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What is Sola Scriptura?

Question: What is Sola Scriptura?

Answer: Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) is the doctrine that the Holy Bible, being the Word of God, is the only infallible rule of faith and practice for Christians in the post-apostolic age.

The Bible is:

  1. The rule (standard, guide) of faith - teaching us what we ought to believe and how to live for the glory of God.

  2. The infallible rule - incapable of error, certain, not liable to mislead - because it is the Word of God.

  3. The only infallible rule - it contains the whole counsel of God for His people. Christians value religious teachers, but they are fallible (liable to make mistakes). We also value tradition as long as it is consistent with the Scriptures.

Christians have full confidence in the Holy Scriptures because they are "given by inspiration" or "God-breathed" - the very Word proceeding from the mouth of God. What "The Scriptures say" and what "God says" are the same thing. That is what Jesus believed.

Jesus answered and said to them, “You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God. “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven. “But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” (Matthew 22:29-32).

What is read in the Scriptures is God speaking to us! Therefore the Scriptures are the infallible rule of faith since God can neither lie nor err. 'The entirety of Your word is truth, And every one of Your righteous judgments endures forever' (Psalm 119:160). The teaching of the Bible is free from error and we can have absolute confidence in it.

Moreover, sola Scriptura affirms that all that the Church and every Christian must believe for salvation and godliness is certainly found in the Holy Scriptures. The Bible is able to make us wise for salvation which is by faith in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 3:15,16). The Bible is also useful for teaching and correction so that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly furnished for every good work. God's revelation for His Church is fully contained in the Holy Bible and there is no important information missing that we should seek elsewhere.

Having indicated what sola Scriptura is, we must also discuss what it is not. Sola Scriptura is often misunderstood and misrepresented. I am dismayed and angered whenever I read Catholic literature on this subject because more often then not they are attacking a straw man.

  1. Sola Scriptura is not a claim that the Bible contains all knowledge. The Bible does not give exhaustive details on the history of redemption. John 21:25 says that not all that Jesus did is recorded in the book; all the books of the world would not be enough for that purpose. But the Bible does not have to be exhaustive to function as the sole rule of faith for the church. We need 'enough' knowledge not 'exhaustive' knowledge. Sometimes Catholic apologists argue for the need of tradition, saying that Bible does not record everything. Apparently they do not realize that tradition is not exhaustive either! Does tradition give us all possible information about the life of Christ, and all that He said, and all the apostles did and said? Of course not! In fact, we would respectfully challenge our Catholic friends to give us one statement that Jesus said that comes to us by tradition and not from the Holy Scripture.

  2. Sola Scriptura is not a denial of the church's authority to teach God's revelation. The Church is 'the pillar and foundation of the truth' (I Timothy 3:15) because it upholds and teaches the Word of God. However the church cannot add doctrines of human origin or contradict the God-breathed Scriptures. The church's authority is subordinate to the authority of the Bible. Moreover, the church is commissioned to preach the Word orally, and to transmit the Christian Gospel from one generation to the next. The most enthusiastic proponents of sola Scriptura do so eagerly and do their best to make sure that their preaching is consistent with the written Word of God. 

  3. Sola Scriptura is not a denial that historically God's Word came in other ways other than the written form. Before writing down His message, God spoke through the apostles and prophets, and personally in Christ Jesus, His Son. During the same time the Holy Spirit moved holy men to write down His Word to be the permanent inspired record of His message for the post-apostolic age till the end. The apostles and prophets are the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20) and though they are absent, we can still build our lives on their teaching which is recorded infallibly in the Holy Scriptures.

  4. Sola Scriptura does not imply that the Bible will always be interpreted correctly, or that there will not be differences and heresies among Christians. Jesus was clear enough in His teaching, yet His disciples often misunderstood Him. The apostles' message was also perfectly intelligible, and yet all sorts of errors and heresies crept in the early church. Similarly, the Bible is not written in a mysterious and cryptic code that needs some infallible decoder to explain its hidden meaning. The Bible is addressed to the ordinary people of God and it can be understood. The problem lies not with the clarity of the Bible, but with people who often ignore the Bible or twist the its meaning because of laziness, ignorance and prejudice.

'What is the infallible rule of faith?' remains the a major dividing issue between Catholics and Protestants. And rightly so. We are building on different foundations.

The Roman Catholic answers something like this, 'God's Word is found in the Bible and in Tradition. But you can't understand the Bible correctly. As for Tradition, no one knows exactly what it contains. Therefore you must submit without reservations to the Pope and the bishops of the Roman church. The teaching of the Catholic magisterium is the infallible rule of faith.'

An Evangelical answers differently, 'The Holy Scriptures are able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that God's people may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.'

© Dr Joseph Mizzi