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Sola Scriptura: A Clarification

Here at Conciliar Post, there have recently been a couple articles poking alleged holes in the Reformed doctrine of sola scriptura. This post should be considered less a full rebuttal of the points made in the previous posts and more of an extended comment that will hopefully act as “iron” (Prov. 27:17) for further discussion in the spirit of CP’s mission statement. If I am able to at all challenge and sharpen the positions of my fellow CP writers then I will consider this article profitable, being that I hold a high opinion of the work of both Matthew Bryan and John Ehrett and hold no such opinion toward my own. I hope that this article can be read in the tone of Christian affection and friendly debate in which it was written and that Matthew and John will take it easy on me in any counters they might offer. What I want to provide is a clarification of sola scriptura’s relationship to tradition, possibly offering some vindication for the Reformers.

Luther’s legacy 

At the Leipzig debate (1519) between Johann Eck and Martin Luther the central issue of what would become the Reformation emerged, the question of authority. Luther’s sola scriptura position was later more famously articulated in 1521 at the Diet of Worms, where Luther was ordered to recant. To which he answered:

“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 often err and contradict themselves, I am bound to the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand. May God help me. Amen.”1

Scripture is the norma normans (determining norm), rather than the norma normata (determined norm). As Luther later elaborated, scripture has priority over the church, “For who begets his own parent? Who first brings forth his own maker?”2 Luther rejected the theory (later dogmatically affirmed by the Council of Trent) that viewed oral tradition as a second infallible source of divine revelation passed down from the apostles to the magisterium. Instead, he argued that scripture alone is the infallible source of divine revelation. Calvin echoed this in Institutes I:VII (“the foundation goes before the house”). Both the Belgic Confession (1561) and the Westminster Confession (1646) affirmed that not only is scripture the only infallible source of divine authority, but that it is sufficient to provide the whole counsel of God and to lead people into saving faith, to which nothing should be added or taken away (Rev. 22:19). 

Return to tradition 

But, despite what “scripture alone” might seem to imply, the Reformers did not choose between scripture and tradition, neglecting the latter. To be sure, the Reformers rejected Rome’s position and upheld the supremacy and final authority of scripture over tradition. Yet the Reformers did not reject the ministerial authority of tradition, a legacy to which modern Protestants often do violence when articulating a sola scriptura that necessarily omits traditionIn this sense, I agree with some of the points made by Matthew. I especially appreciate him specifically mentioning that it is through tradition that the church protects the doctrine of the Trinity (see Augustine’s De Trinitate), given a resurgence of subordinationism among evangelicals. What I don’t agree with is that the neglect of tradition is a true Reformed Protestant position. Those who adhere to the type of sola scriptura described in Matthew’s article have erred and will inevitably continue to err for some of the very reasons he espouses. 

Indeed, the debate of the Reformation can not only be framed as a battle over ultimate authority generally, but also over interpretation of patristic sources, ecumenical creeds, and the Latin church fathers, especially Augustine. Both the Reformers and the Catholics embarked on a century-long battle for the roots of the church to support their views. Luther, in his On the Councils and the Church, declared that the decrees of the ecumenical councils should remain in force, but only insofar as they conform to what is clear in scripture and coincide with the accepted teaching of what was less perspicuous. Luther and company saw themselves as drawing the church back to its tradition rather than bulldozing over it. As Matthew mentioned in his piece, tradition protects the church from false doctrine. It is this very truth that the Reformers pointed to when they accused the papacy of error: that the church had lost sight of traditional understanding of scripture.   

Refuting the radicals: scripture alone, not scripture only    

The Reformers became frustrated when certain radicals like Thomas Muntzer or Caspar Schwenkfeld discarded tradition altogether. These radicals did not defend and practice sola scriptura, but rather nuda scriptura or solo scriptura. Matthew Barrett, whose contribution to the 5 Sola’s Series is a valuable resource on this topic, points to Sebastian Franck as the poster child for this disregard of tradition. Franck once said, “Foolish Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, Gregory—of whom not one even knew the Lord, so help me God, nor was sent by God to teach. Rather, they were all apostles of Antichrist.”3 Franck also later came to an unorthodox view of revelation as being inwardly manifested by each individual and eventually dismissed the earthly institution of the church completely. It is doubtless that his blatant disregard for early Christian expositors contributed to his spiral into heresy.

