I have endeavored to read the Scriptures as though no one had read them before me, and I am as much on my guard against reading them today, through the medium of my own views yesterday, or a week ago, as I am against being influenced by any foreign name, authority, or system whatever. ~ Alexander Campbell (1788-1866), leader of cult Restoration Movement
One of the most important doctrines of the 16th century Protestant Reformation led by Martin Luther and John Calvin is sola Scriptura or “Scripture alone.” From the early post-apostolic period, the churches taught that Scripture – Old and New Testaments – was the sole infallible source of revelation and is the final authority for all faith and practice.
However, throughout the medieval age, the Roman Catholic Church added tradition as a second source of revelation supplementing Scripture. The Reformers wanted to go back to the early church’s teaching that Scripture is the final infallible authority, but it must be interpreted by the Church within the boundaries of regula fidei (“rule of faith”); that tradition is subordinate to Scripture.
The Reformed view has undergone a radical revision by present-day evangelicals, which can be summarized as the “me-and-my-Bible-alone” view. This view originated from the 16th century Anabaptists, radical Reformers who rejected ancient creeds and Reformed confessions of faith accepted universally by ancient church councils and Reformed churches. What makes this even more popular is the postmodern individualism that marks today’s culture.
Dr. Keith A. Mathison, Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida, discusses this errant view in his essay, “Solo Scriptura: What a Difference a Vowel Makes.” He says that this view, which he calls solo Scriptura, “attacks the rightful subordinate authority of the church and of the ecumenical creeds of the church. Unfortunately, many of its adherents mistakenly believe and teach others that it is the doctrine of Luther and Calvin.” He summarizes the true Reformed view of sola Scriptura in four points concerning Scripture: (1) it is “the sole source of divine revelation”; (2) “it is the only inspired, infallible, final, and authoritative norm of faith and practice”; (3) “it is to be interpreted in and by the church”; and (4) “it is to be interpreted within the hermeneutical context of the rule of faith.”
Mathison traces the origins of solo Scriptura back to early American ministers who were “unorthodox” (a mild description of heretics).
The liberal minister Simeon Howard (1733-1804), for example, advised pastors to “lay aside all attachment to human systems, all partiality to names, councils and churches, and honestly inquire, ‘what saith the Scriptures?’” In his own effort to overturn orthodox Christianity, Charles Beecher (1815-1900) denounced “creed power” and argued for “the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible.” [for Beecher’s heresies, see “The Trial of Rev. Charles Beecher. He is Convicted of Heresy”] The universalist minister A. B. Grosh (d. 1884) declared in a similar way, “In religious faith we have but one Father and one Master, and the Bible, the Bible, is our only acknowledged creed book.”
The radical American version of “solo” Scriptura reached its fullest expression in the writings of the Restorationists as they applied the principles of Democratic populism to Enlightenment Christianity. In 1809, the Restorationist Elias Smith (1769-1846) proclaimed, “Venture to be as independent in things of religion, as those which respect the government in which you live.” Barton Stone (1772-1844) declared that the past should be “consigned to the rubbish heap upon which Christ was crucified.” [Stone also rejected the Trinity and Christ’s divinity] Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) made his individualistic view of Scripture very clear, declaring, “I have endeavored to read the Scriptures as though no one had read them before me, and I am as much on my guard against reading them to-day, through the medium of my own views yesterday, or a week ago, as I am against being influenced by any foreign name, authority, or system whatever.” As the Reformed Princeton theologian Samuel Miller (1769-1850) rightly observed, “the most zealous opposers [of creeds] have generally been latitudinarians and heretics.”
[For a more detailed discussion of the Restoration Movement, read “Restoration Movement: History, Beliefs, and Practices” by the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.]
Indeed, adherents of solo Scriptura are no better than cultists who claim they alone have found the truth, arrogantly rejecting thousands of Biblically-faithful interpreters and theologians throughout 2,000 years of church history. They sound very spiritual and committed to the Bible, only wanting to find Biblical truths by reading only the Bible and alone, without the help of anyone or any other research.
So Mathison says that solo Scriptura is “as problematic and dangerous today as it was in previous centuries. It remains unbiblical, illogical, and unworkable” (emphasis added). He then lists seven reasons why (all quotes are from his article).
- Autonomy. Like the Roman Catholic doctrine, its final authority is each individual believer deciding for himself what is and is not biblical. “The result is subjectivism and relativism. The reformers’ appeal to ‘Scripture alone,’ however, was never intended to mean ‘me alone.’”
- Unbiblical. “Christ established his church with a structure of authority and gives to his church those who are specially appointed to the ministry of the word (Acts 6:2-4).” Disputes were settled by councils, as in Acts 15:6-29. Paul taught the Bereans as a group (Acts 17:1-11).
- No resolution of differences. Adherents of solo Scriptura are told that different interpretations can be resolved simply by an appeal to Scripture. “But how is the problem of differing interpretations to be resolved by an appeal to another interpretation? All appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretations of Scripture. The only real question is: whose interpretation? … This is subjectivism and relativism run amuck.”
- Historical problems. If “solo” Scriptura were true, much of the ancient church had no standard of truth for many years, because copies of the Bible were very few and expensive then. The first books of the New Testament began to be copied ten years after Christ’s death, and was not completed until about 70 years later! “If the lone individual is to judge and evaluate everything by himself and for himself by measuring it against Scripture, as proponents of ‘solo’ Scriptura would have it, how would this have possibly worked in the first decades of the church before the New Testament was completed?”
- Who determines the canon of Scripture? “If one is going to claim that Scripture is the only authority whatsoever, it is legitimate to ask how we then define what is and is not ‘Scripture.’ … How would ‘solo’ Scriptura deal with a modern day Marcion … who claimed that the real New Testament includes only the books of Luke, Acts, Romans, and Revelation? He can’t appeal to the church, to history, or to tradition. A self-consistent adherent of ‘solo Scriptura’ would have no way to respond to such a view because … it is the right and duty of each individual Christian to determine the canonicity of each biblical book by and for himself.”
- Who determines orthodoxy or heresy? “The adoption of ‘solo’ Scriptura destroys the possibility of having any objective definition of what Christianity is and is not. ‘solo’ Scriptura destroys the very concepts of orthodoxy and heresy. If the authority of the ecumenical creeds is rejected, and if each individual believer is to determine all questions of doctrine by and for himself, then the definitions of orthodoxy and heresy are completely relative and subjective. One man judges the doctrine of the Trinity to be biblical. Another deems it unbiblical … The same is true with respect to every other doctrine. Each man defines Christianity as it seems right in his own eyes.”
- The Bible did not just drop out of the sky. “If ‘solo’ Scriptura were true, it should be possible to give untranslated ancient Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of biblical, apocryphal, and pseudepigraphal texts to some isolated tribe member somewhere on earth, and with no one’s assistance, that individual should be able to learn the Hebrew and Greek languages, read the various manuscripts, determine which of them are canonical, and then come to an orthodox understanding of the Christian faith.”
Mathison concludes his article with this warning to the churches:
The revisionist doctrine of “solo” Scriptura has been a source of great damage to the cause of Christ. The magisterial reformers were right to reject the early versions of it that appeared in the teaching of some radicals. Contemporary heirs of the reformers must follow the magisterial reformers here … We must also reject the revisionist doctrine of “solo” Scriptura, which places final autonomous authority in the hands of each and every individual.