By Dr. Keith Mathison, Reformation Bible College
We are not in a good place, but we are not the first to be in such a position. The people of Israel forgot the past with disastrous consequences. The medieval church forgot the past with disastrous consequences. But what do you do when you realize you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere along your journey? You go back and seek to find the correct path. We should not view the past as something that is gone and therefore useless. We should look at the past more like the way someone on the second floor of a building looks at the foundation. The foundation was built before the remaining structure. It was built in the past. But the foundation is not something that can be discarded without catastrophic results.
In this article, I want to look briefly at some of the old paths, some foundational doctrines—namely, the five solas of the Reformation (sola Scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, soli Deo gloria). When the medieval church lost her way, the rediscovery of these fundamental doctrines during the Reformation helped the church regain her footing.
What do we mean when we say that we believe in sola Scriptura, or Scripture alone? Like all of the solas, a proper understanding of the doctrine requires a certain amount of context—both historical and theological. In the first place, we need to understand that the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura arose within the context of the late medieval Roman Catholic church and its teaching. It was a response to perceived error in the teaching of the church. So what was it that the Reformers found objectionable?
The dispute with Rome was not over the inspiration or inerrancy of Scripture. Rome affirmed both doctrines. The problem, instead, was due to the fact that over the course of many centuries, Rome had gradually adopted a view of the relation between the church, Scripture, and tradition that effectively placed final authority somewhere other than God. Tradition was conceived of as a second source of revelation, and the pope and Roman magisterium were viewed as the final authority in matters of faith and practice.
The Reformers wanted to call the church back to a view of the relation between Scripture and tradition that was found in the early church. They believed that the Bible itself taught such a view. The Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura, or the Reformation doctrine of the relation between Scripture and tradition, affirms that Scripture is to be understood as the sole source of divine revelation, the only inspired, infallible, final, and authoritative norm of faith and practice. Why? Because Scripture is “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16). In other words, what Scripture says, God says. There is, therefore, a basic ontological difference between Scripture (God’s Word) and any creaturely words. Scripture is metaphysically unique. Scripture is to be interpreted in and by the church, and it is to be interpreted within the hermeneutical context of the rule of faith (Acts 15).
Among evangelicals, there is a common misunderstanding of sola Scriptura that views the Bible not only as the sole final authority, but as the sole authority altogether. In other words, the church, the ecumenical creeds, the confessions of faith, are largely dismissed even as secondary authorities. It is the “No creed but Christ” or “No creed but the Bible” attitude so prevalent in the church today. Of course, those who assert such slogans fail to realize that a statement such as “No creed but Christ” is itself a creed—a statement of what one believes.
Those who espouse this misunderstanding of the Reformation doctrine are often unaware that it is not the view of the early church and it is not the view of the magisterial Reformers. In fact, where one most often encounters this view historically is in the writings of various heretics (e.g., the Arians of the early church, the Socinians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, etc.). This bad version of biblicism has been the source of innumerable false doctrines.