Reformed View of Sola Scriptura
II. Aspects of Sola Scriptura
1. The Authority of Scripture
The regulative principle of Scripture rests upon the fact that the Bible is unique. The Bible alone is God’s word. The Westminster Confession says, “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or Church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; and therefore it is to be received because it is the Word of God” (1.4). Scripture is inspired by God. Therefore, it is truth and it carries the authority of God himself. It alone among books carries an absolute authority.
There is only one God—the ontological trinity who is transcendent, who has created all things and who gives meaning to all factuality. Likewise, presently there is only one direct verbal or written source of divine revelation. There is only one book which tells us the mind and will of God. Because the Scripture is breathed out by God himself, it is self authenticating and absolute. Its authority does not depend on the church, or empirical evidences, or human philosophy. The church and all men are required to submit to the authority of Scripture without any quibbling or reservations, for it is the voice of the Almighty himself.
Because Scripture is God’s Word, it is the final, definitive authority in all matters of faith and life. The Bible is the only absolute, objective standard by which ethics, doctrine, church government and worship are to be judged. The Westminster Confession says, “The supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined; and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” (1.10). Men who are sinful and fallible can and do receive a delegated authority from God. However, only God, who is the absolute sovereign and creator of all things, has the right to bind men to faith and duty.
2. The Sufficiency and Perfection of Scripture
An understanding of the sufficiency, perfection or completeness of Scripture (which is a crucial aspect of the Reformed understanding of sola scriptura) will lead us to a deeper understanding of the inseparable connection that exists between the regulative principle of Scripture and the regulative principle of worship. By the perfection of Scripture we mean that the Bible is fully sufficient unto the end for which it was designed by God. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Robert Shaw writes: “The Scripture is represented as perfect, fitted to answer every necessary end, Ps. xix. 8, 9; it is sufficient to make ‘the man of God perfect,’ and able to make private Christians ‘wise unto salvation, through faith which is in Christ Jesus.’—2 Tim. iii. 15-17. So complete is the Scripture, that its Author has peremptorily prohibited either to add to, or to diminish ought from it.—Deut. iv. 2; Rev. xxii. 18, 19.”8 A. A. Hodge writes: “as a matter of fact, the Scriptures do teach a perfect system of doctrine, and all the principles which are necessary for the practical regulation of the lives of individuals, communities, and churches. The more diligent men have been in the study of the Bible, and the more assiduous they have been in carrying out its instructions into practice, the less has it been possible for them to believe that it is incomplete in any element of a perfect rule of all that which man is to believe concerning God, and of all that duty which God requires of man.”9
When we discuss the Scripture as the inspired final revelation of God that is sufficient and complete for salvation, service to God, faith and practice, we do not mean that there are no truths that can be ascertained outside of Scripture. We noted earlier that certain things about God and ourselves are learned from natural revelation. Further, one does not need the Bible to practice elementary logic, simple mathematics and basic surface observations. The achievements of unbelieving scientists, engineers, artists, architects, medical doctors and others in the world are proof of this assertion. However, even in these so-called “secular” areas of life unbelievers must conduct their affairs in accordance with biblical presuppositions in order to get anything done. In other words, the Bible not only tells us about God, ourselves, redemption and ethics, it also is the foundation of all meaning. Apart from divine revelation man cannot really understand or account for anything. Van Til writes: “Thus the Bible, as the infallibly inspired revelation of God to sinful man, stands before us as that light in terms of which all the facts of the created universe must be interpreted. All of finite existence, natural and redemptive, functions in relation to one all-inclusive plan that is in the mind of God. Whatever insight man is to have into this pattern of the activity of God he must attain by looking at all his objects of research in the light of Scripture. If true religion is to beam upon us, our principle must be, that it is necessary to begin with heavenly teaching, and that it is impossible for any man to obtain even the minutest portion of right and sound doctrine without being a disciple of Scripture.”10 Further, there are no areas of ethical neutrality in the universe. Even in areas in which the Bible does not speak directly, such as structural engineering and rocket science, it does speak indirectly. All of life is to be lived for God’s glory, and even the most mundane activities are to be conducted according to general principles of God’s word.
