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Bible alone – sola scriptura

Today is the feast of Richard Hooker – a good day to reflect on the concept that the Bible alone is sufficient to determine what ought to be believed – sola scriptura. As far as I can ascertain the term goes back to Martin Luther, a sixteenth century human construct, philosophically in the early modern period of human history. Luther’s own high degree of confidence in the sole sufficiency of individualised Biblical reading was soon shattered even in his own lifetime when others started reading the Bible quite differently and found teachings there significantly different to what Luther himself read there.

The concept of “scripture only” is nowhere found in the scriptures. The scriptures regularly point readers beyond the list of scrolls. The scriptures do not present the concept of a coherent whole or closed canon. Furthermore, parts of the Bible quote from documents as if they are to be regarded as scripture – whereas these documents do not form part of our current canon!

2 Timothy 2:2 “what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well.”

2 Thessalonians 2:15 “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.”

1 Timothy 3:15 “if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”

and so on…

The Early Church had no concept of sola scriptura, in fact could not have such a concept as there was no fixed canon. Hence, as sola scriptura is not part of “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3) how can it form part of orthodox Christianity?

It is the early, undivided church which recognises the work of God’s Spirit in certain scrolls and holds them as providing God’s word within the ongoing life of the church. Richard Hooker argues against the puritan position of sola scriptura bringing reason and the tradition of the church into the dialogue. The councils of the undivided church clearly hold a special place in the life of the church. (As an aside, the FOCA’s Jerusalem Declaration “uphold the four Ecumenical Councils”. They give no indication which four they refer to, nor why they stop at four?! Normal church historians recognise seven ecumenical councils of the undivided church.)

Even the most casual examination of Christianity will underscore the failure of the puritan experiment and the inherently illogical nature of the Bible-alone position. People who actually claim sola scriptura disagree with other people who also claim sola scriptura about what we should believe – to the most fundamental issues. There are hundreds, no thousands of different Christian groups all claiming they have the correct beliefs, and all claiming that their beliefs are based on the Bible alone. This demonstrates, in the five centuries of its existence, sola scriptura cannot be made to work in practice. You can just about think of any crazy belief, and you can probably find a Bible verse to support it – and if you cannot find a group that supports your crazy belief, you can easily start one up and I’m sure you will soon find other people joining your new Bible-only believing group.

One of the scandals, certainly of English-speaking Christianity, is the dissatisfaction by some Christians with excellent biblical translations, and their financing of new “translations” which are not honest in following their declared purpose and method, but rather produce “translations” of the Bible to support a certain personal opinion. Rather than having the scriptures determine their beliefs, these people have their beliefs determine their “translation” of the scriptures.

With the advent of post-modern philosophical understanding there has been the growing realisation and acknowledgement that where one stands determines what one sees. There is no such thing as one objective reading on scriptural material. This is not a bad thing nor need it be the source of any scandal. It is merely a fact. One that would have been plain in the early church and one that poses no problem when it is understood, acknowledged and we respond together accordingly – hopefully a little more knowingly, and certainly a little more humbly.

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24 thoughts on “Bible alone – sola scriptura”

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    I often listen to sermons online as suggested by others. I try and consider what some of my family and friends find edifying.

    Your post is just what I needed to read after a day of listening to simplistic preaching and teaching by my brothers (never sisters) 🙂 in Christ.

    Why is it that they consider me “not really Christian”? While I happily consider them among the faithful, albeit different from me?

    On topic, I recommend the following;




  2. Totally, absolutely agree with you. And this is from an evangelical who has been attending a “Bible-based” Sola Scriptura church for sixteen years and sometimes can’t believe what I hear from the church leadership.

    If I had my preference, I’d continue with my Anglican Church I have attended on weekdays for the past five years, but I want to worship together as a family and my husband is totally Sola Sciptura. Sigh…..

  3. How much did Luther really believe in the power of scripture by itself to save? Wasn’t it Martin who also used the phrase ‘sola fidei’and ‘ saved by Christ alone’. I know he’s credited with the ‘sola scriptura’ line, but my feeling is that he consistenly (and purposely) undermined his own position on this.

    I think he would have found much to agree in your piece, Bosco.

  4. I suggest that you read Luther’s Bondage of the Will. Differences in interpretation does not negate the idea of sola scriputra. Luther explained that man’s own shortcomings, intellectually or sinfulness can get in the way of our interpretations. However, Luther said that one can’t blame it on the scriptures for man’s weakness. (Luther in the bondage of the will called this the perspicuity of the Spirit.)

