As we remember this year, the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous nailing of his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg, we think of the great Reformation slogan of Sola Scriptura, by “Scripture alone,” where “we,” as in evangelical Protestant believers, reject the notion of Scripture and tradition, to be the final authority for Christian faith and practice. We tell ourselves that we do not need popes or church councils to bind our consciences. We do not need doctrines like purgatory, praying to the saints, etc., that have shaky Scriptural support, at best! We do pretty well with the Bible by itself. Thank you very much.
Or so we think.
As it turns out, there are important Christian beliefs that simply have little in terms of explicit references made in the Bible itself. Instead, these beliefs are firmly embedded in traditions, in how the Bible has been read, that have been passed down from generation to generation. Perhaps some of us Protestants take our rejection of “tradition” a bit too far.
Sola Scriptura vs. Nuda Scriptura
Here is a list of important beliefs that practically all evangelical Protestants share, where you can not find explicit references in the Bible:
- Who wrote the Gospels? Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are taken for granted, but the authors’ names are never explicitly mentioned. Phrases like “the Gospel according to Saint Matthew,” were added in centuries later. Technically, if all we had to go on was the Bible itself, the four Gospels would be all anonymously written. While we have some evidence in the text that gives us clues, we are mostly dependent on church tradition to tell us who wrote the Gospels.
- Is God one God in Three Persons? Many assume that the Trinity is specifically taught in the Bible, but the arguments for the Triune God are primarily implicit to the text. The term “Trinity” is not explicitly written anywhere in the Holy Scripture. Nevertheless, the doctrinal formulation of the Godhead, as articulated by the Nicene Creed, is a product of decades of informed, theological reflection, in the early centuries of the church, regarding how the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit relate to one another, and their fundamental unity.
- Is the Bible without error? We can find statements in Scripture itself that speak of it being “God-breathed” (1 Timothy 3:16), or that God’s Word is “Truth” (John 17:17). But you will be hard pressed to find an explicit proof-text that says that the Bible is “inerrant.” Nevertheless, the concept of Biblical “inerrancy” as a tradition remains vitally important to many evangelical Christians today. The overarching testimony of history, as preserved through tradition, affirms that Christians down through the ages have viewed their Bible as fully and completely reliable.
- What books are in the Bible? You can look up the names of the books of the Bible, in the table of contents. But the table of contents in your Bible itself is not technically part of the Bible (Zondervan, Thomas Nelson, or whoever published your Bible did that). Instead, the process of determining what books belong to the Bible, or the development of the Scriptural canon, took place over centuries of discussion in the church, where believers were able to recognize the inherent value, authority, and authenticity of what constituted God’s Word.
Does Sola Scriptura mean that we are to abandon these ideas and teachings? Does it mean that we must completely disregard confidence in, who wrote the Gospels, the nature of the Trinity, the inerrancy of the Bible, or even the canon of Scripture itself?
When the Reformers of the 16th century championed Sola Scriptura, “by Scripture alone,” they did not mean Nuda Scriptura; that is, “Scripture left naked.” They did not seek to throw out all tradition. Their primary concern was that tradition should not obscure the Truth of God’s Word.
One does not need to have explicit statements in the Bible, for something to be affirmed to be true. There are implicit statements in the Bible, in which church tradition helps us, to put things within their proper perspective. My Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox friends might be a bit skeptical here, but a careful study of the Protestant Reformation, in the 16th century, suggests that this assessment is correct.
So, we really can not totally dismiss church tradition.
What “Sola Scriptura” Really Means?
Properly speaking, Sola Scriptura means that Scripture alone binds the conscience of the believer in Christ. Nevertheless, church tradition has an important place in the mind of the believer, as it helps to inform us as to how the church has historically received the Bible to be God’s Word to us.
The principle of Sola Scriptura has caused many Christians to rethink centuries of long, accepted beliefs. In many ways, this has been a good, if not, essential thing. Church traditions, over time, can go sideways rather easily. Every generation must read Scripture anew, to keep God’s people on the right track, doctrinally. Nevertheless, the application of the principle is still controversial, even among Protestants. There are doctrines that are less central to Christian teaching, that have undergone considerable debate among advocates of Sola Scriptura.
It can be risky business to uphold Sola Scriptura. Inertia, and the sentiment of, “Well, that’s just the way it is,” can be an excuse to cling to familiar ideas that unfortunately distort the teaching of the Bible.
