Entries tagged with “sola scriptura”.


In my most recent post here on the blog, I pointed readers to a Christianity Today article that suggested “most American evangelicals hold views condemned as heretical by some of the most important councils of the early church.” In responding to this news, I noted how Christians need to take more seriously the history of the Church’s teachings.

What I mentioned just briefly here I elaborate on at length in a post for First Things. I suggest that one of the contributing causes to the re-emergence of heretical notions in contemporary Evangelicalism is a failure to proper understand the Reformation teaching of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). Rather than understanding it to mean that the Bible is alone authoritative, we somehow seem to have convinced ourselves that it means a solo-reading of Scripture is authoritative. As I explain at First Things, “We are right to trust in Scripture alone; but it is foolhardy to read Scripture by ourselves.”

To that end, I urge my readers to hold up their individual readings of Scripture to the scrutiny of the reading of the wider Church. It’s not because the Church has authority over the Scriptures (it doesn’t) but rather because the Church defended those things which are taught by Scripture.

We don’t follow the theological pronouncements of the Church merely because such and such a person says we should. Bishops and councils, after all, can err (remember the Robber’s Council?). But certain pronouncements—like the theological statements of the Ecumenical Councils—have long been recognized by the Church at large as true and faithful understandings of Scripture. They have codified important Scriptural truths—on the Nature of Christ, for example, and on the Personhood of the Holy Spirit—and so we refer to them as authoritative. That’s how the Nicene Creed came to be. These pronouncements do not invent new dogma not found in the Scriptures; instead, they clearly and carefully reproduce the teachings of Scripture. Consequently, they rightly norm our interpretation of the Scriptures. It’s Tradition in service to Scripture, not Tradition on the same level as Scripture.

This is, I suggest, a more accurate understanding of the Reformation understanding of the role of Tradition in the Church. I wrap up the article with some words from Melanchthon:

Philipp Melanchthon explains the Lutheran position well: “Let the highest authority be that of the Word which was divinely taught,” he explains. “Thereafter that church which agrees with that Word is to be considered authoritative.” And again: “Let us hear the church when it teaches and admonishes,” he writes, “but one must not believe because of the authority of the church. For the church does not lay down articles of faith; it only teaches and admonishes. We must believe on account of the Word of God when, admonished by the church, we understand that this meaning is truly and without sophistry taught in the Word of God.”

Read the whole thing here: “Misreading Scripture Alone: How We Ended Up Heretics.”


As a side-note, Christianity Today’s managing editor Ted Olsen and I have a discussion in the comments section of my First Things article about what the recent survey does (or doesn’t) say about Roman Catholics’ and Mainline Protestants’ own heretical leanings. My argument in summary? The numbers don’t tell us anything conclusive about these other groups. Watch me crunch the numbers there.

Today is Reformation Sunday. Technically, Reformation Day falls upon October 31 (that being the date upon which Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Church door in Wittenburg). This is the Sunday before that great anniversary, and so it is our day of remembrance. Across the globe, churches today proudly sing “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” They dress their altars with red paraments, reflecting both the movement of the Holy Spirit in the Reformation, and the martyrs’ sacrifices during this era. It seems fitting then, that on this day we should pause to consider what Reformation is – and what it most certainly is not.

Some time ago, I was sitting with an acquaintance of mine, and our conversation moved to a discussion of Luther. It seemed to me that we had common ground. We both praised him as a hero of the faith, and as a man through whom God did wonders. He was, we agreed, a true follower of Christ, one of those saints in whom we may find inspiration and example. And then this young woman said something which struck me: “I like to think that if Luther was alive today, he’d be right there proclaiming that social Gospel.” I asked her to elaborate and soon discovered that she believed Luther would be pushing for female ordination, homosexual-inclusivity, and all manner of other “justice” issues. But what was remarkably lacking in her depiction of the man was any reference to his faith: no theology of the cross, no salvation by grace alone, and, inexplicably, no sola scriptura.1

It was evident that the Luthers we both so admired were not the same man. She saw a revolutionary; I knew the reformer.

Reformation, contrary to what some liberal factions in the Church today might state, is not about becoming relevant. Quite the opposite, actually. It is about being re-formed, that is to say, formed again into the original image. It is not a new creation, but a returning to the way things once were. The argument, in Luther’s day, was that the Church had departed from its original moorings of Scripture – that they, just as the Pharisees before them, had “for the sake of [their] tradition… made void the word of God” (Matthew 15:6).2 Luther’s desire was to help the Church get back to an authentic and historical Christianity. Consider Luther’s words from his introduction to his Commentary on Galatians:

“I have taken in hand, in the name of the Lord, yet once again to expound this Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians; not because I do desire to teach new things, or such as ye have not heard before, especially since that, by the grace of Christ, Paul is now thoroughly known unto you; but for that (as I have often forewarned you) this we have to fear as the greatest and nearest danger, lest Satan take from us this doctrine of faith, and bring into the church again the doctrine of works and men’s traditions.”3

Luther did not condemn tradition per se, but he did condemn anything which would contradict the Scriptures (and thus, that instrument through which we receive faith). And most certainly Luther would have included in his condemnation those liberal teachings which ignore biblical pronouncements on such issues as female ordination, homosexual-inclusivity, and others where people are so keen to pander to the “values” of our contemporary society. Martin Luther had no desire to be either relevant or rebellious. He wanted to be faithful to Scripture.

And so we see that Luther would never, absolutely never, have become an advocate of the modern concept called the “social gospel.” Doing good works, helping the poor, fighting true injustice… These are necessary things, to be true. And Luther agreed we must do them. But they are not the Gospel, and they should never be confused with the Gospel. The Gospel, in the words of St. Paul, is simple and pure: “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing. It is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). This was Luther’s message. This was the message of the Reformation. And this is the message we should reflect upon in this season of remembrance: we have been saved by the grace of God alone.

1Lat. “Scripture Alone.”

2English Standard Version, as are all other Scripture quotations.

3Luther, Martin. A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. Translation Robert Middleton, 1553. Adapted, unknown. Smith, English & Co. Philadelphia: 1860. p. 130.