Lecture 3, Scripture Alone:

Christians ought to submit to the authority given them by Christ. But what happens when those in authority teach things contrary to the Word of God? Is there a higher court to which we can appeal? The answer is yes. The appeal was made in the sixteenth century and the motion still carries. Reformers call this Sola Scriptura. That’s the Latin slogan for Scripture alone. Dr. Sproul teaches us about this in the message entitled “Scripture Alone.”

Message Transcript

The Bible says that all men are liars, and I’m afraid I verified the truth of that in terms of its application to myself in our last session. I concluded our last session by saying that from now on we were going to only consider the distinctives of Reformed theology. But in the next two sessions we’re going to be studying the doctrines of sola Scriptura and sola fide, which I’ve already told you are critical doctrines held in common by evangelicals in their traditions. And so, I lied. I didn’t lie intentionally, but I was mistaken.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that the doctrine of sola Scriptura is a distinctly or uniquely Reformed theological principle. It is part of that body of truth which we share in common with historical evangelicalism. Having said that, let’s look at what historians call the formal principle of the Protestant Reformation, sola Scriptura.

Convinced by Sacred Scripture

In one sense, this concept of sola Scriptura was born publicly in Luther’s famous confrontation with the rulers of the state and the church at the Diet of Worms, whereupon Luther was called to recant of his teaching. On that occasion he stood at that solemn place and said, “Unless I am convinced by sacred Scripture, or by evident reason, I cannot recant, for my conscience is held captive by the Word of God. And to act against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. God help me.” That’s been memorialized in motion picture lore and the history books and so on.

Though this was the public debut of sola Scriptura in a historic sense at Worms, it was not a new concept for Luther. Luther had been more or less forced to speak along these same lines in earlier debates when some theologians were trying to persuade him to change his views. He said that it was possible for popes to err, and even for church councils to make mistakes; the only absolutely authoritative written source of divine revelation is Scripture itself. So, we get this word sola that we place before the word Scriptura, and the phrase simply means “by Scripture alone.”

What does this mean? What is the vantage point that we’re concerned about with the use of this term alone? Actually, there is more than one consideration, though they’re all inter-related.

The Dispute over The Sola

In the first instance, one of the disputes in the sixteenth century was the question of the source of divine revelation.

All Christians in the sixteenth century believed that Christianity is a revealed faith, that its content comes from God. And both sides of the dispute in the sixteenth century, both Rome and Protestantism, agreed that there were at least two distinct places where God gives revelation of Himself. One is in nature, which is called “natural” revelation, or “general” revelation, whereby the heavens declare the glory of God (Ps. 19:1). The other, of course, is the Bible.

Both sides agreed that the Bible was revelation. Both sides agreed that nature is also revelatory. But the dispute over the term alone focused on whether there was more than one source of what we call “special” revelation.

The Protestant movement said that there is only one source of special revelation, and that is Scripture, whereas Rome confessed its confidence in two sources of special revelation—Scripture and tradition.

Two Separate Sources of Revelation?

The Council of Trent, which was the Roman Catholic Church’s response to Luther and Protestantism, was held in different sessions at different times spread out over a few years in the sixteenth century.

At the fourth session of the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic Church declared that the truths of God are found in Scripture and in tradition. The Latin word in the final text of the Council of Trent that links Scripture and tradition is the somewhat innocuous, simple Latin word et. It is simply the Latin word for “and.”

This is a complicated discussion because an Anglican scholar in the twentieth century, while doing research for his doctoral dissertation, found some difficult things in the discussions that went on during the fourth session of the Council of Trent. He was focusing on the fourth session, which ended abruptly and unexpectedly because of the outbreak of war on the Continent. As a result, there were some loose ends left dangling. This Anglican scholar noted that the first draft of the fourth session of the Council of Trent made the statement, in Latin, that the truth of God is contained partly (partim) in Scripture and partly (partim) in tradition. This would indicate clearly that there are two separate and distinct sources for the church’s doctrine—one from the Bible, and the other from the historic tradition of the church.