Many modern evangelical protestants have followed suit, though usually in a de facto sense. This is likely because not only do they not read the documents of the early church first hand, but neither do they read the writers of the Reformation for themselves. The total neglect of both patristic and apocryphal (deuterocanonical) literature is regrettable. Though I do not advocate for their canonization, these sources provide invaluable perspective, background, and exegesis for the New Testament that can be found nowhere else.4 It is strange to me that many evangelicals would sooner canonize Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology than they would the Wisdom of Solomon or the Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch. Indeed, apocryphal passages, like 2 Maccabees’ representation of atonement (absent purgatory) for example, were battlegrounds during the Reformation and therefore, if for no other reason, deserve our attention.5  

It is through a misguided (or “unguided”) understanding of sola scriptura and the concept of the priesthood of the believers (which should be understood corporately rather than individually), coupled with the Western myth of attainable, neutral objectivity, that the “no creed but the bible” Christians have emerged, seeking to examine scripture as if no one before them ever had. This approach certainly ensures that “tradition” will never supplant scripture and that the church will not become a law unto itself, but it ultimately grants final authority to the individual and their “plain reading”, often a wooden sensus literalis. Carl Trueman’s The Creedal Imperative is a book I would recommend to all evangelicals interested in combating this epidemic.6 

Against innovation 

To remedy this blunder of radicalized sola scriptura I think John Ehrett provides a good starting point. The church must approach the text from a position of humility with a willingness to take the insights of the early interpretive community, our brothers in the universal communion of saints, seriously and authoritatively. As Kenneth Mathison has noted “Scripture alone” doesn’t mean “me alone.” John is right to expose the pompous arrogance in the Protestant who would disregard and belittle those who have gone before us. As the church we must be ever mindful that we stand upon the shoulders of giants, whose insights that have been tested and proven true were provided for the edification of the church by the same Holy Spirit who brought us to saving faith.

To reference Matthew Barrett again,

“While the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Creed are not to be considered infallible sources divine revelation, nevertheless, their consistency with Scripture means that the church spoke authoritatively against heresy. Therefore, it should trouble us, to say the least, should we find ourselves disagreeing with orthodox creeds that have stood the test of time. Remember, innovation is often the first indication of heresy.”

For some Protestants this may sound too close to the Vincentian Canon for comfort. But the Reformers were aware that their objections towards church practices and development of doctrine could not be seen as innovative and remain successful. Indeed, some of the worst mud slung in Luther’s direction came from Sylvester Prierias when he “identified the source of all Luther’s errors as his rejection of Aristotle and thus of Aquinas.”7 This was a shot across the bow at Luther, threatening his credibility as a scholar. It is hard for us to imagine, given modern academia’s penchant for the unique and obscure, but to innovate in theology in the 16th century was credibility suicide. Timothy George explains, that the Reformers sought to tie their “exegesis to patristic tradition” in order to provide a “counterweight to the charge that the Reformers were purveyors of novelty in religion,” though at the end of the day the fathers’ “writings should always be judged by the touchstone of Scripture, a standard the fathers themselves heartily approved.”8 

Gavin Ortlund echoes George’s point well:

“The Reformers held up Scripture as our final and supreme authority over tradition, but had no intention to encourage its being read in a tradition-less vacuum. In fact, so far from seeking to do away with tradition, the Reformers actually grounded their case (in part) in tradition; for they argued that the Roman Catholic conception of Scripture and tradition as two complementary sources of divine revelation was inconsistent with the practice of the early church.”9       

Antiquity alone?

My disagreement with John lies in his suggestion that the antiquity of the source necessarily establishes its interpretive authority. As hopefully communicated above, I believe the church should view traditional sources with a posture of deference, but to assume per force that Ireneaus’ position on free will trumps any later understanding from Calvin, for example, denies the active work of the Holy Spirit within the church to develop and solidify the meaning of revelation. Do we not trust the Holy Spirit to in sundry times provide the church with gifted men to aid the church in the progression of doctrinal understanding, Christian thought, and tradition? J.I. Packer’s argument for adherence to tradition also supports my position, in part: “Tradition is the fruit of the Spirit’s teaching activity from the ages as God’s people have sought understanding of Scripture.”10 Though traditional sources must be viewed with deference and honor because of their proximity to the time of inscripturation and the lives of the apostles, to rest on their antiquity alone denies the further activity of the Spirit within the church in subsequent periods. The very tradition we speak of was given birth primarily out of controversy over previously ill-defined doctrines of scripture. It cannot be possible that this battle is over for the church. Therefore, building and strengthening of doctrine must continue in some meaningful sense. 

