More Thoughts on Sola Scriptura

Recently I expressed my appreciation for the Protestant Reformation and noted my agreement with the five solas. After explaining what the Reformers meant by sola Scriptura I noted that I had some further thoughts on this point. This topic has interested me since my time in Bible College. I wanted to know how sola Scriptura relates to church tradition. In my judgment, Protestants are weak in this area and should willingly embrace the creedal consensus of the church. Here’s why:

Readers who are familiar with sola Scriptura will know that it is often condemned due to its misuse in the history of the church. Unfortunately, contemporary Protestants badly misunderstand this rallying cry of the Reformation. More often than not they assume that sola Scriptura means that the Bible is the Church’s or individual’s only authority. This is not true. Keith Mathison rightly notes that the magisterial Reformers taught that the Bible was the church’s only infallible authority, not the church’s only authority.[1]

Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin embraced a healthy understanding of tradition, which in turn caused them to engage the patristic writers, appropriate the “Great Tradition,” and appreciate the theologians who came before them.[2]  Whether knowingly or unknowingly, when American Protestants reject any notion of tradition out of hand, they reveal that they have misunderstood sola Scriptura and have read into this Reformation principle a post-Reformation understanding.[3] Those who deny the role of tradition in any sense are clearly descendants of the Anabaptists, and not the Protestant Reformers. Thus, in the current state of Christianity, “The result is a modern Evangelicalism which has redefined sola Scriptura in terms of secular Enlightenment rationalism and rugged democratic individualism.”[4]

In my judgment, contemporary Protestants should learn from their forebears and develop an appreciation for the catholicity of the church; that is, the broader catholic tradition. This involves appreciating and perhaps even reciting, memorizing, and utilizing the catholic creeds during worship services. By “catholic creeds” I’m referring to the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, and the Athanasian Creed.

I love the way Kevin Vanhoozer puts it: “Sola Scriptura functions properly only in the context of the whole church. What God has joined together—canonicity and catholicity—let no one (especially theologians) put asunder.”[6]

And by the way: There’s much historical precedent for this in Reformation history. Briefly, consider the following:

This desire of Reformation-minded Christians to demonstrate their catholicity can be seen in a number of ways. For example, one of the ways the Westminster Assembly sought to demonstrate its catholicity was by taking into consideration what many of the church fathers said on a host of issues.[7] Letham notes that the writings of the Westminster Divines are filled with citations from the patristic and medieval era. Additionally, those attending the Westminster Assembly were in line with the Protestant Reformers who “were at odds not with the Catholic tradition but with its immediate representatives.”[8]

The Dutch Reformed tradition which subscribes to the Three Forms of Unity also sought to demonstrate its catholicity by reciting the Apostles’ Creed and basing questions twenty-three through fifty-eight of the Heidelberg Catechism on this symbol. Insofar as Baptists have a Reformation heritage,[9] I would argue that they should embrace the catholic creeds as well.

John Calvin is one of the premier examples in Protestant history of one who, while Reformed in his theology, also appropriated the best of the patristic heritage.[10] For example, it is widely known that his Institutes were outlined under the main heads of the Apostles’ Creed. In the Prefatory Address to King Francis found in the Institutes, Calvin deals with the objection of those who are accusing the Protestants of promulgating novel doctrines. He gives his response in no uncertain terms: “If the contest were to be determined by patristic authority, the tide of victory—to put it modestly—would turn to our side.”[11]  Similarly, in Calvin’s debate with Jacopo Sadeleto, he said, “As to our doctrine, we hesitate not to appeal to the ancient church.”[12]

This is quite brief, I know. But still, it at least shows that the Protestant Reformation leaned heavily on the patristic era.


[1] Keith A. Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2001), 238ff; one may also wish to consider Anthony N. S. Lane, “Sola Scriptura? Making Sense of a Post-Reformation Slogan,” in A Pathway into Holy Scripture, ed. Philip E. Sattherwaite and David F. Wright (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 297-327; D. H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999). Scott Manetsch notes, “Calvin’s doctrine of sola Scriptura did not preclude him from calling upon the authority of the early church fathers or the customs of the patristic church in an effort to demonstrate the fundamental continuity between the gospel of the reformers and the message of the early church. If Scripture was Calvin’s highest authority, it was not the only authority to which he appealed” (“Is the Reformation Over? John Calvin, Roman Catholicism, and Contemporary Ecumenical Conversations,” Themelios 36:2 (2011): 185-202. See pg. 192. Pagination may vary.

[2] Alister McGrath, “Evangelical Theological Method: The State of the Art,” in Evangelical Futures: A Conversation in Theological Method, ed. John G. Stackhouse (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 15-37. See esp. 35. Also cf. idem, “Engaging the Great Tradition: Evangelical Theology and the Role of Tradition,” in Ibid., 139-158. See esp. 143-146.

[3] See D. H. Williams, “Scripture, Tradition, and the Church: Reformation and Post-Reformation,” in The Free Church & The Early Church: Bridging the Historical and Theological Divide, ed. D. H. Williams (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 101-126.  Williams says Martin Chemnitz, Francis Turretin, Johannes Wollebius, and Herman Witsius failed to distinguish between Tradition with a capital “T,” and tradition with a lowercase “t.”  Tradition with a capital “T” refers to the body of doctrine summarized in the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds, while tradition with a lowercase “t” refers to spurious doctrines promulgated by the Roman church.  Williams says many of the post-Reformation theologians failed to make this necessary distinction. They often equated Tradition with the Council of Trent’s “unwritten traditions.”  Thus, “‘Tradition’ would ever after have a negative connotation.”  See pp. 123-124.

[4] Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura, 239. I’m reminded of Nathan Hatch’s observation that the abuse of sola Scriptura early on in American history brought with it “the unraveling of theological orthodoxy by an exclusive appeal to biblical authority.” See his essay, “Sola Scriptura and Novus Ordo Seclorum,” in The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History, eds. Nathan O. Hatch and Mark A. Noll (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 59-78. See esp. 63.

*No footnote 5. I removed it.

[6] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2016), 130.

[7] Robert Letham, “Catholicity Global and Historical: Constantinople, Westminster, and the Church in the Twenty-First Century,” Westminster Theological Journal 72 (2010): 43-57.

[8] Ibid., 49, 52. Also cf. Robert Letham, The Westminster Assembly: Reading Its Theology in Historical Context (Philipsburg: P&R, 2009), 96.

[9] James M. Renihan, “‘Truly Reformed in a Great Measure’: A Brief Defense of the English Separatist Origins of Modern Baptists,” The Journal of Baptist Studies 3 (2009): 24-32.  The 1689 London Baptist Confession, which is similar to the Westminster Confession, makes reference to the “catholic or universal church.”  In my view, one of the weaknesses of the catechism based upon the 1689 Confession is not including questions on the Apostles’ Creed.

[10] Alister McGrath, “Evangelical Theological Method,” 35.

[11] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 18.

[12] John C. Olin, ed. A Reformation Debate: John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), 64.


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