The Doctrine of Sola Scriptura in a Nutshell - by Dr. C. Matthew McMahonCreeds and Confessions of the Church
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A very basic outline and brief notes about the doctrine of Sola Scriptura and the regula fidei.
“He who would consistently banish creeds must silence all preaching and reduce the teaching of the church to the recital of the exact words of Holy Scripture without note or comment.” – R. L. Dabney
The purpose of this very brief excerpt is to concisely and simply set forth the doctrine of Sola Scriptura over the false, modern-day evangelical doctrine of SOLO Scriptura that always seems to rise up among religious sects through church history. Evangelicals today, for whatever reason, seem to be confusing Sola Scriptura with Solo Scriptura without understanding either precisely. Those evangelicals who say they hold to the Sola Scriptura hermeneutic of the Reformation are really using the Reformed terms of the Reformation but are, in actuality, denying the authentic doctrine itself. This is not just a play on words or some kind of semantic game. Rather, this is a conflagration of the true doctrine, and a propagation of something the church has deemed in error by way of a faulty hermeneutic. Hopefully the following points will clarify this and amend this theological mayhem.
It is unfortunate that false view of Sola Scriptura today is aiding the modern church in further schism, rather than unifying the church. Sola Scriptura should not be used as a “me and my bible” hermeneutic which allows “each individual Christian” to maintain their own theological view point on a given doctrine. That is not what the Reformers intended, and it is not what the doctrine of Sola Scriptura teaches. If you believe that Sola Scriptura means “each individual Christian should, on an individual level, use the Bible alone in understanding and determining the corpus of biblical truth” you have completely missed the idea and point of the doctrine itself. Many people believe that the moment they hear the word “tradition” (the “t” word) that this is a very bad thing. They want to say “the Bible alone!” But they have missed the point again. They believe this as a knee jerk reaction to Roman Catholicism which has a very different view of tradition than what Sola Scriptura teaches. I want to note here and now, the Reformed position of Sola Scriptura is not, in any way, the same thing, as the view of the Roman Catholic Church’s view of Tradition PLUS Scripture as the church’s ecclesiastical authority. Hopefully this will be made clear in a moment.
You can hear the confusion already – “Wait! Are you trying to tell me that the doctrine of Sola Scriptura holds a certain view of tradition within it? Are you saying that Sola Scriptura rests on some kind of church tradition as well?” Yes, that is exactly what I am saying. Tradition, when used by the orthodox Christian church through the centuries, simply designates the complete corpus of “truth” as the inclusive set of Christian beliefs or the whole of “the faith” given to the saints (Jude 3) in which the Church contends for as orthodoxy. This kind of tradition is either verbal (such as the teaching that came verbally from the Apostles) or written (such as any of the books of the Bible that were penned). This does not incur “secret” traditions that were handed down to the church that are shrouded in some mysterious unwritten or secret documents that only a select few recognize (which is Rome’s position). Rather, Scripture and tradition are paralleled ideas that mean the same thing in orthodox Christianity. For example, when I say, “Jesus is Lord,” that is the same thing as quoting John 1:1-3. It is verbal tradition that the church ahs always believed, and it attests to the truth of John 1:1-3 (and other Scriptures that could be cited). One could look through any of the early church fathers (Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian, etc) and find this type of thinking all through their writings. Irenaeus used an interesting term to describe the tradition of the Church called the regula fidei. This basically places the Holy Scriptures on the same level of confessing the truth of the Holy Scriptures in verbally relatable terms. Again, to use the example, “Jesus is God” is to say, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM (John 8:58).”
Both of those testimonies (one written and inspired, and one creedal or tradition) are in fact part of the regula fidei. The regula fidei is, as Augustine stated, a summary of Holy Scripture.
Now, another point must be made. There never has been a period in which the Christian Church has been without a confession of faith, though these confessions have varied both in character and in extent. In other words, the moment you start telling people who Jesus is without simply turning to your Bible and quoting various passages with no commentary at all, and you begin to add your own explanations or testimony to that, you have engaged in confessional Christianity, or have entered into the regula fidei. That means that you have begun commenting on the Scriptures with information (or accepted tradition) that is discernable by exegetical work on the Bible, and notably received by the orthodox Church at large. When you say, “Jesus is God” you are a confessional Christian. You are summarizing the Bible and its message (or a doctrinal point) into a single concise phrase that all orthodox Christians agree. At this point, another emphasis must be made.
