The Reformation didn’t “really say” there were five solas. If Wikipedia can be believed, the big five were not put forth as a slogan until 1965! Earlier Lutheran attempts at marketing only offered three: Scripture alone, grace alone, and faith alone. But even this construction isn’t that old. When Philip Schaff wrote his 1845 book The Principle of Protestantism, he only had two. Recently, some church historians have questioned whether sola Scriptura is even a Reformation expression at all!
Before we let this etymological iconoclasm run too wild, we should say that even if the two Latin terms sola and Scriptura don’t occur in immediate succession in the earlier sources in an obvious way, the concept of Scripture holding an exclusive position in matters of religious authority can certainly be found at the time of the Reformation.
In his famous book The Bondage of the Will, Martin Luther wrote, “We are willing to fight each other, not by appealing to the authority of any doctor, but by that of Scripture alone.” Similar references to “Scripture alone” or “only Scripture” can be found in Zwingli’s and Calvin’s writings, and longer articulations show up in most of the major confessional documents. So, there is something like sola Scriptura in the magisterial Reformers.
But one reason modern scholars are pushing back on the slogan is that, if taken purely in the abstract, the expression “Scripture alone” could lead to many misunderstandings.
Only Standard for What?
Christians somewhat regularly say, “The Scriptures are our only standard.” But our only standard for what? Is Scripture the only source of truth of any kind whatsoever, leaving no need for, say, physics textbooks or instruction manuals from IKEA? That kind of interpretation would be silly. And qualifying the statement by saying, “The Scriptures are our only authoritative standard” doesn’t really help. What kind of standard isn’t authoritative, at least in some sense?
“When the Reformers appealed to Scripture in this way, they were not debating science or mathematics or grammar.”
So, we need to explain what sola Scriptura is supposed to mean. This is where our nitpicky historians are helpful. Expressions like “Scripture alone” always showed up in particular contexts. When the Reformers appealed to Scripture in this way, they were not debating science or mathematics or grammar. They were having religious and doctrinal debates. That means that sola Scriptura does not apply to matters related to the natural world in and of itself. We can learn about butterflies from studying butterflies and reading books by people who have studied butterflies. The same is true for literature and even politics.
Sola Scriptura also did not rule out natural revelation about God. This is a more controversial claim, but the Reformation confessional documents are straightforward on this point. The Belgic Confession says, “We know God by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God” (article 2).
The confession goes on to cite the apostle Paul’s argument in Romans 1 that “what can be known about God is plain. . . . For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:19–20). We could also add Psalm 19:2: “Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.”
Reason also leads to a kind of knowledge of God. For its part, the Westminster Confession of Faith appeals to “the light of nature” five times and “reason” or “common sense” at least three more. In its 21st chapter, it says, “The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might.”
The Scriptures are not then our only source of knowledge, not even of knowledge about God. But what they are is a sufficient source of saving knowledge.
Our Need for Other Sources
Since this knowledge is sufficient, the Scriptures do not need additional knowledge from outside sources for man to know what is necessary to be saved. And so, the 39 Articles of the Church of England state,
Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. (article 6)
Sola Scriptura could then be defined as the conviction that the Holy Scriptures are the only source of origin for those doctrines necessary to be believed for salvation.
Even this statement requires further explanation, however. There might be secondary sources for these necessary doctrines. Any Christian who accurately relayed the content of the biblical message would be such a source. Whether it’s Saint Augustine or Aunt Betsy from Sunday School, if they taught a biblical truth, their teaching could be good and helpful. But the confessional claim makes clear that all secondary sources are themselves dependent upon the first source, the Holy Scriptures, for their authority, and cannot appeal to other sources, whether they be kinds of direct spiritual experiences or oral traditions that were alleged to descend from the apostles.
No “new revelations of the Spirit” could establish necessary doctrine, nor could “traditions of men” (WCF 1.6). Every doctrine must be expounded from the Old and New Testaments.
Our Need for Interpretation
This statement also does not rule out the need for interpretation and rational argumentation. It is not saying that we may only repeat biblical verses. Rather, doctrines must be “proved by” the Scripture or “deduced . . . by good and necessary consequence” (WCF 1.6). And so the laws of logic and grammar are essential for sola Scriptura.
Christians are expected to be able to interpret biblical passages, combine various teachings, and make sound conclusions from them. Even Luther’s famous “Here I stand,” was preceded by, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason . . . I cannot recant.” Plain reason is not a competing source with Scripture but a necessary, and inescapable, means of interpreting and applying Scripture.
The business of interpreting Scripture is, of course, where most of the debate actually takes place. And interpreting some matters will be easier than others. Since the only interpreters will invariably be humans, mistakes will be made and people will disagree. If you put three theologians together in the same room, sometimes you’ll get five opinions. This means that church councils and synods are still necessary.
Our Need for Councils
None of the Reformers rejected the concept of church councils. Several hoped for a pan-Protestant ecumenical council to unify the various branches of the Reformation. Others were content with regional and national councils. But no one at the Reformation rejected the concept of drafting confessional statements.
“No one at the Reformation rejected the concept of drafting confessional statements.”
Still, the belief in sola Scriptura maintained that these interpretative bodies always had the possibility of being mistaken and so could not be made “the rule of faith” but only a “help” (WCF 31.1). This means that all human councils, even the most ancient and famous, carry derivative authority. They may not create new doctrine but only interpret the content of the Scriptures.
In terms of the ability to enforce a certain religious confession, this would always be after a temporal manner. Creeds and confessions can bind those under their jurisdiction (whether through the establishment churches of old Europe or the voluntary associations of American Christendom), but only in a stipulated, fallible, and mutable way. They can always be revised and must therefore themselves be judged by the higher standard, the rule of the Holy Scriptures.
God Gave Us a Guide
The proper understanding of sola Scriptura does not rule out other standards. There is a necessary place for natural wisdom, the role of reason, and even church history and ecclesiastical piety. But sola Scriptura says that all of these authorities are lesser authorities that are themselves judged by the Scriptures. Since the Scriptures are divinely inspired (2 Timothy 3:16), they are the only standard that can judge saving truth and righteousness without the possibility of being wrong. As such, the Scriptures judge all other standards and serve as our final measuring rod.
Not to be lost in the more technical aspect of this discussion is the very good news that God did indeed give us a sufficient guide to his will. His word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Psalm 119:105). All Christians can read their Bibles with the sure knowledge that its pages are absolutely true and its promises cannot fail. We have everything we need to know and please God, and we have the path to eternal salvation.