Reformation 500: Is Sola Scriptura a Blueprint for Anarchy?

Introduction

Growing up in the bible-belt, I had no cultural resistance to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura; it seemed a natural truth for any professing Christian. We know God through His Word, His Word is true, and His Word is everywhere. If you were to visit my hometown, you would find bible verses on billboards, cars, and yard ornaments. Some business owners even use it as a marketing tool to help prospective customers know their establishment is ethical and trustworthy – which stirs up other questions on ethics; but, we’ll save those for another day.

Because of my predisposition to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, I was largely unprepared when a family member converted to Roman Catholicism. I was faced with questions on “modes of transmissions” and differing relationships between the church and sacred scripture. I was confronted on the economy of Protestantism; namely, that the use of denominations is bad fruit from a wrongfully inspirited Reformation. Then, there was the number – 30,000 by some estimates. The immense number of Protestant denominations was upheld as forensic evidence of a deep theological and ecclesiastical suicide. I feared I had been mislead my entire life.

At the core of these questions and issues is Sola Scriptura, a formal principle of most Protestant denominations – one of the 5 solas of the Reformation and a beautiful doctrine to all who hold it. But, is Sola Scriptura nothing more than a “blueprint for anarchy” and division?

Defining Sola Scriptura

Before going further, let’s briefly define the term. Sola Scriptura states that the Bible is the supreme authority in all spiritual matters, and that the pages of Holy Scripture contain all the truth we need for salvation.

The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it like 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 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.”

I’ve seen confusion on both sides of the issue when the doctrine is overstated and/or over-applied; this is occasionally referred to as “Solo Scriptura”. Sola Scriptura does not deny other forms of instruction or authorities (such as the church, devotionals, testimonies, teachings, etc.). These can contain a great wealth of truth and insight for believers. The church is the “pillar and foundation of truth.” Still, as valuable as some of these authorities may be, they are subject to the word of God as the final and ultimate authority.

While not completely within the scope of this article, I do want to briefly point out that Sola Scriptura does have a scriptural foundation. Consider 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” Paul is clear: scripture is sufficient to make the man of God “complete”.

The Providence of Division and Doctrine

Reformation 500While unity should always the goal, the truth is that’s not the reality of the world we live in right now. Nor was it the reality of God’s people before Christ. Historically speaking, God has always allowed different factions and divisions within His people. Think back to Judaism. Here we have The Pharisees, Sadducees, Samaritans, Zealots, Jewish Gnostics, Jewish Platonists, and so on. This economy was understood to be useful and God honoring – each group with their own roles and distinctives.

The unifying element of these groups was not a central human figure head, as Rome boasts. The article that kept God’s people united throughout covenants, kings, and exiles was God’s law; His Word. While circumstances around the nation of Israel were always in flux, God’s law remained a lighthouse for all to follow. So why is it such a stretch to conclude that God employs a similar economy today?

One might counter with an argue that says roughly: The New Covenant is a better covenant and Jesus prayed for us to be one (John 17); therefore, divisions are sinful. This a fair point. However, we can’t know or presume to understand God’s timing for unifying His church. To do so assumes an unrealized eschatological position – clearly, that’s not today. God hasn’t prevented the spreading of the Protestant movement; it’s flourishing! Protestant churches are sprouting up all over the world. While all Christians should pursue unity within the body of Christ, I also realize that God is still proactively gathering in His people (2 Peter 3:9); the harvest is not complete.

A logical counter argument to this might be to bring up alternative religious groups, for example Mormons or Jehovah Witnesses. God allows these groups to continue. Should we view them the same? I suppose you can if you want to include organizations that deny Christianity’s foundational Creeds.

Providentially, much of the writing of church fathers was focused on exposing heresies and defining the core doctrines of faith. Church fathers worked tirelessly in the first few centuries to craft an understanding of what Christianity is. The church developed creeds that give us clear boundaries for Christianity to exist within. While there may be some doctrinal differences throughout the body of Christ, these boundary lines help us to recognize genuine Christianity and its required elements.

While doctrinal issues of the Reformation did cause division, a careful study of Church History would show that nationalism and liberalism played a major part as well. Many denominations coming out of the Reformation were formed due to geopolitical rule (ie. Luther and German Princes). The denominations that were created often found agreement on all creedal issues of the faith.