By the “perfection and sufficiency” of Scripture the Reformed confessions mean that the Bible is such a perfect and complete guide to man regarding everything that God requires us to believe (salvation, doctrine, statutes, etc.) and everything that God requires us to do (ethics, sanctification, worship ordinances, church government, etc.) that it does not need any supplementation from man. The Reformed confessions emphasize that the Bible is not one rule among many or simply the best or principal rule. It is the only rule of faith and practice. The First Helvetic Confession says: “The Canonical Scripture...doth alone perfectly contain all piety and good ordering of life” (Art. 1).11 The Belgic Confession says: “We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God...the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them...” (Art. 7).12 The Second Helvetic Confession says: “And in this Holy Scripture, the universal
Positively speaking, the Bible is the only rule for faith and obedience. Negatively speaking, men are expressly forbidden to add their own ideas, doctrine and/or precepts to the Scripture in any way. The French Confession says: “And seeing this is the sum of all truth, containing whatsoever is required for the worship of God and our salvation, we hold it not lawful for men, no, for the angels themselves, to add or detract anything to or from that word, or to alter any whit at all in the same” (Art. 5).13 The Belgic Confession says: “it is unlawful for any one, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures: nay, though it were an angel from heaven, as the apostle Paul saith. For since it is forbidden to add unto or take away any thing from the Word of God, it doth thereby evidently appear that the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects. Neither do we consider of equal value any writing of men, however holy these men may have been, with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees, or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God, for the truth is above all; for all men are of themselves liars, and more vain than vanity itself. Therefore we reject with all our hearts whatsoever doth not agree with this infallible rule which the apostles have taught us...” (Art. 7)14. The Second Helvetic Confession says: “in this respect it is expressly commanded of God that nothing be either put to or taken away from the same [the Holy Scriptures] (Deut. 4:2; Rev. 22:18-19).”15 The Westminster Confession of Faith says: “...unto which [Scripture] nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men” (1.6).
The fact that the Bible is sufficient, perfect and complete renders all attempts at supplementing its teachings regarding faith and ethics with ideas and rules that originate in man’s mind to be unbiblical and foolish. Against spiritualistic enthusiasts, charismatics, diviners and all false prophets the Westminster Confession of Faith states that no “new revelations of the Spirit” are to be added to God’s word. Against the papists and all who intrude human traditions into the precepts, ordinances, worship or government of the church, the Reformed confessions condemn adding “the traditions of men” to the word of God. The doctrine of the perfection and sufficiency of Scripture protects believers from the tyranny of human requirements. No one (whether a bishop, church father, synod or council) is permitted to bind men’s consciences with any doctrine or requirement. Everything must be based on Scripture, either by direct command or by good and necessary consequence. Thus the Westminster Confession of Faith says, “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to His Word; or beside it, in matters of faith and worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience...” (20.2). Regarding good works the Confession says, “Good works are only such as God hath commanded in His holy Word, and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men, out of blind zeal, or upon any pretence of good intention” (16.1). Concerning worship the Confession says, “But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures” (21.1).
3. The Completeness and Finality of Scripture
When the Reformed confessions assert the perfection and sufficiency of Scripture, and when the Westminster Confession speaks against “new revelations of the Spirit,” they are teaching the completeness and finality of Scripture. By Scripture we mean the completed canon (the 66 books of the Old and New Testament), the inscripturated word of God. At this point in salvation history (after the completion of Christ’s redemptive work, after the person and work of Christ has been explained by the New Testament prophets and apostles and the government, worship and doctrine of the new covenant church has been fully set forth by the Holy Spirit in Scripture) the revelatory process has ceased. Scripture could not have been completed until after Jesus accomplished his work on earth. Everything in Scripture is related in some manner to the person and work of Christ. Jesus is described as the climax and finality of God speaking to man (Heb. 1:1-2).
