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  • Adam Butler

Sola Scriptura: An Introduction

For centuries, Christians have disagreed on ideals of the Bible, the Holy Word of God which the Christian faith is founded on. That is exactly what the Bible is; it is a foundation. Foundations allow structures to stand by themselves, providing the essential support therein. The Holy Bible acts in this manner, being that the Christian faith rests on Biblical truths. Where the issue arises, therefore, is in how said Biblical truths are interpreted. Disagreement and denominations are the result of these debates.


Were all Christian believers to agree on the interpretation of the Bible completely, there would be no denominations within the Christian faith. The importance of true interpretation is exactly what Protestant Reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) argued for during the Reformation period in the mid 1500’s. Luther believed, rightly so, that the Bible is the inerrant, infallible, authoritative Word of God, and therefore its message is non-debatable. This idea is what is referred to as “sola scriptura,” from the Latin phrase, meaning “Scripture alone,” the stance being that the faith and beliefs of Christians should derive from the authority of the Bible, both on a personal level, and for the life of the Church.


A Shift in Authority


Ken Ham discusses the shift in focus of authority that has occurred in modern America, which is essentially a reflection of what had happened to the Christian faith before the Protestant Reformation. He says, “As generations began to reject God’s word as reliable and authoritative, they began to consistently build secular worldviews based on moral relativism.” Specifically, many in modern society question the Bible for its authority, turning instead to other sources of guidance, be they cultural expectations, media, or personal ideas of what truth can be interpreted as. While America as a nation was initially founded on Biblical ideals, the authority has shifted to relativism; that is, truths decided based on personal perspective. Similarly, the ancient Catholic church had adopted a relative approach to the authority of Christianity being that of the Scripture, thus undermining it almost completely.


This was evident in terms of the Reformation era; the Catholic church had essentially forbidden personal interpretation of the Bible, thus providing the Papacy with complete religious authority. Being that most could not read the Bible for themselves, most did not have access to any means of interpretation at all. They had begun accepting the ideas of the Catholic church as complete sound doctrine, thus abandoning the foundation of Scripture. Likewise, according to Ham, many people in modern society have begun doing the exact same thing regarding the legitimacy and authority of the Bible, specifically “Scripture alone” as a chief document of the church and of believers alike. If not for the speaking up of reformers such as Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingly, John Calvin, and others, the corruption of church doctrine may have continued for decades to come.


During the Reformation, a rediscovery of Christian beliefs, it became understood that the qualities of the Scripture which make it able to thrive as the central document of the Christian faith are truth, authority, perfection, mercy, and sufficiency. Biblical authority cannot function without acceptance of the fact that absolute truth exists and cannot be ignored or changed. Subjective opinions about the interpretation of Scripture do not diminish the objective truths that are evident within the text. Jesus speaks on absolutism in the Gospel of John, when he states, “I am the way, the truth, and the light. No one comes to the father except through me” (John 14:6, ESV). All Christians must agree on the essentials of the faith, the most important being that Jesus is the way of salvation for atonement of sin. Any deviation from this concept nullifies one’s belief system being that of Christian absolutes. Jesus’ statement in John provides a solid understanding of the necessity of the Bible; without the foundation of Biblical truth, the Christian religion is not secure in its ideals and therefore cannot be defended properly. Likewise, without the authority of God’s Word, the Christian faith would have no basis on which it is grounded. So, by the idea of scripture alone, it is evident that absolute truth, as opposed to relative truth, exists and is not swayed by opinion, false interpretation, or worldly ideals; rather, what the Bible says is factual and therefore must be studied and taught as such.


The authority of the Bible during the time of the Catholic church’s dominance in the late 1400’s to early 1500’s was minute. That is, the Catholic church possessed most if not all authority over people’s religious beliefs and practices. Martin Luther, having studied under the Bible himself, teaching it at the University of Wittenberg, argued that the Bible was the supreme authority of Christian faith. Authority, being one of the characteristics of the Word of God, was the focus of Luther’s teaching regarding scripture. Reinhold Bernhardt states that “[The] authority does not simply rest on the sacred text as such but rather on the Proclamation of God’s grace-filled lordship over nature and history in general and over the individual life in particular.” The authority scripture holds constitutes therefore the foundation of Biblical truth. While reason is evident in the argument for sound teaching as well, the Word of God speaks for itself on the topic of authority. This is what Luther taught, in opposition to the teachings of the Catholic church.


Divine Foundation


Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Should Christians choose to accept the authority of the Bible as divine and inspired, that is having been authored by direct hearing from God, it thus proclaims the very nature of God. Luther stated in his famous Ninety-Five Theses that faith in Christ is the only means of salvation to those who believe, which is what the Bible teaches. In essence, therefore, there is no requirement of sacraments other than those listed in Scripture; the Bible only states two sacraments necessary for the believer. The two necessities are baptism (Mark 16:16, Acts 22:16) and the partaking of the Lord’s supper (Luke 22:19). Scripture provides the guidelines of Christian faith; any deviance from it therein is unbiblical and thus not vital for salvation or for the body of Christ.


