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The Danger of Sola Scriptura

The Reformation principle of sola scriptura (lit. “only Scripture” or “Scripture alone”) has been the cause of great scandal since the sixteenth century. Why? Because it is dangerous.

Hang with me. The Reformers believed that Scripture alone was the only infallible source for revelation and, therefore, the Scripture alone was the primary source available for instruction on all matters.

The Reformation principle of sola scriptura (lit. “only Scripture” or “Scripture alone”) has been the cause of great scandal since the sixteenth century. Why? Because it is dangerous.

Hang with me. The Reformers believed that Scripture alone was the only infallible source for revelation and, therefore, the Scripture alone was the primary source available for instruction on all matters of faith and practice. They believed that tradition, while valuable, could be misleading and fallible. In short, they rejected the idea that the Church needed a second infallible source of revelation (Tradition) along with an infallible interpreter (Magisterium) that would tell them what to believe. The Scriptures needed to be in the hands of every man so that every man could wrestle with and build a theology that was truly their own.

Let me give you an illustration that may illuminate this more. In today’s busy world, it is common to outsource projects that we do not have the time or capability to accomplish on our own. We outsource many things including design projects, advertising, network management, and so on. People may do all their photo copying at Kinko’s. This is outsourcing. This is not required of us, but we do it to save money and valuable time, hoping to have our projects done by experts in the particular field. At the time of the Reformation, the institutionalized church had become the Kinko’s of theology. Everyone outsourced their theology to the Church. If they had a theological question, they would simply go to the magisterial authority in the church, “insert their question” and out came the answer that they were to believe. There was no other option. The institutionalized church held a monopoly on theology. No one was allowed to “do” their own theology. People were indoctrinated with the “truth” in order to protect the “truth.” The institutionalized church had seen enough scandal in the early church where people were “doing” theology on their own. There was a heresy on every corner. Which corner was one supposed to go for truth? So, to put the matter simply, the church decided that the only true doctrine comes from within the already established Church. But once this “within” had narrowed to the institutionalized church, there were only a select few within the hierarchical structure who were given permission to interpret doctrine. In the later middle ages, we see the structure develop so much so that no one could contradict a dogmatic decree from the bishop of Rome (the foundation for the infallibility of the Pope that would come in the nineteenth century).

The church’s desire was noble, but the outcome was tragic. The common person may have known what they believed, but they had no idea why. It was sort of drone theology, where everyone had the same confession, but there was no true intellectual conviction about the confession. For most, the commitments to their beliefs became purely emotional, being based on fear and folklore. The common man did not have the right to wrestle with theological issues on their own. There was constant fear of excommunication if rebellion of mind were to occur. Even if one defended their beliefs from Scripture, they had no right to violate the outsourcing paradigm that was in effect. Not only were people not able to defend their faith to others, this type of theological outsourcing made it difficult to defend their faith to themselves. This naturally caused much disillusionment and emotional turmoil. This was the case with Martin Luther, the Augustinian monk, who lived in constant fear of God’s wrath. But Luther did the unthinkable . . . he read the Scriptures for himself. In his reading, he did not seek to confirm the traditions which he was taught (for these had caused him great fear); he sought to understand the Scriptures on their own terms. Thus came the doctrine of sola Scriptura. The Scripture was not there to conform to the traditions, but to create the traditions.

With the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1436, the common person at the time of the Reformation was able to access literature that was, until then, only available to the elite. People now had the ability to learn to read. On September 30, 1452, the Bible became the first book to be published. Desiderius Erasmus published the Greek New Testament in 1516. From this Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, his native tongue. Until this time, the Bible was not readily available in the common language of the people. The institutionalized Church, of course, objected to Luther’s presumption in translating the Bible into the common language. Why? In essence, they said to Luther, “Do you know what will happen if you put a Bible in the hands of the common man? They will interpret it themselves and come up with all kinds of crazy ideas and heresies.” Luther understood the risk of putting a Bible in every man’s hands. He understood the danger. But he believed it was worth the risk, believing that the commoner of his day could interpret the Bible better than many in the “scholars” of the Church in Rome.

Thus began the Reformation. Thus began the time when people took the Scriptures and interpreted them for themselves. Thus began the time when men and women, clergy and layperson, learned and unlearned, all had common access to the Word of God. Thus ended the outsourcing of theology . . . Or did it?

Evangelicals must be on guard of recreating an outsourcing system under the guise of sola Scriptura. Many Protestants since the Reformation have simply created their own catechisms, creeds, and confessions and expect their people to agree with the details contained therein. While there is nothing wrong with having these as a means to communicate dogma, it can and does easily turn into another magisterium (teaching authority), with characteristics not unlike that of the Roman Catholic Church. This will always be the case if people are not intentional about revisiting the doctrine of sola Scriptura. While we should desire our people to respect the beliefs of past generations, understanding that God is a God of history, Evangelicals do not believe that any tradition, creed, or confession is infallible. For example, I believe that the Definition of Chalcedon (451) is true in its representation of the dual natures of Christ to the point that I could accurately be described as a Chalcedonian Christian. But I don’t believe it is infallible. I simply believe it accurately represents infallible Scripture. As well (and read this carefully), even the doctrine of sola Scriptura needs to be understood in such a way since it can become thought of as an infallible paradigm to which people must blindly adhere. But can you defend the doctrine? The doctrine is only infallible to the degree that it represents truth, and is only intellectually persuasive to the degree that it can be defended. We must revisit, with fear, personally and as a community, all the major doctrines of the Christian faith if we are to truly have theological revival. This is truly a fearful thing—it is dangerous. But this is the essence of sola Scriptura.

In short, the doctrine of sola Scriptura means not only that there is a Bible in every man’s hands, but also a struggle in every man’s mind—a struggle to find the truth for themselves. Again, it must be restated, this does not mean that we do not have teachers who are gifted in theology and exegesis. Neither does this mean that we disregard traditions of the past. It means that each person must study and wrestle with theology for themselves, coming to a deeper understanding, and taking ownership of their convictions. It means that we have the right to ask tough questions, search for answers, and come to intellectually defensible conclusions. It means that we do not have to ignorantly accept what someone else teaches without question. Is the doctrine of sola Scriptura dangerous? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely! The alternative is even more dangerous, since it is nothing less than a surrendering of the mind.

Sola Scriptura: the belief that the Scripture alone is the final and only infallible source for matters of faith and practice.

May God be glorified as we reclaim the mind for Christ.

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The Theology Program at Bible.org seeks to keep the danger real, refusing to accept something just because someone else says it is true. We are confident that if we “place a bible in every man’s hands,” teaching them to think through theological issues, that the evangelical faith will prove itself worthy of both our emotional and intellectual commitment. Through the six course program, you will find a place that you can come and ask the tough questions. It is a place to come to build your theology and solidify your beliefs, understanding not only what you believe but why you believe it.

Related Topics: Apologetics, Bibliology (The Written Word), Inerrancy