As a Burkean, traditionalist conservative I respect the wisdom of my ancestors and am, as Russell Kirk phrased it, “dubious of wholesale alteration.” I naturally want change to move slowly. In honor of the 9th anniversary of William F. Buckley’s death, I prefer to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop.” But I do not deny the occasional need of reform. For “reform and change are not identical, [yet] innovation is a devouring conflagration more often than it is a torch of progress.”11 Like the human body’s perpetual renewal, slow change itself is the means of the conservation of truth.12 This is not to say that scripture’s meaning is subject to change as such, but rather that man comes to better apprehension of it over time, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the nourishment of the church, and thus doctrine progresses.

This connects with Michael Kruger’s position on the canonization of scripture alluded to in part by John Ehrett’s post. Being that all canonical books were “canon” the moment they were written and that it is only the church’s discovery of their intrinsic, preexisting canonical merit that classifies them as canonical from our perspective as well. Calvin stated it better:

“When the church receives [scripture], and gives it the stamp of her authority, she does not make that authentic which was otherwise doubtful or controverted but, acknowledging it as the truth of God, she, as in duty bound, shows her reverence by an unhesitating assent.” (Institutes, I:VII).

In the same way, if we believe that scripture contains solidified meaning, yet infinite depth, then reform of the church’s doctrine will be necessary throughout history. The requirements of orthodoxy have undergone incremental development and reform as evinced by the progression of the ecumenical creeds.  

There must also be a distinction made between subjective and objective doctrinal reform. The reason that the Reformers rejected Catholic practices (i.e. indulgences and purgatory) is that they found them to be objective theological developments. Meaning that they were changes that occurred without any prior precedent rather than as a natural outgrowth of preexisting and accepted practices (subjective). It could be argued that papal infallibility falls in this category as well, being that though it was debated throughout the Counter Reformation and asserted in the medieval period it was not dogmatically stated until First Vatican 1869-70. The debate for the validity of this assessment is for another time, but the point is that the degrees and types of change must be clarified. One type (subjective) being more acceptable than the other (objective).   


To summarize and conclude rather abruptly, I agree with both John and Matthew that adherence to tradition must be an intricate part of the Christian life. Hopefully Alistar McGrath’s assessment that the waning influence of the Enlightenment in recent decades has provided a renewed interest in church tradition is correct.13 And I submit that the Reformers valued tradition, whilst still subordinating it to scripture; and that sola scriptura does not mean solo scriptura. In this way I challenge Matthew’s representation of Reformed doctrine. I also contend that John’s esteem for patristic sources such as Irenaeus is a well taken tendency, but one that must be tempered by the acknowledgement that the Holy Spirit has not abandoned the church (not that John was asserting such) and will therefore ever provide refined understanding of His word. I join both Matthew and John’s posture of humility towards the men of God who have gone before us all in service of the church. Yet, perhaps unlike Matthew and John I count the Reformers as joining us in said posture, themselves defending and contributing to better understanding of our Lord and adherence to His word.  


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Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a native of Memphis, TN and grew up in Dakar, Senegal. He is a graduate of Wright State University, and is concurrently pursuing a J.D. at Rutgers Law School and a M.A. in Religion at Westminster Theological Seminary. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, Rachel.

  • Benjamin Winter

    Timon, thank you for this excellent contribution. I am impressed with your use of sources and the amount of thought you have clearly put into this piece. I think your article accomplishes what it sets out to do (agreeing, however, with the caveats put forward by Jacob below).

    That said, I’d still like to offer a few constructive yet critical thoughts. You say, “The total neglect of both patristic and apocryphal (deuterocanonical) literature is regrettable.” To me, “regrettable” isn’t strong enough wording here. I would actually say something along the lines of “reprehensible.” I grew up Lutheran, but without clear knowledge of what Luther wrote (not to mention the writings of important Lutherans like Melancthon). Without knowledge of the history leading up to Luther, how could I understand Luther himself? When I came of age, the reasons and narratives behind my belief and practice quickly fell to the wayside. So it’s more than “regrettable” that many Protestants (and Catholics, for that matter) are not educated in the *history* of the church, so that they can understand the context of their own communities. I firmly believe that dialog would be furthered, across the board, if everyone were to take some time to explore the history and teachings of the early church.

