In Defense of Sola Scriptura – Part Two – Martin Luther

Any attempt to defend a position is going to be met with three things: 1) reasoned rebuttal from those who are truly trying to understand yet disagree, 2) antagonistic reaction from those who see your argument as a threat to their favorite position and have an emotional reaction to it, and 3) misguided response from those who misunderstand and misdefine the position that you are attempting to defend.

As part of my continued belief that people (including Protestants) don’t really understand sola Scriptura, in my initial post in this series, I distinguished it from four other views. I had hoped that this would serve to prevent reaction #3, but such was not the case. Nevertheless, here is another chart to help define my position.

In my initial defining I distanced the doctrine from those who would claim that there is more than one infallible authority for the Christian (dual-source theory or sola ecclesia) and those who would claim that the Scripture is the sole authority for the Christian (solo Scriptura or nuda Scriptura). The doctrine of sola Scriptura is the belief that the Scripture is the final and only infallible authority for the Christian. In other words, it is the ultimate authority.

That sola Scriptura utilizes other authorities is evident even in the heat of the Reformation as Martin Luther was called to Worms to give an account of himself. When asked to recant his controversial writings, after sleeping on it, Luther uttered these famous words in response:

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony from scripture or by evident reason—for I confide neither in the Pope nor in a Council alone, since it is certain they have often erred and contradicted themselves—I am held fast by the scriptures adduced by me, and my conscience is held captive by God’s Word, and I neither can nor will revoke anything, seeing it is not safe or right to act against conscience. God help me. Amen.“

Notice here that the “testimony of scripture” holds his conscience “captive.” Not only this, but it was the testimony of Scripture “adduced by me.” This is not meant to advocate isolationist interpretation, but to convey the personal responsibility Luther felt to produce his own convictions. But notice that Luther did have respect for the authority of Popes and councils. He says, “I confide neither in Pope or in a Council alone” (emphasis mine). The key is the “alone.” Luther did confide in Popes and councils, but found them insufficient to have a final or independent voice in issues of faith. Why? According to Luther, it is because they can and do err. Tradition, according to Luther, has a subordinate authority to the Scripture, but is an authority nonetheless.

Notice also that “evident reason” is on Luther’s list of authority. Luther understood that reason has an important role to play in the binding of our conscience. In fact, it would seem that reason played a bigger role in Luther’s decision than tradition.

Finally, individual conscience itself plays an authoritative role in our lives. Luther believed that it is not “safe or right to act against conscience.” Whether Luther would have attributed his statements here to the movements of the Holy Spirit upon our conscience or simply define conscience is the product of the adducement of authority is hard to say. What is important is that Luther was referring to individual responsibility.

Now, this one paragraph is certainly not sufficient to pin down Luther’s entire theology of authority—much less the entire reformed perspective—but it does serve to illustrate the founding balance sola Scriptura provides through the interaction of many sources of authority.

Sola Scriptura is more than just a doctrine, but a road to responsibility before man and God. Luther could not in good conscience outsource his theology to any magisterial court, council, or successor to the seat of St. Peter. If he did, his convictions would not be his own. Luther was not into the “copy-and-paste” theology—the kind that had come to be mandated by ecclesiastical authorities of his day. He renewed and fostered a legacy which requires every man to seek for, wrestle with, and discover truth on their own, knowing that we will not be judged under the umbrella of a council, pastor, parent, family, or church, but by our own integrity of heart and mind.

Our beliefs are too precious to require any less. Sola Scriptura represents the legacy of Christ’s first words to two hopeful fisherman, “come and see.”

One Response to “In Defense of Sola Scriptura – Part Two – Martin Luther”

  1. Br. Christopher Gaffrey, OFM March 5, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    Dear Michael,

    Thank you for this interesting discussion. I just would like to make a comment here. You list the Roman Catholic point of view as coming from the Counter-Reformation. I do not doubt that Catholics did indeed take a stricter attitude to Church authority in light of the threat from “sola scriptura” as taught by the reformers. But that this sense was exaggerated due to a reaction does not necessarily mean it holds the same today. In fact, I would recommend you consider examining the Catholic position on this subject leading up to and after the Vatican II Council. With the renewal of biblical and patristic scholarship in the Catholic Church, the attitude shifted back toward an Augustinian understanding “In the necessary things, unity, in dubious things, liberty, in all things, charity.” That the Catholic Church understands the Magisterium as the ultimate authority on scripture and Tradition, does not mean that there is no room for individual interpretation, as your graphic seems to imply. Were this the case, then there would be no differences among the various religious congregations. However, there are many differences, but no differences in necessary matters. For example, Franciscan tradition holds that Christ first appeared to the Blessed Virgin Mary after the resurrection. The point is that the Magisterium is the ultimate authority on the interpretation of scripture (again for unity sake). The Magisterium does not squash authentic individual understanding.

    Another comment on authority: In scripture Christ himself gives authority to the apostles. This authority is passed on by an outpouring of the Holy Spirit (see John 20). That outpouring of the Spirit (and hence handing on of authority) is continued in the succession of bishops after the apostles, who were ordained by a laying on of hands.

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