Sola Scriptura in the Protestant Confessions & Creeds

Sola Scriptura in the Protestant Confessions & Creeds June 12, 2024

Photo credit: Photograph by James Nichols [public domain / Pixabay]

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For the purpose of historical background, it should be understood that sola Scriptura (as the Christian rule of faith) began when Martin Luther (1483-1546), the founder of Protestantism, decided to deny the infallibility of the Church, apostolic tradition, ecumenical councils, and the pope (i.e., claiming that they could err); thus leaving — almost by “default” — the Bible as the only infallible rule of faith. Protestant Luther biographer Roland Bainton stated that in 1518 Luther “declared the pope and councils to be capable of error” (Here I Stand, New York: Mentor, 1950, 78-79).

He reiterated and strengthened such claims during his 18-day Leipzig Disputation of July 1519, with Johann Eck. Bainton reports that Luther stated: “I assert that a council has sometimes erred and may sometimes err. . . . Councils have contradicted each other, . . . For the sake of Scripture we should reject pope and councils” (Ibid., 90). In 1520, Luther expressly denied papal infallibility: “they play about with words before our very eyes, trying to persuade us that the pope cannot err in matters of faith, regardless of whether he is righteous or wicked” (To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation; in Three Treatises, taken from Luther’s Works, revised edition, 1970, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 19). Likewise, he wrote in March 1521 about “holy teachers in the church”:

I do not reject them. But everyone, indeed, knows that at times they have erred, as men will; . . . (Defense and Explanation of All the Articles of Dr. Martin Luther Which Were Unjustly Condemned by the Roman Bull, in Luther’s Works, Vol. 32, 11–12)

The next big milestone in Luther’s anti-traditional trajectory is the Diet of Worms, where Luther, on April 18th, 1521, stated, “I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves.” The late Presbyterian teacher R. C. Sproul commented on this:

In one sense, this concept of sola Scriptura was born publicly in Luther’s famous confrontation with the rulers of the state and the church at the Diet of Worms, whereupon Luther was called to recant of his teaching. . . . In one sense, this concept of sola Scriptura was born publicly in Luther’s famous confrontation with the rulers of the state and the church at the Diet of Worms, whereupon Luther was called to recant of his teaching. (“What is Reformed Theology?”)

John Calvin, the second most important and influential leader of early Protestantism, also disputed the Catholic contention that ecumenical councils were “under the immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit, and therefore cannot err” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Bk, IV, 8:10) and thought the Roman See, “once the mother of all the churches,” exhibited in his day “nothing but horrible apostacy” and had become “the seat of Antichrist” (Ibid., IV, 7:34). Luther’s newfound belief, reiterated by Calvin, established the standard definition of sola Scriptura:

Scripture is formally sufficient in and of itself to function as the rule of faith and standard for Christian doctrine, since it alone is inspired revelation and God’s Word, and [the other essential component], nothing is infallible and divinely protected from error except for Holy Scripture.

Thus, Protestantism’s rejection of papal, conciliar, and ecclesiastical infallibility, as well as the infallibility of sacred apostolic tradition (asserting that all of them could err), is a simultaneous assertion of sola Scriptura. I shall now document how the confessions and creeds of historical Protestantism repeatedly assert this definition of sola Scriptura.

The Smalcald Articles (1537): “We
do
not
concede
to
them
that
they
are
the
Church,
and
[in
truth]
they
are
not
[the
Church]; nor
will
we
listen
to
those
things
which,
under
the
name
of
Church,
they
enjoin
or
forbid” (XII, 1); “the
Pope
is
not,
according
to
divine
law
or
according
to
the
Word
of
God
the
head
of
all Christendom” (IV, 1);

Anglican Forty-Two Articles (1553; my update of the old English): “the Church of Rome has erred not only in their living, but also in matters of their faith” (“Of the Church”); “General councils . . . may err, and sometime have erred, not only in worldly matters, but also in things pertaining unto God” (“Of the Authority of General Councils”).

The Scots Confession (1560): “As we believe and confess the Scriptures of God sufficient to instruct and make the man of God perfect, so do we affirm and avow the authority of the same to be of God, and neither to depend on men nor angels” (19). “General Councils . . . as they were men, so have some of them manifestly erred, and that in matters of great weight and importance” (20).

The Belgic Confession (1561) referred to the Bible as the sole “infallible rule.”