When you agree with the church on a given doctrine, you remain a confessional Christian. The church through the ages has always said, “Jesus is God.” Why have they said this? Because the Bible teaches it. This is not circular reasoning, but linear. We begin with the Bible and then move to a confession of the Bible. The Christian Church, as a divine institution, takes the Word of God alone, and the whole Word of God, as her only rule of faith. However, she must also frame a statement of what she understands the Word of God to teach. This she does, not as arrogating any authority to suppress, change, or amend anything that God’s Word teaches, but in discharge of the various duties which she owes to God, to the world, and to those of her own communion. So a Confession of Faith is not the very voice of divine truth, but the echo of that voice from souls that have heard its utterance, felt its power, and are answering to its call. And, since she has been instituted for the purpose of teaching God’s truth to an erring world, her duty to the world requires that she should leave it in no doubt respecting the manner in which she understands the message that she has to deliver. Without doing so, the Church would be no teacher, and the world might remain untaught, so far as she was concerned.
When the message had been stated in God’s own words, every hearer must attempt, according to the constitution of his own mind, to form some conception of what these words mean. His conceptions may be very vague and obscure, or even very erroneous, unless some attempt be made to define, elucidate, and correct them. This he does by exegesis of the Bible. But how does he know he has exegeted correctly? This is where the “me and my bible” Christian says, “Well, I just know.” The answer to that is “hogwash.” How could either the hearers or the teachers know that they understood the truth alike without mutual statements and explanations with regard to the meaning which they respectively believe it to convey? The Church must discharge and produce a form of sound words, in order both to promote and confirm their knowledge, and also to guard them against the hazard of being led into errors. They must be regarded as all agreed, with respect to the main outline of the truths which they believe so that they obtain some security that those who are to become their teachers in future generations shall continue to teach the same divine and saving truths. The members of any Church must know each other’s sentiments; must combine to hold them forth steadily and consistently to the notice of all around them, as witnesses for the same truths, and must do their utmost to secure that the same truths shall be taught by all their ministers, and to all candidates for admission. This is the regula fidei of the church. It is the basic summary of the orthodox position of the Bible. The formation of a Creed, or Confession of Faith, is imperatively necessary, and thus it appears that a Church cannot adequately discharge its duty to God, to the world, and to its own members, without a Confession of Faith. Those who hold to an erroneous view of Sola Scriptura are attempting, unsuccessfully, to have a statement of faith that is part of their own tradition, but still asserting that they hold to the Bible alone. They are confused because they misunderstand how Christian tradition works, and how it is an echo of what the Bible teaches. Sola Scriptura houses both of these in its concept of learning and teaching the truths of the Bible to the world.
A confession or creed, then, is the continuation of the regula fidei in the church as Christ gifts it in its reception of ministers and teachers who adequately preach and teach the truths of the Bible to the church.
Thus, when we speak of Sola Scriptura, we are speaking of the Bible and the explanation that we have of the Bible as a church consensus of orthodoxy. These are deemed traditions. We could label this view Tradition 1. Tradition 2 would encapsulate an extra scriptural written account of the apostles that has been given to the church but not the church at large. This is the position in which the Roman Catholic Church takes in relation to their authority. It is a two-source tradition that propagates both what is entailed in Tradition 1 and extra-scriptural writings that are only privy to the pope and Catholicism at large. Or, that the Pope himself is able to add to, but not take away, from what is given as the rule for faith and practice. This is where they place “tradition” on the same level as “Scripture.” But this is not the same as Sola Scriptura.
This should cause those believing in “Sola Scriptura” to reject, out rightly, the false and twisted idea of SOLO Scriptura. No one through history believed that we should not comment and explain the Bible. The Reformers, for example did not believe in the “tradition” of the Catholic Church in the manner described above. Rather, they believed in the regula fidei that included the explanation of the Bible according to the apostolic teaching.
It is unfortunate that a third tradition emerged which is entitled Tradition 0. Tradition 0 is where people took their Bible and said that they have no creed or confession but Christ and the Word of God (this was typical of sectarians such as the Anabaptists). However, the moment they said that, they became confessional Christians. SOLO Scriptura, in that regard is unattainable. The only way someone could uphold it is if they simply read their Bible and said nothing else. But instead, this turned into a “personal” view of the Bible and simply made each person with their own “personal view” an island unto themselves in terms of dictating doctrine. Instead, the church had always held to a consensus of doctrine, knowing full well that Christ has gifted His church to make proper judgments on the Bible that tend to life and godliness.
