Is Sola Scriptura for Today?
Postmodernity, with its aversion to truth claims, has led both the modern world and the church to view the authority of the Bible differently. While lip service may still be given to the idea of biblical authority and Scripture, many professing Christians no longer view the Bible’s authority as beyond criticism. However, sola Scriptura, the formal principle of the Protestant Reformation, is essential to genuine Christianity. Sola Scriptura has to do with the sufficiency of Scripture as our supreme authority in all spiritual matters and life. It is not a claim that all truth of every kind is found in Scripture, but Scripture is a “more sure word,” standing above all other truth in its authority and certainty. It is “more sure,"1 according to the Apostle Peter, than the information we gather firsthand through our senses" (2 Peter1:19 [KJV]).
Therefore, Scripture is the highest and supreme authority on any matter on which it speaks. It is important to note there are many important questions on which Scripture is silent. Sola Scriptura makes no claim to the contrary. Nor does sola Scriptura claim that everything Jesus or the apostles ever taught is preserved in Scripture. It only means everything necessary, everything binding on our conscience, and everything God requires of us is given to us in Scripture (2 Peter 1:3).
It is imperative that sola Scriptura is viewed and exercised within the distinguishing features of the various epoch’s of redemptive history. For example, as a member of the new covenant community, I am not obligated by the prohibition against boiling a young goat in its mother’s milk.2 This prohibition belongs to a specific period of redemptive history. However, though this precise law has been revoked by the new covenant, its authority is no it lessened by the fact that it has been surpassed by historical events within the Bible’s own time line.
Sola Scriptura was therefore established in principle with the giving of the law. For example, we see God telling Moses he was not allowed to “add to the word which I [God] am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD3 your God which I command you" (Deut. 4:2). Again God reiterates sola Scriptura to Moses when He again tells Moses, “Whatever I command you, you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to nor away from it" (Deut.12:32). Furthermore, God even told Moses’ successor, Joshua:
Be strong and very courageous; be careful to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you: do not turn from it to the right or left, so that you may have success wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it (Josh. 1:7-8a).
If this principle of sola Scriptura was true in the Old Testament, can we not assume that it is all the more true in the New? Scripture clearly claims for itself this sufficiency—and nowhere more clearly than in 2 Timothy 3:15-17. Verse 15 affirms that Scripture is sufficient for salvation. Verse 16 affirms the absolute authority of Scripture, which is theopneustos.4 and profitable for our instruction. Verse 17 states that scripture is able to equip the man of God “for every good work.” So since Scripture is given by inspiration of God, or more accurately, is the product of God’s out-breathing,5 the Bible’s authority is comprehensive and total, down to the very words themselves.6
New Testament Example
Jesus Himself taught the apostles the principle of sola Scriptura as an unquestioning submission to the Scriptures. They understood that when Jesus commanded them to go into the entire world and proclaim the Gospel, they were to teach and demand compliance with “all that I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:20). Moreover, Jesus demonstrated His belief in sola Scriptura when He responded to all three temptations by citing Scripture (Matt. 4:4, 6, 7).
Jesus, in the face of temptation, turned again and again to the Scriptures. “It is written,” He said. That was all He needed to say. Furthermore, while the authority of the Bible rests on its own claim to be the Word of God, it also rest on Jesus’ view of Scripture. Jesus makes it clear as to His view of sola Scriptura once again when in John 10:35, He says “Scripture cannot be broken.” Taking just this line of thought—the reference in John 10:35 to the effect that ‘Scripture cannot be broken’—we see Jesus' view of the authority of Scripture.7 It is clear sola Scriptura has an Old Testament and New Testament basis and Jesus Himself makes clear all things necessary for salvation, faith and life are taught in Scripture.
Sola Scriptura also holds the Bible has enough clarity that the ordinary believer can understand its meaning. The problem with most Christians, however is that they are hermeneutically illiterate and those who aren’t hermeneutically illiterate are often hermeneutically inconsistent.
Furthermore, Christians must understand, Scripture incorrectly interpreted is no longer God’s word. Jesus’ proves this with His confrontation with Satan in the wilderness (Matt 4:1ff.; John 10:34). The authority in all that the Bible teaches assumes a valid and consistent hermeneutic interpreting the variety of genres contained in Scripture.8 For example, there must be a clear appreciation of the difference between the descriptive and the prescriptive. While members of the post-Pentecost church in Jerusalem sold all their goods and relinquish their rights to private ownership, I am not obligated to follow their example.9 The Bible accurately and inerrantly describes these actions of the early church for our edification, but it nowhere prescribes that these things be done by all churches at all times.
Even within the more conservative denominations with similar doctrinal positions, there can be differences of opinion as to what the term authority means. Since only to the extent that Scripture is properly interpreted can it be said to be authoritative, there must be a common meaning of authority. The New Testament uses the Greek word εÌξουσιαÌζω or exousiazo which is defined as the “exercise authority upon, bring under the (have) power of.”10 Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary describes authority as “the power of one whose will and commands must be obeyed by others, as used in Mat. 28:18; John 17:2; Jud. 1:25; Rev. 12:10, 17:13."11 The American Dictionary of the English Language defines authority as the “Legal power, or a right to command or to act; as the authority of a prince over subject, and of parents over children."12 Dr. R.C. Sproul13 writes: “The word authority contains within itself the word author. God is the author of all things which he has authority."14 Dr. Cornelius Van Til15 defined authority as “nothing but the placing of the absolute personality of God before the finite personality of man."16 Clearly sola Scriptura, or the authority of Scripture over Christians means we are to bring or give ourselves over to the control of our Creator. God has provided all of the instruction we need to live a life of obedience to His glory through His Word.
The doctrine of sola Scriptura is, in the end, a Christological issue. The question we have to ask ourselves is this: Am I willing to hold to a different view of Scripture than one Jesus held to? Ultimately, since our salvation is dependent on our view of who Jesus is, His view of sola Scriptura must be our own.
1. The English phase “more sure” is the Greek word, βεβαιος or bebaios. It means to be “stable (literally or figuratively): - firm, of force, stedfast, sure (Strong, James. “The New Strong’s Expanded Dictionary of the Words in the Greek New Testament.” In The New Strong's Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010).
2. Ex. 23:19; cf. Mark 7:19; & Rom. 14:14. At the Feast of Ingathering, as it is called in Ex. 23:16, the Jews were commanded to give thanks to God for the harvest they had received, and for their dependence upon Him for the next harvest. They were not to attempt to gain anything by the superstitious practices of the pagans, who, it is said, at the end of their harvest, boiled a kid goat in its mother’s milk and sprinkled that pottage, in a pagan ritualistic way, upon their gardens and fields to make them more fruitful the following year. Israel was to abhor such foolish customs.
3. Translated from the Hebrew word Yahweh. Yahweh is God’s unspeakable name, his memorial name, the name we are never to take in vain, the name protected by the Ten Commandments. The Jews would use the Tetragrammation (YHWH) instead of spelling Yahweh’s name completely out of absolute reverence for his name.
6. 2 Tim. 3:15-17; Gal. 1:8-9; 2 Tim.2:2; & “The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men” (The Westminster Confession of Faith, 1647, Ch.1/Par. 6).
10. Strong, James. “The New Strong’s Expanded Dictionary of the Words in the Greek New Testament.” In The New Strong's Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010, reference number G1850.
16. Van Til, Cornelius. “Antitheses in Education.” In Foundations of Christian Education: Addresses to Christian Teachers, edited by Dennis E. Johnson, 3-24. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, (1953) 1990, p. 24.