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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 graduate of Wright State University, Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary. He also writes at Modern Reformation and works as an attorney in Philadelphia where he lives with his wife, Rachel.

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