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Monday, May 24, 2010

True Confessions of a Reformed Catholic: Sola Scriptura

“For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe” (1 Thessalonians 2.13 NKJV).

I have a confession to make. I am a catholic. To be sure, a Reformed catholic. That means at least two primary things: (1) I can heartily affirm all of the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. (2) Also, I believe what the creeds say when they mention, “I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic Church.” I believe in one church of Jesus Christ, which Jesus promised would never fade away, nor be destroyed by hell or the devil or rotten and grubby men. Why am I telling you this? Mainly, to correct a terrible misconception. Contrary to popular opinion, the Reformation was not about starting a new, competing church. Nor was it about restoring the supposedly pristinely pure 1st Century Church. Instead, it was about reforming the Church. The foundational Reformers held to most everything the Roman clerical authorities professed to hold to, but the Reformers sensed that a few items that were once held to by the Church had been misplaced and stowed away in the ecclesiastical attic and forgotten. These few important items were pulled together and called the 5 Solas. Sola Scriptura, Solus Christus, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, and Soli Deo Gloria. Over the next few weeks, I would like to examine these important family jewels, 1 by 1, and as I do so you will hear the true confessions of a Reformed catholic.

What Sola Scriptura Means: It basically means that the Holy Scriptures of God’s self-revelation are our final rule of faith and life. You see this sense laid out by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 2.13. It means receiving the words of God: the Hebrew Scriptures (2 Timothy 3.15-17), and the remembered and recorded words of Christ’s spokesmen, the Apostles, with Jesus Christ as the magnetic center of both, as Paul goes on to show (1 Thessalonians 4.1-2). Also, as you notice here and in Peter, James, Jude, John, et al, these spokesmen expected that what they wrote would be held as normative for Christ‘s people.

Many early church pastors and theologians taught the same principle. Irenaeus, Senior Pastor of the Church of Lyons, in 170, did ‘battle’ with the Gnostics of his day and forcefully declared that the “writings of Moses are the words of Christ.” and also that we Christians follow the one true God, and “possess His words as the rule of truth’. Several years later, Augustine, Senior Pastor of the Church of Hippo North Africa, announced that readers were free to disagree with his writings and the writings of other Christian teachers, but with regard to the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, he stated the following: “But in consequence of the distinctive peculiarity of the sacred writings, we are bound to receive as true whatever the canon shows to have been said by even one prophet, or apostle, or evangelist.” There are loads of other quotations I could add to this, but these are sufficient. The notion that Scripture sits over the teachings of Doctors and pastors of the church is an ancient aspect of the catholic faith.

What happened: Over the centuries, things changed, bit-by-bit, until the Scriptures where hardly known, and other things became more authoritative. Therefore, the Reformers fought to regain the ancient pattern of sound words: that the Holy Scripture is our final standard of truth and faith and practice. Resistance came from 2 fronts: (1) On one side, there were those who held to the notion that ‘Tradition’ and the Magisterium (the official teaching office of the church) were equal in authority. In the words of the dogmatic constitution of the Roman Catholic Church, Dei Verbum, “It is clear, therefore, that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred tradition, sacred scripture and the Magisterium of the church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others” (II.10). (2) On the other side stood those Enthusiasts who thought the Spirit spoke to them directly ‘beyond the sacred page’, thus challenging the place of Scripture. Luther said these Enthusiasts had “swallowed the Spirit feathers and all.” Both the Roman clerical authorities and the Anabaptist Enthusiasts had the same problem, they placed something else along-side (and eventually above) Sacred Scripture as the chief governing guide of how we live and what we believe.

What Sola Scriptura doesn’t mean: It doesn’t mean bare or stripped-down Scripture alone. It doesn’t mean “me and my Bible, sequestered off in a corner alone”. It doesn’t mean “My interpretation of Scripture alone“. And it doesn’t mean, “my interpretation of my favorite Scriptures alone”. Unfortunately, all of these misconceptions are the pretty common, man-in-the-pew-and-woman-in-the-pew-and-preacher-in-the-pulpit misunderstandings, and they’re wrong. The Reformers believed that the Church’s teachers and councils and creeds and confessions of faith had a valuable human role to play in understanding the Scriptures, because they humbly and clearly acknowledged that we have our own presuppositions and culturally conditioned perceptions, and need to hear what others have thoughtfully said about the Scriptures, which have stood the test of time, so as to help us get it right. But no theologian, pastor, creed, nor confession of faith is equal to or above Sacred Scripture. The creeds, confessions and councils of Christ’s church help us as we read-but they never sit over the Scriptures. That’s why when you read Calvin and Luther you will find them quoting the early pastors and theologians and church councils and creeds of the church, agreeing and occasionally disagreeing. This is not only the Classic Protestant position; but if words and practice are any indication, then this was the position of church leaders and Doctors of the Church throughout the ages, both the earlier centuries, and since October 31, 1517. It’s the truly catholic position.

The Present Need: Here in the 21st century we live in a religious environment that is losing this important Christian—catholic truth. There are growing numbers of people promoting “spirituality without organized religion” and are claiming direct revelations of the Spirit in spite of, and against, and over the Scriptures. There are those who babble about “Scripture alone” while giving more capital to psychology, therapy, self-help, statistics, social planning, the Wall Street Journal, Guidepost magazine, Oprah and other forms of entertainment than they do the Scriptures. There are Protestants, Independents and Evangelicals who claim Sola Scriptura but scarcely have any Scripture read and prayed in their worship assemblies. There are those who place creeds and councils and dogmas above Scripture. There are those who place social justice, social conservatism, politics and tolerance above Scripture. There are those who affirm Sola Scriptura but their lives are lived in a drastically opposite direction to the Scriptures.

