Sola Scriptura — Really!

Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone).  It’s a phrase originally made famous by the reformer Martin Luther.  I’m not clear on the historical precedent, but today I hear it most often from those who consider themselves part of the Reformed tradition–which now seems largely to mean modern Calvinism–when they recite it as one of the Five Solas.  Aside from the irony of having five “onlys” in anything,  the claim of Sola Scriptura is that only the Biblical texts are authoritative for matters of doctrine/dogma in the church.

Sola Scriptura.  Not “Scriptura et magisterium,” scripture plus the authority of the church.  Not “scriptura et patres,” scripture plus the authority of the early church fathers.  Not “Scriptura et Aquinas,” “Scriptura et Augustine,” not “Scriptura et Calvin” (and sorry, I don’t know how to make those names properly Latin).  Not Scripture plus John MacArthur or John Piper or Mark Driscoll or N.T. Wright or Rob Bell or Greg Boyd either (and I hope I have enough “liberals” and “conservatives” to satisfy the reader that I’m not taking aim at a “side” here).  And not “Scripture and my pastor or my bishop or my elders,” for these are merely a part of the local incarnation of the Body of Christ, and while we should seek to understand Scripture together in the local body, there is no valid hierarchy or authority among human leaders in biblical interpretation.  To the contrary, these and all of the body should have their words evaluated over against Scripture, by all their hearers.

Sola.  Scriptura.

No doctrine or dogma or teaching or credal test dare be claimed with certainty, that is not clearly derivable solely from the properly-exegeted text of the Bible.  My choice of the word “derivable” is deliberate.  It’s not enough to determine that a doctrine is not inconsistent with scripture.  It’s not even enough that the doctrine, once framed, can be supported by scripture, although in reality I find such claims often fail to withstand careful scrutiny anyhow.  I suggest rather that any doctrinal claim should be subjected to the following thought experiment:

Imagine we could find a reader who knew nothing about church history or dogma…one who had never heard of the various heresies and controversies and schisms of the church throughout the century.  Imagine further that, though ignorant of the faith, this reader was fluent in Biblical Hebrew and Greek, and was able to read the texts and study them carefully.  Would this hypothetical reader be able to come up–solely from studying the biblical texts–with the doctrine at hand?  If yes, then we can and should ascribe it serious weight.  If no, then however helpful it may be in understanding a difficult passage or concept, it must be considered optional and not core to the faith.

(Even with “core” doctrine, I caution the reader with my previous warning about creeds).

Though it may seem counterintuitive, it is precisely this approach that has led me to dispute the common doctrine of biblical inspiration.  Among the areas where I believe scripture must have sole and unchallenged authority, is over the texts’ characterization of themselves.  So when the text states “thus saith the LORD,” we take it seriously as the word of God, but conversely when it says “this is a praise song written by King David,” we accept it as a praise song and don’t extract doctrine from it any more than we do (or ought) from a hymn by Watts or Wesley, or a chorus by Michael W. Smith or David Crowder.

It’s also why I reject credal definitions of the Trinity, eschatology, and many of the other contentious issues that have been used to draw lines and divide people over the stained history of the church.  I contend that these dogmas cannot be derived without significant reliance upon extrabiblical authority, and in matters of dogma, there must be no such thing as an extrabiblical authority. Sola Scriptura, taken seriously, leaves one with far fewer certainties and “essentials” than most statements of faith will countenance.  And if that makes me another in a long line of church-defined “heretics,” well then, I’ll just quote Luther again:

“Here I stand.  I can do nothing else, so help me God.”

7 thoughts on “Sola Scriptura — Really!”

  1. blogforthelordjesuscurrentevents

    Are you so committed to sola scriptura that you would accept a teaching that everyone is going to heaven if presented convincingly from the Scriptures even though it contradicts what is widely considered orthodoxy?

    I was actually faced with this challenge and chose sola scriptura over what people called orthodoxy. I hope you will, too.

  2. Dan Martin

    Are you so committed to sola scriptura that you would accept a teaching that everyone is going to heaven if presented convincingly from the Scriptures even though it contradicts what is widely considered orthodoxy?

    "Widely considered orthodoxy" is not an appropriate standard IMO. A serious examination of history demonstrates that in point of fact various things have been considered or rejected as orthodoxy in different times and places. However I will directly answer your question in three parts:

    1) If I consider the argument you make to be soundly scriptural, I will accept it, orthodoxy or not.