But it can also be quite humbling, too. Many are alarmingly too quick in saying that a particular church, or the church in general, has gone off track, with respect to the Bible. In every case, for every doctrine, it takes a lot of careful, concentrated effort and time to read and study the Scriptures, to make sure you apply Sola Scriptura correctly. Caution is in order.
For example, there is no explicit teaching in the Bible that affirms infant baptism. However, there are more than a few Protestants who believed (and today, still firmly believe!) that the Scriptures implicitly support the idea of baptizing newborns. Others are not as convinced. In fact, among self-identified, Protestant evangelical Christians, over the past one hundred years, or so, the global proportion of evangelicals who practice infant baptism, has steadily declined. Many now only affirm “believers’ baptism,” where mature consent and faith is required. But in the early years of the 16th century Reformation, you could find yourself burned at the stake for rejecting the practice of “infant baptism,” even among fellow Protestants!
Interestingly, nearly all of the 16th century Reformers accepted the “perpetual virginity of Mary” as sacred teaching. Luther, Zwingli, Calvin… you can name them. They were all throughly Protestant. Yet they believed that the mother of Jesus was not only a virgin, when she gave birth to Jesus, but that she never ever consummated her marriage with Joseph. The so-called “brothers” of Jesus, like James? Well, at best, they were either half-brothers, or cousins.
Did Luther and company really believe that? Yep. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox will readily point this out to you, if you ask. However, today, you can scarcely find an evangelical Christian who can identify such an idea, even implicitly, to be in the Bible.
Sola Scriptura, and Its Critics
Critics of Sola Scriptura contend that a total disregard of tradition leads to a cacophony of voices, where everyone interprets the Bible, in whatever way he or she pleases. This is a fair critique, a sad reality in many of our churches today. It is a critique that every advocate of Sola Scriptura must bear in mind, and humbly seek to overcome.
This is why it becomes so important to take an “agree to disagree” posture on doctrinal matters that are not core essentials to Christian faith. We do not all read the Bible in an identical manner. Some of the early Reformers, like Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli thought that you could. Luther and Zwingli both believed that they could easily persuade others, with reason, to come around to their own points of view, on every doctrinal matter. They eventually realized that the study of the Bible does not always work out quite so easily.
There are a number of essential truths that all believers hold in common. Nevertheless, sincere, truth-loving, Bible-believing Christians sometimes do see things differently, when they read certain passages in the Holy Scriptures. We must continually listen and learn from each other, as we dig into God’s Word together. We must pray for discernment and God’s wisdom.
This is hard. This is difficult. This is time consuming. But it is quite necessary, if we truly wish to be faithful to the teaching of the Scriptures.
Perhaps the wisest thing to consider is that there is no such thing as a “traditional-less” view of the Bible. We are all products of a theological “tradition,” whether we consciously know it or not. Lutheran Protestants are beholden to a tradition established, knowingly or unknowingly, by Martin Luther. Reformed Protestants have their own tradition or traditions, following teachers like Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, or some other Reformed thinker. Anabaptist Mennonites follow a tradition established by Menno Simons. Even those churches that claim to be “interdenominational” or “non-denominational” today will often end up establishing the denominational traditions of tomorrow. So, if you think that you can view the Bible, in a manner completely devoid of any or all human tradition, then you are probably unaware of what traditions are influencing you, or at worst, you are simply being dishonest with yourself.
Though we can not completely escape our own traditions, Sola Scriptura nevertheless encourages us not to get locked into following the traditions of men. We can surely learn from our traditions, and the leaders of the church who have gone before us, but we must remember where our true allegiance is to be found. We are ultimately called to follow Jesus, as He is revealed to us in the Scriptures … alone.
This is where a quote from Pierre Viret, a 16th century Swiss leader in the Reformation, is helpful to keep in mind:
- “I will not believe because of Tertullian or Cyprian, or Origen, or Chrysostom, or Peter Lombard, or Thomas Aquinas, not even because of Erasmus or Luther…. If I did so, I should be the disciple of men. … I will believe Jesus Christ my shepherd.”
It is ultimately the wisdom of God, that we should trust, and not the wisdom of mere humans.
So, remember, it is Sola Scriptura, NOT Nuda Scriptura!