What is Sola Scriptura?

The title of this book is God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture, which is another way of saying sola Scriptura. But what is sola Scriptura? Sola Scriptura means that only Scripture, because it is God’s inspired Word, is our inerrant, sufficient, and final authority for the church.

Scripture Alone is our Final Authority

Authority is a bad word in our day of rugged individualism. But the Bible is all about authority. In fact, sola Scriptura means that the Bible is our chief, supreme, and ultimate authority. Notice, however, that I didn’t say the Bible is our only authority. Sola Scriptura acknowledges that there are other important authorities for the Christian, authorities who should be listened to and followed. But Scripture alone is our final authority. It is the authority that rules over and governs all other authorities. It is the authority that has the final say. We could say that while church tradition and church officials play a ministerial role, Scripture alone plays a magisterial role. This means that all other authorities are to be followed only inasmuch as they align with Scripture, submit to Scripture, and are seen as subservient to Scripture, which alone is our supreme authority.

Scripture Alone is our Sufficient Authority

Not only is the Bible our supreme authority, but it is the authority that provides believers with all the truth they need for salvation and for following after Christ. The Bible, therefore, is sufficient for faith and practice. This notion of the Bible’s sufficiency has been powerfully articulated by Reformation and Reformed confessions. The Belgic Confession (1561) states:

“We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein.”

And the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) says:

“The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men [Gal 1:8–9; 2 Thess 2:2; 2 Tim 3:15–17].”

In short, the Bible is enough for us.

Scripture Alone is our Inerrant Authority

Notice that the basis of biblical authority—the very reason why Scripture is authoritative—is that God is its divine author. The ground for biblical authority is divine inspiration. As the Westminster Confession of Faith 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 Thess 2:13; 2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:19, 21; 1 John 5:9].”

Scripture is the church’s final and sufficient authority because Scripture is the Word of God.

So what made Luther’s stance on biblical authority so different and so offensive to the Roman church? The answer is that Luther had the audacity to say that only Scripture is the inerrant authority. While popes and councils err, Scripture alone does not! For Rome, Scripture and Tradition were inerrant authorities. For Luther, Scripture alone is our inerrant authority.

What distinguished Luther and the rest of the Reformers from church leaders in Rome was their claim that as important as tradition is (and they thought it was extremely important), tradition is not without error. That honor goes to Scripture alone. In fact, it is because Scripture alone is inspired by God and consequently inerrant that the Reformers believed Scripture alone is the church’s final authority, sufficient for faith and practice.

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This post has been adapted from an excerpt of God’s Word Alone, Matthew Barrett, pp 23-27.

Learn more about the book here: https://www.reformation500.church/5-solas-series/

God’s Word Alone is both a fitting tribute to its Reformation sola namesake and a constructive contribution to the doctrine of Scripture in its own right. Sola scriptura has become something of a whipping concept in contemporary theology, but Barrett’s book goes a long way to correcting modern and postmodern caricatures of the doctrine. I particularly appreciated the chapters on the Reformers’ own understanding of Scripture as the supreme and final authority for the church and how this is rooted in its being the only wholly reliable authority, a consequence of its nature as divinely authored and inspired. Barrett here covers all the theological bases – biblical, historical, and systematic – as one might expect of a home run.

– Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Research Professor of Systematic Theology, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

The 500th anniversary Luther’s nailing the ninety-five theses to the door of the chapel of the Wittenberg Castle provides an eminently suitable occasion to remind ourselves of one of the five ‘solas’ of the Reformation: sola Scriptura, Scripture alone. Matthew Barrett takes his readers through some of the controversies surrounding the Bible that have arisen across this last half-millennium, and competently demonstrates the relevance of the doctrine of Scripture in our day. In the final analysis, the issue is revelation: what is the locus of God’s gracious self-disclosure – God generously giving up his privacy, as Carl Henry used to say?

– D. A. Carson, Research Professor of New Testament, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

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