by C Michael PattonOctober 28th, 2011 24 Comments
The Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura is one of the most misunderstood doctrines I know of. The misconceptions come not only from those who repudiate the doctrine (such as Roman Catholics), but also from those who affirm it. Here is a list of some things that sola Scriptura does not mean.
Sola Scriptura does not mean that the Scripture is the only source of spiritual insight.
Spiritual insight can come from any number of sources, both secular and Christian. I remember in 1995, I received quite a bit of spiritual motivation and inspiration from the movie Braveheart. The idea of a person giving up his life for something bigger than himself possessed my thoughts and hopes. There are many things – songs, wise words, books, and movies (Christian and secular), among other things – that can be sources of insight and inspiration. Remember, all truth is God’s truth. It does not have to be in the Scriptures to be true.
Sola Scriptura does not mean that there are not other authorities in our lives.
We believe that the Scriptures are our final and only infallible authority, but not that they are our only authority. For example, we believe that our pastors and church leaders have authority in our lives. Hebrews 13:7 says that we are to obey our leaders. Wives are to submit to their husbands (Eph. 5:2). People are to obey the government (1 Pet. 2:13). Children are to do what their parents say (Eph. 6:1). There can be no excuse like, “Dad, the Bible does not say I have to clean my room, so I choose not to.” Or “Officer, it says nothing specific about running red lights in the Bible.”
As well, tradition (church history) is an authority in our lives. Those who have gone before us in the faith must be respected. Their collective and unified influence creates an authority which, I believe, is second only to Scripture. After all, they had the same Holy Spirit as us, didn’t they? The Holy Spirit does not teach us everything new as individuals, but educates and inspires us in and with those who have gone before us. That is why I love dead theologians!
As I read through the Institutes of John Calvin this summer, I did so with a fine-toothed comb, underlining every time another source was referenced, especially a source from another church father. One cannot study the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura and come away with the idea that the Reformers ever meant that the Scriptures were our only authority. Ultimate, yes. Only, no.
None of these are our final authority, and if the Scriptures contradict what these authorities say, the Scriptures trump.
Sola Scriptura does not mean that if it is not in the Bible it is not divinely binding.
Romans 1 speaks of the binding authority of the message of creation: “For since the creation of the world, his eternal attributes, divine power and nature have been clearly understood so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20). As well, in Romans 2, we are told that our conscience testifies to us about God’s will (Rom. 2:14-16). As Christians, we must be willing to take our cue from all forms of what we call “general revelation:” rationality, moral conscience, and the message of creation all qualify.
Whether it is rationality or the message of creation and the conclusions drawn from it, we cannot turn a blind eye and say that since it is not in the Scripture, it does not make any difference.
Sola Scriptura does not mean that the Scriptures are an exhaustive source for us to know how to live our lives each day.
Think about how many things the Bible does not tell us. It does not tell us any particulars about where to work, whom to marry, what to eat, how often to shower, how many elders to have, or how, exactly, to conduct a Sunday morning service. It gives us general principles and then extends lots of freedom for the wisdom in each of us to work out the details.
The Scriptures equip us spiritually for every spiritual service (2 Tim. 3:17). There is no knowledge deposit or missing database which contains essential information about how to have a right relationship with God. In this, Scripture is completely sufficient for every spiritual task.
In the end, the doctrine of sola Scriptura means that the Bible is the final and only infallible source of divine revelation and is, therefore, the ultimate guide for the conscience of the Christian.
I think this is an accurate way to put it:
The Bible is carried by reason, aided by experience, guarded by tradition, but ruled by none.
- In Defense of Sola Scriptura – Part Two – Martin Luther
- Can Catholics Affirm Sola Scriptura?
- In Defense of Sola Scriptura – Part One – Authority Across the Spectrum
- A Disagreement I Think I Have with Together For the Gospel
- In Defense of Sola Scriptura – Part Eight – What about all the divisions?