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Does the Bible Teach "Sola Scriptura"?

Kenneth R. Samples

When in 1517 Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses on the church door at Wittenberg he was merely disputing abuses in the Roman Catholic practice of "indulgences." The dispute intensified and widened, however, until Luther and his followers found it necessary to break entirely with Rome. So began the Protestant Reformation, and the doctrinal issues which separated the Reformers from medieval Catholicism are the same issues which divide Protestants and Catholics today. While the doctrine of salvation (i.e., justification) became the central issue under dispute, the underlying question of religious authority was also a major concern.

Luther was convinced that the authority structure of Catholicism (Scripture/Tradition/Magisterium or Teaching Office) was illegitimate. He maintained that the church fathers, the papacy, and church councils were fallible, and had, in fact, erred. During his debates with Catholic theologians, Luther formulated the principle of sola scriptura (solely Scripture) which recognized Scripture alone as the supreme and infallible authority for the church and individual believer. All ecclesiastical authorities were to be judged by Holy Writ, and never the reverse. The principle of sola scriptura rejected both the idea that the Roman church possessed revelation apart from Scripture, and that the church was the infallible interpreter of Scripture.

Since the Reformation, theologians from a wide variety of persuasions have appealed to an equally wide variety of sources as the ultimate religious authority. These include reason, experience, creeds, church consensus, and the individual conscience. While recognizing that these have importance, historic Protestantism has continued to assert that the Bible alone is the final authority in matters of faith and practice. On this point, however, some questions are often raised: How do we arrive at this principle of sola scriptura? How does the Bible derive its authority? And, where does Scripture teach this principle?

To answer these questions it is important to recognize that Christian theology views authority as a chain. For the Christian, the absolute authority is God Himself. More specifically, it is the triune God who reveals Himself, for authority and revelation are correlates. While God revealed Himself in deed and in word in the Old Testament, His greatest and clearest self-disclosure is found in the incarnate Logos -- the Lord Jesus Christ (John 1:1,14; 14:6-10). Jesus Christ, who both reveals God and is God, is the imperial authority for the church and individual believer (Heb. 1:1-3). However, Christ the Living Word has delegated His authority to His apostles, who -- through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit -- have recorded the written word (John 14:26; 2 Pet. 1:21). Thus, Scripture has become our authority because as an infallible record of God's self-revelation it perpetuates Christ's personal authority. Scripture is objectively the Word of God (1 Thess. 2:13; 2 Tim. 3:16), and is therefore authoritative!

Does the Bible teach sola scriptura? The best way to answer this is to examine how Christ and His apostles viewed Scripture.

The Gospels reveal that Jesus held Scripture in the highest regard. His statements speak for themselves: "The Scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35, NIV); "Not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law..." (Matt. 5:18); "It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law" (Luke 16:17). Jesus asserted that greatness in heaven will be measured by obedience to Scripture (Matt. 5:19), while judgment will be measured out by the same standard (John 5:45-47).

The strongest evidence for the authority of the Bible is the fact that Jesus used Scripture as the final court of appeal in every matter under dispute. When disputing the Pharisees on their high view of tradition, He proclaimed, "Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition..." (Mark 7:13). Scripture therefore determines whether tradition is acceptable. When Jesus was tested by the Sadducees concerning the resurrection, He retorted, "You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures..." (Matt. 22:29). When confronted with the devil's temptations, He responded three times with the phrase, "It is written" (Matt. 4:4-10). Clearly, Jesus accepted Scripture as the supreme authority and subjected Himself to it (Luke 24:44). And, as followers of Christ, our view of Scripture cannot be inferior to His.

What about the relationship between Scripture and the early church? While it is true that the church preceded the apostolic writings, it was the message (the gospel preached) -- which was later recorded and expounded upon in the apostolic writings -- that produced the church. The New Testament became a permanent, infallible record of what was earlier an oral message. Because Scripture is identified with the gospel, it is authoritative. The church (made up of gospel-believing communities) submits to the Word (gospel) which created it. Scripture derives none of its authority from the church; its authority is inherent because it is the very words of God: "All Scripture is God-breathed..." (2 Tim. 3:16).

The purpose of the Scripture is to bear witness to Christ, who Himself bears witness to the integrity and authority of Scripture: "You search the Scriptures...and it is these that bear witness of Me" (John 5:39).

Does the Bible teach sola scriptura? Yes! Jesus Christ speaks to us authoritatively only through the objective Word of God.


Permission kindly granted by Christian Research Institute. Copyright © 1994. Taken from the Viewpoint column of the Christian Research Journal, Fall 1989, page 31. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller.

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