Sola Scriptura and Luther
“By Scripture alone” is the essence of the of the sixteenth-century doctrine. Many scholars see this doctrine as the main principle of the Reformation. For this is where the Roman Catholic Church erred. The Roman Church in their apostasy and perverted popes had distorted this doctrine and tried to find revelation in other means than the Scriptures. Luther by no means tried to repaint this doctrine but rather restore it to its biblical mandate.
[1] Keith A. Mathison wrote this about Luther and this key doctrine of the Scriptures:
Men like Martin Luther and John Calvin did not create a new doctrine when they began to combat the tyranny and apostasy of the Roman Catholic Church with a call to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. The classical Reformers were, in fact, calling the church back to its earlier teaching, back to a one-source concept of revelation, back to Tradition. They asserted that Scripture was the sole source of divine revelation, and they denied the existence of a supplementary source. They also asserted that Scripture was to be interpreted in and by the church, in accordance with the ancient rule of the faith, as summarized in the Christian creed.
The reason that Mathison can say this is because Luther himself had said this before. Mathison, as well, uses a letter written on the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, written by Martin Luther himself.
This article moreover has been clearly believed and held from the beginning of the Christian Church to this hour – a testimony of the entire holy Christian Church, which, if we had nothing besides, should be sufficient for us. For it is dangerous and terrible to hear or believe anything against the united testimony, faith, and doctrine, of the entire holy Christian Church, as this hath been held now 1,500 years, from the beginning, unanimously in all of the world. Whoso now doubted thereon, it is even that same though he believed in no Christian Church, and he condemneth thus not only the entire holy Christian Church as a damnable heresy, but also Christ himself and all the powerfully attested this article, where we say, “I believe in a holy Christian Church”; Christ namely, Matthew 28:20:” “Lo I am with you always, even to the end of the world”; and Paul, 1 Timothy 3:15: “the Church of God, which is the pillar and ground of truth.”
Luther did not bring about something new to the Christian Church. Luther’s intentions of reforming the church were to bring back what was found in Scriptures. Luther’s passion for Scripture alone is seen all throughout his work. He saw that Scripture was the final authority of the church and made this clear in many of his paradoxes that he used to make known the gospel. He illustrated the paradoxes of Scripture like the hidden God and the revealed God, theology of glory and the theology of the cross, outer man and the inner man, and faith and assurance. But his main two that dealt with Scripture alone were the paradoxes between law and gospel and the distinction between the word and the spirit. Luther saw that separating either of these two from the other led to what had happened to the Roman Church. Luther strongly emphasized the fact that when preaching the Word, you cannot separate the Word and Spirit. He made a point to show that Scripture must be taught in accordance what the Spirit had done in the Scriptures. Luther’s cry for the gospel by Scripture alone was a passion he carried throughout all of his works.
So it is not at all in keeping with the New Testament to write books on Christian doctrine. Rather in all places there should be fine, godly, learned, spiritual, diligent preachers without books, who extract the living Word from the old Scriptures and unceasingly inculcate it into the people, just as the apostles did. For before they wrote, they first of all preached to the people by the word of mouth and converted them.
Luther’s passion of the Word was something he could never separate from the Spirit. He believed that bringing the Spirit and the Word together demonstrated the gospel. Luther states:
Gospel… means nothing but a sermon and a crying out of the grace and mercy of God, earned and won by the Lord Jesus Christ with his death. And it is really not what is in books and composed in letters, but is more an oral sermon or the living word, a voice which sounds in all the world and is publicly cried out so that one hears it everywhere.
Luther saw the importance of Scripture alone. He saw the importance because he lived in a time period in which the Scriptures were not read, practiced, or even heard of. He knew this first hand, and would not back down from making the Scripture clearly shown, so that the gospel would further in its work. Luther believed that the Scriptures were enough to bring man fully to God and that no other book and writer compared to that of the divine writers and books of the Bible. Luther based his doctrines all on Scripture alone. Luther, when writing to Erasmus, shows us not only his beliefs in the sufficiency of Scriptures alone, but goes further in showing his fear of how Erasmus would use other means in revealing the Scriptures.[6] Luther was in fear of men that used the popes’ words as equal standing to the Scriptures. He recognized the pride of men who claimed the Spirit’s name but used their own spirit in interpretation of the Scriptures. He says:
Here is my answer to you. What you say is part truth, but not all of it. It is true that we shall not detect the spirits by appeals to learning, life, abilities, majorities, distinction, or to ignorance and lack of education, or numbers, or standing. However, I do not applaud those who take refuge in bragging about the Spirit. I fought last year, and am still fighting, a pretty fierce campaign against those fanatics who subject Scriptures to the interpretation of their own spirit.
