The Misconception of “Sola Scriptura”
There seems to be a problem floating around regarding my teaching about the Protestant principle of sola scriptura. This is understandable. I have not taught on it lately and many well-respected Christian leaders get this issue misconstrued. Specifically, many are under the impression that this doctrine posits the Scriptures as the sole source of authority in matters of faith and practice. However, this is a common misunderstanding. The true essence of sola scriptura within Protestantism is that the Scriptures act as the final or ultimate authority, not the only authority. This distinction is monumental in its implications.
Luther’s Triad of Authority at the Diet of Worms
To clarify this concept, let’s revisit a pivotal moment in church history, which beautifully illustrates the multi-dimensional sources of authority acknowledged by foundational Protestant figures.
On April 18, 1521, at the Diet of Worms, Martin Luther was challenged to recant his writings that dared to question the church’s infallibility. In his response, Luther delineated his sources of authority:
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.”
From this infamously profound and courageous statement, three distinct sources of authority are evident:
1. Scripture: For Luther, and for Protestantism at large, the Scriptures are paramount. They serve as the bedrock of faith and the ultimate arbiter in matters of theological dispute.
2. Reason: Luther’s appeal to “clear reason” underscores the Protestant emphasis on rationality and intellectual engagement with faith. Theology isn’t divorced from reason; instead, it welcomes and integrates it.
3. Tradition: Luther’s reference to popes and councils reveals an acknowledgment of tradition’s role. While he critiques their fallibility, he doesn’t entirely dismiss them. Tradition, for Luther, had its place, but it was subservient to Scripture.
The Wesleyan Quadrilateral, not trilateral, refers to a methodology for theological reflection attributed to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. It encompasses four sources for discerning theological truths: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Among these, Scripture is primary, while the other three sources help to interpret and understand it in various contexts. The Quadrilateral is often used in Methodist theology to balance personal and communal beliefs with the foundational teachings of Christianity.
Patton Pentilateral or the Theological Pentagon
While I resonate with the perspectives of both Martin Luther and John Wesley, I’d introduce an additional element. Diverging from the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, I advocate for distinguishing emotions from experiences. To me, they are two separate pillars. One is an inner sentiment or feeling, while the other represents external events or situations that impact us. The former originates within us, while the latter is an occurrence from the outside. For instance, when we experience answers to our prayers, it enhances our comprehension of the Divine. On the other hand, feelings of conviction or joy provide another layer of theological insight. Thus, I propose a ‘pentilateral’ approach.
So, this introduces a five source understanding.
- Scripture: The divine revelation directly inspired by God, given through both mundane and miraculous means.
- Reason: The logical and analytical approach to understanding and formulating beliefs, e.g., the law of non-contradiction, subject-verb-object relationship, etc.
- Tradition: The collective insights and wisdom acquired through the Holy Spirit’s movement in Church history, culture, family, and the like.
- Emotions: The internal feelings and intuitions, acting as conduits for the Holy Spirit to convey insights such as conviction and joy, i.e., the fruits of the Spirit.
- Experience: The personal interpretations of life events shaped by God’s interventions and guidance in our external world.
God can and does speak through all of these. They all must be interpreted, therefore, all of them require responsible interrogation before integration. No one can escape the reality of subjective interpretation. Even Catholics, who seek to alleviate themselves of this problem through a magisterial authority, have to interpret that magisterial authority.
God‘s revelation is articulated, most definitely, directly, and distinctly through the Scriptures. Since they are inspired, this makes them our ultimate or final authority.
What About Sola Scriptura
Interestingly, the “Five Solas” – sola scriptura (by Scripture alone), sola fide (by faith alone), sola gratia (by grace alone), solus Christus (through Christ alone), and soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone) – were not explicitly articulated during the lifetimes of the magisterial Reformers like Luther, Calvin, or Zwingli. These succinct expressions of foundational Protestant beliefs likely found their clearer articulation in the works of theologians who followed
Francis Turretin was a Swiss-Italian Reformed theologian of the 17th century (and my personal favorite theologian right now), used and emphasized the term sola scriptura in his Institutio Theologiae Elencticae (Institutes of Elenctic Theology). Although we can’t be sure, he is a probable influencer in the systematization, popularization, and defense of the Five Solas.
Having said all this, it would most certainly be accurate to express our view as prima scriptura, as so many are apt to do. But that would require another blog to explain and defend and I’ve probably already done it!
“Nuda Scriptura,” or sometime Solo Scriptura, is a term contrasted Sola Scriptura. It refers to an approach to Scripture devoid of any interpretative tradition or community context. “Nuda Scriptura” is divorced from the historical and ecclesiastical contexts that have traditionally informed Christian interpretations. This approach can lead to a more individualistic and isolated understanding of the Bible, potentially ignoring centuries of theological discussion, reflection, and consensus.
A clear illustration of “Nuda Scriptura” is captured in the sentiment, “We aim to interpret Scripture as if no one before us has interpreted it.” While this perspective might be a valuable initial approach, it overlooks the continuous guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Body of Christ for two millennia. It neglects Christ’s words, “My sheep hear my voice.” As a result, this viewpoint undervalues the insights and enlightenment of numerous esteemed figures in the faith who preceded us. It discounts the fact that the body of Christ is an interconnected spiritual symbiotic organism made up of members both alive and dead. Dead saints are still contributing members of the church.
Perhaps most ironically, the sentiment expressed above itself is not found in the Scriptures. It came from tradition. In this sense, it is a self-referential error. It is not unlike the cry, “No creed but the Bible,” which, itself, is a creed not found in the Bible.
Conclusion: The Symphony of Protestant Authority
So, when someone claims that “sola scriptura” implies a solely Scripture-centric worldview, they are missing the depth and nuance of Protestant theology. The principle doesn’t negate the roles of reason or tradition; rather, it sets the hierarchy of authority with Scripture at its apex.
To all my readers, the next time you hear sola scriptura, remember Martin Luther’s triad of authority: Scripture, reason, and tradition. And know that while all three play their parts in the symphony of faith, it’s the Scriptures that hold the conductor’s baton. Or, to put it another way, the Bible stands guard over all other sources.