    On that same subject, I would like to make one more point. You rightly mention that the reformers did not intend to reject the ecumenical councils wholesale. I agree with this, and it’s quite clear when reading a document like the Augsburg Confession. After only a few generations, though, the Protestant world seems to have fractured so intensely that any semblance of agreement over the interpretation of these councils is difficult to find. I’m specifically thinking of the Council of Ephesus, as a case-study. It is known that Reformers such as Calvin and Luther held Mary in high esteem — while of course preserving the true teaching that she is *not* to be worshiped. But I am hard pressed today to find Protestants (outside of Anglicans) who are even aware that the third ecumenical council (Ephesus) defined Mary’s title as “Mother of God.” My point is this: because of the complexity and critical importance of the debates that led up to the early church councils, there needs to be some kind of institutional authority and practice that upholds their significance and, in a way, enshrines their teachings. Without this larger framework, I fear that the insights of the reformers — with regard to tradition — will not be preserved and distributed on a popular level (except through folks like yourself, so of course keep up the good work that you are doing…I’m talking here about macroscopic or institutional structures, though).

  • Matthew Bryan

    Timon, excellent article! I make few friends with my pen, since I poke and prod against factionalism. Factionalism appears to be the primary problem in the Church, as factionalism opposes unity; and unity in the Church glorifies the Father while proving the claims of the Son (“they may be one as You and I are one”). So for the sake of unity, I do my best to entice people into rethinking ideas which their particular faction of the church holds so dear as to divide from the rest of the faith.

    I love your tone and well-thought content. I’ve tried to embrace the Sola/Solo distinction. I believe there is a sincere intent on the part of those who offer it. [Etymologically, they are entirely equivalent. Solo is the masculine Latin ablative form. Sola the feminine.] As I try to work through the proposed philosophical differences (and I sincerely do), it still appears to melt down to a personal, subjective evaluation of tradition, measured against one’s personal, subjective evaluation of Scripture. If you can clarify in a future article how this Sola is thoroughly objective, you will do us a great service.

    • Timon Cline

      Thanks for reading my article and engaging with it the way you do with all topics at CP. I think you offer a winsome approach, one I hope I can always imitate. I would want to dig deeper into your points on factionalism regarding how far that principle should govern others. If we are to be of one thought/thinking/mind, what is that to look like, etc and what convictions are to be prioritized over others for the sake of unity?

      To your point of the etymology of “sola” and “solo” that’s probably something I should’ve thought of before hand as I was using “solo” in the English sense to make a distinction. Hopefully is doesn’t take away from my point.

      As to the issue of objectivity, I don’t think much in theology can be purely objective in the way we think of it. The issue here is what should be the guiding norm for us given man’s tendency to deviate from God based on our own desires. So what is the more reliable source of guidance, man’s word or God’s? I wish it could be more objective. But I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. But understanding of scripture is a collective effort, hence the need for tradition, but also not static, and that goes more to John’s article. I wish I would’ve put this quote from Anselm in the article:
      “For even the fathers were not able to say all that they could if they had lived longer; the logic of truth is so copious and profound that it cannot be exhausted by mortals. Moreover the Lord whose promise to be with the church until the end does not cease to bestow his gifts within it.” So our understanding increases which would be part of my argument for the merits of reformed theology. Not to reject tradition but to build upon it and clarify it. They’re understanding of scripture as the only sure thing is I think correct though tradition to expound upon it is invaluable.

      That doesn’t answer everything so I hope we can always talk more about this. Thanks for reading and being gracious.

      • Matthew Bryan

        Timon, I appreciate your kindness! I also commend you for thinking through the issues, rather than communicating defensively as many (sometimes including myself) are prone to do. You rightly state “I don’t think much in theology can be purely objective…” The little which is purely objective however, is that which all Christians have held in unity, since unity can actually be objectively measured. Right?

        Unity is not only objective, but it is also miraculous – so much so, that our Lord found it necessary to pray for it (Jn17). Most importantly, He also prophesied in the same passage that this objective miracle of unity would prove His own claims to the world. Wow!

