2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Starting with this Reformed Matters column, we'll commemorate the anniversary by highlighting its five rallying themes: Scripture Alone (Sola Scriptura), Faith Alone (Sola Fide), Christ Alone (Solo Christo), Grace Alone (Sola Gratia), and Glory to God Alone (Soli Deo Gloria).
The Protestant Reformation’s slogan about religious authority, sola scriptura (“Scripture alone”), doesn’t mean what some people think it means. In fact, the way a lot of people have taken it is something all the Reformers repudiated. Sola scriptura is not honored by someone sitting in an easy chair with a Bible in his lap, deciding for himself what is true—or by televangelists (or others) declaring they have “discovered something new in Scripture.”
At the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther boldly responded to the German emperor that he could not recant what he had taught since it was based on Scripture rightly interpreted. But Luther was shaken when the Archbishop of Trier then accused him of subjectivism—of thinking that he alone, in all the history of the church, had understood Scripture rightly.
Such an allegation would hardly bother many Christians in our day. Shaped by our individualistic North American culture, a Christian might well shrug off that challenge with a “So what? I know I’m right!” Luther recognized, though, that subjectivistic individualism was a path into darkness, not toward light. So he wrestled with the question. The answer he came to, in short, was that Reformation slogan we have all heard but many misunderstand: sola scriptura.
For the Reformers, “Scripture alone” did not mean “Scripture all by itself.” Rather, Scripture was “alone” as the only unquestionable religious authority, not the only religious authority. As Luther struggled with the archbishop’s challenge in the months after the Diet of Worms, he came to recognize that his understanding of Scripture was not unique: he found it in many church fathers (the common term for the respected pastors and theologians of the ancient church). He heard it proclaimed in the creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian). He saw it set forth by the ecumenical councils (Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon), which defended the apostolic proclamation of who Christ was and what he had accomplished, and of how that all related to God as Father and as Holy Spirit. These ancient worthies served as religious authorities for Luther and the other Reformers. Luther discerned that the stuff he had come to oppose was the clutter that had obscured that faithful ancient teaching over the course of centuries, down to his day.
For Luther and the other Reformers, Scripture was the ultimate religious authority. It was the norm by which other claimants to religious authority must be measured. If they stood the test, they could be respected as lesser religious authorities—below Scripture but superior to anybody’s private ideas. The Reformers recognized subordinate religious authorities—the faithful teaching of the church fathers, the creeds, and the doctrinal deliverances of the ancient ecumenical councils—since these were faithful to Scripture.
This shouldn’t be surprising to us. We affirm sola scriptura but we also embrace what are called secondary standards: the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort. These three “forms of unity” are superior to any of our private opinions; they are meant to guide us into faithful understanding of Scripture. We also accept the contemporary testimony “Our World Belongs to God” and the Belhar Confession as guidance for life in the present day—superior to private judgment, normed by Scripture.
Living, thinking, and believing like this honors what the Reformers intended in their bold affirmation about religious authority, sola scriptura.
- What was your impression when you first heard the phrase “Scripture alone”? What do you think it means?
- Do you think North American culture has over-emphasized subjective individualism? Why or why not?
- The author suggests that confessions, creeds, and respected theologians can be “lesser religious authorities” subordinate to Scripture. How do you think having these secondary authorities help us in our Christian lives and communities?
- On the other hand, how do we prevent these helpful secondary authorities from becoming equal authorities to Scripture in our lives and communities?
In the spirit of commemoration, The Banner wishes to alert readers to an article on the same topic in the Calvin Theological Seminary's Forum (Spring 2017).
About the Author
Dr. James R. Payton Jr. is professor of history at Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ontario, and is a member of Ancaster Christian Reformed Church.