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Claims about the doctrine of Sola Scriptura originating with Martin Luther

Sola Scriptura

It is held by some that “The doctrine of Sola Scriptura originated with Martin Luther, the 16th-century German monk who broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and started the Protestant ‘Reformation.’[1]  Part of this is true.  Dr. Luther was a 16th-century German monk (of the Augustinian order).  However, the Roman Catholic Church excommunicated Luther for his teachings.


Claims about the doctrine of Sola Scriptura originating with Martin Luther


A brief examination of the New Testament will demonstrate that the teaching of Sola Scriptura did not originate with Martin Luther.  Though I’m not aware that the phrase Sola Scriptura was used before Luther’s time, the doctrine was in practice before Luther.

Jesus says, for example, “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think that you eternal life, and these are they which testify of Me” (John 5:39).  Here, Jesus was speaking with Jews, the people of His day.  Note that He references the Scriptures, which are the Old Testament writings.  He says that these writings testify of Him.  He says the same elsewhere, too (i.e. Luke 24).

The angel Gabriel, who visited both Zechariah in the temple, concerning the birth of John the baptizer (the forerunner of Christ), through the womb of his wife Elizabeth, and who also visited the virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus the Lord, testified to them of what was to come using the Old Testament.

The preaching of the apostles after Christ’s ascension was the preaching of Christ’s death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins.  Significantly, they claimed that this proclamation, and their teaching, did not derive from tradition, but was founded on the Old Testament.  They were claiming, therefore, that Christ was not only the one prophesied in the Old Testament, but that He had fulfilled those prophecies (i.e. Acts 2ff).

These few examples draw attention to where Gabriel, Jesus, and the early church recognized the origination of true doctrine to come, not from tradition or a human figure (i.e. the pope), but from God alone, through Holy Scripture (the Bible).  This is especially noteworthy, because such a claim equates the Bible with God’s Word.  This means that the denial of the Bible as the only authority is also the denial of God’s Word, from which God makes Himself known to us through Jesus Christ.  And the denial of the Bible, God’s Word, as the only authority for faith and life, leads to the denial of salvation by God’s grace alone, through Christ alone, through faith alone, all three, for these teachings the Holy Scriptures clearly teach.

[1] Peters, 2.

A Fundamental Principle of the Reformation

“The supreme and absolute authority of God’s Word in determining all questions of doctrine and of duty, is a fundamental principle of the Reformation—a principle so fundamental, that without it, there would have been no Reformation—and so vital, that a Reformation without it, could such a Reformation be supposed, would have been at best a glittering delusion and failure” (Charles Porterfield Krauth, The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology, 15).

In the evaluation of Krauth, the Reformation of the 16th Century would have never happened as it did if the principle of Sola Scriptura was absent.  Change in externals (i.e. abuses of the Catholic church, use of relics, indulgences, the promiscuity and immorality of priests, etc.) does not answer the internal problem of the heart’s corruption.  What Holy Scripture calls for is repentance, a turning away from selfishness and “the traditions of men” (Matthew 15 & Mark 7) to God, His Word—Christ.

The Catholic church in Luther’s day and the Roman Catholic church in our day have this gross deficiency—they despise and condemn Scripture Alone.  In essence, they say that God’s Word is “not sufficient.”  And for Catholics, it isn’t.  Apostolic tradition, church councils, and the pope speaking ex cathedra, however, are enough for Rome to substantiate her doctrine.  This is so because what the Bible doesn’t say about Rome’s teaching (i.e. purgatory, various teachings about Mary, papal infallibility, etc.) can be found in “tradition,” church councils, and the pope.

In other words, what Rome cannot support by using Holy Scripture, they support with other words which they claim to be authoritative.  Thus, Scripture Alone is truly insufficient for defending Romish doctrine.

This “insufficiency” of Holy Scripture demonstrates itself, too, in its doctrine of justification (the central article of the Christian faith, which, by the way, Rome declares to be anathema, or accursed), papal infallibility, view of Mary, purgatory, indulgences, sin, faith, grace, sacraments, etc.).  Here, the Catholic church would make the nonCatholic believe that she is Christian.  Yet she doesn’t derive her teaching solely from the foundation of the Law and the prophets (Ephesians 2:20).  She builds on another foundation(s) than that of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11).  She thus mixes what is true with that which is not, and builds on the latter and not the former.

The Reformers of the 16th century and the true evangelicals today, in contrast, build only on Christ, the true foundation as revealed in Holy Scripture.  They derive their doctrine and confess their faith only according to the very Word of God.  They need no councils, popes, traditions, or church’s interpretation to declare to them how they are to believe.  They only need Scripture, the Bible, the Word of God, for this alone is sufficient for faith and life.  Holy Scripture reveals Christ, and sins fully forgiven through faith in God’ Son.

Holy Scripture judges all writings, books, sermons, doctrine, and practice.  This is so because it is the Word of God.  Upon that Word, the Word alone, Luther and others after him have stood and  stand.  Thus did the Reformation happen as it did.  Thus is a reformation happening even now, where the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity (distinguishing between God’s law and God’s promise) and the sacraments are administered according to Christ’s institution.  Where these are going on, the true evangelical faith is created and strengthened, sin is forgiven, and love for God and neighbor continually grows.

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