When that first draft was presented to the council, two priests who were delegates stood up and protested the language. I don’t know why I remember their names, but their names were Bonuccio and Noccianti. These two Italian priests protested this language, saying that it undermined the sufficiency of Scripture. There the record stops, and we don’t know what transpired in the further debates about their objection. All we know is that the final draft exhibited a change. The words partim, partim, which clearly taught a dual source of special revelation, were crossed out. In their place was the word et, which may or may not mean two separate sources.

Tradition That Binds the Conscience

The word and in the fourth session of the Council of Trent is a little bit ambiguous, isn’t it? If you asked me where you could find the Reformed faith, I would say that you can find it two places—you can find it in the Bible, or you can look at the confessions in church history that try to give a summary of Reformed doctrine. Insofar as those creeds are consistent with the Bible, they are repeating it and are just another place that you can go to find it.

So, the church may have meant simply to say that we find the truth of God, first, in Scripture and, second, as Scripture is re-presented to us in the historic councils or decrees of the church. Somebody could say that and still hold to sola Scriptura.

The debate continues to this day among contemporary Roman Catholic scholars as to whether their church is committed to two sources or one. Unfortunately, there are those conservatives in the church who said that the change from partim, partim to et was not a substantive change, but merely a stylistic change, and that the church was clearly meaning to affirm two sources of written revelation in the sixteenth century.

That debate, though it continues, was more or less settled by a papal encyclical in the twentieth century which unambiguously refers to the two sources of revelation. That has been the mainstream of thinking within the Roman Church since the sixteenth century, that truths founded in the tradition of the church are just as binding upon the consciences of believers as the truths of Scripture.

Only One Absolute Authority

In Protestant heritage, virtually all Protestants embrace the principle of semper reformanda. The church is always called to undergo reformation and always called to check her own creeds and confessions to make sure they are in conformity to sacred Scripture.

Virtually every Protestant church that has a creed or confession that is unique to their communion will go to great pains to say that their own confessions are not infallible and do not carry the weight of Scripture, except insofar as they faithfully reproduce the doctrines of the Scripture. They affirm the overarching principle that the Bible alone has the authority of God Himself to bind our consciences absolutely, though we are called to be submissive and respectful to lesser authorities.

In my own church, I’m called to submit to the authority of the presbytery or to the session of the local church. There are all kinds of levels of authority. And I’m told that if I find in conscience that I can no longer genuinely submit, then it is my duty to withdraw from that communion peaceably. But otherwise, I am not to disturb the peace of the church by acting in direct conflict with the confessions or the government of the church.

At the same time, the church says: “We know our confessions could be wrong and some of the ordinances of our church are possibly incorrect. But this is what we believe to be the truth and, as long as you’re going to serve here, you have this obligation to submit.”

Sola Scriptura doesn’t eliminate other authorities. Rather, it says that there is only one authority that can absolutely bind the conscience, sacred Scripture, and that all controversies over doctrine and theology must be settled by Scripture in the final analysis.

The Voice of God

There are other aspects to this sola besides Scripture being the only source of written revelation and the only authority that can bind absolutely (but not the only authority at all). Also involved in this in the sixteenth century was the clear affirmation that the Bible is the vox Dei or the verbum Dei—the Word of God or the voice of God.

Scripture is infallible and inerrant because it comes to us by the superintendence of God the Holy Spirit. The Bible is inspired in the sense that its author, ultimately, is God. Even though it is transmitted through human writers, the ultimate source of its truth and its content comes from God. And God, of course, is infallible.

Human writers in and of themselves are fallible, but the view of historic Protestantism is that God so assisted the weaknesses of our fallen humanity as to preserve the Bible, by His divine superintendence and the special ministry of the Holy Spirit, from the corruption one would normally expect to find in the writings of human beings. So, even though the Bible comes to us in human words and by human authors, it is considered to be of divine origin.

The Historical Question of Inerrancy

There is a dispute in our own day over the infallibility, inspiration, and inerrancy of Scripture. These words have engendered all kinds of theological controversy.

I realize that some have loudly protested that the idea of infallible or inerrant Scripture was not taught or embraced by the magisterial Reformers of the sixteenth century. They argue that these ideas were the result of the intrusion of a kind of Protestant scholasticism that came to pass in the seventeenth century during the “Age of Reason.” These rationalists, they say, had a psychological or emotional need for certainty to such a degree that they invented these concepts of inerrancy and infallibility.