The 2nd Helvetic Confession (1564): “we do not permit ourselves, in controversies about religion or matters of faith, to urge our case with only the opinions of the fathers or decrees of councils . . . we reject human traditions, even if they be adorned with high-sounding titles, as though they were divine and apostolical, delivered to the Church by the living voice of the apostles.” And it states that, “The Church . . . does not err as long as it rests upon the rock Christ, and upon the foundation of the prophets and apostles. And it is no wonder if it errs, as often as it deserts him who alone is the truth.” In other words, it assumes that the true Church will fall into error, and is not divinely protected from that.

The Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles (1571): “the Church of Rome hath erred, . . . in matters of faith” (Art. XIX). Ecumenical councils “may err and sometime have erred, even in things pertaining to God” (Art. XXI).

First London Baptist Confession of Faith (1644): “The rule of this knowledge, faith, and obedience, concerning the worship and service of God, and all other Christian duties, is not mans inventions, opinions, devices, laws, constitutions, or traditions unwritten whatsoever, but only the word of God contained in the Canonical Scriptures” (VII); ” faults and corruptions, . . . as long as the church consists of men subject to failings, will fall out and arise amongst them, even in true constituted churches” (XLVI).

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1946 translation of the 1646 version): “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself” (I, 9), and, “The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error” (XXV, 5), and, “Nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof: but is that Antichrist” (XXV, 6), and, “All synods or councils, since the Apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith and practice” (XXXI, 4).

Savoy Declaration of Faith (1658): “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself” (I, 9); “The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error” (XXVI, 3); “There is no other Head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ; nor can the Pope of Rome in any sense be head thereof; but is that antichrist” (XXVI, 4).

Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689): “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience” (I, 1); “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself” (I, 9); “The purest churches under heaven are subject to mixture and error” (XXVI, 3); “neither can the Pope of Rome in any sense be head thereof, but is that antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition” (XXVI, 4).

More recent Protestant apologists and scholars have followed suit:

Scripture is . . . our sole infallible authority. (Lutheran Jordan Cooper, at 38:39 in his video, Sola Scriptura: Scripture Alone (The Five Solas) (2-24-24).

Sola Scriptura . . . recognizes that there are many authorities, but Scripture is the sole infallible authority, so Scripture has preference over all other authorities we might have. (Jordan Cooper, “An Explanation of Sola Scriptura,  3-11-19)

Sola Scriptura means that Scripture is the Church’s only infallible rule. It doesn’t mean that Scripture is the only authority. Sola Scriptura simply means that popes, councils, and other post-apostolic organs of the church are fallible. (Reformed Baptist Gavin Ortlund, in his video, Sola Scriptura Defended in 6 Minutes”: 1-17-24).

Sola Scriptura has always been maintained as the view that the Bible is the only infallible rule for theology. (Gavin Ortlund, “Sola Scriptura DEFENDED”, 12-15-20).

Scripture . . . is the only inspired and inherently infallible norm, and therefore Scripture is the only final authoritative norm. (Reformed Protestant Keith A. Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura, Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2001, 260)

What Protestants mean by sola scriptura is that the Bible alone is the infallible written authority for faith and morals. (evangelicals Norman Geisler and Ralph E. Mackenzie Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1995, 178)

The doctrine of sola scriptura, simply stated, is that the Scriptures alone are sufficient to function as the regula fidei, the infallible rule of faith for the Church. (Reformed Baptist James White, The Roman Catholic Controversy, Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1996, 59)

Luther and the Reformers did not mean by Sola Scriptura that the Bible is the only authority in the church. Rather, they meant that the Bible is the only infallible authority in the church. . . . For the Reformers no church council, synod, classical theologian, or early church father is regarded as infallible. (Presbyterian R. C. Sproul, Sola Scriptura: Crucial To Evangelicalism”)

The only reliable canon, the only infallible doctrine, the only binding principles, and the only saving message, is the God-breathed truth of Scripture. . . . it never acknowledges any other infallible source of authority. Word-of-mouth tradition is never said to be theopneustos, God-breathed, or infallible. (Baptist John F. MacArthur, Jr., “The Sufficiency of the Written Word”)

See my scores of articles refuting sola Scriptura in the third section of my web page, Bible, Tradition, Canon, & “Sola Scriptura”. 

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Photo credit: Photograph by James Nichols [public domain / Pixabay]

Summary: Sola Scriptura holds that Scripture is formally sufficient for doctrine and theology, and that nothing is infallible and divinely protected from error except for Holy Scripture.

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