An objection is raised, “Man cannot be the infallible interpreter of the Scriptures and judge of controversies because he is liable to error.” Turretin, a very able exegete, stated this. However, Turretin would not say (nor would any other exegete) that we could not make judgments on the Scripture. Rather, we are encouraged to know truth from error and to be discerning (1 John 4:6; 1 Cor 11:29). How then can the Bible and the regula fidei be reconciled?
William Whitaker, a man of extraordinary skill in defending the faith against Rome during the second generation of the Reformation, said this, “”For we also say that the church is the interpreter of Scripture, and that the gift of interpretation resides only in the church: but we deny that it pertains to particular persons, or is tied to any particular see or succession of men.” Though Scripture interprets Scripture, as all agree, the church is also the interpreter of Scripture as a whole. It is impossible to deny this. The very force of Ephesians 4 and the gifts Christ’s gives to His church demonstrate this. Ephesians 4:11-16 says, “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, 13 till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; 14 that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, 15 but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head — Christ — 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love. The church, then, and those gifted in it, should heeded. The Form of Presbyterian Church Government states of pastors, that they are, “To feed the flock, by preaching of the word, according to which he is to teach, convince, reprove, exhort, and comfort.” Doctors, or teachers, are to “The Lord having given different gifts, and divers exercises according to these gifts, in the ministry of the word; though these different gifts may meet in, and accordingly be exercised by, one and the same minister; yet, where be several ministers in the same congregation, they may be designed to several employments, according to the different gifts in which each of them doth most excel. And he that doth more excel in exposition of scripture, in teaching sound doctrine, and in convincing gainsayers, than he doth in application, and is accordingly employed therein, may be called a teacher, or doctor, (the places alleged by the notation of the word do prove the proposition.) Nevertheless, where is but one minister in a particular congregation, he is to perform, as far is able, the whole work of the ministry. A teacher, or doctor, is of most excellent use in schools and universities; as of old in the schools of the prophets, and at Jerusalem, where Gamaliel and others taught as doctors.” Otherwise, again, we would not be able to say anything about the bible at all, or, on the other extreme, everyone could say anything they wanted about it and have as many views as there are people in the world. Both extremes are to be avoided.
We know that everyone who reads the Bible can find life and truth there. Salvation is contained therein, and even the ploughboy can understand it. All things necessary for salvation and concerning faith and life are taught in the Bible clearly enough for the ordinary believer to find it there and understand. The Westminster Confession of Faith states, “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (II Peter 3:16; Psa. 119:105, 130; Deut. 29:29; 30:10-14; Acts 17:11) This is true. But that does not argue that everything in the Bible is clearly understood. Otherwise, we would have no need of teacher or pastor to teach us or have pastoral oversight to us.
So, how do we know someone has interpreted the Bible rightly? How do we know our interpretation of a given passage is right? We cannot simply shout Sola Scriptura. That would be bad stewardship. Rather, we would want to know what the church thought about such issues through its history. A little story may be of help:
Let us say a man was on a desert island, he studied the Bible for a whole week, and let us say he had the Bible in the original languages and new them well, and came to a conclusion on passage. He believed he was right on it. The next week he did the same thing with another passage. He believed in his heart that the Spirit of God illuminated him to the truth of the passages he studied. A few days later a box of books washes up on shore. They happened to be commentaries (you pick which ones you would like). He then checks his work. On the first passage he finds he misses a critical verb form of a word and it throws off kilter the whole meaning of his conclusion. On the second passage he found his ideas were almost word for word as the commentators. He hit the nail on the head on that one. He believed the Holy Spirit illuminated him to the answer on both, but on one of them he was dead wrong. What does being “illuminated” by the Holy Spirit feel like? This man thought he had the truth, and found he had blundered. How would he have known what the “prompting” or “internal testimony” of the Holy Spirit bearing witness with his heart to the truth of the Word felt like so that he knew for sure he was right? The issue here is on how one knows the Holy Spirit is leading them, as a regenerate believer, and that he is translating the Bible accurately since it is so clear. In this case (which is not such a fantastical case) the man was wrong. But if he did not have someone to check his work against, he would not have known that and would have thought the Spirit had led him into all truth. He would have been happily mistaken. How does Sola Scriptura fit with the illumination of the Spirit of God, and how does one know they are really being lead? What does it feel like to be led? This is a wrong question. Rather, we should turn to the testimony of the Spirit in the Bible and by the testimony of the Spirit through the church’s interpretation of the Bible throughout orthodox Christianity. Would we really believe the Spirit would leave His church in the dark on key matters of faith and practice for hundreds or thousands of years? Ephesians 4 argues the opposite.
