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Does the Bible Teach "Sola Scriptura"?

Kenneth R. Samples

When in 1517 Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses on the church door at Wittenberg he was merely disputing abuses in the Roman Catholic practice of "indulgences." The dispute intensified and widened, however, until Luther and his followers found it necessary to break entirely with Rome. So began the Protestant Reformation, and the doctrinal issues which separated the Reformers from medieval Catholicism are the same issues which divide Protestants and Catholics today. While the doctrine of salvation (i.e., justification) became the central issue under dispute, the underlying question of religious authority was also a major concern.

Luther was convinced that the authority structure of Catholicism (Scripture/Tradition/Magisterium or Teaching Office) was illegitimate. He maintained that the church fathers, the papacy, and church councils were fallible, and had, in fact, erred. During his debates with Catholic theologians, Luther formulated the principle of sola scriptura (solely Scripture) which recognized Scripture alone as the supreme and infallible authority for the church and individual believer. All ecclesiastical authorities were to be judged by Holy Writ, and never the reverse. The principle of sola scriptura rejected both the idea that the Roman church possessed revelation apart from Scripture, and that the church was the infallible interpreter of Scripture.

Since the Reformation, theologians from a wide variety of persuasions have appealed to an equally wide variety of sources as the ultimate religious authority. These include reason, experience, creeds, church consensus, and the individual conscience. While recognizing that these have importance, historic Protestantism has continued to assert that the Bible alone is the final authority in matters of faith and practice. On this point, however, some questions are often raised: How do we arrive at this principle of sola scriptura? How does the Bible derive its authority? And, where does Scripture teach this principle?

To answer these questions it is important to recognize that Christian theology views authority as a chain. For the Christian, the absolute authority is God Himself. More specifically, it is the triune God who reveals Himself, for authority and revelation are correlates. While God revealed Himself in deed and in word in the Old Testament, His greatest and clearest self-disclosure is found in the incarnate Logos -- the Lord Jesus Christ (John 1:1,14; 14:6-10). Jesus Christ, who both reveals God and is God, is the imperial authority for the church and individual believer (Heb. 1:1-3). However, Christ the Living Word has delegated His authority to His apostles, who -- through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit -- have recorded the written word (John 14:26; 2 Pet. 1:21). Thus, Scripture has become our authority because as an infallible record of God's self-revelation it perpetuates Christ's personal authority. Scripture is objectively the Word of God (1 Thess. 2:13; 2 Tim. 3:16), and is therefore authoritative!

Does the Bible teach sola scriptura? The best way to answer this is to examine how Christ and His apostles viewed Scripture.

The Gospels reveal that Jesus held Scripture in the highest regard. His statements speak for themselves: "The Scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35, NIV); "Not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law..." (Matt. 5:18); "It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law" (Luke 16:17). Jesus asserted that greatness in heaven will be measured by obedience to Scripture (Matt. 5:19), while judgment will be measured out by the same standard (John 5:45-47).

The strongest evidence for the authority of the Bible is the fact that Jesus used Scripture as the final court of appeal in every matter under dispute. When disputing the Pharisees on thei