Sola Scriptura: The Reformation Debate

r8313popeRoman Catholicism has traditionally affirmed Scripture’s inspiration and inerrancy; arguments with Protestants during the Reformation developed around the relationship between Scripture and tradition. Roman Catholic teaching considers Sacred Scripture (the Bible, with the apocryphal books) and Sacred Tradition (originally unwritten traditions passed down by the apostles and their successors) to be two integral aspects of the one Word of God. While Roman Catholicism treats tradition as magisterial (tradition possesses normative authority together with Scripture), classical Protestantism treats tradition as ministerial (tradition, reason, experience, and culture are all under the authority of Scripture). Historically, Protestants have admitted that written Scripture and oral tradition were two aspects of God’s special revelation, but that time came to an end with the close of the apostolic era. While Roman Catholics believe the apostolic office still continues today in the church’s hierarchy, Protestants argue that the church’s preaching and teaching ministry no longer lays the foundation built once and for all by the prophets and apostles (Eph. 2:20). There is a qualitative difference between binding apostolic tradition (see, e.g., 1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Thess. 2:15) and the fallible traditions of the covenant community—even its leadership (Mark 7:1–13).

Faithful tradition belongs to the Spirit’s illumination, not to inspiration. Thus, creeds and confessions carry a subordinate authority to Scripture, as faithful summaries of Scripture’s overarching scope (its testimony to the triune God and his ways, centering in the gospel of Christ). The witness of the church serves Scripture’s authority rather than establishes it. This includes the nature of the canon’s formation. The church did not create the canon through ecclesiastical power; it recognized these particular writings as the authoritative Word of God.

The sufficiency of Scripture is inseparable from its clarity. This does not mean that all parts of Scripture are equally plain or lack depth of meaning, nor does it deny past and present controversy over biblical interpretation within the church. Scripture is clear on its most important matters, when interpreted according to its own witness, within the broader community of faith, and in light of its scope. If such weighty matters of Scripture are not clear in their purity and simplicity, the teacher rather than the text is at fault. Sola Scriptura is not simply an affirmation of the unique authority of the Bible but a confession of the sovereignty of God’s grace—because God alone saves, God alone teaches and rules our faith and practice.

In modern and contemporary theology, Protestantism has had difficulty retaining its classical emphasis on the unique authority and sufficiency of Scripture, often folding God’s voice into that of the Christian community or the individual believer. Even those who hold a high view of biblical authority may inadvertently subordinate God’s Word by assimilating contemporary culture’s assumptions about reality, then attempting to address this reality with the Bible. We should rather interpret all of reality in light of God’s Word, allowing Scripture to address us as well as the world.

Definitions are particularly important here: The gospel is properly understood as the specific announcement of redemption from sin and death through the death and resurrection of Jesus in fulfillment of all God’s promises, while“culturemay be defined in this context as the common realm of social practices, vocations, beliefs, and assumptions shared by Christians and non-Christians in a given time and place. Like tradition, reason, and experience, culture is not inherently evil or opposed to faith, but none of these testify to God’s gracious and saving action in Christ. The church’s primary “cultural location” is in Christ, under the normative authority of Scripture. When culture is given an authoritative or normative role alongside Scripture in the church, the world cannot be judged or redeemed by the living voice of God from outside itself.

HT: Summary taken from chapter five of Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith.

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