Again, we hear those confused say, “Are you saying that men cannot determine truth? Are they not indwelt by the Holy Spirit and don’t they have His internal testimony to the truth?” Of course they do, and yes they can. The problem before us is the question, “How do you know you are right?” Not whether the Spirit is witness in your spirit. In other words, how can we tell that it is really the Holy Spirit, and not just a blob of mustard or a bit of old beef, as Scrooge said when he was confronted with the Ghost of Jacob Marley, that we are listening to? How do we know it is really the Spirit talking to us, or our own deception? An historical situation of this same magnitude would be the same with Martin Luther when he said, “unless I am convinced by Scripture…” (i.e. unless YOU SHOW ME THE TRUTH BY THE BIBLE…) Did Luther rest on conviction? Yes. How then did he KNOW he was right? How can he know he is not wrong? Ah, that is even a better question!
We are to judge everything by the Word. It is the supreme authority given to us. As one friend said, “This does not mean that everyone can have their own interpretation. This does not mean that the church should not stand against heresies that come against common interpretations. This does not give anyone the right to disassociate themselves from a church that is not apostate. This does not give anyone the right to mutilate and murder the doctrines of the holy catholic and apostolic church.” This is true.
Another question may be posed this way, “”If the individual is unable to come to an assurance of what God’s words (which are without guile) mean by reading and studying and comparing them, how can he hope to come to any assurance of what the words of men (whose hearts are deceitful above all things) mean, with any effort? How can he know that his understanding of the creeds is any sounder than his understanding of the Bible? I realize this has been pointed out as intellectual nihilism, but if you take away the foundation, aren’t you left with nothing?” The perspicuity of the Word is plain in matter of salvation, and everyone who reads them, as the Holy Spirit enlightens them, may understand them clearly. No one that I know disputes this. However, we not only rely on our works, but on the work of the orthodoxy of the church through its ages. Without iron sharpening iron we would not have sharp swords, but we would have hunks of iron. Deviation, then, ultimately from historical orthodoxy on any point, is a very dangerous place to be. It claims the church has subsequently been without this “bit” of information for a long time until it was “discovered” by someone who thought it fit well into a new theological scheme, or became a new theological scheme in and of itself (like the Anabaptists of the day in the Reformation who denied the Trinity and the deity of the Son but embraced only believer’s baptism; or of the Montanists in the fifth century who believed that the Holy spirit spoke directly to them.).
To say then, that we believe in Sola Scriptura is to hold to Tradition 1. It means that Scripture, and what Scripture means as interpreted and exegeted by the Fathers of the church consensus is part and parcel of Confessional Christianity. Sola Scriptura holds the regula fidei as its core.
When someone disregards the regula fidei, or the testimony of the early church, or the traditional interpretation of Scripture, or the corporate judgment of the church, they are creating a kind of schism that ought never to be, but has crept into the mindset of current evangelicalism as Sola Scriptura. It is nothing of the kind. Rather, it is an appeal to Tradition 0. The enlightenment has done a number on modern evangelicals in that they say that no generation should be bound by the creeds and dogmas of the church. This again is an appeal to Tradition 0. It rejects authority at it root and base. Tradition 1 must be defined as the rule of faith that nothing contrary to it can be true. Christians, as Hodge said, cannot stand isolated from one another having their own selfish creeds. Rather, rejecting the creeds of the church is to reject the fellowship of believers at its core. We must continue to have a corporate, not individual, witness of common doctrine of the church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, or we will forever become islands to ourselves. That is not the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, which is the banner of schism.
Here is the orthodox consensus of Sola Scriptura:
The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God. (II Peter 1:19-20; II Tim. 3:16; I John 5:9; I Thess. 2:13; Rev. 1:1-2)
We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts. (I Tim 3:15; 1. I Cor. 2:4-5, 9-10; Heb. 4:12; John 10:35; Isa. 55:11, 59:21; Rom. 11:36: Psa. 19:7-11; II Tim. 3:15; I Thess. 1:5; I John 2:20, 27)
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed. (II Tim. 3:16-17; Gal. 1:8-9; II Thess. 2:2; John 6:45; I Cor. 2:12, 14-15; Eph. 1:18; II Cor. 4:6; I Cor. 11:13-14; 14:26, 40)
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (II Peter 3:16; Psa. 119:105, 130; Deut. 29:29; 30:10-14; Acts 17:11).
For those who would like to study this subject in detail, a helpful and easy to read book on the subject is Keith Mathison’s work, “The Shape of Sola Scriptura.”