Accepting Scripture alone as the supreme authority of the Christian faith therefore provides clear reasoning and support for all other beliefs including Sola Fide, meaning “faith alone,” Sola Gratia, meaning “grace alone,” Solus Christus, meaning “Christ alone,” and Soli Deo Gloria, meaning “to the Glory of God alone.” It is scripture upon which all beliefs listed are founded; without the truth, authority, and sufficiency of the Word of God, every other point is invalid and void. According to Romans 10:17, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” It is the teaching of the Bible that leads people to faith; so, even Christian faith, which defines the life and motives of the believer, is without meaning if not for the Scripture serving as the base.


Jane O. Newman describes the events of a preacher’s condemnation for teaching that salvation is not acquired through works, but by faith alone. The occurrence was in 1556 in a Swiss town known as Zug. The preacher was labeled a heretic, as the Catholic citizens of the town insisted that what he was preaching was false doctrine. Specifically, they accused him of following after the teachings of Martin Luther, to which he replied “I don’t know what Luther has preached, I’ve never even seen him, let alone heard him preach. But, I can prove my sermon according to the Bible.” The preacher in Newman’s account used scripture as the direct basis for his sermon and teaching, to which Catholic citizens disagreed, saying he was copying Luther’s model of faith.


The very existence of God points to the authority of the scriptures as well; if God exists and the Bible is not authoritative, then Christians have no reason to believe in God, being that the Bible speaks of the truth of God’s existence. In fact, according to Dr. Norman Geisler and Dr. Frank Turek, Jesus himself spoke of seven reasons to accept the Scriptures, that is the teaching of the Old Testament of the Bible, as the Word of God. First the Scripture is divinely authoritative (Matthew 4:4, 7, 10). Jesus quotes scripture ninety-two times to be exact, in saying “it is written.” Secondly, Scripture is imperishable, meaning it does not change or die out. (Matthew 5:17). It is also infallible, meaning it is incapable of making mistakes (John 10:35, 17:17). The Scripture proves to be inerrant, being that it is without error or contradiction, and is also historically reliable and scientifically accurate. Lastly, the Scripture, as described by Geisler and Turek, has ultimate supremacy. These characteristics of the Scriptures give a solid reason for Christians and Non-Christians alike to accept it as the Word of God, and therefore as the absolute chief document of faith as well.


The Bible as the Authority for the Church


In addition to being the center of the Christian faith, Scripture alone should also be the center of the church. Luther also pointed this out in his teachings and in the 53rd Thesis of the Ninety-five Theses, in which he states, “They are the enemies of Christ and the pope who forbid altogether the preaching of the Word of God in some churches in order that indulgences may be preached in others.” Luther’s point was that the selling of indulgences was unbiblical; he advocated that the Bible alone was to be what church bodies and teaching was centered around. J. D. Payne describes the Scriptures, in relation to the church, as “our source of guidance for doctrine and practice. Church planters who fail to base their theological framework on the Bible tread on the shifting sands of contemporary fads, trends, and whims.” It is imperative that churches use the Word of God as the primary foundation for structure. Otherwise, history may repeat itself, creating circumstances like Catholic rule and corrupt authority over the body of Christ.


As the central source of authority for the church, the Bible provides both an outline and insight into how the life of the church should be played out (see Acts 2:37-47, Titus 1:5-9, 1 Timothy 3:1-12). Following these guidelines makes for a successful Biblical church. Naturally, pastors and church leaders should therefore accept the Scripture in its entirety as the basis of doctrine. While interpretation tends to vary based on individual reading, hence the rise of multicultural denominations of the Christian faith in the 1500’s and 1600’s, what practically all Christians do and should agree on is the fact that Scripture alone, or Sola Scriptura, holds absolute truth concerning Christianity. Even the concept of traditions as a means of direction of church life is not Biblical in essence. Church traditions arise from religious practices which are based on the teachings of the Bible; people like Luther would argue that unless something is explicitly stated in the Bible as a necessity for believers, like Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, then churches should not put as much weight into the practices thereof. Doing so diminished the value of Biblical authority, and raises the importance of non-biblical practices that simply possess Biblical ties.


In summation, many Protestant Reformers were correct in addressing the issue created by the Catholic church that Scripture had been pushed aside as the authority and way to salvation for the Christian faith. By the rediscovery of Biblical truths, Christians today must now be willing to accept the Word of God as the supreme authority, upon which all other beliefs including faith, grace, Christ, and the glory of God are founded. This approach to the interpretation and application of Scripture produces strong, founded Christians and churches alike, which was exactly what the reformers taught should be the case.



 

Bernhardt, Reinhold. "Scriptural Authority: A Christian (Protestant) Perspective." Buddhist-Christian Studies 30 (2010): 73-84.

Geisler, Norman L., and Frank Turek. I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004. 356-359.

Ham, Ken, and Bodie Hodge. How do we know the Bible is true? Vol. 1. Green Forest, Ark: Master Books, 2011.

Newman, Jane O. "The Word Made Print: Luther's 1522 New Testament in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Representations, no. 11 (1985): 95-133.

Payne, Jervis David. Discovering church planting: An Introduction to the Whats, Whys, and Hows of Global Church Planting. CO Springs, CO: Biblica, 2009.


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