Additionally, many of the modern denominations exist as they have adopted liberalism or relativism. They have abandoned the faith. This has little to do with the Sola Scriptura. The bible does not allow for much of what is done in the name of progressivism. Even parts of the Catholic church are listening to the siren song if liberalism; some even fear a schism.

A compelling article released last year by The National Catholic Register called Why We Need to Stop Saying That There Are 33,000 Protestant Denominations points out how absurd this number truly is. Scott Eric Alt writes,

“However strong the temptation some may have to characterize anything not Catholic or Orthodox as “Protestant,’ you can’t do that. All that tells Protestant apologists is that you don’t know what Protestantism is, or what its dis­tinc­tives are—and they would be right. And why would they take anything you say seriously after that? If you don’t know what Protestantism is, who are you to be talking about its errors? Not only are Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Oneness Pentecostals, Uni­tar­i­ans, Prosperity Gospel believers not Protestant, they are not even Christian; they adhere to a false Christology. Protestants and Catholics are in agreement about who Christ is; these other groups have other ideas.”

When surveying the divisions within modern Protestantism, we must also take in account geopolitical lines, liberalism, and creedal theology. These all play an important role in helping us better understand denominational lines, and more importantly, what is truly Christian.

 

Conclusion

To conclude, let’s look to the New Testament. Paul’s words might surprise you. 1 Corinthians 11-17:19 reads, “But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.” There are productive reasons for allowing factions to exist within the body of Christ – it helps us identify who is a believer and who isn’t.

Once more, this isn’t ideal – we should always pursue unity. But God has not allowed that to happen, thus far. In its place, we have denominations of churches full of sinful people that are all subject the unchanging Word of God. It will remain the same when nations fall and progressive theologies undo themselves. It’s objective, immovable, and contains everything we need for salvation.

 


Other Articles In This Series:

 

"I generally agree with this article. I'm glad that it addresses a very important, yet ..."

Why Seminary Can’t Fully Train Pastors
"I am deeply sorry to hear that. I hope she is able to recover from ..."

On Art Azurdia and Men Without ..."
"Good for you. When the Church cares more about legalism than the Grace of Christ, ..."

Farewell, Brandon and Jen Hatmaker
"I think a thorough reading of all the texts you mention in old and new ..."

Farewell, Brandon and Jen Hatmaker

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Iain Lovejoy

    Do you get the irony of quoting the Westminster Confession of Faith as an authority as to the correct view of the Bible in a piece denying the necessity or validity of any extra-Biblical authority?

    • Dominus vobiscum

      Couldn’t be stated better! In fact, irony goes much deeper. When anyone of us reading a Bible passage and say: “Himm, I think it means ……” we are appealing to an extra-biblical authority: namely, our own. And how wrong we could be sometimes!

  • David Cromie

    Yes, it is, judging by the many christer churches and sects that the so-called ‘bible’ has spawned. Thank goodness, the anarchy is confined to the deluded ‘believers’ for the greater part (even when any particular set of christers try to found a theocracy according to their own particular vision of the ‘truth’).

  • NathansFather

    I am waiting for you to go over Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone)

    • Dalia

      Glory to God alone, which is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit

      • NathansFather

        Thank you I knew this . I think this dissing the sola and soli terms rather disconcerting actually. What is the agenda anyway?

        • Dalia

          It’s an old demonic agenda to discredit God’s Word to mankind…”Did God really say?”

          • NathansFather

            I agree. I find this series of the author very disturbing. Seems like he is trying to match the Bible to his own agenda. To what end I do not know???

          • Jack Lee

            How do you even come to that conclusion? Wow.

            The articles in this series are from various authors on key aspects, thoughts, and reflections from anniversary of the reformation. Soli Deo Glroria just has not been posted yet.

          • NathansFather

            The key aspects, thoughts, and reflections is one sided to say the least. A real shame too. This series does nothing but to discredit the Reformation. Yes, I know Soli Deo Gloria has not been covered. And probably won’t be accurately.

          • Dalia

            It is SCRIPTURE only…sola scriptura. Anything outside of scripture is from Satan

          • NathansFather

            I agree.

      • Mark Mac Donald

        that statement alone is nuts

  • Lennie

    The author states: “factions to exist within the body of Christ – it helps us identify who is a believer and who isn’t”. Does he really believe that there are people in “the body of Christ” who are not “believers”? I don’t think that can be supported from scripture. See 1 Jn 2:19 and Math 7:22,23 “never knew you”.

