If we take the words literally, the doctrine of “sola scriptura” is problematic. The Latin word “sola” means “only,” “scriptura” means “scripture,” and so together they mean “only scripture.” In some circles this expression has come to mean that we Christians should consider nothing but the Old and New Testaments when determining what to believe and how to behave. This is not helpful. Neither is it what the Protestant Reformers who promoted this doctrine in sixteenth century Europe had in mind.
For people like Martin Luther and John Calvin “sola scriptura” had a focused meaning. This was that the Roman Catholic teaching that the ultimate authorities for Christians are scripture and tradition is mistaken. Christians have only one supreme authority and it is scripture, they held. For them the doctrine of “sola scriptura” was more like a single bullet that sped toward a specific target than the spraying projectiles of a shotgun it has sometimes now become.
But even this is not exact enough. As it developed over the centuries, Roman Catholicism did not teach that we have two ultimate authorities but only one and that the Church of Rome was it. The idea was that scripture is not something different than tradition but a part of it.
Even today we ask whether scripture created the church or the church created it. Roman Catholicism’s answer was clear and firm: the church created scripture. It held that, as the tradition that includes scripture progresses, it is justified in determining its ongoing meanings and applications.
For us to feel the full force of the Roman Catholic teaching to which the Protestants objected, we ought to think of “scripture as tradition” rather than “scripture and tradition.” With respect to other areas of inquiry today, we might speak of “scripture as philosophy,” “scripture as science,” “scripture as art” and so forth. Putting things this way makes it impossible for scripture to challenge philosophy, science, art, or any other discipline from its own conceptual base. The Reformers objected to this and so should we.
As evidenced by the effective use the Reformers made of the writings of others, for them “sola scriptura” did not mean that we should consider and give weight to nothing else. They were among the best educated people of their day! This is why it seems clearer in our time to convey their meaning by using the expression prima scriptura. The unique role of scripture resides in its overriding priority, not in its supposed exclusiveness.
Martin Luther’s answer to Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire during his “heresy” trial before the Diet of Worms is instructive. “Unless I am convinced by the testimonies of Scripture or by clear reason, I cannot and will not recant,” he declared to the stunned assembly. “It is neither safe nor honorable to violate one’s conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God.”
Luther’s words amounted to a theological earthquake that opened deep and wide cracks in the belief that the Church of Rome has final authority, even over scripture, and Western culture has never been the same. It is noteworthy that in his defense Luther appealed to scripture or clear reason despite the many negative—and sometimes intemperate—things he said about human reason on some other occasions.
An exclusivist understanding of the role of scripture is not helpful for a number of reasons. One of these is that none of us can read scripture without being influenced by the circumstances in which we live. Another is that without studying other forms of contemporary knowledge, as well as the whole of scripture, it can be difficult to know how to apply what it says. Still further, the doctrine of “sola scriptura” makes it difficult for denominations to make effective use of the views of their pioneers, be they John Hus, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Thomas Cramner, Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, John Wesley, or Ellen White. A fourth problem is that this doctrine makes it less likely that Christians will learn from religions other than their own. A fifth is that viewing scripture this way can needlessly make Christians appear dogmatic and obscurant.
Applying scripture to our lives is related to but different from reconstructing as accurately as possible what its various passages first meant, something that non-Christian historians and linguists can do equally well. For them the Bible is a cultural classic; however, for those of us who are Christians it is the primary religious canon too.
Some of the ancient Israelites apparently thought that it was a good idea to stone those who break the Sabbath. Most of them probably took it for granted that slavery was morally acceptable. Some of the first Christians seem to have believed that they could drink poison and handle snakes without being harmed. None of us believes these things today because we have learned much in the interlude.
We should let the ancients say what they did without necessarily feeling that we must agree in every detail. If we insist that we must always concur, we might read our own convictions into the ancient texts so as to avoid any uncomfortable difference. Doing this might solve our problems; however, it does so at the risk of distorting the Biblical materials. It is better to let them say what they did and for us to say what we must, always insisting that these maintain a constant and mutually beneficial dialogue with the overarching themes of scripture primary.
Although there are many good answers to questions about why scripture should be primary, one worth emphasizing at this point is that its role is constitutive. Although many people lived in North America at the time, there was no United States until a number of them formulated and ratified a constitution. They wrote the document, but then it was not them but the document that created—constituted—the nation!
Likewise, ordinary men and women who were used by God to accomplish extraordinary things created the documents that we now have in the Old and New Testaments. These people did not create—constitute—the church. The documents they wrote, which came to have lives of their own, did. The parallel isn’t exact, but it is instructive.
David Larson teaches in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University.