You may remember when you were a child (or now as a parent) and your Dad told you to go clean your room. You might have asked, “Why?” And you likely remember the answer: “Because I said so!” No reason given, just because Dad says to do it. Within the family, parental authority supersedes all other authority; there is no higher authority to which a child can appeal.
Authority was a key issue of the Reformation. While the primary, or material issue was justification by faith alone (that is, how is one saved), a logical question was, “Says who?” The Catholic church denied this doctrine, while the Reformers proclaimed it. Who was right, and why were they right?
At the time of the Reformation, the Catholic church was extremely powerful. They controlled kings and governments. What the pope and the bishops said with respect to faith and morals were deemed to have God given authority, with the papacy being instituted by Jesus upon Peter and then passed down throughout the ages in a supposed apostolic line of popes. Believers under their rule were therefore obliged to follow the church’s decrees.
Following these decrees was not a problem at first. Scripture makes clear that we are to be submissive to those in authority over us (e.g., Hebrews 13:17, 2 Corinthians 10:8, 1 Peter 5:5), and believers should generally have no problem with this. Indeed, Sola Scriptura does not negate church authority; rather, it places church authority in submission to the word of God. Therefore, all Christians should embrace such God ordained authority.
The problem arose when the Catholic church began teaching that which is contrary to Scripture. As mentioned above, the primary issue was how one is saved. Over time, the gospel became perverted, and the Catholic church began teaching a gospel of works. Along the way, there were always believers who believed in the true gospel. However, it was the Lord’s timing to reform His church and fully bring back the true gospel at the time of the Reformation, primarily through the Catholic monk, Martin Luther.
The Catholic church’s response to the Reformation was that they had God ordained authority, so that what they taught was therefore correct, and church members had no higher authority to which they could appeal. Martin Luther thought otherwise.
(By the way, as an aside, the Catholic church’s official teaching is that Scripture and Tradition (with a “capital T”) are co-equal. The Catholic catechism, which represents official, “infallible” beliefs of the Catholic church, states the following: “77 In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority." Indeed, "the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time." 78 This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition, since it is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it. Through Tradition, "the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes." "The sayings of the holy Fathers are a witness to the life-giving presence of this Tradition, showing how its riches are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and her prayer."…80 "Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, then, are bound closely together, and communicate one with the other. For both of them, flowing out from the same divine well-spring, come together in some fashion to form one thing, and move towards the same goal." Each of them makes present and fruitful in the Church the mystery of Christ, who promised to remain with his own "always, to the close of the age". 81 "Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit." "And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching." 82 As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, "does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence."” (Source: Catholic Catechism, my emphasis added) That last sentence is the key: clearly, the Catholic church views their authority from both Scripture and Tradition, and this remains their official teaching to this day.)
Getting back to Luther. Because of his teachings, Luther was hauled before several Catholic bishops to explain himself, why he thought he could go around the church’s teachings. Indeed, they demanded that Luther recant what he taught. Luther met with church officials at the Diet of Worms in 1521, where he gave his famous speech:
“Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scriptures or by plain and clear reasons and arguments, I can and will not retract, for it is neither safe nor wise to do anything against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”
Clearly, Luther was appealing to a higher authority, namely, Scripture. To the extent the teaching of the Catholic church ran contrary to Scripture, Luther placed Scripture ahead of the church. Many Christians before Luther did the same thing, and paid for it with their lives, as the Catholic church executed these believers. We see a similar situation in the book of Acts. When the Jewish religious leaders commanded Peter and John to stop spreading the gospel, they gladly disobeyed:
“17 But so that it will not spread any further among the people, let us warn them to speak no longer to any man in this name.” 18 And when they had summoned them, they commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; 20 for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.””
The Old Testament likewise testifies to God’s word as the ultimate authority. Speaking of the Jews who strayed from the Lord and His word, Isaiah says, “19 When they say to you, “Consult the mediums and the spiritists who whisper and mutter,” should not a people consult their God? Should they consult the dead on behalf of the living? 20 To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn.” How does God tell us to consult Him? To the “law and the testimony”, that is, to His word. If a person teaches contrary to His word, it is as if they are leading someone into darkness. Only God’s word “is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path.” (Psalm 119:105)
Even the apostle Paul commended the Bereans for testing what he taught about Christ against the Scriptures. “10 The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. 11 Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. 12 Therefore many of them believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men.” (Acts 17) Notice that they believed, in part, because what Paul taught agreed with God’s word.
As you can see, Scripture itself testifies to the truth of Sola Scriptura. Since this is the very word of God, Scripture has ultimate authority over all believers. As in the Reformation, this should be our view today. We should fully submit to those in authority over us in the church, but only so far as what they teach is in line with God’s word. Although God has set elders, pastors, and teachers in authority over the church, they themselves must submit to the word of God. This is the essence of Sola Scriptura, that God’s word is the ultimate authority, and is the infallible rule of faith for the church.
The doctrine of Sola Scriptura is the foundation of the five solas of the Reformation. The reason for this is that there has to be an ultimate authority that can say “because I say so.” We cannot proclaim that salvation is by grace alone by faith alone through Christ alone to the glory of God alone if we cannot say why this is true. God’s word provides the foundation for this truth. It is this truth that every false religion always attacks. Catholicism makes their church’s teaching equal with God (even though some of their teaching contradicts God’s word). Mormonism adds the book of Mormon and says God’s word is “corrupted.” Islam adds the Qur’an and also says the Bible is corrupted. Even Judaism rejects the New Testament and refuses to acknowledge the Old Testament’s teaching that Jesus is the Messiah.
If God’s word can shown to be unreliable, errant, or even false, then everything about Christianity comes into question. This attack comes from the same source: Satan. This is exactly what he did with Eve, asking her “has God said?”, and then added to God’s word, telling Eve that surely she would not die. This is Satan’s modus operandi, and it’s been the same throughout time. Therefore, Sola Scriptura was not only the foundation of the Reformation, it should also be our foundation. Indeed, the Word was made flesh, thus Sola Scriptura is, in effect, another way to say Christ alone. “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
Soli Deo Gloria!