In the 500th year of the Protestant Reformation, it’s helpful to rehearse the five Reformation solae, of which sola Scriptura might be the most well–known. What does it mean, and what doesn’t it mean?
Not the exclusive authority
Sola Scriptura does not mean that the Bible is our only authority. The Bible makes clear that God establishes subordinate human authority: valid authority under his sovereign authority. God, as it were, deputizes certain institutions to carry out his will. This is why God says in Romans 13 that if we resist civil authority, we resist God’s authority.
We live in a time obsessed with individual autonomy. Autonomy means “self-law.” Ours is an era deeply resistant to external authority of any kind. We live in a culture of rebels. This includes aversion to civil authority (like police officers), family authority, church authority, employers’ authority, teachers’ authority, and much else. Social commentators often declare that our society is skeptical of all institutions. This is actually just another way of saying that people resent authority. This is obviously the case in our wider society: disrespect for police officers, disobedience to schoolteachers, disdain for employers. But it’s true even among Christians. I know of Christians in our Internet age that rarely skip a chance to digitally attack pastors and elders. They’re constantly at war on church leaders, despite what the Bible teaches (Heb. 13:7, 17). Oddly, some of these lawless people pit the Bible’s authority against church authority. Yes, some churches abuse their authority, but we mustn’t forget that it’s the Bible that validates church authority. If you believe the Bible, you must believe in church authority, and other specific human authorities.
Valid church tradition
Second, sola Scriptura does not mean that church tradition has no value. Paul himself wrote that the Thessalonians (2 Thes. 2:15) should keep the traditions they’d learned from him and from others. The reformers weren’t the enemies of church tradition. They affirmed the early ecumenical orthodoxy and the creeds. They recognized the church fathers’ formulations of the Trinity and the two natures of the one person Jesus Christ. They accepted the orthodox definition of the canon of the Bible. They weren’t trying to reinvent orthodoxy on the anvil of their own speculation. They knew they weren’t the first people to read the Bible and they didn’t think they understood the Bible better than everybody who went before them.
But, and here’s the key, they weren’t willing to allow tradition to be a coordinate authority with the Bible. Heiko Oberman and Alister McGrath have offered a shorthand way to understand the views of the relation between the Bible and tradition at the time. The Roman Catholic Church held that both the Bible and tradition were, in effect, equally authoritative in the church. This is Tradition 2. The radical reformers wanted to get rid of all tradition and appeal only to the Bible. This is Tradition 0. The Protestant reformers wanted to retain tradition, but only tradition that could be justified by appeal to the Bible. This is Tradition 1.
The final word
Sola Scriptura is Tradition 1. The best definition I ever read of Sola Scriptura is John M. Frame’s: “Scripture, and only Scripture, has the final word on everything . . . .” And by everything, this means everything, not just in the church and theology but also in love and friendships and science and architecture and music and economics and farming and information technology and everything else. Of course, the Bible doesn’t touch every possible topic. It doesn’t give us the square root of pi or the location of ancient China. But it does give us the truths by which we are to approach and interpret these topics and all others.
The Bible has the final word on this and anything else it declares or implies. This is the meaning of sola Scriptura.