Rethinking Tradition and Sola Scriptura

Rethinking the Reformation concept of Sola Scriptura is a rather intimidating task, especially for someone who was raised Lutheran (and especially on Reformation Day!).  Sola Scriptura – the principle that says that the sole authority of the Church rests in Scripture alone – is one of the hallmarks of the Reformation.  It was a response to the abuses of Church Tradition by the Roman Catholic Church, who had added teachings that included Papal Infallibility, the Immaculate Conception (the belief that Mary the Mother of Jesus was born without original sin), and of course, the doctrine of Purgatory and the benefits of purchasing Indulgences.  It was this last doctrine that prompted Luther to post his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Chapel.

Martin Luther saw the dangers in following the obviously arbitrary doctrines created by the RCC, and at the Diet of Worms (yeah, I’ve always laughed at that, too) made this famous statement:

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. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other.  God help me.  Amen.

The interesting thing about Luther is that he actually tried to follow church authority, going back to earlier Papal teachings that contradicted those he was questioning.  When he found out that he couldn’t reconcile the various “authoritative” teachings, he turned to the only unchanging authority, that of the Bible.

Sola Scriptura has become foundational to hundreds of protestant denominations, each of which follow “the plain meaning of Scripture” but yet disagree with each other on any number of points.  When someone claims to follow “the plain meaning of Scripture,” you really have to ask, “which one?” To most evangelical Christians, sola scriptura has come to mean, “the Bible means whatever I think it means.”  I have heard this theory of Biblical interpretation referred to as “solo scriptura.”

How far we’ve come from Martin Luther, whose intent was never to disregard the tradition of the Apostles, but rather to remove the authority of men from the Church.  The irony is that today, each Christian who asserts his own right to interpret the Bible for himself is once again relying on the authority of man, not the authority of the Bible.


Sola Scriptura is not without its problems.  For one thing, the Bible didn’t exist in it’s current form(s) until the 4th Century; it wasn’t just handed down from God with a gold-embossed burgundy leather cover.  Decisions were made – by men – as to which of the many books that had been collected met the standards of Scripture. Even then, there were books – such as those we call the Apocrypha, as well as some we find in our Bibles today – that have been routinely questioned.  Luther himself questioned the inclusion of one or 2 books.  How, then, could Luther rest on the Bible’s authority alone?  For that matter, how could the Church of the 2nd and 3rd centuries exist without what is considered by many to be the sole authority of the Church?  It seems obvious that Luther had some different thoughts in mind when spoke of the Authority of Scripture alone.

While I haven’t found any specific quote from Luther defining sola scriptura, he does give some clues as to his thinking:

Now it is the office of a true apostle to preach of the Passion and resurrection and office of Christ, and to lay the foundation for faith in him, as Christ himself says in John 15[:27], “You shall bear witness to me.” All the genuine sacred books agree in this, that all of them preach and inculcate Christ. And that is the true test by which to judge all books, when we see whether or not they inculcate Christ. For all the Scriptures show us Christ, Romans 3[:21]; and St. Paul will know nothing but Christ, I Corinthians 2[:2]. Whatever does not teach Christ is not yet apostolic, even though St. Peter or St. Paul does the teaching. Again, whatever preaches Christ would be apostolic, even if Judas, Annas, Pilate, and Herod were doing it” (Prefaces to the New Testament, LW 35:396).

Luther, it seems, was never ruling out the authority behind the Bible: Apostolic Authority.  For Luther, the key in determining whether a book deserved to be included in the Canon of the Bible, it had to contain the Apostolic message.

The point Luther was making, and which is more obvious today than ever, is this: no man has an infallible interpretation of the Bible.  This, then, begs the question: Where is such authority to be found, if not in the Bible itself?  This is not to suggest that the Bible is not authoritative; I believe that it is.  The problem is in the exegesis, the interpretation.  It seems logical to conclude that either there is no source of authority in interpretation, in which case we have problems, or there is an authority, in which case we should find it.

Next, we turn to the issue of Tradition.

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3 Responses to Rethinking Tradition and Sola Scriptura

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