Sola Scriptura’s Relevance for the Modern Church
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, there arose a group of men and women that had become disillusioned by the excesses and misappropriations of the Roman Catholic church and, in a reactive movement, spawned the Reformation, and consequently, the Five Solas: sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura, sola Christus, and soli Deo gloria. While these five principles were never clearly grouped and articulated together by any one Reformer during that period of time, they have been devised in subsequent centuries by scholars to succinctly convey the core of most Reformation doctrines. Each of the solas bears weight for the church in America today, but one in particular, sola scriptura, seems to be one that is often left by the wayside, in favor of “cutting edge” psychological and scientific advances. Yet, I believe that if we return to this doctrine, we, like the Reformers, will become the salt and light that both the world, and the Western church need for us to be.
What does Sola Scriptura mean? Simply translated, it means “by Scripture alone.” Of course, that concise phrase actually encompasses a whole ideology—the belief that God’s Word alone, rather than the clergy, the Church, or any other human-made structure or framework, is the final authority for all forms of doctrine and practice. This principle is supported by 2 Timothy 3:16, which says “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” (KJV) According to sola scriptura, God’s Word alone, not the words or philosophies of man, is to be revered as the only inerrant authority.
Why did the Reformers deem it necessary to promote the principle of sola scriptura in their communication regarding the Reformed faith? In observing the state of the Catholic church from whence they had come out, these men saw that there had been such undue emphasis placed upon church traditions as to usurp the authority of the Scriptures, to the detriment of the church and to the extreme elevation of mere human beings and their traditions. As John Calvin wrote, “But this is the difference between us and the papists. They think that the Church is the ‘pillar of truth’ (1 Tim. 3:15), just as if it controls the Word of God. On the other hand, we assert that the truth is possessed by the Church and handed down to others because it subjects itself reverently to the Word of God.”  We may well understand that the Church does not rule the Scriptures; rather the Scriptures ought to rule the Church.
The reformers believed that each aspect of the life of the Church and the individual must be conformed to the will of God as revealed only in Holy Scripture. After all, Romans 3:10-18 clearly states, “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness: Their feet are swift to shed blood: Destruction and misery are in their ways: And the way of peace have they not known: There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (KJV) If this is the wretched and helpless state of even the best specimen that humankind has to offer, then it is evident that we would do poorly to fashion our lives according to the word of man rather than the Word of God.
If we do not see Scripture alone as the final authority for the modern church, as other churches have in the past, we run the risk of committing transgression in a couple of different ways. First, we fall into the trap of exalting man’s traditions, legalisms, or practices too highly, even to the point of idolatry. Jesus, speaking harshly to the Pharisees in Mark 7:6-8, said, “Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men.”  (KJV, emphasis added) Obviously, Jesus was displeased with the lack of respect and prominence that the Pharisees gave the Scriptures—the revelation of God to man—as they instead pridefully reverenced their own inventions and that of their fathers above God’s Word. If we claim, as many rightfully do, that our Lord is the wellspring of all knowledge and wisdom, consider what hypocrites we make ourselves to be when we live by the traditions and inventions of men, which are pitiful when compared to the surpassing brightness of God, while pushing His own words to the back burner.
Secondly, if we do not keep the principle of Scripture alone always in the forefront of our minds, we leave the door wide open for false teaching to infiltrate both ourselves and the church. If we follow Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or anyone else other than Christ as He is revealed in the Scriptures, we will discover at some point, if we keep our eyes open and do not fall prey to delusion, that each of these are only men, prone to error, however well-intentioned they may be. Following men blindly, without the discerning power of the Bible, will certainly lead to sin. The Word of God praises the Bereans in Acts 17:11 saying, “These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” (KJV)  Even when presented with truth, the Bereans beheld these new doctrines in light of Scripture and followed them willingly because they understood them to be the fulfilment of what they already knew to be true, as revealed in the Old Testament. They understood how easy it is for one to be overtaken by false teaching that comes as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, as 2 Corinthians 11:14-15 says, “For Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness.” (KJV) We would do well to follow the example of the Bereans in testing new ideas in light of the Scriptures, rather than merely accepting them at face value.
John Calvin said, “Now, in order that true religion may shine upon us, we ought to hold that it must take its beginning from the heavenly doctrine and that no one can get even the slightest taste of right and sound doctrine unless he be a pupil of Scripture.”  Even though the “great cloud of witnesses”—the saints of the past and present spoken of in Hebrews 12— can be an excellent source of encouragement and wisdom for us, the elevation of their insights to those of the Word of God, or the study of them to the exclusion or neglect of the Scriptures is folly at best, and idolatry and false teaching at worst. Why should we cling so tightly to secondhand information, when the firsthand account is so readily available to us? We do not live in the time of the Reformation, when illiteracy was rampant and the only Bible authorized by the Church was the Latin Vulgate, something that most common people would never be able to read. It is understandable that the common person in those days would blindly follow human teachings. He had little choice, since the opportunity for learning to read either English or Latin, let alone having access to a Bible, was far out of reach. But, today, almost anyone who lives in a first world country has no excuse for not holding men’s teachings and traditions accountable to the Word of God, seeing that we have the Bible so readily available to us in most bookstores and even on iPhone apps and that compulsory education laws mean that most of us are literate. As Jesus said in Luke 12:48, “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.”(KJV) We have been given the privilege of having God’s Word conveniently accessible to us and of possessing the ability to read it. May we not waste these things, but let us instead be diligent in using Scripture to “cast down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bring into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5, KJV)View Sources
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