        The divine miracle of unity in Christian Tradition must by definition be harmonious with Scripture, since divine miracles do not contradict. If the above statements are all self evident, then I submit the following for you to consider and perhaps to correct:

        When miraculous Scripture and miraculously united Tradition appear to be at odds, then we have either mistakenly identified a local tradition as if it were universal Tradition, or we have mistakenly elevated our subjective understanding of Scripture in mistaken contradiction of the objective miracle of united Christian Tradition.

        Willing to be corrected,

  • Stephen

    That was a thoughtful handling of the subject, and a reasonable representation of the perspective many reformers must have had. I can’t imagine what all considerations informed the actions and intentions of Luther and others, but I can certainly sympathize with their situation. However, with the benefit of our historical perspective, I think the most profitable thing we can do is spend less time defending, shaping, and cultivating the trees of protestant distinctives and more time viewing them within the great forest of history. In other words, how do they look compared to the history that came before them, and what have they wrought in the history that has followed? What has been the fruit of the protestant revolution (that’s what it was)? Put in the context of 2,000 years instead of the last 500, it’s immediately clear how fractured the Christian landscape became as a direct, immediate, causal result of the 16th century advent of Protestantism. The Latin West, the Orthodox East, and the Non-Chalcedonians: those were the only divisions on the scene for 1500 years. Now in the last 500 — thousands. We can talk about the methodology of interpretation and exegesis all day (and there’s a lot of agreement between various Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox about that) but ultimately the issue of Sola Scriptura will always be one of authority. And until the primal Protestant error of pitting tradition/Church against Scripture is renounced, the crisis of authority, the devastatingly diminished ecclesiology, and the pattern of fracturing will continue on in the Protestant world. The Orthodox answer is simply to acknowledge that Scripture *is* Tradition. Luther gets it blatantly wrong in that quote above: Scripture is not the parent of the Church; The Church wrote the Scriptures.

    I grew up Southern Baptist, went to a Baptist seminary, and am now a member of a Western Rite Orthodox church, just for some biographical context.

  • Timon,

    Thanks for this article. You do a fine job walking us through the nuances of *sola scriptura* among the Reformers and in application today. One of my major questions when it comes to this debate, however, is that of terminology: why stick to the language of “sola”?

    Drawing distinctions between “sola” and “solo” is all well and good. But do we really think that the average person in the pew (or church chair) is going to catch those nuances? Even without an understanding of Latin, most people in the congregations I’ve been a part of know that “sola” means alone or solely. And if that’s what they hear (from the pulpit) or read (in a doctrinal statement or on a website), is it fair to expect them to be able to articulate “tradition and community and reason are important too”?

    My contention: language of *sola scriptura*, even when used in the way that the Reformers meant it and as your article outlines, obfuscates rather than clarifies for contemporary Christians. That is, people aren’t going to “value tradition” (in the way that the Church has always valued tradition) apart from a move away from language of *sola* to language of *prima.*

    To be clear: I offer these comments from a place of a) pastoral concern, b) deep reverence for the sufficiency of scripture, and c) from the lived experience as a “church history” teacher in multiple Protestant churches. I eagerly await your responses. JJP

    • Timon Cline

      Thanks so much for taking the time to edit and then consider/think on my article. I apologize for just now responding to this. I think you raise an earnest and legitimate point and I appreciate your practical pastoral perspective. I also think your concern is valid and I’m not sure I have a great answer for you other than, ironically, that the reason we have stuck with the “sola” language is Protestant tradition. I think the burden of fully explaining Protestant doctoral convictions then falls to the pulpit, as do so many other things of the Christian life. I don’t think the reformers would’ve disliked this aspect given their drive for making the proclamation of the word central even in the architecture of the church (i.e. Making the pulpit centered). That being said I would not be opposed to a reconfiguration of explanation of these Protestant principles as long as the doctrines themselves are rightly maintained. I think your point speaks to the recent resurgence of reformed theology, which I often find to be rather shallow in understanding of what it means to be reformed. I always advocate for coming to reformed understanding of theology via the original sources, or slightly later ones (the Puritans) rather than modern TULIP- centric ones. John Piper et al. Have much to offer the church but their formulations of these doctrines has a tendency to provide exactly what I’m fighting here, a simplistic view. I think organically, if you will, coming to reformed theology is frankly better and deeper. I point people to Calvin himself (who talked much more about prayer than predestination in his institutes) and John Owen, and Jonathan Edwards. Through those writers you get a much better feel for what the reformers really meant. But again this can only be accomplished through carefully preaching and discipleship. Long explanation but I hope it helps some.

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