    • Jack Lee

      Covenant theology is very much a doctrine of the reformation.

      • NathansFather

        Covenant theology.

        Yes. Our non-aligned with the United Nations World Council of Churches is a Covenant Church.
        We do not believe in dispensationism or the “secret rapture.”

        Jesus Iesous Y’shua is the Everlasting Covenant with God the Father and ourselves.
        The Covenant was fulfilled when Our Lord and Savior was crucified, buried, and rose on the third day.
        The Alpha and Omega now sits upon the Mercy Seat for all followers of The Way, Truth, and Life to see on The Day appointed.

        Cumberland Presbyterian Church no relation to the mainline denomination.
        Looking skyward!
        Thank you Lord!

        Question: “What is the World Council of Churches (WCC)?”
        https://www.gotquestions.org/World-Council-of-Churches-WCC.html

    • Mark Mac Donald

      Check out the clergy project. Amazing how many ministers no longer believe in their god but are trapped in their profession due to lack of employment prospects

      • Lennie

        Exactly my point in ref Math 7. That they don’t believe is proof that He “never knew” them and they never really knew Him unto salvation. They never were in “the body of Christ”. They may have been a member or even a leader in a church but the Bible warns us that there are wolves and tares among the attendees.

  • Ulf Turkewitsch

    Very well done. This is a thoughtful and wise explanation of the breadth of protestantism. It is important to note that the adversary works hard to undermine the true faith . The enemy sows confusion wherever he can. God gave His people a sound mind and expects them to help see the truth. This includes calling out heresy and error .

    • Mark Mac Donald

      Does it call out part of a ‘sound mind’ is believing in things with sufficient evidence?

  • Dominus vobiscum

    Brothers & Sisters in Christ,

    The primary scriptural foundation of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura
    is 2 Tim 3:16-17 as the author rightly points out. So let’s read the versus
    14-17 in the literal/interlinear word study based on the Novum Testamentum
    Graece, 26th edition, UBS (remember this is a strictly “literal”
    translation from Greek, so no, these are not typo errors); bracketed
    word is mine:

    14: You but stay in what you learned and you were trusted ,
    having known from whom you learned,

    15: and that from infant the sacred letters you knew, the
    being able you to make wise to deliverance
    through trust the in Christ Jesus.

    16: All writing God-breathed and helpful [Gk: ophelimos]
    to teaching, to rebuking, to strengthening, to instruction as a child the in
    rightness,

    17: that fit might be the of the God man, to all work good
    having been furnished.

    I respectfully disagree with the assertion that the 2 Tim
    3:16-17 provides a scriptural foundation to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura:

    a) Ophelimus (helpful, profitable, useful, valuable) in
    verse 16 cannot be interpreted as “sufficient.” In the New Testament, it is only used in 2
    other versus: 1 Tim 4:8 and 2 Tim 3:8. Both of these passages are far from indicating
    an attribute of all-encompassing or sufficiency.

    b) Most scholars today agree that “sacred letters you
    knew” in verse 15 is a reference to the LXX (Septuagint) as it was probably
    exclusively used by Palestinian Jewish communities including early Christian community
    around the 1st century. It is the LXX,
    not the Masoretic text adopted by the Reformers 14 centuries later, that is
    quoted by the authors of the New Testament including Christ himself. Although
    timeframe of Timothy’s childhood is not exactly known, it is fairly certain
    that the New Testament as we know either didn’t yet exist or at best it was
    incomplete and the canon was in flux. So St. Paul was almost certainly referring
    to the LXX as the “sacred letters you knew.” And if that body of
    writings is the basis of Sola Scriptura, then our Holy Scripture is consist of
    the Old Testament and Old Testament alone. That, cannot be.

    • David Cromie

      Brothers and sisters in the shared delusion that you have an invisible friend up/out there, do you not find it strange that no christer has yet adduced the irrefutable, falsifiable, evidence that any supposed supernatural entities actually exist? Think carefully about this obvious conundrum.

    • Lennie

      Dominus, Actually Sola Scriptura as the trustworthy authority has a much broader scriptural foundation than that one verse. Also Peter recognized Paul’s letters as “Scripture” (Greek word graphe’) as did Paul recognize Lukes writing as ” Scripture”. See 2 Pet 3:15, 16 and 1 Tim 5:18. The latter is ref to Luke 10:7. So as the Bible, you and me all affirm: our Holy Scripture consists of OT and NT. Amen to that.