What is Sola Scriptura?
The Reformers had a motto that they lived by in Latin it reads Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, which means “The church reformed, always reforming.” This slogan did not address only soteriological matters such sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus. Rather, beneath this Reformation motto was the foundation itself, the formal principle of the Reformation, sola Scriptura- the belief that only Scripture, because it is God’s inspired Word, is the inerrant, sufficient, and final authority for the church. This principle stood in open contrast to the teaching of the church, namely, that it was the final authority for the believer, that Church tradition not only supplemented the Bible but was above the Bible. Sola Scriptura was the most fundamental of the five principles of the Reformation. It was on this principle that the other four could be established. Not only did it prioritize Scripture over tradition and human reason, but it also included a clear understanding of what constituted as Scripture.
Nowhere was this formal principle more visible for the common person than in the reorientation of the church around the preached and proclaimed Word. Calvin held to sola Scriptura when he said, “God is only worshipped properly in the certainty of faith, which is necessarily born of the Word of God: and hence it follows that all who forsake the Word fall into idolatry.” The Scriptures were, as Calvin called them, “spectacles” that the Spirit used to open blind eyes to the gospel.
In Manetsch book Calvin’s Company of Pastor’s he sums up sola Scriptura like this: “The Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura-the conviction that Holy Scripture was the unique, final authority for the Christian community-had important consequences for pastoral ministry. He scripture principle gave gravitas to the office of preacher. It also made the educational formation of Protestant clergy an urgent priority, especially in those academic disciplines most necessary for biblical exposition such as classic rhetoric, theology, and biblical exegesis. By transferring the locus of authority from the Catholic magisterium to the written Word of God, the reformers enhanced the personal authority of the minister, who was now entrusted with special responsibility to interpret and proclaim the sacred text.”
The Reformation was not about Calvin or Luther or any other personality. Much less was it about the ups and downs of church politics. No, the Reformation was about the Word of God, which was to be proclaimed faithfully and conscientiously to the people of God. Calvin held himself to a high standard and demanded no less of the others called to the office of preaching. The Apostle Paul reminds Timothy that the Scriptures are able to make him wise unto salvation in Christ Jesus (3:15). He teaches that the Scriptures are useful for teaching, reproof (rebuking), correcting, and training in righteousness (3:16). Because the Scriptures have this character, they thoroughly equip the man of God for every good work (3:17). So, Paul tells Timothy that he must preach this Word, even though the time is coming when people will not want to hear it, preferring teachers to suit their fancy, that is, teachers who will instruct them in myths rather than the truth of the Word (4:1-4). The clarity of Paul’s teaching here is strong. In spite of the rich oral teaching Timothy has received, he is to preach the Scriptures because those Scriptures clearly give him all that he needs for wisdom and preparation to instruct the people of God in faith and all good works. Scripture makes him wise for salvation and equips him with everything he needs to do every good work required of the preacher of God. The sufficiency and clarity of the Word are repeatedly taught here. John Chrysostom paraphrased the meaning of Paul’s words to Timothy this way: “You have Scripture for a master instead of me; from there you can learn whatever you would know.” So, at the very foundation of hermeneutics one must grasp and understand that Scriptures are complete and do not need the traditions of men or church.
In the book Sola Scriptura, John MacArthur has this to say about the sufficiency of the written word: “It is necessary to understand what sola Scriptura does and does not assert. The Reformation principle of sola Scriptura has to do with the sufficiency of Scripture as our supreme authority in all spiritual matters. Sola Scriptura simply means that all truth necessary for our salvation and spiritual life is taught either explicitly or implicitly in Scripture.
It is not a claim that all truth of every kind is found in Scripture. The most ardent defender of sola Scriptura will concede, for example, that Scripture has little or nothing to say about DNA structures, microbiology, the rules of Chinese grammar, or rocket science. This or that “scientific truth”, for example, may or may not be actually true, whether or not it can be supported by Scripture, but Scripture is a “more sure Word”, standing above all other truth in its authority and certainty. It is “more sure”, according to the apostle Peter, than the data we gather firsthand through our sense (2 Peter 1:19). Therefore, Scripture is the highest and supreme authority on any matter on which it speaks.”
In the fifteenth century men like Erasmus formed great opinions about the study of the Word of God. Erasmus wrote things like this:
“If anyone shows us the footprints of Christ, in what manner; as Christians, do we prostrate ourselves, how we adore them! But why do we not venerate instead the living and breathing likeness of him in these books? If anyone displays the tunic of Christ, to what corner of the earth would we not hasten so that we may kiss it? Yet were you bring forth his entire wardrobe, it would not manifest Christ more clearly and truly than the Gospel writings.”