    Also, Luther’s sola scriptura belief was in response to the practice of Rome. Rome gave more authority to Popes, councils, and tradition than to the Bible itself. Hence the sale of indulgences.

    Luther did also coin sola fidei (faith alone), sola Christei (Christ alone), and sola gratias (grace alone).

  5. I don’t agree in sola scriptura necessarily, but I also don’t think even the worst examples of modern evangelical churches exhibit it. Because as you said yourself, it comes down to interpretation.

    Where Susan Barrett said “sometimes can’t believe what I hear from the church leadership.” Presumeably that’s because people are using teaching derived not just purely “sola” from scripture, but also from their own ideas, interpretations, from the vision decided upon by a leadership team. Therefore, what they teach is not sola scriptura.

    I also didn’t really see how your use of scripture underlines your point.

    2 Timothy 2:2 “what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well.”

    In other words, what you have read in this letter, which has been demonstrated in what people have witnessed me teaching, pass on to others. That isn’t saying

    2 Thessalonians 2:15 “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.”

    So, hold fast to the teachings given to you in this letter, or the word of mouth gospels and other teachings of the time. It does not say “Stand firm and hold fast to new traditions, thought up by perhaps very wise and holy people, but still new.” It doesn’t necessarily discount it either, but it still doesn’t really seem to support your point.

    1 Timothy 3:15 “if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”

    The verse before this is “These things I write to you, though I hope to come to you shortly;” In other words, here is my teaching, which i hope to give you in person. It doesn’t say, here is my teaching, rely on this *and* on other teaching derived from religious traditions over hundreds of years.

    The big problem I have is that longstanding Anglican traditions, many of which I feel are close to the religious behaviour that got Jesus angry, are not open to being challenged in a way that a modern church’s leadership team can be, because we just fall back on the “it’s been a tradition for hundreds of years, it must be correct”. Why, when jesus broke the curtain, do we have churches with partitions separating off the nave, for example?

    1. Thank you for encouraging some elucidation, Chris.

      Your comment underscores that biblical texts by themselves do not speak for themselves – what I took to be their plain sense (that from the beginning the writings were seen to be alongside and within the ongoing life of the community and the idea that the writings were complete out of the context of the Christian community is alien even to the texts), you interpret quite differently.

      You stress a leadership team “interpreting” scripture rather than using it “sola” – my point is that one cannot do other than this. One is always interpreting a text. Even translation is inevitably always interpretation.

      As an aside, from a liturgical standpoint, it always interests me that churches that most proclaim that the Bible speaks for itself rarely if ever read from scripture and let is speak “sola”. It is invariably either followed by a preacher’s interpretation, or it is only read within a sermon.

      Lectionary-based churches, on the other hand, Sunday by Sunday read a cluster of texts from the Bible, often with no relationship to one another, often with only one text picked up in the sermon. They actually do let the scriptures speak for themselves. They allow God’s word to address individuals and the community, without constantly interposing a preacher’s interpretation. We believe the Bible is inspired, and is God’s word addressing us individually and as a community – we are blessed if the preacher is inspiring.

      As to your issue with rood screens in gothic churches, I am not aware of anyone using scripture, tradition, and reason advocating that one build contemporary church buildings with that Medieval configuration. But I might be wrong. If you need to bring this to the attention of your community, you might like to encourage them to read and discuss my chapter on the worship environment.

  6. I’m interested in your point, Ted. I am no expert on Martin Luther, but my understanding is that even in his famous statement at the Diet of Worms, Luther placed reason with scripture and that he would have been more comfortable with Richard Hooker than with much of what might be encountered now which asserts that it goes back to Luther’s insight.

  7. I agree entirely; the first thing I thought looking at those verses in 2 Tim and 2 Thess is (following Borg) one must be certain that they were written by a later writer or writers, (ab)using Paul’s name, to a specific situation (person or local church). There is no reason to say “these are words that apply for all time out of textual or historical context”; that is an attitude that is brought to the bible, not the other way around.

    When one looks at Christianity from a purely historical perspective – using Armstrong to fit its tree of thought between the Judaism from which it came and adjacent to the Islam that appeared since – and using the Jesus Seminar as an exploration of the historical method to textual analysis – one sees it for what it is, a document and a people-tradition *within* the world, *not the other way around*. One to respect, to identify with, to follow, but with no more claim to be in touch with the universe than any other.