That question, directly, is not a question of whether the Bible is infallible. It’s a question of where the doctrine came from. It’s a historical question: Is this something that was invented in the seventeenth century or in the sixteenth century?

Let me take a few moments to read a few quotes to you from the magisterial Reformers of the sixteenth century that I’ve included in my book and let you decide for yourself. Here are a few observations that come from the pen of Martin Luther:

“The Holy Spirit Himself and God, the Creator of all things, is the author of this book.”

“Scripture, although also written of men, is not of men nor from men, but from God.”

“He who would not read these stories in vain must firmly hold that Holy Scripture is not human but divine wisdom.”

“The Word must stand, for God cannot lie; and heaven and earth must go to ruins before the most insignificant letter or tittle of His Word remains unfulfilled.”

Luther also cites Augustine: “St. Augustine says in his letter to St. Jerome, ‘I have learned to hold only the Holy Scripture inerrant.’” That’s not Luther quoting a seventeenth-century scholar. That’s Luther quoting Augustine from the end of the fourth century where Augustine says, “I’ve learned to hold only the Scripture inerrant.”

Again, Luther says: “In the books of St. Augustine one finds many passages which flesh and blood have spoken. And concerning myself I must also confess that when I talk apart from the ministry, at home, at table, or elsewhere, I speak many words that are not God’s Word. That is why St. Augustine, in a letter to St. Jerome, has put down a fine axiom—that only Holy Scripture is to be considered inerrant.”

We see that Luther doesn’t hedge. There is another passage I could quote from Luther in which he says, “The Scriptures never err.”

Now, I don’t know that Luther ever used the word inerrancy. He just used the word inerrant and said that the Bible never errs, which is the very essence of the concept of inerrancy.

So, I think it’s a fool’s errand to try to argue that the Reformers of the sixteenth century were strangers to the ideas of the inspiration, authority, infallibility, and inerrancy of sacred Scripture.

Into the Vernacular

One of the other important points of sola Scriptura in the sixteenth century, which has become very important for historic evangelicalism, was a hermeneutical principle. The Reformers not only confessed their view of what the Scriptures are and where they came from, but they also expressed their views on how the Bible is to be interpreted and who has the right and responsibility to read it.

One of the radical things that happened in the Reformation was the translation of the Bible into the vernacular, taking it out of the hands of those who were able to read Latin, Greek, or Hebrew and putting it in the hands of people who could only read in their native tongues. Luther translated the Bible into German, Wycliffe translated the Bible into English, and so on. In some cases, the people who did that paid with their lives.

The principle of private interpretation was asserted in historic evangelicalism, meaning that every Christian has the right and responsibility to read the Bible for themselves. They also have the right to interpret it for themselves.

As witnessed in the fourth session of Trent, Rome heard all this to mean that the Protestants were giving license to the rank and file church member, not only to read the Bible for themselves, but to distort it at will. Of course, the Reformers were horrified at that idea. They said that every Christian has the right to interpret the Bible for themselves, but no Christian ever has the right to misinterpret it or to distort it according to their own whims or their own prejudices.

The Central Message Must Be Heard

The principle of private interpretation was based upon another principle, the perspicuity of Scripture, which is a three-dollar word for “clarity.”

Luther said that there are many parts of Scripture that are difficult to handle, and that’s why we need teachers in the church, commentaries, and so on. But the basic message, that message which is necessary for a person to understand and grasp, is plain for any person to see.

When Luther talked about getting the Bible to the laity, the church said, “If you do that, it will open up a flood gate of iniquity because people will start creating all kinds of horrible distortions,” which is exactly what happened. But Luther said, “If that is the case, and if a floodgate of iniquity is opened by opening the pages of the Bible to people, so be it.”

The message that is clear is so important because it contains the message of our salvation. It is so important and so clear that we’ll take the risks of all the distortions and heresies that go with that to make sure that the central message of Scripture is heard.

As a result of this affirmation of sola Scriptura, the Bible was put into the church, and the reading of the Scriptures and preaching from the Scriptures became central to the liturgy and worship of historic Protestantism.


This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.