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.

Wesleyan Quadrilateral

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.

  1. Scripture: The divine revelation directly inspired by God, given through both mundane and miraculous means.
  2. Reason: The logical and analytical approach to understanding and formulating beliefs, e.g., the law of non-contradiction, subject-verb-object relationship, etc.
  3. Tradition: The collective insights and wisdom acquired through the Holy Spirit’s movement in Church history, culture, family, and the like.
  4. 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.
  5. 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

“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.


Delve Deeper into this Issue

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    12 replies to "Protestant Christianity and the True Meaning of “Sola Scriptura”"

    • Peter Patton

      At least an old erudite with a face like the map of Scotland. I retired from 66 years of college teaching this spring on my 88th birthday. Still doing some research, currently a limited historical-critical study of how both the accurate (and heretical) references to the OT and the NT got into the Qur’an. Al Sayati seems to have been correct when he wrote in the 1400s : “The Qur”an was written in three places, Mecca, Medina and ”Syria.”
      In Christ,

    • Ross Peterson

      Very succinct and helpful — thanks!

      Small suggestion for consistency:
      IF Luther’s is a ‘triad’, then maybe Wesley’s should be a ‘tetrad’ and yours a ‘pentad’.
      Or maybe Luther’s should be a ‘trilateral’.

    • Eric Quek

      Thanks Michael. Through your illuminating blogs, “Sola scriptura, nuda scriptura” and “Shelby Spong’s religious paradoxical pluralism” not only offer deep theological insights but also inspire us to apply these perspectives in real world situations. You push us to incorporate these teachings into our everyday experiences.
      Postmodernism (PM): At its core, PM expresses skepticism with an overarching narratives and ideologies, valuing subjective truths over objective ones. While this stance promotes individualism, it begs the question: Is this feasible in daily living? Consider John. A student who stumbles across a wallet while jogging. The universally acknowledged moral stance would be to return the wallet. John’s past experiences combined with his current financial challenges, tempt to justify keeping the money, rationalizing the owner might not need ti as urgently as he does.
      Pluralism: The acceptance and appreciation of diverse viewpoints without emphasizing the supremacy f one over the others. Mrs. Joni’s child, a Jehovah’s Witness, faces a life-threatening injury needing a blood transfusion, the dilemma intensifies. While medical professionals at a Trauma Center understand alternative treatments like tranexamic acid or volume expenders, they’re also acutely aware of the unparalleled efficacy of blood transfusions. This situation calls for delicate negotiations with child’s parents and might even necessitate legal interventions, underscoring the complexities of embracing pluralism in practical scenarios.
      Nuda scriptura: At it’s core Scripture is the sore without the influence of any external interpretative traditions. This sounds right, however does pose risks. Without the guiding influence of tradition or community, interpretations can become biased, likely to mis out on the depth and breadth of insights a collective understanding can offer.
      Sola scriptura: Here Scripture’s sole authority in guiding faith and practice, relegating other sources to secondary importance. The challenge here is in the myriad interpretations. Even with the sincerest intent to follow the Bible, Christians find themselves diverging in their understandings, leading to unintentional divisions.
      In his blog, he not only prompt readers to reflect on these profound concepts bt also to address the challenges they present, head-on. Emphasizes the importance of dialogue, understanding, and a share quest for truth in navigating faith and real-world dilemmas.

    • Bibliophile

      I think you have misconceived post-modern philosophy and the space it opens up to explore paradigms; and consequently you undervalue the insights offered by the post-modern perspective. It isn’t simply that post-modernism is sceptical about overarching grand narratives; but more to the point, it questions why one paradigm should be privileged above all others: it is asks which community has the legitimate right and authority to judge between a plurality of views.
      For protestants, this is obviously a very serious problem, because generally protestant theology is built on the philosophical base of Enlightenment foundationalism, which the post-modern critique has dismantled. This understandably is perhaps why post-modernism is so often caricatured by protestant apologists, who are reluctant to engage with the real issues here.

      • Eric Quek

        I appreciate your perspective on post-modern philosophy and its potential to open up new paradigms for exploration. However, it’s important to clarify that Michael’s blog/article ad a specific focus, which may not necessarily conflict with post-modernism or “have misconceived post-modern philosophy and the space it opens up to explore paradigms; and consequently you undervalue the insights offered by the post-modern perspective.” but rather addressed a different aspect of theological discussion.
        His primary emphasis in the article was to highlight the historical significance of tradition within Protestantism and the nuanced interpretation of “sola scriptura.” His blog/article aimed to delve into how tradition, reason, and Scripture have interacted within the Protestant tradition. While Post-modernism is undoubtedly a relevant and valuable framework for critical analysis, it wasn’t the primary focus of this particular piece.
        I is worth noting that different theological discussions may necessitate different approaches. His article wasn’t intended to dismiss the insights offered by post-modernism but rather to provide insight into a specific theological topic.
        I believe constructive discussion can thrive when we acknowledge the context and objectives of a given article/blog. If there’s an interest in exploring post-modern perspectives in-depth, it may be more suitable for a separate discussion that can provide the necessary space and depth to fully engage those ideas.

        • Bibliophile

          I wasn’t necessarily replying to Michael’s blog (I don’t think he even referenced post-modernism); but to the way you seem to reduce post-modernisim to scepticism, subjectivism and individualism in your summaries. As I keep reiterating, that is not what post-modernism is all about. And it seems like you and Michael aren’t aware of the implications post-modern philosophy has for protestant theology, and so maybe that’s why you keep ignoring the main issue here.
          Here’s an example of what I mean by that. Apart from the fact that he distinguishes between emotions and experience as “two separate pillars” – a distinction which presumably he believes is something more than just a humanly constructed dichotomy – Michael writes: “They (various sources of knowledge) 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.” But I have been saying: post-modernism affirms the situatedness of all human knowing and recognises that a plurality of views is inevitable; but it goes much further than that; it goes beyond just asking which interpretation is the correct one, but which community has the legitimate right and authority to judge between different views. That, as I understand it, is the post-modern question. (Of course, post-modernism is a broad topic, and there is more to consider besides that. I’m just trying to correct a misconception of one crucial aspect here.)
          A caricature of post-modernism reduces the perspective to mere sceptical relativism and subjectivism, just because post-modernism tolerates a variety of views; but that isn’t the point. The point is not to absolutely categorically deny the possibility of a single reigning paradigm, but to investigate the legitimacy of the universal claim to authority.
          So, on this view, it doesn’t matter whether protestants have three, five, or eight sources of truth; what matters is whether they have any legitimate claim to authority in the first place. And this, I think, is where the real challenge is for protestants, mainly because protestants reject Apostolic Succession, which would lend credibility to the protestant claims to have any authority to interpret the Sacred Scriptures, let alone to formalise a canon of Sacred Scriptures. The problem is only compounded by the failure of protestants to agree beyond a superficial level about theological frameworks and interpretations.

    • Christopher

      @Bibliophile so if your origina comment wasn’t intended to adress this article why did you post it?

    • Bibliophile

      Because I was replying to Erik Quek…

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