Why Sola Scriptura?

Spout-offs Sunday, January 6th, 2013


The second of six posts on the doctrine behind the new album.

Three years ago I called Martin Luther one of the great individualists of our age. Sola Scriptura is the reason.

Sola Scriptura – the first of the five Solas which set the doctrine of the Reformation apart from the Roman Catholic church – means that the responsibility to understand the truth falls primarily on individuals as such, not on individuals as members of a church. One cannot “outsource” the task of truth-seeking to a larger body. Every individual has the inalienable responsibility to understand scripture, and the right to interpret it according to his own conscience.

This was the crux of the debate between Luther and Erasmus. Desiderius Erasmus (whose compilation of the Greek text of the New Testament Luther used for his own German translation) had become alarmed at the upheaval caused by the Reformation, and urged moderation. After all, Erasmus argued, doctrine isn’t that important, and for controversial matters we can just trust the judgement of Rome.

That attitude, Luther responded in On the Bondage of the Will, is damnable laziness. The scriptures are clear – and even if they were not, the most Rome could do is to help others to understand through persuasion. It could not substitute its own understanding for theirs. And should it be wrong (which indeed Luther had shown it to be from the scriptures), the authority of Rome is no excuse for the individual who accepts its doctrine at face value.

When the Gospel came to Greece, the Bereans were called noble for “examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). “These things” we now consider to have been authoritatively inspired, having found that they were indeed so. How much more therefore should we test against scripture interpretations coming from Rome, Wittenburg, or Geneva?

“Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scriptures or by plain and clear reasons and arguments,” Luther said in the face of the full authority of Rome, “I can and will not recant, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I can do no other.”

It should be obvious, then, that Sola Scriptura does not mean that any interpretation is as good as any other. It does not mean that one can end a disagreement with “well, that’s just my interpretation.” It merely claims that the way to salvation is to be found only in the scriptures, and that the responsibility to find it cannot be transferred or absolved. It does not, on its own, advance any particular interpretation – but that task is taken up by the subsequent Solas.