    Even before I decided to label myself liberal-going-Progressive I held the belief that Christianity is not about a table of checkboxes “I believe foo is bad”, as though that defined the faith. Even worse, “as a Christian, I don’t drink” – wtf? Not so! Faith is not about right beliefs, but about believing in the right way. And so Sola Scriptura goes out the window, along with much of the rest of the Reformation, really.

  8. Sola scriptura can miss out on much of God. The poet Edwin Muir – immensely frustrated with the cerebral doctrine of the Scottish church in his native Orkney – wrote “The Word made flesh here is made word again …”

  9. I am a protestant minister, and I certainly agree with you here – sola scripture is not biblical and causes all sorts of problems.

    So, what might be sufficient for Christian groups who do not have bishops (well, to clarify – who have denominational leaders without the power of a bishop)? – especially congregationalist denominations?

    Would you encourage us to submit primarily to the creeds (Apostles, Nicene, Athanasian) plus the 7 ecumenical councils? Are these items sufficient for orthodoxy?

    Any other comment for Christians without the benefit of bishops in regards to this idea of sufficiency for belief?

    Great post!

  10. Richard L. Lindberg

    I have to disagree with your statement that the Bible does not speak of sola scriptura. The Bible knows no authority aside from the commandments of God, which were the sola scriptura of the Old Testament. The OT was the scripture for Jesus and the early church. Paul quotes other writers but only for illustration, not authority. The traditions mentioned in 2 Thessalonians refers to the content of the apostolic preaching which finds expression in the writings of Paul and the other NT writers. The point of the Reformation was to break with the traditions appealed to by Rome.

  11. Well…. if scripture alone were the only way to seek God, then how did scripture (I’m talking the whole Bible) come to be in the first place? People “heard” or “received” God’s call, God’s message. And people commented on that. And those stories of calls (and let’s not forget how the psalms tell us over and over that natural phenomena speak God’s message too), written recollections of Divinely inspired messages and written commentaries eventually got “compiled” into what we refer to as scripture today. And the commentaries (within the Bible), in particular, often reflect the use of “reason” – not just an inner light of inspiration. And certainly the compiling process involved reason. The identification of canons involved reason. A careful reading of the Bible (and I’m no expert) demonstrates that what is there clearly resulted from an abundance of “experiences” which were later compiled. Liturgy speaks to us. Nature holds God’s spiritual messages.

    But irregardless…. some, maybe many, will continue to believe that the Bible is the “direct” word straight from the mouth of God to the ears of …. well, how would we know whose ears to trust? But that question never occurs to them.

    I find that some people need ‘certainty’ and are ready to view the Bible as holding that ‘certainty’. Others of us can live with questions and uncertainty and MYSTERY. That takes faith and discernment. Not everyone can tolerate uncertainty, the need to grope in the darkness, the humility of not knowing for sure, of having to make your best stabs at living – on the basis of weighing and considering – using your best informed spiritual, intellectual, and emotional gifts – along with reality testing through consulting others via direct or indirect means.

    I’ve said nothing here. But thanks for a chance to say it nonetheless. I love this site!

  12. The problem often is that Protestants have taken the phrase “sola scriptura” too literally. They have failed to appreciate that it’s a slogan, that it comes from a polemic situation, and that it really points to something more nuanced than just those two words. The Lutheran Confessors spoke of the Scriptures as a norm on faith and doctrine, as the guide by which doctrine should be judged and evaluated. This, I think, gets much closer to what the slogan points to.

    I think it’s also vital to remember that from Luther and his fellow Reformers, “Scripture alone” was not alone, but also accompanied by sola gratia, sola, fide, and sola Christus. They belong together. All too often cries of “sola scriptura” isolate that one slogan from the others.

    Understood literally, as a close to complete sum of the doctrine in just those two words, the notion of sola scriptura becomes very problematic, as you’ve pointed out quite well. Hooker reacted in an appropriate way to this misunderstanding of the phrase. But if understood well, I think there is plenty of room for both Hooker’s three legged stool and for sola scriptura.

