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What is Sola Scriptura?

Bible&CrucifixSola Scriptura is the Latin for “Scripture alone.”  Scripture alone means that the Bible, excluding the Apocrypha, is considered the “Only norm and rule for faith and life”[1].

Writing to St. Timothy, St. Paul the Apostle writes that the Holy Scriptures, “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.  All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:15-17).

Note that St. Paul references the purpose of the Holy Scriptures (the Old Testament, and then also, the New Testament writings) to be that of salvation.  Thus, does Jesus say to the people of His day, “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me” (John 5:39).  Here, Jesus plainly says that the Scriptures (here, the Old Testament Scriptures, composed of the Law, the Writings (Psalms), and the Prophets bear witness to Him.

According to St. Luke, Jesus says to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, “‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken!  Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?’ And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:25-27).  Here again, Jesus draws attention to the truth that the Old Testament writings are of Him.

Also in this same chapter of St. Luke, Jesus speaks in a similar way to his other disciples concerning His death and resurrection as recorded in the First Testament, “‘These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.’  And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures. Then He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem’” (Luke 24:44-47).

Such references clearly show that the Old Testament testifies of Christ Jesus, by Jesus’ own admonition.  Jesus Himself bears witness to the centrality of the Christian faith—Himself, who “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried” and “On the third day He rose again from the dead” (2nd Article of the Apostles’ Creed).

Throughout the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Epistles of the New Testament, this truth is clearly shown, that the Old Testament testifies of Christ.  Thus, the New Testament, too, bears witness to Christ and clearly shows that the entire Bible is about Him and salvation.

St. Paul writes in Ephesians 2:20 of having been, “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone.”  Here, Paul is writing to the “saints in Ephesus” (Ephesians 1:1), which included especially Gentiles.  The Gentile faith is no different from the faith of the Jews who also had believed in Christ, for the following words apply to both, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).

It is by God’s grace, apart from works, through faith, that anyone is saved.  This faith is founded on Christ Jesus, and is pure gift (see also Romans 5:1).  This, the Holy Scriptures teach.

The foundation of the apostles and prophets referenced above is nothing less than their preaching and teaching transmitted to us through their writings of both Old and New Testaments, with Christ at the center.

Add to, or subtract anything, from these writings, and the center is moved from Christ to something else.  Moving the center to something else leads to, and is “preaching another Gospel” (see Galatians 1:6-10) and carries with it the anathema of St. Paul, the Church, and Christ Himself (John 8:31-32; 14:21, 23-24.  This is why Sola Scriptura is necessary to retain and believe.

The writer to Proverbs writes that, “Every word of God is pure; He is a shield to those who put their trust in Him.  Do not add to His words, Lest He rebuke you, and you be found a liar” (30:5-6).

Adding to God’s Word does not lead to salvation, and only removes Christ from the centrality of the Christian faith.  Doing this is not according to God’s will and is not in accord with Christ and His Church, nor of Christian preaching.

Again, St. Paul writes, “We preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23).  Similarly, he repeats these words in his second letter to the Corinthians, “For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5).

The Christian church keeps, retains, confesses, and rejoices in “Christ at the center,” in her preaching and in her teaching.  Adding to or subtracting from the Holy Scriptures, Christ’s church becomes something else, losing Christ its center.  What then follows is not the Gospel, but the Law and legalism, confession without Christian absolution, ritual without freedom, and the desire for salvation, but no certainty of God’s grace and favor.  Salvation then hangs on you and not alone on the risen Christ.  Such are the consequences of denying Sola Scriptura.

Generally speaking, Protestant churches retain Sola Scriptura, though not all faithfully adhere to it.  A growing phenomena today is that of referencing the Bible, but divorcing the reference from its context, and using the text to support one’s own position rather than deriving the meaning from the text itself.  We all are to be diligent here not to make the text say what we want it to say, but rather, “hearing” what the text actually does say and declaring the “amen,” regardless of like or dislike.

The problem here is that the Bible does say things “hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16).  However, rather than trying to make the text make sense and placing ourselves over the Word as interpreters, we are to be servants of Scripture.  We are not lord over the text.  It is “Lord” over us.  The servant of the Lord does not seek to usurp God and His Word, but bears with it and seeks only to know Christ the Savior.  Keeping Sola Scriptura in tact and not adding to or subtracting from the text of Holy Scripture will ensure that Christ remains the center, as Christ remains the center of the Christian faith.[2]  Where Sola Scriptura is not held, there, other teachings will usurp Biblical doctrine, and another authority (or authorities) will insert his own teachings and doctrine as that to be believed.

This happens, for example, where reason is given higher authority than the Bible.  This occurs when human reason denies the Biblical text and “interprets” it in another way.  St. Peter, for example, writing about baptism, says, “There is also an antitype which now saves us — baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21, NKJ).  To deny that baptism can save or does save is to place human reason above the text of Holy Scripture.

According to Joel Peters, the author of Scripture Alone, “The Catholic holds that the immediate or direct rule of faith is the teaching of the Church; the Church in turn takes her teaching from divine Revelation—both the written Word, called sacred Scripture, and the oral of unwritten Word, known as ‘Tradition.’  The teaching authority or ‘Magisterium’ of the Catholic Church (headed by the Pope), although not itself a source of divine revelation, nevertheless has a God-given mission to interpret and teach both Scripture and Tradition.  Scripture and Tradition are the sources of Christian doctrine, the Christian’s remote or indirect rule of faith.”[3]

In summary, the rule of faith for protestants (generally, though variously defined, and sometimes along side of reason) is Holy (Sacred) Scripture, the Bible, Sola Scriptura.  For the Roman Catholic Church, the rule of faith is not Scripture alone, but Scripture and Tradition.  In practice, though, the latter cancels out the former.  As we shall see, Holy Scripture and the (oral?) Tradition of the Roman Catholic Church (or of the Orthodox Church) are not compatible as authorities, for the latter will assume authority over the latter.

The differing rules of faith between (historic)[4] Protestantism and Roman Catholicism are not at all complementary or compatible.[5]  They are at odds with each other.  Recognizing this distinction reveals much about the differences and practices between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, not least of which is the centrality of the Christian faith—Jesus Christ, and the means of salvation—faith in Christ alone.


[1] Theodore G. Tappert, The Book of Concord : The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2000, c1959).  Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration: “We pledge ourselves to the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments as the pure and clear fountain of Israel, which is the only true norm according to which all teachers and teachings are to be judged and evaluated.” (The Summary Formulation (Basis, Rule, and Norm, Indicating How All Doctrines Should Be Judged in Conformity with the Word of God and Errors Are to Be Explained and Decided in a Christian Way).

 

[2] In a later section, I will address the clear disunity among protestant churches, and also the disunity within the Roman Catholic church.

[3] Joel Peters, Scripture Alone: 21 Reasons to Reject Sola Scriptura, (Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc.), p1-2.

[4] By historic Protestantism, I mean the first protestants, Lutherans, who “protested” against the Catholics regarding certain freedoms at the Diet of Speyer (1529).

[5] And neither is any rule of faith including Scripture and human reason.

 

 

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