The slogan ‘sola Scriptura’ (Scripture alone) is popularly understood to have been coined in the Reformation to say that the Bible is the only source for the church in its doctrine and practice. Both assumptions are wrong. The slogan comes from a later date and its meaning, when it surfaced, was that the Bible is the supreme authority over the church, not its only source.
Martin Luther’s conflict with Rome epitomised what was at stake. When he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, he hoped for the support of the Pope against the sale of indulgences. Later, when he discovered that the Pope was against him, he appealed not to Scripture but to a General Council. Only when challenged in debate by Johann Eck did he realise that the Bible is supreme over all councils and opinions in the church. This was a process that took two or three years. Luther did not reach these conclusions overnight; nor did the nailing of the 95 Theses constitute the Reformation in Wittenberg.
Some have taken the slogan to entail a rejection of the past teaching of the church. Many Anabaptists took this route and recapitulated most of the ancient heresies, adding others of their own making. A group arose in the nineteenth century that wanted to jettison the past teaching of the church and return to the simplicity of the Bible. They published a journal, ‘Studies in the Scriptures’. We know them now as the Jehovah’s Witnesses. This perspective values what the Holy Spirit putatively makes known to us, at the expense of what he has made known to the church of Jesus Christ over the last two thousand years.
Moreover, it is impossible to come to the Bible with a blank mind, unaffected by philosophical or cultural presuppositions or previously received teaching. It is better that these factors are acknowledged than to pretend that one’s biblical interpretation is pure and unalloyed when it may be far from being so. Tradition in some form is inescapable. Even the smallest fundamentalist sects base their beliefs on the teachings of their leaders, which eventually become a tradition, often a highly idiosyncratic or deviant one.
In the New Testament, tradition refers to what has been passed on or handed down. Some traditions were rejected (the tradition of the elders, pagan traditions) but apostolic traditions are viewed positively in as much as they conveyed the sayings of Jesus or the content of the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:1-11, 11:23ff). The yardstick for right faith and conduct was to believe and live according to the written or oral Pauline traditions (2 Thessalonians 2:15, 3:6, 2 Timothy 2:2). So, tradition is positive when in harmony with apostolic doctrine.
The Reformation was not a conflict between Scripture and tradition as much as between Scripture and the contemporary church, which had elevated tradition to equal status with the Bible. The Reformers consistently used tradition in support of their claims. Heinrich Bullinger argued forcefully that the Reformation had its roots in the ongoing history of the church and behind that, in God’s covenantal revelation reaching back to Abraham and Adam. However, they regarded tradition as a help to understanding Scripture; it was not on a par with the written Word but subordinate and under its authority.
A succinct summary of this principle is found in Article 8 of the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles. This says that the three creeds — the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian —‘ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of holy Scripture.’ These ecumenical creeds of the church, confessed down the ages, are to be believed thoroughly since they are fully in accord with Scripture. If they were not, it would follow that they were not to be accepted. Church statements of whatever kind are to be judged by the Word of God; the Word of God can be judged by no one. Notwithstanding, these creeds are not to be dismissed as second rate. Rather, they are to be received and believed thoroughly. They are an aid, an invaluable one.
The acceptance of tradition, under the authority of Scripture, is also evident in the proliferation of confessions and creeds put together by both the Lutherans and the Reformed, reaching its height at the Westminster Assembly (1643-52). Here the Reformation and its aftermath were adding to the cumulative witness of the church and producing what would be regarded in future years as part of that tradition. It was doing so gladly. The debates at the Westminster Assembly are full of references to both the Latin and Greek Fathers, the medieval theologians, as well as more recent voices on both sides of the Reformation divide.
The subtitle of Douglas Kelly’s ‘Systematic Theology’ sums up the classic Reformed relationship between Scripture and tradition – ‘grounded in Holy Scripture and understood in the light of the church’.
The Bible is the word of the living God, given by the Spirit in servant form through human ministry, and so it is the supreme authority over all human opinions, all church councils and all claims to spiritual experience (however pious and convincing they seem). So, when at the height of the 1904-05 revival Evan Roberts sat in silence on the platform of the Keswick Convention to express his belief in the priority of private prayer over the preaching of the Word of God, his piety was seen publicly to be unbiblical and mystical. In short, sola Scriptura means that the claims of revivals cannot go unquestioned. It demands that the hymnology and chorusology of the charismatic movement, influential far beyond its domain, be subjected to the most rigorous scrutiny. The Bible reigns supreme. Sola Scriptura is not merely a stick to beat Rome; it sits in judgment on all forms of belief and spirituality, including those closer to home.