Why Does the Reformation Phrase Sola Scriptura Still Matter Today?

Author of Someplace to Be Somebody
Why Does the Reformation Phrase Sola Scriptura Still Matter Today?

Because the Bible is God’s very Word to us, every Christian is called to stand in and for biblical truth as presented in the Scriptures. The doctrine of Sola Scriptura (the Latin phrase which, translated, means “Scripture Alone”) means the Bible is the supreme and final authority in all things.

Who Coined the Term Sola Scriptura?

The doctrine of Sola Scriptura is the very core of the Protestant ReformationMartin Luther, the Reformation’s main proponent, coined the term. As Luther biographer James Atkinson says, “The Reformation is Luther and Luther is the Reformation.” While Luther coined five statements (often called the five solas) to summarize his beliefs and concerns, Sola Scriptura has become by far the best known. 

Luther was strongly convinced that the Word of God is the backbone of all Christian life and belief, especially regarding our justification by faith alone, not by works, as the Roman Catholic tradition imposed. Through his thorough and perceptive study of the Bible, Luther became committed to Sola Scriptura.

He believed it so much the church and state outlawed him for doing so. In 1518, one after he posted after posting his 95 theses on the Wittenburg church’s door, Luther argued for his view when debating theologian Cardinal Cajetan in Augsburg in 1518. When  Cajetan asserted the pope was the final authority of Scripture’s meaning, Luther countered, “His Holiness abuses Scripture. I deny that he is above Scripture.” At a 1519 debate with Johann Eck, Luther was accused of being no different from the heretic Jan Hus. Luther stunned the gathering and proclaimed, “Yes, I am a Hussite!”

The Catholic church excommunicated Luther in 1521, declaring him a heretic at the Diet of Worms that spring. Anglican deacon and writer Jared Lovell sets the scene:

“In 1521, Luther stood before Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms and declared that unless he could be convinced by Scripture and plain reason, he could not recant his beliefs for defiance of conscience was neither right nor safe. This turned out to be the defining statement of the Protestant idea of sola scriptura.”

Asked to recant, Luther replied, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures, or by evident reason (for I put my faith neither in popes nor councils alone, since it is established that they have erred again and again and contradicted one another), I am bound by the scriptural evidence adduced by me, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot, I will not recant anything, for it is neither safe nor right to act against one’s conscience. God help me. Amen.”

Of course, knowing where Sola Scriptura came from is only the start. Answers in Genesis contributor Simon Turpin says, “The doctrine of Sola Scriptura was at the heart of the Protestant Reformation, serving as a guard around Scripture to protect it from unbiblical ideas being imposed upon it. Nevertheless, many Christians today struggle to defend this vital doctrine while others say that Sola Scriptura is not even taught in the Bible.”

So, we need to ask some follow-up questions.

Did Sola Scriptura Mean the Protestant Reformers Ignored All Tradition?

Clearly, Luther had a passion for Scripture. As Steven J. Lawson puts it, “Luther stressed that what really matters in determining the veracity of any issue is what does God say. He exclaimed, ‘Scripture alone is the true lord and master of all writings and doctrine on the earth.’ Found in this statement again are the words ‘Scripture alone,’ which came to be sola Scriptura. Luther went on to say, ‘God’s word wants to be supreme, or it is nothing.’ Simply put, God's word must be recognized as sovereign over the church and all human lives or it has no binding authority whatsoever. There is no middle ground.”

Given this passion for getting back to scriptural foundations, various historians have discussed whether Luther and other Reformers opposed all church traditions since they believed in “Scripture alone.” While they rejected the church’s insistence on the Pope’s judgment and extrabiblical mandates, they didn’t throw out all the traditions of Roman Catholicism. Luther and the other Reformers insisted Scripture must inform a Christian’s life and doctrine; Scripture must be the driving force and ultimate authority over all traditions.

Christian History Magazine contributor Robert Saler explains how Luther approached tradition: “A buzzword for Luther was  ‘freedom.’ As many theologians of his time did, he changed the spelling of his name. In his case it was from Ludder to Luther—derived from the Greek word for freedom, elutheria—because freedom was at the heart of the gospel for him. However, Luther’s freedom was not what would become the stereotypically Protestant freedom ‘from.’ While Luther rejected aspects of medieval Catholicism he found to be problematic novelties—purgatory, indulgences, papal authority, transubstantiation—he also defended Catholic practices that many later Protestants would reject, such as icons, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and infant baptism.” 

Does Sola Scriptura Mean We Don’t Need Logic or Church History?