“I would that even the lowliest women read the Gospels and the Pauline Epistles. And I would that they were translated into all languages so that they could be read and understood not only by Scots and Irish but also by Turks and Saracens…Would that, as a result, the farmer sing some portion of them at his plough, the weaver should hum some parts of them to the movement of his shuttle, the traveler lighten the weariness of the journey with stories of this kind! Let all the conversations of every Christian be drawn from this source.”
In the book Table Talk with Martin Luther, Luther is quoted saying these things about the Holy Word of God: “The Holy Scriptures are full of divine gifts and virtues. The books of the heathen taught nothing of faith, hope or charity; they present no idea of these things; they contemplate only the present, and that which man, with the use of his material reason, can grasp and comprehend. Look not therein for aught of hope or trust in God. But see how Psalms and the book of Job treat of faith, hope, resignation, and prayer; in a word the Holy Scripture is the highest and best of books, abounding in comfort under all afflictions and trails. It teaches us to see, to feel, to grasp, and to comprehend faith, hope, and charity, far otherwise than mere human reason can; and when evil oppresses us, it teaches how these virtues throw light upon the darkness, and how, after this poor, miserable existence of ours on earth, there is another and an eternal life.”
“We ought not to criticize, explain, or judge the Scriptures by our mere reason, but diligently, with prayer, meditate thereon, and seek their meaning. The devil and temptations also afford us occasion to learn and understand the Scriptures, by experience and practice. Without these we should never understand them, however diligently we read and listened to them. The Holy Ghost must here be our only master and tutor; and let youth have no shame to learn of that preceptor. When I find myself assailed by temptation, I forthwith lay hold of some text of the Bible, which Jesus extends to me; as this: that he died for me, whence I derive infinite hope.”
The very Hermeneutics that seemingly began the Reformation were that salvation according to the Scriptures is by grace through faith, and that it is a gift of God. A gift is not worked for or earned from church attendance or religious rhetoric. The reading of the bible and proper exegetical hermeneutics tells us clearly, that we do not need a priest, we do not need to pay a penance of money or works, because Jesus paid it all. Just like the old hymn. Jesus Paid it All, all to Him I owe. It is to Him I owe, not a priest or organization because Jesus is our High Priest who made a way because we could not.
The Reformers paved the way for the children of the King to have practical, proper, principles to use in order to interpret the Scriptures. They sacrificed in some cases their lives, and freedom in order for us to have the book we call the Bible at our fingertips. Erasmus, and Luther translated the Scriptures from the original languages into German, making it possible for people to read the Scriptures for themselves instead of being dependent on the priests and monks to interpret the Latin for them. The Reformers started a wave of Biblical translation that exploded with the development of the Gutenberg printing press. Not only did they give us a way to just possess the Scriptures, but they rightly devised the proper ways for us to read it and left a legacy of the importance of knowing it for ourselves. The arduous effort of Luther to make his translation of the bible as accurate as possible went far toward the establishing of sound methods of criticism and exegesis. Luther’s exegetical works in Latin by Elsperger, Schmid, shines light on Luther’s legacy by saying this: “His knowledge of Hebrew and Greek was limited, and he sometimes mistook the meaning of the sacred writer, but his religious intuitions and deep devotional spirit enabled him generally to apprehend the true sense of Scripture.” That is our ultimate goal when it comes to Scriptures, “to apprehend the true sense of Scripture.” Hermeneutics makes such a goal attainable in every believer’s life.
Examining God’s Word
James C. Hefley describes the Scriptures like this: The sixty-six books are a perfect whole, a purposeful revelation, a progressive proof that the Bible is more than the work of fallible men.” William Lyons Phelps, Yale Professor says this regarding the Bible: “Our civilization is founded upon the Bible. More of our ideas, our wisdom, our philosophy, our literature, our art, our ideals come from the Bible than from all other books combined.”
The vital importance of studying and examining the Holy Word of God is crucial to every believer. From Martin Luther, to John Calvin, to us today in the evangelical church. As we have looked back at the Reformers and the path, they pioneered for us to have what we have, to them it was worth their lives and excommunication from the Catholic church. The reason they were willing to sacrifice it all is because they grasp the utter importance of the God breathed words on each page and they rested their lives on it. They refused to let another man or Pope dictate to them what the Lord was speaking. They let the Lord himself illuminate each precious word on every page of Scripture. They did not get to this place lightly they poured themselves into the study of the Word day and night. These men are Hermeneutical Pioneers they advanced the principles of exegesis that have been developed to this day. Impowered by the Spirit these men that have come before us understood what the Bible is all about.
