What is sola Scriptura? What do the words sola Scriptura mean? Sola Scriptura was a response to the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching that Scripture and tradition were equally authoritative. The Reformers maintained that Scripture stood above tradition. All tradition needed to come under the authority of the Bible. That doesn’t mean that the Reformers rejected all tradition. They didn’t it was necessary to throw out all of church history and start interpreting the Bible from scratch. They place a huge emphasis on the way the church had always interpreted Scripture. For example, the church fathers and the great creeds of the church had consistently affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity and the incarnation of Christ. These creeds protected the church from false teaching and bad interpretation of Scripture. The things the church had always believed in all places were a good form of tradition.
The problem in the Middle Ages was that the Catholic Church developed teachings that were different from what the church had always believed—like their doctrines of the mass and purgatory and indulgences. Catholics insisted that everybody else needed to believe this teaching and grounded their authority in tradition. The Reformers discovered tension between what the Bible said and what the church had always said and the then-current practices of the Church.
What authority would arbitrate the differences? Were the pope and church councils authoritative, or was the Bible authoritative? Which was the final authority. It seemed clear that the authorities could not be equal if they conflicted. The Catholic Church claimed that the pope and the councils had the ultimate authority to interpret Scripture. The Reformers taught that the Bible is the ultimate authority and rested their confidence in Scripture alone.
The Reformers believed that all traditions were subject to the authority of Scripture. They said that Scripture was the norma normans—the norming norm. Other authorities existed, but all other authorities were under the authority of Scripture. Scripture was the touchstone by which all other authorities must be judged—even authorities like the great creeds of the church.
When Scripture is not the final authority, and when believers and churches fail to focus on Scripture alone, teaching eventually surfaces that is not grounded in Scripture and is therefore bad for the church. All other authorities, therefore, must come under the ultimate and primary authority of Scripture. That’s what is meant by sola Scriptura. Sola Scriptura means that the Bible alone is the ultimate authority for faith and practice.
Just as the Reformers called for the Bible alone to be the church’s ultimate authority for faith and practice, we need a renewed focus on the Bible. Sola Scriptura must be the watchword for faith and practice.
What does the Bible say about sola Scriptura? If the Bible is our ultimate authority for faith and practice, we must ask the question, does the Bible claim this authority for itself? Where do we find sola Scriptura in the Scriptures?
We could turn to a number of texts, but the classic is perhaps the easiest. Second Timothy 3:14–17 teaches us so much about the Bible and its authority.
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
(2 Timothy 3:14–17)
The belief that the Bible alone was the ultimate authority for faith and practice was grounded in the simple reality that the Bible is God’s word. Second Timothy 3:16 says that “all Scripture is breathed out by God.” That means the Bible is God’s word. God’s word was recorded on the pages of Scripture by human authors. But those human authors were writing God’s very words in such a way that what they said on the pages of Scripture is what God said. Second Peter 1:21 says, “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by theHoly Spirit.” The reason we call the Bible God’s word is because the words of the Bible came from God.
God’s word is the ultimate authority for life and salvation because it’s God’s word. And God cannot be separated from his word. To respond to God’s word is to respond to God himself. To obey his word is to obey him. To disobey his word is to disobey him. The authority of the word is tethered inextricably to the authority of God himself.
And because the Bible is God’s word, it is inerrant. That is, it is without error. Since God cannot lie (Titus 1:2), his word is without error. The same cannot be said of tradition, councils, or the pope. Tradition contradicts itself at points and is not without error. God’s word is inerrant.
This was the basis of the Reformers’ confidence in the Bible and the reason they said the Bible alone was authoritative for faith and practice.
Another reason was that God’s word is effective. In 2 Timothy 3:15, Paul says to Timothy, “From childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” The Scriptures are able to save us. They accomplish God’s purposes.
Another reason that God’s word was seen as the ultimate authority was because God’s word is sufficient. Second Timothy 3:16–17 says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” Paul was telling Timothy that the Scriptures were sufficient for his life and ministry. He didn’t need to get wrapped up in human words (cf. 2 Timothy 2:14–15) and debates. He needed to stick to the Bible. It was sufficient for him. He needed to preach the word in all seasons (2 Timothy 4:2).
We see something similar in 2 Peter 1:3. “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence.” The knowledge of God comes through the Scriptures and through Christ, the one to whom the Scriptures point. It’s in this knowledge, in the word of God, that we have everything we need for life and godliness.
We don’t need tradition, councils, popes, or extrabiblical revelations. We have all we need in the gospel. This is what the Bible says about its own authority. This is why we stand on the Scriptures. The Scriptures themselves testify to the Bible’s ultimate authority.
If God’s word is the ultimate authority for faith and practice, we need to place it in the centre of our lives and churches. We can’t set up any other authority that competes with God’s word, including ourselves. If we want to recover the gospel and retain the gospel as central in the church and in our lives, we need to place the Bible in the driver’s seat. Let us say with Luther, “Here I stand.”
Central Baptist Church
Karabo is the pastor-teacher of Central Baptist Church in Rustenburg, South Africa, where he has served since July 2017.
Karabo graduated in 2014 with a Bachelor of Theology at Christ Baptist Seminary in Polokwane. He formerly served as associate pastor of Modimolle Christian Church in Modimolle.
He is married to Nkhensani (Khensi) and together they have one child.