“If it ain’t in the Bible, I don’t believe it.” Have you ever heard said that? How about this one: “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” You might have that bumper sticker. Why not? Doesn’t this represent the glory of the Protestant Reformation’s elevation of Scripture to a position of the sole source of authority in the Christian’s life? Don’t these pithy statements represent the best of what it means to adhere to the doctrine of sola Scriptura?
No, they don’t. In fact they unfortunately represent a common misunderstanding of what sola Scriptura means.
Where does one go for authority? In whom do we place our trust? The Church? Tradition? Scripture? The Pope? These represent important questions that are normally not understood outside the perspective of individual traditions.
There are essentially five views that exist in the church today concerning the important issue of authority.
1. Dual-source theory
Belief that Tradition, represented by the magisterial authority of the Roman Catholic Church, is infallible and equal to Scripture as a basis for doctrine; the Church itself is the final authority in all matters of faith and practice since it must define and interpret Scripture and Tradition.
Adherents: Roman Catholics
Notice that there is one complete deposit of faith, given by Christ to the Apostles. This one deposit is transmitted by two sources, written tradition (Scripture) and unwritten tradition. Notice also the dotted line as Scripture moves from the “Age of the Apostles” to the “Age of the Church.” This represents that the Scriptures were not complete in canonized form (all the books were not decided upon) until the forth century. The Roman Catholic church believes itself responsible for the interpretation of both written and unwritten tradition. Because of their belief that the Holy Spirit protects the Roman Catholic church from error, they believe that they are the ultimate and final authority for the Christian. This is why this view is often referred to as sola ecclesia (”the church alone”).
2. Prima Scriptura
Belief that the Body of Christ has two separate sources of authority for faith and practice: 1) the Scriptures and 2) Tradition. Scripture is the primary source for authority, but by itself it is insufficient for all matters of faith and practice. Tradition also contains essential elements needed for the productive Christian life.
Adherents: Some Roman Catholics (an alternate view)
Like the previous, the prima Scriptura view has an abiding dual-source of authority. Notice how the dotted line representing Tradition continues on in this model. This is illustrative of Tradition’s continued subordinate influence within the Church. For the prima Scriptura model, Tradition must be continually “kept in check” by Scripture. If there is ever a conflict between Tradition and the Scriptures, the Scriptures are to correct and interpret Tradition. Scripture, according to this model, is the primary and final authority in all matters. According to this view, the Scriptures contain all that is necessary for salvation and is, therefore, “materially sufficient.” But it is not “formally sufficient,” since it must have an infallible interpreter, the Church.
3. Regula Fidei
Lit. “Rule of faith.” Belief that tradition is an infallible “summary” of Scripture passed on through apostolic succession. Ultimately, there is only one source of revelation, but two sources of authority. In other words, Tradition is Scripture.
Adherents: Eastern Orthodox, some Protestants
Notice how the dotted line representing Tradition continues on in this model. Like the previous, this is illustrative of Tradition’s continued subordinate influence within the Church. For the regula fidei model, however, tradition equals Scripture in an infallible summary form (example: Nicene creed). The Church carries the correct interpretation of Scripture but does not add anything new to it (unlike the previous two). Therefore, all interpretation of Scripture must agree with the interpretation that has been consistently held within the Church—the regula fidei or ”rule of faith.”
4. Sola Scriptura
Belief that Scripture is the final and only infallible authority for the Christian in all matters of faith and practice. While there are other authorities, they are always fallible and the must always be tested by and submit to the Scriptures.
Adherents: Reformed Protestants/Evangelicals
Notice that the only difference between the sola Scriptura view and the regula fide view is that in the sola Scriptura view tradition is not infallible. It is very important to realize that advocates of sola Scriptura would believe that there were two sources of authority for the first 300–400 years of the Church. Like the previous view, tradition would be understood as a summary of what was written in Scripture that had always been accepted by the universal Church. Unlike the previous view, this summary is not infallible.
At this time, Scripture was in the process of being recognized (canonized) and the teachings of the apostles which had been passed on through word of mouth (tradition) was only reliable for the first 100 years (or so) of Church history. The majority of Scripture (Gospels, Acts, and Pauline corpus which makes up at least 80 percent of the NT) was accepted as authoritative by A.D. 200, if not earlier. At the same time, the teachings of the apostles that were being passed on through word of mouth was becoming increasingly obscure and unreliable. Once the New Testament had been circulated throughout the Church, and once the canon had been recognized, the Church became totally reliant upon the Scriptures (both Old and New Testaments) for ultimate authority in all matters of faith and practice. Scripture is always to be interpreted according to the accepted, albeit fallible, regula fidei of the early church as represented in the early creeds and councils.
As an important and related sidenote, there has been much recent discussion among Protestants and Orthodox concerning the similarities in the two traditions’ view of authority. In fact, mutual consent has been attained and confessions of misunderstanding given from both sides. Notice here the agreed statement from The Dublin Agreed Statement 1984 involving Anglicans and Orthodox:
“Any disjunction between Scripture and Tradition such as would treat them as two separate ‘sources of revelation’ must be rejected. The two are correlative. We affirm (1) that Scripture is the main criterion whereby the church tests traditions to determine whether they are truly part of the Holy Tradition or not; (2) that Holy Tradition completes Holy Scriptures in the sense that it safeguards the integrity of the biblical message” (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985), 50–51.
As well, notice this agreement between Lutherans and Orthodox:
“Regarding the relation of Scripture and Tradition, for centuries there seemed to have been a deep difference between Orthodox and Lutheran teaching. Orthodox hear with satisfaction the affirmation of the Lutheran theologians that the formula sola Scriptura was always intended to point to God’s revelation, God’s saving act through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, and therefore to the holy Tradition of the Church . . . against human traditions that darken the authentic teaching in the Church.” —Lutheran-Orthodox Dialogue: The Agreed Statements 1985–1989. (Geneva: Lutheran World Federation, 1992), 11.
5. Solo Scriptura or Nuda Scriptura
Belief that Scripture is the sole basis and authority in the life of the Christian. Tradition is useless and misleading, and creeds and confessions are the result of man-made traditions.
Adherents: Radical Reformers, Fundamentalists, Restorationist Churches
This is not a formal position but a pejorative designation of a practical one. It represents the unfortunate position of many evangelical or fundamental Protestants who misunderstand sola Scriptura believing that it means that the ideal place for believers to find authority and interpret Scripture is to do so in a historical vacuum, disregarding any tradition that might influence and bind their thinking. Not only does this undermine the Holy Spirit’s role in the lives of believers of the past, but it is a position of arrogance, elevating individual reason to the position of final authority. It also disregards the fact that it is impossible to interpret in a vacuum.
Protestants have many authorities in their lives. Whether it be parents, government, the church, or traditions. The doctrine of sola Scriptura does not mean that we don’t have any other authorities or even sources of revelation, but that the Scripture alone is the final and only infallible source—it is the ultimate source.
Just for good measure so that I cannot be accused of not trying to get in trouble, here is how I would chart some traditions and denominations.