Sola Scriptura

Date Published

April 1, 2017

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Published by Calvin Seminary

Sola Scriptura: by Scripture alone. What a courageous Reformation motto! But what does it mean? I remember a Sunday school song: “The B-I-B-L-E, yes, that’s the book for me.” So far, so good. But then we sang, “I stand alone on the Word of God.” That did not lift my little soul. I pictured myself standing all alone on my Bible, and socializing with the other kids was already tough enough without standing on the Bible.

A cute misunderstanding. But what does sola Scriptura mean—that the Bible is God’s only revelation? No. Jesus Christ is God’s greatest self-revelation, and all creation reveals God in a general way as well. Well then, is Scripture the only book we need to live a good life? No, we need to know many things not taught in the Bible. Maybe it means that Scripture is the only way to know about the gospel. But many people have come to faith without a Bible through the testimony of others. So what does “only the Bible” mean?

The issue at the time of the Reformation was the definitive source of Christian truth about God, the world, Christ, sin, salvation, the church, and the Christian life. The question was this: does true doctrine come only from Scripture, or from Scripture as interpreted and elaborated by the Spirit-led church? The pre-Reformation church believed that the Bible is inspired and infallible, but it also claimed that the church infallibly defines its teaching.

Reformers such as Luther and Calvin countered that Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) is the definitive source. Most Reformers agreed that the church has responsibility to interpret Scripture, and Protestant church assemblies adopted catechisms (e.g. Heidelberg) and confessions (e.g. Belgic, Westminster) as standard summaries of biblical truth. But the Reformers insisted that the church is obligated to test and revise its interpretations according to Scripture, not the reverse. (A minority of Protestants avoided official doctrinal statements and left Bible reading to individual believers and the Spirit.)

Thus sola Scriptura means that the Bible is the final authority about “the will of God completely and everything one must believe to be saved” and “the entire manner of service which God requires of us.” Thus we may not put “human writings … nor custom, majority, age, nor the passage of time or persons, nor councils, decrees, or official decisions above the truth of God” revealed in Scripture (Belgic Confession, Art. 7).

During and after the Reformation, when almost all of Europe was officially Christian, denominations debated and sometimes fought with each other over details of doctrine. But already in the 17th century, deists and some progressive Christians used philosophy and science to challenge basic Christian doctrines affirmed by Catholics and Protestants alike. They trusted modern philosophy, moral intuitions, and the scientific worldview (which typically denied the possibility of supernatural miracles) more than the content of Scripture. Modern intellectual culture became the highest authority. Biblical revelation was relegated “beyond reason” and re-interpreted to fit enlightened modern paradigms.

In the last two centuries, modern theologians have reimagined Christianity in terms of various intellectual perspectives—romanticism, idealism, historicism, existentialism, pragmatism, liberationism, and scientific naturalism. Much postmodern theology has abandoned the notion that there is one true meaning of Scripture and celebrates a pluralistic group-hug of Christianities, sometimes including other religions. 

Meanwhile, most historic Christian churches and their theologians, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, have sought to remain faithful to their creeds and doctrinal standards. Most have also not isolated themselves from science, culture, politics, moral sensibilities, and intellectual trends. Instead they have engaged and evaluated modern developments from their biblically based perspectives, incorporating what is compatible, rejecting what is not, and contributing helpful insights. Confessional and evangelical Protestants have attempted to practice the Reformation principle that Scripture alone is the final authority. This is certainly true in the Dutch Reformed tradition that generated Kuyper, Bavinck, and the CRCNA.

The challenge has not passed. Our commitment to sola Scriptura—the Bible is the decider—is currently tested in the CRCNA on many issues. 

For example, what do we mean by a Christian perspective on learning and culture? Is it still to understand all subjects and activities from a biblical-Reformed perspective, as Kuyper and Bavinck held, or is it creatively rereading Scripture and doctrine to accommodate current perspectives? In politics, is Scripture’s view of social justice best expressed by (conservative) liberal individualism, (progressive) social pragmatism, or something else, and if so, what? Most basically, our culture is overwhelmingly hedonistic—driven by desire to feel good. Are our life-styles and spiritual disciplines shaped more by Scripture or culture? Do we really live by sola Scriptura?

May God guide and preserve us by his Word and Spirit. 


By John W. Cooper


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