Our Lord told his disciples that it was to their advantage that he go away, for after his ascension he would send the Holy Spirit who would guide them into all truth (Jn. 16:7, 13-15). The Spirit-inspired apostles and New Testament prophets gave us the foundation (the N.T. canon) upon which the new covenant churches build (Eph. 2:20-21). Paul said that when the perfect comes (i.e., the completed N.T. revelation), prophecy and other modes of revelation would cease (1 Cor. 13:8-12). It is a fact of history that divine revelation did cease when the last apostle died. Throughout history those who have claimed to have direct revelations from God (e.g., Montanists, Zickau prophets, Irvingites, modern charismatics, etc.) have always been false prophets. Christ and the apostles predicted the rise of false prophets and warned us not to follow their counterfeit revelations (cf. Mt. 7:15-23; 24:11; 2 Pet. 2:1 ff.; 2 Th. 2:9-11; etc.).
The fact that revelation has ceased and that Scripture has been designed by God as fully sufficient to meet all our needs (2 Tim. 3:16-17) means that if we want to know God’s mind and will, our only source for this knowledge is the Bible. John Murray writes:
Scripture occupies for us an exclusive place and performs an exclusive function as the only extant mode of revelation. It is granted by those with whom we are particularly concerned in this address that Scripture does not continue to be written, that it is a closed canon. Once this is admitted, then we must entertain what our opponents are not willing to grant, namely, that conception of Scripture taught and pre-supposed by our Lord and his apostles, and insist that it is this conception that must be applied to the whole canon of Scripture. Since we no longer have prophets, since we do not have our Lord with us as he was with the disciples, and since we do not have new organs of revelation as in apostolic times, Scripture in its total extent, according to the conception entertained by our Lord and his apostles, is the only revelation of the mind and will of God available to us. This is what the finality of Scripture means for us; it is the only extant revelatory Word of God.16
8 Robert Shaw, Exposition of the Confession of Faith (Edmonton: Still Waters Revival Books, n.d. ), 16.
9 A. A. Hodge, The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1955), 124.
10 Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1955), 124. Van Til quotes John Calvin, Institutes, I.VI.2.
11 Harmony of Protestant Confessions, 4.
12 Reformed Confessions Harmonized, 14.
13 Harmony of Protestant Confessions, 8.
14 Reformed Confessions Harmonized, 14, 16.
15 Ibid., 10.
III. The Jewish/Romanist Rejection of Sola Scriptura
The Bible and all the Reformed confessions condemn adding the traditions of men to the word of God. Unfortunately, the principle of sola scriptura has been violated throughout church history. Two prime examples of adding traditions to God’s word are rabbinic Judaism and Roman Catholicism.
Rabbinic Judaism teaches that when Moses received the written law on
The Roman Catholic Church is very similar to Judaism on the issue of authority. Romanists teach that the Bible and tradition as interpreted by the Church are the final seat of authority in religion. The Council of Trent says: “Seeing clearly that this truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions” (4th sess.; 1546).17 The Second Vatican Council says:
This tradition which comes from the apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down.... For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fulness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her (Dei Verbum, 8; 1962-1965).18
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that the church “does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.”19 The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the hierarchy (i.e., the bishops and the supreme Pontiff), with the help of the Holy Spirit, picks, authorizes and adds its own authoritative tradition to the written form of revelation. Romanists do not believe that the church hierarchy is making up doctrine but simply setting forth the oral teachings of Jesus and the apostles that were never inscripturated. These teachings were given to the bishops as a parallel source of authority.