How do we counteract all this? The following are some simple starter-thoughts:

· A congregation’s Worship should declare their firm conviction and confidence in Scripture alone. One crucial way this is done is by having a substantial portion of Scripture in our public Worship assemblies. Another way to correct the negative trend in our congregations, is for preachers to recapture the ancient pattern of preaching through whole books of the Bible.

· Our congregations need to get back to having serious Bible studies that grabble with all the books of the Bible. Also, the leadership needs to start encouraging their parishioners to get involved in those Bible studies.

· We must be reading the Scriptures at home, in our own personal devotional time and also as family.

· Finally, we must check ourselves: “Why do we do what we do?” Is it because the statisticians, therapeutic gurus, social scientists, and media talking-heads say it’s good and right? Or do we do what we do because the Scriptures have the place of primacy as the rule for our worship, walk and worldview.

Sola Scriptura; not just a cool sounding Latin mantra, but a way of living and being and dying.

“For this reason we also thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe” (1 Thessalonians 2.13 NKJV).

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Nick said...

How can you say 1 Thess 2:13 applies to Scripture, even Scripture alone? Paul is speaking of his oral teaching, preached to them before 1 Thes was even written!

Please see this link:

Mike Philliber said...

Nick, I'm flattered you would take the time to read the post & comment. Thanks. In response to your question/assertion, you're right that 1 Thes. 2.13 applies to the oral proclamation. The division you seem to be making (& if I'm wrong, please clarify for me)is that there is some kind of distinction between oral Apostolic proclamation/tradition & enscripted Apostolic proclamation/tradition. 2 Thess. 2.15 shows that the 2 are identical: "Therefore, brethren, stand fast & hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle." The implication is that the oral proclamation/tradition & the written are identical in content & authority. Now that the Apostles have passed from the scene (in body), their enscriptured proclamation/tradition still remains & is the authority for faith & life.

Again, thanks for taking the time to read the post & to comment.

Nick said...


You are correct, the "Word of God" was given through oral as well as written teaching of the Apostles. There is a distinction. I don't believe or see how 2 Thes 2:15 says they are identical, though I would lean towards 'no' considering there would be little point in Paul telling them to hold to 'either' form if what was written was identical.

It could be argued that they are identical in 'essence' but not in 'extent' (i.e. what is implicit in the oral form could be explicit in the written form, and vice versa). But this wouldn't entail making the oral form is dispensable.

Lastly, that the Apostles died doesn't tell us what extent of revelation was confined to writing, nor does that indicate the oral teachings somehow vanished. Such things cannot be assumed, especially when it comes to matters as significant as this.

I welcome any further comments or clarifications.

Mike Philliber said...


1st-1 Thessalonians 4.1-8 shows that the oral & written went hand in glove.There Paul mentions the tradition "just as you received from us" & then rehearses it, "for this is the will of God...". From looking at several places through out the New Testament, this seems to be the pattern: the oral & the written cover the same material. One is the immediate direction & the other is the enscripted direction.

2nd-The idea of ongoing Apostolic Tradition seems to stretch the limits of authority and practice. It was the very pattern the Gnostics posited, that they had the secret tradition that clarified Apostolic writings. At that point it then becomes a "whose daddy is bigger" argument, "My tradition vs Your tradition".

3rd-I do agree that we see Scripture through the lens of tradition. That's why it is good to read & listen to the councils & fathers. & all of us read & hear Scripture through our own "tradition lens". That's why the west & the east had so many fights over the dates of Christmas & Easter, as well as Papal authority over joint Patriarchal rule, & so on.

4th-it is interesting that when Irenaeus (170 a.d.)refers to the Apostolic tradition, and then rehearses it it sounds strangely like the Apostles' Creed, but when Basil (mid-4th cent) rehearses it, all kinds of things are brought in (signing oneself with the cross, facing east while praying, 3-fold immersions at baptism, etc). By the time we get to the 7th Ecumenical Council, we all of a sudden have the mandate that each church must have an Icon, & if there is no icon then that church is "anathema" (of course, you know how the east & west haggle over what is a legitemate image allowed/not allowed. 3D or written Icon...). It seems fairly clear, by reading the fathers, one comes to see that more & more material began to be assumed under "Apostolic Tradition" that wasn't originally there.

Nick said...


(1) That Paul repeats in writing what he already taught, or, better yet, confirming *certain* points of his oral teaching is one thing, but that doesn't logically mean all he says in writing is what was taught orally. It's not uncommon for certain key points to be repeated in the NT, without in any way intending to convey that was the extent with what was said. Plus, in certain cases it would make no sense at all to say the writing is repeating oral teaching when the writing is conveying new information.

(2) I don't see how ongoing Apostolic Tradition stretches the limits of authority. It is what it is, so it cannot 'stretch' anymore than it it already did. The notion that Tradition would expire or that the Christians were to forget what was preached to them as soon as the last Apostle died (which most of Christendom wouldn't have known about for some time given that news spread slowly) sounds extreme to me and without Biblical warrant. I also wouldn't confuse this with the 'secret tradition' of the gnostics, as St Irenaeus points out is not the same as Apostolic Tradition either (if a Tradition came from the Apostles, it could in no way be Gnostic version!).

(3) Agreed. I just think the testimony of Christian history, especially the Patristic era doesn't give off the impression of Sola Scriptura.

(4) I see your point here. I'd have to look into some of those in more detail. I would suggest that a difference in practice need not mean contradicting Traditions. As long as things like Baptism were done within certain parameters, one could have it done a variety of ways. I remember Councils as early as Nicaea1 stating certain groups' baptism was questioned but valid while other groups had to have their baptism redone properly.