In the first article of this series I indicated that there are five things every Christian needs to know. These five things are distinctives which divide Christianity from every other religion. Further, they divide true Christianity, Protestantism, from Catholicism and cults and all other attempts to combine the wisdom of men with the wisdom of God. Today we will turn to the first of these five important points.
Here is the first thing every believer needs to know: The Bible alone is the infallible rule of faith for the church. This is known in theological circles as the doctrine of Sola Scriptura or Scripture Alone. This may seem to be quite an obvious doctrine to some, yet I would encourage you to keep reading to examine if you really do believe this, to see how an improper view of this doctrine can taint your walk with Christ, and to learn how a strong view of the Scripture’s authority is necessary for a strong and living faith.
At the time of the Reformation, when this doctrine was formulated, the church was just barely emerging from hundreds of years of rule by the Roman Catholic Church. For the Reformers, this doctrine had to do with the Bible being the final authority for Christians over against the authority of tradition, popes and church councils. The Reformers were convinced that the Bible claimed for itself the place of ultimate authority - an authority it could and would not share with anyone else. Martin Luther summarized this beautifully and courageously when, before the Diet of Worms, he said “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other - my conscience is captive to the Word of God…God help me! Here I stand.” In more recent times, the emphasis of this doctrine has shifted. This is not to say that the content of the doctrine changed, but rather that it came under attack from a different angle and Scripture’s authority needed to be defended from a different attack. In the last century Sola Scriptura became the battlecry of those who sought to defend the Bible’s inerrancy under the attacks of liberals who taught that the Bible was merely a flawed human book. These people tried seperate the Jesus of the Bible from the real Jesus. This battle was fought and won twenty years ago. In the contemporary church we find the emphasis shifting again. Having defended the Bible’s authority and inerrancy, today we fight to reestablish the sufficiency of Scripture.
Defining Sola Scriptura
Before we go any further, let’s further define this doctrine. Sometimes it is best to establish what something is not before we define what it is, so here are three things this doctrine does not teach:
- The Bible is the only place where truth may be found and is the only way God has revealed Himself.
- The Bible is equally clear to everyone.
- We do not need the authority or instruction of the local church.
All three of these are erroneous views. God has revealed Himself in many ways, and Scripture is but one of these. The Bible is not equally clear to all people, as some are more easily able to grasp certain concepts than others. And finally, the Bible does not nullify the authority of the local church or the necessity of proper instruction.
I have earlier defined Sola Scriptura as meaning “The Bible alone is the infallible rule of faith for the church.” The Cambridge Declaration, formulated by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals provides a more detailed but still succinct definition:
We reaffirm the inerrant Scripture to be the sole source of written divine revelation, which alone can bind the conscience. The Bible alone teaches all that is necessary for our salvation from sin and is the standard by which all Christian behavior must be measured.
We deny that any creed, council or individual may bind a Christian’s conscience, that the Holy Spirit speaks independently of or contrary to what is set forth in the Bible, or that personal spiritual experience can ever be a vehicle of revelation.
The Formal Principle
The Reformers referred the Scripture Alone as being the formal principle of the Reformation. They used this phrase to express that this doctrine was the one that formed and shaped the rest. They would have been unable to formulate any other doctrines were it not for this one, for all depended on the source of Divine authority. Had the Reformers determined that the Roman Church was, as she claimed, the ultimate authority, the Reformation would have ended then and there. But when they found that the Bible reserved this position for itself, they were able to look to it to determine what else it said about the faith. Where the Bible contradicted the Church, they deferred to Scripture’s authority.
The Bible derives its authority from its very nature of being God-breathed revelation. It has often been argued that Protestants use circular argumentation to establish and prove this authority. After all, when asked how we know the Bible is the ultimate authority, we can only claim that the Bible tells us so. We are left with the question of how the Bible can claim for itself this authority. The answer is suprisingly simple. If the Bible is the highest authority, to what higher authority can it refer to prove this claim? Think of a soldier who has been promoted to the rank of colonel. How would you or I be able to verify that this man was, indeed, a colonel and not a sergeant or a private? We would ask a higher source of authority, perhaps a general, to verify this. The Bible has no higher authority to which it can appeal, so it appeals to itself. Anyone who claims authority over Scripture must first invalidate the claims Scripture makes about itself. We will now turn to some of those claims.
What Scripture Says About Scripture
There are many passages of Scripture we can refer to that will show us the Bible’s view of itself. We will turn to a few of these and see what they tell us about Scripture.
It is infallible in its totality. “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy,making wise the simple.” (Psalm 19:7)
It is inerrant in its parts. “Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar.” (Proverbs 30:5,6)
It is complete. “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.” (Revelation 22:18,19)
It is authoritative. “Your word, O LORD , is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens.” (Psalm 119:89)
It is sufficient. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16,17)
It will accomplish what it promises. “so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:11)
These are no small claims. The Bible clearly claims for itself a position of supreme authority over the Christian, binding his conscience and giving assurance that the Scripture alone is the final authority. Furthermore, it condemns anyone who would claim this authority for himself or seek to add to or take away from it.
In our next article we will examine the implications of this doctrine on the Christian life and show why this truly is something every Christian needs to know.