Luther in fear of himself misusing the Scriptures was conscientious of those who would divide doctrines because they were hard to handle. Luther dealt with this much in his time, especially with Erasmus. Erasmus viewed some truths as clear but he was still searching for the wisdom of God in other truths.
[8] Luther explains first that God and His Scriptures are two different doctrines. He then goes on to explain how God is incomprehensible to man; many things are hidden.[9] But to speak of Scripture the same way would be incorrect. Luther states this problem in dealing with Scripture in his day. Today dealing with the emergent movement is similar for they are looking to find ideas and doctrines that are not revealed. Luther states this at its best:
But the notion that in Scripture some things are recondite and all is not plain was spread by the godless Sophists (whom now you echo, Erasmus) – who have never yet cited a single item to prove their crazy view; nor can they. And Satan has used these unsubstantial specters to scare men off reading the sacred text, and to destroy all sense of its value, so as to ensure that his own brand of poisonous philosophy reigns supreme in the church. I certainly grant that many passages in the Scriptures are obscure and hard to elucidate, but that is due, not to the exalted nature of their own subject, but to our own linguistic and grammatical ignorance; and it does not in any way prevent our knowing all the contents of Scripture. For what solemn truth can the Scriptures still be concealing, now that the seals are broken, the stone rolled away from the tomb, and that greatest of all mysteries brought to light- that Christ, God’s Son, became man, that God is Three in One, that Christ suffered for us, and will reign for ever? And are not these things known, and sung in our streets? Take Christ from the Scriptures- and what more will you find in them? You see, then, that the entire content of Scriptures has now been brought to light, even though some passages which contain unknown words remain obscure. This it is unintelligent and ungodly too, when you know that the contents of Scripture are as clear as can be, to pronounce them obscure on account of those few obscure words. If words are obscure in one place, they are clear in another.
Luther’s view of Scripture alone is not a new song or a new idea. It is not repainting the Scriptures, but restoring them to their rightful authority in the believer’s heart and then to life. Luther dealt with the Scripture like no other. Luther’s desire was not to repaint a doctrine, but we see from his writings that his goal was to bring the church back to its biblical authority. Scripture was to be the final authority in the Christian life. To say Luther repainted his time or this doctrine is preposterous. It is outrageous to even think that the man called a “reformer” or any of the “reformers” would have wanted to be known for bringing new doctrines to the table of Christendom. Luther attempted to reform the Roman Catholic Church and its theology. He left whatever was not Scriptural. Luther was reforming at the time, and now we say “reformed,” not because he was coming up with something new, but because Luther reformed the church from the corrupt popes, councils, doctrines, and theology that the Roman Catholic Church created and used for its own pleasures. Luther summarizes Sola Scriptura to Erasmus:
But, if many things still remain abstruse to many, this does not arise from obscurity in the Scriptures, but from [our] own blindness or want [i.e., lack] of understanding, who do not go the way to see the all-perfect clearness truth… Let, therefore, wretched men cease to impute, with blasphemous perverseness, the darkness and obscurity of their own heart to the all-clear scriptures of God… if you speak of the internal clearness, no man sees one iota in the Scriptures but he that hath the Spirit of God… If you speak of the external clearness, nothing whatever is left obscure or ambiguous; but all things that are in the Scriptures, are by the Word brought forth into the clearest light, and proclaimed to the whole world.
Rob Bell parallels Erasmus in many ways. If Luther did not even think of Erasmus as a believer, surely a man such as Rob Bell cannot call himself a contemporary of Luther nor claim to be a part of the tradition that Luther started.

[1] Ps. 119:1; Ps. 138:2; II Tim. 3:14-17.
[2] Keith A. Mathison, After Darkness, Light (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2003), 35.
[3] Philip Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism, Vol. I. (ed. Bard Thompson and George H. Bricker, Lancaster Series on the Mercersburg Theology, (Philadelphia: United Church Press, 1964), 117n.
[4] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 33 (ed. by Philip S. Watson Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972), 26.
[5] Luther, Luther Works, Vol. 30, p. 3.
[6] Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, (Translated by J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston. Grand Rapids: Revell, 1957), 123-25.
[7] Luther, The Bondage, 124.
[8] Luther, The Bondage, 70-74.
[9] Matt. 24:36; John 13:18; Acts 1:7; 2 Tim. 2:19.
[10] Luther, The Bondage, 71.
[11] Luther, The Bondage, 25-29.


  1. Clark says:

    if scripture is so clear, why are there thousands of books and thousands of denominations who differ on interpreting nearly everything?

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