  13. Sola Scriptura does not mean “just me and my Bible.” Luther and the Reformers accepted the basic creeds with the Nicene Creed being a concise distillation of Biblical theology. Sola Scriptura had the purpose of saying that Scripture is a sufficient guide on how we are to know and relate to God. Secondly, it affirms Scripture as a source for testing doctrine – if the belief or doctrine contradicts God’s revealed truth in Scripture, then it is to be tossed out. Of course, men are fallen and sinful and prone to error – thus divisions within the Church over doctrine. However, Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus unite all Reformation and Reformed Christians. However, we are not to toss out the Church Fathers, Councils, Theologians, etc. that have come before us – that would be foolish. I am a lover of the Reformation – focused on Christ crucified for our sins! A high view of Scripture gives me confidence in the risen Christ and trust in his death on the cross for my salvation. He has fulfilled the God’s Law – something I could never do. Scripture affirms all of this.

  14. Although admittedly only partially tutored in the matter, I do not believe I am alone in believing that sola scriptura is at root a Christological claim. The New Testament presents Jesus as having a traditionally (for the day) Jewish belief in a received canon, a collection of texts representing the revelation of God to man, the very word of God. The New Testament also presents Jesus as the apex and culmination of that tradition, of that unveiling of God’s Word. In other words, the doctrine of Christ implies something of a closed canon.

    In practical terms, following the Ascension of our Lord and of the death of His eyewitness disciples … and of their disciples … a written collection of writings about the Jesus-tradition became vital in the passing of the religious baton between generations and in maintaining unity. So too did a trained and professional hierarchy.

    Doctrinal differences among the people of God are distressing, and of course long predate A.D. 1531 or 1517 or 1054, but I for one see the Scriptures themselves as anticipating and recording such phenomena, for example in part because of the blindness of sin and in part because there may be a difference between God speaking and God revealing to the heart (“not given them a heart to understand” Deut 29:4). That and various ambiguities and interpretive cruxes in some, but not all areas.

    Of course, one such as myself who holds to a high view of Scripture also follows a tradition. In part, I view certain Western and Reformed confessions as in keeping with the way I interpret the Scriptures. I part, I trust a body of professionals in that tradition who have done more homework than I have. That tradition confesses the Scriptures as having final veto power over doctrinal claims where it comes to that.

    Members of the people of God who are in some sense outside my confessional tradition differ with me and with my tradition about what the Bible says about such-and-such, but in confession not about the authority of Scriptures or the nature of Christ. To which alternate epistemological authority then would you have us turn? And if I alone do, will God’s church be one wit closer to unity?

    1. I think, Peter, you are not significantly disagreeing with the tenor of this post. The scriptures are precious within the life of God’s people. It is their removal from that ongoing life that is significantly problematic – not just in theory, but manifestly in practice. I wonder if your claim that “The New Testament presents Jesus as having a traditionally (for the day) Jewish belief in a received canon” is not anachronistic. I do not believe you can establish the Old Testament canon from the words of Jesus in the New Testament alone. I would love to see an attempt to produce our current canon in this manner. Nor am I convinced that there was consensus in Jesus’ time as to what constituted “a received canon”. It seems to me that in some of Jesus’ debates he is accepting that some of his hearers see some scrolls as more canonical than others.

  15. I am embarrassingly unfamiliar with first century Jewish history … or with contemporary secondary literature on canon, which is voluminous. So far as I know, however, there is little debate that Jews of Jesus’ day generally received Moses’ five books of the law as canon–even the Sadducees. This may also be implied (a couple centuries) later by the Mishnah.

    Further, judging from the NT, the Psalms of David seemed equally received (perhaps Sadducees aside), and various prophets. And for apparent canon considered in sections, note for example, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets,” “the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms,” “the law or the Prophets” (Luke 24:27,44; Matt 5:17, respectively).

    And what about Septuagint manuscripts? Or Josephus’s claim that the Scriptures consisted of 22 books (partly by merging the Samuel’s, King’s, and Chronicles or whatever)?

    The above seems to imply virtually that the idea of a “Tanakh” may be placed in Jesus’ day. The idea of canon and the reception of many books in what we call the Old Testament is not necessarily anachronistic for the first century.

    Of course, this does not answer all questions, e.g. whether a majority of Jews received all of what we call the Old Testament or whether to include Ecclesiastes and exclude 1 Maccabees or whether some books were considered “deutero-canonical,” etc. But are conclusions about fringes necessary to make my point about a core? And granting that one cannot “establish the Old Testament canon from the words of Jesus in the New Testament alone,” yet the evidence is suggestive in general and in some cases regarding specific books.

