sola Scriptura” is tautological, vacuously true, demonstrably false, or even self-refuting. While Scripture is clear, powerful, and authoritative, “sola Scriptura” is not a useful doctrine, in any of its formulations. This is seen in the misplacement of the “doctrine of Scripture” in most Protestant systematic theologies: as the “formal principle” of theology, systematic theologians tended to discuss the Bible first, before discussing the God who inspired it. This is backwards: in fact, the Scriptures do not justify the belief in God; God justifies the belief in the Scriptures. Someone who does not believe in God has no reason to believe what the Bible says. Someone who believes and trusts God must accept what he said, so belief in Jesus as God leads to submission to the Bible.
As I hope I made fully clear throughout this, I am not trying in any way to demote, devalue, or dismiss God’s gracious and authoritative gift of his inspired, revealed Word. I love the Bible! I love spending time reading it, trying to understand it better and more fully. It is nourishment for the soul! I thank God for giving us the Bible! But the slogan of “sola Scriptura” refers to so many different things, and none of them are useful theological statements, even the ones that are technically correct. May our great God and Savior Jesus Christ grant us to love and worship him more, and to tremble more at his Word, that he might conform us to his character through the Holy Spirit whom he has given to us, to the glory of God the Father.