This entry was originally the first part of a two-part Sunday school lesson on sola Scriptura that I delivered on August 8, 1999 to the college and career class at my church. For part 2, see The Transforming Power of Scripture.
I have a love affair with Holy Scripture that started very early. I think I must have been around nine or ten years old the first time I sat through a whole church service, rather than being dismissed to Sunday school, and heard a sermon preached. It was a fascinating experience, one that I later wanted to repeat as much as I could. I found out later that particular message had been geared toward children, but nonetheless the seeds were sown, and I tried afterwards to find any excuse I could to get out of Sunday school, sit in the sanctuary, and listen to the preaching. The seeds of my later Christian maturity were sown that morning though it was a long time before they really sprouted.
500 years ago, another young man fell in love with the Scriptures. His love affair with the word of God lit a wildfire under Christendom that has never been extinguished. Martin Luther's life climaxed when he stood before the Emperor at the Diet of Worms. Presented with a collection of his books and told to repudiate their contents, Luther answered:
Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason . . . my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.
In that brief and triumphant speech, Luther had expressed the doctrine of sola Scriptura - Scripture alone. In a sentence, sola Scriptura teaches that the Bible is the sole and sufficient authority for Christians in all matters of faith and morals. The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689, with which I am in basic agreement, says this:
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture, to which nothing is to be added at any time, either by new revelation of the Spirit, or by the traditions of men. (I.6)
My favourite verse in the entire Bible says the same thing. Paul, writing to his protegé Timothy to stand firm against loose morals and false teachers, writes in 2 Tim. 3:16-17:
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.
The author of Scripture
The passage starts by stating that God is the author of Scripture. Earlier in his life, Paul had commended the believers in Thessalonika for receiving the teaching of the apostles as though it came directly from God. "For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God" (1 Thess. 2:13). 2 Pet. 1:20-21 says that "no prophecy of the Scripture is of any private interpretation" - that is, its origin is not in human initiative - "For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost."
But Paul says something special about the Scriptures. He says it is given by inspiration of God. The NIV translates that word inspiration better: it reads, "[a]ll Scripture is God-breathed." This is a better translation for two reasons: first, it's a more dramatic image than "inspired"; second, it's a literal translation of the Greek word Paul uses, theopneustos, which means, literally, "God-breathed." In Genesis, God said "Let there be light," and there was light; here, Paul says, God breathed, and there was Scripture.
Only the Scriptures are said to be "God-breathed." In Greek, the Scriptures are graphe - a word which has been adopted in English for contexts related to writing: graph, paragraph, biography, graphite, and so forth. This word connotes written language; it is the written Word of God, and only the written word of God, that is said to be theopneustos.
The authority of Scripture
Paul moves on from the author of Scripture to its authority. Scripture is profitable for four things.
First, it is profitable for doctrine, or for teaching. It is through the Scriptures that we get our knowledge of who God is, or what Christ has done for us, or how we can be saved. Traditionally, Protestant churches center their worship around the preaching of the Word; any church that does not do this is not fulfilling its mandate. Furthermore, Scripture teaches these things clearly. The Baptist Confession says:
[T]hose things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded and revealed in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the educated but the uneducated may attain a sufficient understanding of them by the due use of ordinary means. (I.8)
But Scripture is also profitable for correction. What we believe must be tested against what Scripture says. If there's a contradiction, it is us that must modify our beliefs or theories. The Word of God is not up for debate.
Paul also says that Scripture is profitable for instruction in righteousness; that is, in addition to teaching us what to believe, the Scriptures teach us what to do. The five books of Moses contain an elaborate Law that expressed God's standard of righteousness to the Hebrews. Although we as Christians are now bound to the spirit of that Law, rather than the letter, it doesn't change the fact that God expects us to behave in accordance with his will.
Finally, Scripture is profitable for reproof - or, you could say, conviction. In addition to teaching us the right way to act, the Bible shows us the error of our ways when we act wrongly. Again, the Word of God is not debatable. Wrong morals are sin.
The sufficiency of Scripture
Now, Paul goes on to say a third thing about the Scriptures. Not only are they God-breathed and authoritative, they are sufficient. 2 Tim. 3:17 says that, armed with a knowledge of the Scriptures, "the man of God may be perfect [complete], throughly furnished unto all good works."
Let's suppose that I need to buy a new computer, which I intend to use primarily as a means to get on the Net; however, as an amateur musician, I also want it to be powerful enough to use as a digital audio workstation. So I head down to Joe's Computer Warehouse, a store with a reputation for being able to provide hardware and software for virtually every application. There I buy a computer, monitor, keyboard, some kind of Internet starter kit, a high-end sound card, a few miles of MIDI cable, and some sequencing software. An hour after getting this new system home, I'm downloading my email; after a few more hours of fiddling with it, I'm able to lay down some tracks.
If Joe has sold me everything I need to experience the wonderful world of the Internet and digital audio, then I can say that Joe has "throughly furnished" me for those purposes. On the other hand, if Joe hasn't anticipated my need for the specialized hardware and software required for my little home studio, and I have to go to Fred's Guitars to get that, then I haven't been "throughly furnished" by Joe or Fred.
