A Brief Introduction to sola scriptura

By Dr Hans Wiersma

Sola Scriptura (Latin for “scripture alone”) is one of three or four—or five or six—“solas” that attempt to evoke the basic principles of Lutheran theology (or even Protestant Theology).[1] No matter how many solas you care to list, it would be difficult to deny that Sola Scriptura is an essential component of the Lutheran DNA.

Consider, for instance, the words of Jacob Andreae—words that were written as part of an attempt to unify “second generation Lutherans” in the late 1570s:  “We believe, teach, and confess that the only rule and guiding principle according to which all teachings and teachers are to be evaluated and judged are the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments alone…Other writings of ancient or contemporary teachers, whatever their names may be, shall not be regarded as equal to Holy Scripture, but all of them together shall be subjected to it…”[2]

In other words, if you can’t back it up with scripture, then it probably shouldn’t be part of the Christian faith and life.

The slogan Sola Scriptura developed out of the perception that certain Christian teachings and practices—especially some teachings and practices formulated during the medieval period of Western Christianity—had little or no Biblical basis.

For instance, in the 95 Theses of 1517, Martin Luther famously challenged the effectiveness of the “indulgences” granted by the pope.  Soon afterward, Luther and other reformers were not merely challenging the effectiveness of indulgences, but the entire system from which indulgences derived.  Centuries old traditions regarding Purgatory, the Treasury of Merits, and the Intercessions of the Saints were brought into question and finally discarded by reformers who discerned that such traditions were not supported by Holy Scripture. (Of course, the Roman Catholic Church drew upon and continues to draw upon scripture to support such traditions.)

On the other hand Sola Scriptura in Lutheran form is not against tradition per se.  While some brands of Christianity might insist that if it’s not in the Bible then it’s not Christian, Lutheran theology understands that a tradition is allowable when (a) it is not contradicted by scripture, (b) it serves a purpose that is scriptural, and (c) it is not enforced as a pre-condition for Christian unity.

It is nonetheless possible to assert the principle of Sola Scriptura in a manner similar to the bumper sticker that says: “The Bible Says It, I Believe It, That Settles It.”  However, a Lutheran theological approach resists simplification.  For Lutheran Christians, reading the Bible does not mean setting aside critical thinking skills.  Instead, the Lutheran understanding of Sola Scriptura includes certain rules for thought:

Understand that the Bible Is the Manger in Which Christ is Laid. The Bible (in both its Testaments) was inspired to reveal the crucified and Risen Jesus Christ, the one sent from God to justify and save the ungodly.  To understand that the Bible’s primary purpose is something other than the revelation of Jesus Christ (for instance, to understand that the Bible is primarily a book of rules for better living) is decidedly un-Lutheran.  Luther put a point on it when he wrote that if the Scriptures are quoted “against Christ,” then we should “urge Christ against Scripture.”[3]

Be aware that Some Books of the Bible are More Central than Other Books of the Bible. Luther saw that some Bible books were better at revealing Christ and his work than others.  In an introduction to one of his Bible translations, Luther explained that John’s Gospel, Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and 1 Peter contained all one needed to know about Christ.  On the other hand, the Book of James is “really an epistle of straw, when compared with these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.”[4]

Recognize that Scripture Interprets Scripture. The Bible says a lot of things.  And, taken out of context, a Bible verse or passage can be used to support just about any crackpot notion.  On the other hand, the Lutheran approach understands that Scripture’s message is, generally speaking, easily apprehended.  When one encounters seemingly unclear or confusing Bible passages, then those passages need to be interpreted in light of (a) the clear passages and (b) the Bible’s overall witness to a gracious God who justifies the ungodly on account of Christ.

When reading and hearing the Word of God, Discern Law and Gospel. The art of discerning Law and Gospel, Command and Promise, is essential to an understanding of Sola Scriptura Lutheran-style.  “The understanding of nearly all scripture and all theology depends upon the correct recognition of law and gospel.”[5] It is, of course, possible to contend for the principle of Sola Scriptura but at the same time interpret and proclaim scripture incorrectly.  Most of the religious mischief and harm done in the name of Holy Scripture can be attributed to the improper discernment of law and gospel.  For more on the discernment of Law and Gospel, see “A Brief Introduction to Law and Gospel” on this website.

[1] Along with Sola Scriptura, two other solas are commonly identified as core Lutheran tenets:  Sola Gratia (“grace alone”) and Sola Fide (“faith alone”).  In addition—in order that the object, author, and finisher of Christian faith receives proper recognition—Solus Christus (“Christ alone”) is often included in the enumeration of solas.  Furthermore, those who want to emphasize the importance of God’s “Word Alone” will have Solo Verbo in mind.  And in some of the more pious lists of solas, one might even find Soli Deo Gloria (“to God alone the glory”).

[2] The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2000) 486.

[3] LW 34:112.

[4] LW 35:395.

[5] WA 7:502.  My translation.

2 thoughts on “A Brief Introduction to sola scriptura

  1. Pingback: How to Use the Bible | Rumors of Angels

  2. Pingback: Rush Limbaugh, the Marxist Pope, and American Anti-Catholicism | That Devil History

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