While Sola Scriptura reminds us that we use Scripture as our primary lens to find truth, that doesn’t mean we can’t use other tools.

One of the many qualities we need for life is wisdom. God is wisdom. The Westminster Confession of Faith tells us God is “without body, parts, or passions” (2.1). God is His attributes. Therefore, God doesn’t have wisdom; He is wisdom, and He grants wisdom to those who believe in Him and ask for it (Proverbs 9:10; James 1:5). Wisdom is part and parcel of logic, for one cannot reason without it.

God is a God of order (1 Corinthians 14:33), and He has given us His Holy Spirit to understand the things of God and His Word (1 Corinthians 2:14-16). Without His Spirit, we would not understand the Bible (1 Corinthians 2:14).

When the Apostle Paul was in Thessalonica, the Bible says he “reasoned with them from the Scriptures” (Acts 17:2). When the people of Berea listened to Paul speak, they “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). What Paul did was argue with logic as befitting first the Scriptures and then the audience with whom he was speaking.

The Bible is logical and stands the test of every philosopher, thinker, and influencer from every age.

Church history (and all history) is a gold mine of lessons about people who have gone before and lived for and against Christ (Matthew 12:30). We learn about men such as the Reformers via the church's history. Their issue wasn’t against tradition as much as it was against tradition gone rogue—a tradition that usurped God’s authoritative Word. The pope claimed to have authority greater than the Scriptures, and that was a breaking point for Luther and the Reformers (and for all who proclaim God’s word as our final authority).

An adage attributed to Augustine of Hippo (and also to Charles Wesley) reads, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” The essentials are the five solas. The non-essentials include how often to take communion, eschatological beliefs, etc. One church may have a tradition of taking communion once a month and another every week, and the Bible does not have a clear command except that the ordinance of communion is necessary for believers. However, a mandatory tradition built by a church apart from Scriptural commands is a problem—it exalts man instead of God.

How Do We Follow Sola Scriptura Wisely?

Life moves fast, and we are busy people, but Christians have no excuse: we must know Scripture and live in its glorious light. Following are ten ways we can follow Sola Scriptura wisely:

  1. Study your Bible regularly (daily is the best choice). A Christian’s life is one of sacrifice, yet every sacrifice we make “pays off” in eternal rewards. If we have to wake an hour early or give up an hour of television or other entertainment, we have that time to spend in God’s Word. This is not a cursory glance at a devotional or quickly reading through a portion of Scripture. This involves deep study, checking cross-references, and using study tools to help you understand what you read.
  2. Memorize as much of the Bible as you can. This is the treasure we carry as we walk through this life.
  3. Prayer is necessary for the Christian life. The Bible says, “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Before you open your Bible, ask the Lord to give you understanding, wisdom, and application of what He teaches you from the Word. Ask Him to give you wisdom and help you grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus (2 Peter 3:18). Ask Him to help you love Him more.
  4. Test all you encounter against what the Bible teaches. Everyday life is full of events and opportunities where the Bible will guide you.
  5. “Be a Berean” when you listen to a pastor or other speaker who is expositing Scripture. Do the research yourself to see if they are on the right track.
  6. Watch the news or read a magazine to keep up with what’s happening worldwide. Think about what you know is the truth and filter what you hear and see through it.
  7. Read church and secular history to see how the world has changed. You can marvel at how the Lord has kept His Word secure and relevant.
  8. Share the Gospel with someone regularly. Faith comes from hearing (Romans 10:17), and it’s not our power at work in others’ lives; it’s God’s power through His Word that changes lives (Romans 1:16; Hebrews 4:12).
  9. Regularly fellowship with other believers and discuss what has stood out in your Scripture reading. Sharing encourages improvement and growth and excites you to delve deeper into God’s Word. 
  10. Praise God for His Word and for the people who handle it rightly.

Further Reading:

Five Solas - Reformations Points That Should Matter to You

What Does the Reformation Phrase Sola Fide Mean?

What Did the Protestant Reformers Mean by Solus Christus?

What Does the Reformation Phrase Sola Fide Mean?

What Does the Historic Phrase Solia Gratia Tell Us about God?

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Lisa Baker 1200x1200Lisa Loraine Baker is the multiple award-winning author of Someplace to be Somebody. She writes fiction and nonfiction. In addition to writing for the Salem Web Network, Lisa serves as a Word Weavers’ mentor and is part of a critique group. She also is a member of BRRC. Lisa and her husband, Stephen, a pastor, live in a small Ohio village with their crazy cat, Lewis.