    In this sense, and referring back to my first comment, Old Testament canon and Christology are linked. However vital the practice and reading of Scripture is to the church (I think your point is excellent), her Christology, as “theological theory,” makes or breaks her in the long haul.

  16. I think again, Peter, you are reinforcing my post rather than disagreeing with it. Sola scriptura would generally struggle with levels of canonicity – seeing all scripture as being equally inspired, rather than your suggestion of a canonical core and fringes. Certainly the Septuagint increases rather than decreases the issue. Furthermore your point of New Testament texts quoting earlier works adds to the issue – quotes in the New Testament include from texts we do not hold as canonical.
    Your point is reinforcing that the canon is discerned within the community – not by the texts.
    Removing the canon from the community’s ongoing life, does not result in “maintaining unity” as per your first comment it actually causes disunity, hence my point that the relatively recent experiment with sola scriptura has been demonstrated a failure.
    This is not an abandonment of a high view of scripture, nor of its inspiration and value – quite the opposite. It just clarifies the actual way in which the scriptures are recognised as such, and their place in the ongoing life of God’s community.

  17. Thank you for your latest rejoinder. “Apocryphal” inclusions in the Septuagint, for example, do add uncertainty to the Tanakh boundaries, but my point in bringing up the Septuagint was only that it adds to the argument that some sort of canon was likely accepted in Jesus’ day despite debates about the fringes.

    Indeed, I am confident that others have brought arguments to bear which solidify more books as in or out of the OT canon than my few arguments here suggest, so that effectively the core is larger and the fringe smaller than I have been able to imply. Debates may never wholly settle, but I am confident the church can happily survive, and the more so with a lesser fringe and a larger core.

    I am encouraged by the last paragraph of your most recent rejoinder, but I might be mystified by the one immediately preceding:

    “Removing the canon from the community’s ongoing life, does not result in “maintaining unity” as per your first comment it actually causes disunity, hence my point that the relatively recent experiment with sola scriptura has been demonstrated a failure.”

    Of course, you allude again to your original post. There, for example, you wrote, “Luther’s own high degree of confidence in the sole sufficiency of individualised Biblical reading was soon shattered …” because divergent and atomistic readings developed. Indeed, I think we would both agree that the history of the Reformation has been marked by an ever-expanding doctrinal and practical divergence (yes, often with old themes and motifs weaved back in).

    (As an aside, divergence seems characteristic of western culture of the last many centuries.)

    And the divergence of English translations (and their marketing) in many cases has seemed evidence of this divergence. No other language has been so heavily blessed and cursed.

    If this is your point, I agree. But there is a flip side, I think. History gives examples of convergence which are arguably more politically driven than ecclesiastically or spiritually. At least Constantine’s stated motivation was political, if I recall correctly (however much I appreciate Nicea and Athanasius). And James I, known for favoring “divine right of kings,” saw fit to provide an Authorized Version to the church (however much I appreciate that translation and William Tyndale).

    Indeed, unity of the church may be and has been based on something other than Christ and His teaching. Luther rightly found fault with some church tradition of his day at least in part based on his individual reading of the Bible. In practice, divergence has its problems, unity its own also. There are no easy answers, though there is hope and trust in Providence … and gratitude. I would prefer to call “the puritan experiment” a highlight of church history despite its failures rather than characterize the whole as a failure.

    1. Thank you, Peter, for your point about my calling the puritan experiment a failure being overstated. Fair comment. I was meaning it in terms of using the Bible alone, removed from the ongoing life of God’s community, cannot and has been shown to not be a source of Christian unity. I am sure that within the puritan experiment there are people and communities who are holy and deeply united with God. So anything but a failure.

      In fact, as you continue to clarify, what constitutes the Bible is actually derived from the undivided community – not the other way around. I am also in agreement with you that there is value in diversity. But diversity does not need to stand in opposition to unity. I would expect and hope for a diversity of embodiment of the Christian tradition to the culture and context in which it finds itself. What I would not expect, however, is animosity between those diverse manifestations – even within the same culture and context. Which is what we actually encounter both in doctrine and practice in the sola scriptura approach. And not merely with fringe issues.

      Sola scriptura leads to one group baptising all, another group baptising only believers, another group not baptising at all, and so forth – each claiming that the plain reading of scripture leads to their position alone. Sola scriptura leads to worship traditions that appear not just as adaptations to a new context, but are discontinuous from our Jewish roots, and from the practice of the undivided church.

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