Similarly, the Scriptures are sufficient: they contain "those things which are necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation." However, if there were any such thing that were not found in the Scriptures but only outside them, then the Scriptures would not be sufficient. They would not "throughly furnish" the man of God.
In fact, the sufficiency of Scripture has been challenged many times by a wide variety of movements. Here are but a few examples. Many of these groups have recently been trying to gain greater respectability amongst evangelicals.
Some Charismatics split the "Word of God" into what they call the logos, or written word, and rhema, or the so-called "word of knowledge" or prophecy. This is in keeping with that Charismatic theology that says churches ought to be led by a prophet. Many such groups would put their "word of knowledge" on a par with the written Scriptures.
Similarly, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints treats a number of its own books as though they are equal to the Bible. The Book of Mormon, for example, instructs its readers to ask God whether it is true; if so, it says, the reader will feel a burning in the chest. Rather than grounding the truth in the objective, written word, the Mormons appeal to subjective, mystical feelings.
The Roman Catholic Church claims that it has been entrusted with a "Sacred Tradition" that is equally authoritative with the Scriptures, and that only its teaching magisterium can infallibly interpret Scripture or define what that Tradition is. According to Catholic dogma, the Scripture is infallible provided it is interpreted infallibly by the Church; and only the Church can define Tradition. Thus the final authority is not sola Scriptura, but sola Roma - Rome only.
Finally, within evangelicalism itself, there is a movement of certain Fundamentalists, ironically mostly Baptist, that claims that only the King James Version of the Bible is truly the Word of God in English. (Some go farther and claim that the KJV is the only Word of God at all.)
Scripture itself says that Scripture can make the man of God complete, "throughly furnished unto all good works." In one way or another, all of these groups imply that this is untrue. Mormonism is the farthest of the four from Christian orthodoxy and adds its own authority to that of the Bible, but at least is consistent in that it claims the Bible has been corrupted and is not entirely reliable. While the Charismatics and the Catholics claim they have a high view of Scriptural inspiration, their position is inconsistent with Scripture's own claim of sufficiency, saying there is another authority required to supplement Scripture. And the KJV-onlyists raise their preference for the KJV to the level of dogma by appealing to a complex of arguments and traditions not found in the Bible, ironically doing so in the name of defending the KJV as the "final authority."
Why sola Scriptura matters
Here are three reasons why I believe holding to sola Scriptura is of fundamental importance to the Church.
Scripture itself promises blessings upon those who read and obey it:
Behold, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse; A blessing, if ye obey the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you this day: And a curse, if ye will not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn aside out of the way which I command you this day, to go after other gods, which ye have not known. (Deut. 11:26-28)
Jesus said, in John 14:21, "He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him." Those who keep Christ's words show they love him, and Christ promises that love will be reciprocated. Finally, the book of Revelation says in 1:3, speaking of itself, ""Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand."
Second, as Paul said, Scripture is our standard for faith and morals. We have laws against dishonest weights and measures; in fact there are government agents who go around with standard measures, making sure gas stations and other businesses aren't cheating their customers. Similarly, the Scriptures are a standard by which we must judge what we believe or how we behave. We use the word canon to refer to the collection of divine writings. This is a fitting word; it comes from a Greek word meaning "rule." Scripture is the "yardstick" against which we compare everything. Unfortunately, I've heard of some surveys that indicate that even amongst evangelical Christians, only 20% will actually open their Bibles on a weekly basis. When we're not steeped in knowledge of the Word, is it any wonder that sexual conduct or divorce rates in the evangelical world don't look all that different than the world any more? We don't measure our behaviour against the yardstick. Scripture left unopened is like gold left unmined: it has no value until it's brought out into the open.
Last, Scriptural authority is important because the Scriptures are true, and truth is the basis of real unity. These days, what we call "unity" seems really to be a sort of ecumenical smoothing-over of our differences, merely for the sake of presenting a unified front to the unbelieving world. It's a sort of postmodern ideal, whereby we prefer to emphasize what we agree about, or understand about each other, instead of what divides us. Division isn't nice. It isn't "tolerant." But this isn't true unity; it's a façade.
Someone might object: Didn't Jesus pray that his disciples would be one? If the visible Church is visibly divided, won't that hurt its credibility in they eyes of the world? Well, it's true that Christ did pray exactly that: that "[t]hat they all may be one . . . that the world may believe that thou hast sent me" (John 17:21). However, only a few moments before, he had asked the Father to "[s]anctify [the disciples] through thy truth: thy word is truth" (John 17:17). When Paul heard that dissension had arisen in the church at Corinth, he pleaded with them in 1 Cor. 1:10 to "all speak the same thing." Unity is grounded in a common knowledge of the truth. No truth, no unity.
It took me a long time to realize it, but I love the Word of God. I gladly affirm what Isaac Watts once wrote:
Lord, I have made Thy word my choice,
My lasting heritage;
There shall my noblest powers rejoice,
My warmest thoughts engage.
I'll read the histories of Thy love,
And keep Thy laws in sight,
While through Thy promises I rove
With ever fresh delight.
'Tis a broad land of wealth unknown,
Where springs of life arise,
Seeds of immortal bliss are sown,
And hidden glory lies.
[Nov. 10 update: Some objections considered.]