Today in two thousand nineteen we need another Biblical Reformation. God’s people urgently need to get back to the book. We need to stop chasing big named preachers and start chasing the Word of God. We need to teach our children and the church once again the process and structure of true hermeneutical Bible study and exposition. May we have the diligence of Martin Luther, who said, “For some years now I have read through the Bible twice every year. If you picture the Bible to be a mighty tree and every word a little branch, I have shaken every one of these branches because I wanted to know what it was and what it meant.”
Examining the Scriptures is not a scholarly task, although there is certainly need for Biblical scholars. I believe the new believer who has never picked up a copy of the Bible or a believer who has only followed along in a church service can commence their examination by resolving four straightforward questions.
What is the Bible all about? (Luke 24:13-49)
The Bible is a book like no other book. It’s a collection of books written over a long period of time by a diverse group of authors in many different places. Using three different languages, it contains a variety of writing genres such as prophecy, poetry, and narrative. Yet, in all of this diversity, there is a unique unity. From Genesis to Revelation, the unfolding story of the Bible is God’s redemption of his people through the person and work of Jesus Christ. So, what’s the key to understanding and interpreting the Bible? Jesus Christ is the key. All Scripture both the Old Testament and New Testaments point to Christ. Martin Luther’s biblical expositions led him theologically to develop a unique Christological interpretation in which he taught that everything in Scripture must point to Christ in order to have authority for the Christian. Time has not changed this truth all Scripture is a sign post pointing to Christ.
How do both Old and New Testaments point to Christ? Luke records Jesus’ answer to this question near the end of his Gospel in the familiar Emmaus road story (Luke 24:13-49). The two travelers talked with Jesus, whom they did not yet recognize, and explained their confusion about recent events. We know from other sources hat the Jews of that time were expecting a Messiah who would incite a military coup to defeat the Romans which, to their disappointment, did not happen. The two men failed to see the big picture and the way in which God had fulfilled his promises through the events they had just witnessed. Jesus responded to their sad story saying, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (vs. 25)
Then he began to explain the connection between the Scriptures and himself. We can picture Jesus describing how the Old Testament sacrificial system pointed to His substitutionary death for sinners on the cross, how God’s presence in the tabernacle came to fuller expression when Jesus lived among His people, and how David prophesied the ascension of Jesus. Jesus opened their eyes so that as they shared a meal, they recognized him. Afterward, they described how their hearts had burned within them (vs. 32) as Jesus opened the Scriptures to them. They had understood what the words of Scripture said because they had studied them, but they had not understood their significance or meaning. Christ had to take the very words they knew and understood on one level and open their understanding to the fact that the Scriptures are all about Jesus, He is the key in both the Old and New Testaments. The central purpose of all Scripture is to bear testimony to Christ and God’s redemptive plan through him. As we examine the bible Old or New Testament, we should always be looking the revelation of Jesus.
Later, Jesus explained to his frightened disciples. “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (vs. 44). Jesus referred to the three major divisions of the Old Testament, signifying that all of the Scriptures were fulfilled in him. In fact, the Old Testament contains over 300 direct references to the Messiah all fulfilled in Jesus! He opened the minds of the disciples, so they understood the significance of what the Scriptures had promised and how he had fulfilled them. We live in a time when we can read Jesus’ words and actions written in the New Testament and grasp the big scope of history even better. But for everyone, a saving understanding of Scriptures that leads to faith and how all of redemptive history fits together is something the Holy Spirit alone can give us.
In John 5:31-48, we find an example of a situation completely different from the Emmaus road experience. The Pharisees were upset with Jesus because he healed on the Sabbath and claimed that he was equal to God. Jesus presented three testimonials to substantiate his claims (vss. 31-37). He then pointed out that although the Pharisees had not heard the voice of God nor seen a manifestation of him such as the Israelites had witnessed, they did have the testimony of the written Word of God in the Old Testament. They had read, studied, and understood that God had promised the Messiah, but why could they not accept that Jesus was the Promised One? They refused to hear Jesus and recognize him as God’s Son. Jesus told them that the purpose of the Scriptures is to bear witness to him and yet, because of their unbelief, they missed the whole point. Those who were schooled in the writings of Moses could not understand that Christ was the fulfillment of those words. All interpretation of Scripture should be done with the undeniable truth that Christ fulfilled the Scriptures at the forefront of our minds and hearts.