    2) If I consider that argument unscriptural, I will refute and reject it, but only using scripture and/or a critique of the scriptural method as the basis to refute. Other sources are not sufficient grounds for such a refutation.

    3) If, rather, I find the scriptural evidence equivocal (which I rather expect given my own previous study on hell), I will leave your conclusion in the category "faithful people may or may not believe this, without compromising faithfulness." This third category, by the way, is where I suggest most dearly-held dogmas actually belong.

  3. Dan Martin

    Mike, with respect, I'm afraid your argument does not rise to the level of a "sola scriptura" case IMO. You make the case that all will be resurrected…well and good, that's biblical. But you do not make a sound case that all who are resurrected go to heaven. I would ask you at the very least to interact with two passages I did not see referenced in your argument…Matt. 25:31-46, with particular emphasis on v. 46:

    Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.

    Of course, that could be the conscious torment we both doubt is true…which is why I contrast it with the death-life dichotomy of such passages as John 3:16.

    The second I would suggest is the "second death" passage in Rev. 20:12-15. Lake of fire = second death = destination of those whose name isn't in the book of life.

    Now I hope you realize from elsewhere on this blog (see my series on Eternal Destiny for clarification) that I'm not making the usual torture-forever argument that is typical in Evangelical circles. However, I would have to say that the case for more than one eventual destination (however that destination is defined) is pretty heavy in Scripture alone.

    Finally, in quick answer to your second, third, and fourth points of your blog-post summary…none of these is a sola scriptura argument. In fact, each relies upon extrabiblical logic that is unsupported by scripture:

    #2–the nature of God makes it hard to believe that he'd make a hopeless place of torment. Rationally, I agree, but biblically, I can neither support nor refute it. I want it to be true, but on a sola scriptura foundation I can't make a conclusive statement.

    #3–an eternity separated from God is not good news. Yes, but that doesn't mean that it's not true. Including hell messages in the "gospel presentation" is unbiblical–the apostles nor Jesus ever did, for one thing, and it's not good news for another. But that alone does not make hell untrue. That's logic, not scripture.

    #4–there's no place but heaven to go–presupposes that we have an "immortal soul" that has to "go" anywhere at all. That's a Greek concept, not a biblical one. Resurrection in the Bible is not re-uniting the soul with a reanimated or recreated body. It's a reversal of death. And as the teaching on second death tells us, (for that matter, so does the experience–we presume–of Lazarus) resurrection does not alone confer immortality.

    So no, I'm sorry. Your argument does not stand as a sola scriptura argument, and in point of fact it stands at odds with important parts of the scriptural testimony.

  4. pioneernt

    Another thing that should be considered in this department is that without exception, ALL English translations — and most others too, I think — were made AFTER most of the definitive, "orthodox",so-called "doctrines" were codified. And since most of those translations were commissioned by persons or groups that had a doctrinal "axe to grind", they were of course tailored to the expectations of their sponsors. For more on this, see the essays "The problem with words" and "the task of a translator" at

  5. Dan Martin

    You're right, Mom. Even the Latin Vulgate was translated in the latter part of the fourth century, during the very time a lot of these doctrinal controversies were hot. Other translations were much later…in fact, most of them post-date the Reformation as well, and therefore the translators had over a thousand (usually over fifteen hundred) years' worth of doctrine to inform their word choices.

  6. NiceneJosh

    Dan, I have to say that we disagree. Of course we probably both knew that already.

    While I agree that Scripture is divinely inspired, it is through tradition that we have arrived at Scripture.

    So while I hold Scripture to be the final say, I also regard Tradition with enough reverence that I use both to reach a conclusion. To me, Tradition is like a lovely commentary that I can refer to any time I want that was written for the sole purpose of making sure that I understand what the Scriptures are talking about.

    Because just reading the Bible without any other clues to the culture and audience it was intended for, imho is simply ludicrous. And always leads to a flawed doctrine.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      I hear you, Josh. And in fact, I quite agree that considering contemporary context (context, that is, of the original writers & hearers) is indispensible. What I was aiming for, and what I still think is vitally important, is to remove the context of 2,000 years of accreted overlay that frequently (IMO) distorts the original intent well beyond recognition…and in fact flies in the face of the original-contemporary message.

      So maybe we don’t disagree as much as you thought…Of course, your chosen screen name implies a comfort level with a creed that I have personally found seriously wanting, so we still have room for debate! ;{) At any rate, thanks for joining in the discussion. You have probably *also* figured out by now that I welcome brotherly disagreement.

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