Romanist teaching regarding the authority of tradition gives the church hierarchy an authority over the written word of God. Christ emphatically condemned the use of tradition as a source of authority (cf. Mk. 7:5-13), because whenever tradition is set up alongside of Scripture, it eventually is placed above Scripture, and is then used to interpret Scripture. Human tradition was the chief reason that the nation of
Why is the Romanist doctrine of an unwritten tradition (as a co-equal authority with Scripture that somehow is kept pure by the church hierarchy and then delivered to the laity throughout history) unbiblical? There are many reasons why the Roman Catholic doctrine of an authoritative tradition must be rejected. First, the doctrine of the perfection, completeness and sufficiency of Scripture renders an authoritative tradition or further revelation from God unnecessary. Second, God’s inscripturated word forbids adding or detracting from the completed canon. Third, many of the Romanist traditions that have been added as authoritative doctrine and practice explicitly contradict the clear teaching of the Bible. Fourth, many Roman Catholic traditions contradict each other. Fifth, most of the additions of the papal church had their origins long after the death of the apostles. Sixth, human tradition is dependent upon sinful, fallible men and thus is obscure, unprovable and indefinite.20 An “authoritative” human tradition requires faith in sinful man’s fluctuating opinions. Only toward Scripture, which is perfect, complete, sufficient and perspicuous, can we direct our faith, for it is the very word of Christ and gives us a full assurance. Seventh, the Bible itself condemns all doctrines and worship practices that are not derived from the Scriptures. “In vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mt. 15:9; Isa. 29:13). Turretin writes:
Nor can it be replied that the Pharisaical traditions are rejected, not the apostolic. All doctrines taught by men and not contained in the Scriptures are rejected and the assumption is gratuitous that there are any apostolic traditions out of the Scriptures. Believers are called to the law and the testimony (Is. 8:20) and destruction is denounced against those who do not speak according to it. Nor can traditions be meant by the testimony because God everywhere rejects them. Either the law itself (often called “the testimony”) is meant as a testimony of God exegetically or the writings of the prophets which were added to the law.21
Roman Catholic apologists attempt to justify their doctrine of an authoritative tradition by appealing to certain passages of Scripture. A brief examination of some of these passages is needed to reveal their true meaning. As we consider these passages we must keep in mind that the apostles had a unique authority. The apostles’ oral teaching was authoritative and binding. Therefore, those men and churches who sat under the teaching of the apostles were obligated to obey the apostles’ Spirit-inspired instruction as the very word of God, a rule for faith and life. However, the fact that the apostles could orally teach inspired authoritative truth while they were still alive (and that the churches were morally obligated to obey their teaching) does not at all prove that there is an oral authoritative tradition that is somehow preserved among the Romanist hierarchy throughout history. Scripture alone must define the phrase “apostolic tradition.” Furthermore, why would the God of infinite wisdom commit some of his revelation to writing and the rest to oral tradition? While written revelation is easily preserved from corruption, oral tradition is easily corrupted and lost. Also, when a bishop or pope comes up with a new teaching from the supposed trough of unwritten apostolic tradition, how are we to determine whether or not he simply made up that doctrine out of his own imagination? Are we supposed to simply accept his own word on it? Is this not a blind faith in the words of men? The Romanist foundation of an authoritative tradition rests upon its doctrine of the special authority of the church (i.e., the sacerdotal hierarchy). It is a doctrine that in itself is totally contrary to the Bible. The only way that we can know with absolute certainty what the apostles taught is to read their inscripturated writings.
In 1 Corinthians 11:2 Paul says: “keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you.” Is Paul here agreeing with the papal doctrine regarding a body of unwritten tradition transmitted by a succession of bishops from generation to generation? No, not at all. Paul is simply instructing the Corinthian believers to obey the doctrine and exhortations that he had given them when he was personally present among them. The word (paradosis) translated as “tradition” or “ordinance” (KJV), when used in reference to the rule of faith in the New Testament, always refers to the immediate instructions of inspired men. “When used in the modern sense of the word tradition, it is always in reference to what is human and untrustworthy, Gal. 1, 14. Col. 2, 8, and frequently in the gospels of the traditions of the elders.”22
A favorite proof text of Romanist apologists is 2 Thessalonians 2:15, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught whether by word or by epistle.” Note that Paul refers to oral or spoken doctrine as well as written teaching. Doesn’t this passage perfectly fit the papal doctrine of a two-fold revelation: one written and one oral? No, absolutely not! Once again Paul is referring to inspired teaching given personally. This passage does not support the idea of a secret teaching handed down through the centuries by bishops. “Paul is not encouraging the Thessalonians to receive some tradition that had been delivered to them via second or third hand reports. On the contrary, he was ordering them to receive as infallible truth only what they had heard directly from his own lips.”23
In order to show the absurdity of the Romanist position let us consider one more point. Assume for a moment that the Roman Catholic position is true, that a large deposit of apostolic doctrine was given to the church orally for its own sanctification. This orally delivered doctrine is inspired, authoritative and thus all believers are required to obey it without reservation. If the church was given this great deposit of apostolic teaching, then why not simply write it all down so that everyone could immediately benefit from its divine wisdom? If this teaching is authoritative and required, why dish it out in little snippets over a period of almost two thousand years? Why not simply place it all out in the open for all to immediately benefit from it? Why did the church wait until A.D. 1079 to learn that God required the celibacy of the priesthood? Why wait until A.D. 1854 to learn about the immaculate conception of Mary? It is obvious from both the biblical and historical evidence that the papal doctrine of an authoritative tradition is merely a clever human attempt at justifying centuries of man-made doctrines and practices. The Romish doctrine of authoritative tradition is merely a human invention used to shift authority from the Bible to the church hierarchy. The reason that the pope and bishops dish out small amounts of the supposed oral apostolic tradition here and there throughout history is that it gives them incredible power. When some doctrine or practice is needed to control the laity and increase the hierarchy’s power, a new doctrine or practice is simply made up or discovered by a church bureaucrat and then imposed on the laity. This gives the Roman Catholic hierarchy a cult-like power over their flock. The fact that many Roman Catholic bishops and popes may have been very sincere in their beliefs does not detract from the fact that their doctrine of authoritative tradition is a doctrine of demons. Beware of false prophets; their doctrine can devour you (cf. Mt. 7:15).
As a result of such teaching regarding authority, the Roman Catholic Church has more in common with a pagan cult than apostolic Christianity. Turretin writes:
She [the Roman Catholic Church] is apostate and heretical, having failed from the faith once delivered to the saints and teaching various deadly heresies and thrusting them forward to be believed under the pain of a curse. Such are the doctrines concerning justification by works and their merit, human satisfactions and indulgences, transubstantiation, and the sacrifice of the Mass, sin and free will, sufficient grace, the possible observance of the law, the ecumenical pontiff and primacy of the pope.... she is idolatrous and superstitious, both with respect to the object which she worships and with respect to the mode in which she worships. With respect to the object, inasmuch as besides God (who as alone omniscient, omnipotent and best ought to be the sole object of worship and invocation), she venerates and adores creatures also which are by nature not gods (Gal. 4:8): as the blessed virgin, angels, defunct saints, the consecrated host, the sacrament, the cross, the pope, the relics of Christ and of the saints. With respect of the mode, in the making, worship and adoration of effigies and images, so solemnly prohibited by the law of God. And these things appear not from the private opinion of teachers, but from the public sanctions and constant practice.24
If the papal church is to be cleansed of its damnable heresies and gross, blasphemous idolatries, it must return to the biblical doctrine of sola scriptura. The root must first be cured before the diseased and poisonous fruit is replaced.
17 “The Canons and Decrees of the Council of
18 Walter M. Abbott, ed., The Documents of
19 Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 31.
20 Charles Hodge writes: “It is of course conceded that Christ and his Apostles said and did much that is not recorded in the Scriptures; and it is further admitted that if we had any certain knowledge of such unrecorded instructions, they would be of equal authority with what is written in the Scriptures. But Protestants maintain that they were not intended to constitute a part of the permanent rule of faith to the Church. They were designed for the men of that generation. The showers which fell a thousand years ago, watered the earth and rendered it fruitful for men then living. They cannot now be gathered up and made available for us. They did not constitute a reservoir for the supply of future generations. In like manner the unrecorded teachings of Christ and his Apostles did their work. They were not designed for our instruction. It is as impossible to learn what they were, as it is to gather up the leaves which adorned and enriched the earth when Christ walked in the
21 Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1:139.
22 Charles Hodge, 1 and 2 Corinthians (
23 John MacArthur, “The Sufficiency of the Written Word” in Don Kistler, ed., Sola Scriptura (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1995), 177.