What Do We Mean By Sola Scriptura?

A key vector in online apologetics is the role of Scripture in Protestant theology. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox partisans will gleefully point out that while Scripture may be infallible, its canon is not. In other words, an infallible Scripture has a fallible canon. The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate that this is not a problem for traditional Protestant theology (let alone Sola Scriptura), but that it involves something of a shell-game and a dishonest use of tradition. I don’t ascribe bad faith to individual apologists who indulge in these strategies, I think they’re genuine in how they think this 1-2 punch is a “gotcha” for the average Protestant. However, not unlike the Roman Catholic revival of Pyrrhonian skepticism in the seventeenth century, it will inevitably cause blowback. A robust Protestant understanding of Scripture will clear the ground to not only advance Sola Scriptura as a tenable position but rebut the skepticism deployed against it. The hope here is that dialogue between Christians can proceed on firmer grounds, and despite differences, Scripture will have a firmer base against opponents of Christianity.

Before we sketch out Sola Scriptura (which is central to a Protestant doctrine of Scripture), it will be helpful to understand what, precisely, we mean by canon, as well as the ancient notion of Scripture. Canon referred not to a question of inspiration or infallibility, let alone its binding definition as Scripture, but rather what was read in church. Among the Eastern Orthodox, this more fluid definition remains, with the Greek church traditionally not reading Revelation as part of the New Testament readings, while the Russians include it. Such does not mean there is a divergence between Orthodox churches as to what books apply as infallible or inspired, but rather an ecclesiastical question. Thus, when the Council of Carthage professes “that besides the Canonical Scriptures nothing be read in church under the name of divine Scripture” this refers to both a recognition of inspired status and its subsequent right to be read in church. As many know, the Council of Carthage includes the deuterocanon, as well as the standard Old and New Testaments of the Protestant canon. While this claim may appear as QED (“what was demonstrated”) for proponents of the expanded canon, it should be noted that the Lutheran and Anglican lectionaries include these same books to be read. Is this an aberration, does it make them less “Protestant”?

Protestants and the Deuterocanon

What do Protestants say about these books? First, it should be stated that many Protestant confessions do not include any enumeration of books of Scripture. The Augsburg Confession (1530) does not even have a category of Scripture! The Lutherans take a stable doctrine concerning Scripture for granted. Similarly, several Reformed confessions of faith appeal to “the Scripture” without any reference to particular books (e.g. Genevan Confession [1536], Scots Confession [1560]). However, as the century progressed, Reformed numbering of the books did not remove the deuterocanon from the Church’s “canon.” Rather, the deuterocanon (or Apocrypha) were recognized per their name: they were books of secondary importance, for establishing good morals and not doctrine.

The Belgic Confession (1561), which will make up one of the three core confessions (Three Forms of Unity) for Continental Reformed, states that the deuterocanon was to instruct in virtue, not doctrine:

We distinguish between these holy books
and the apocryphal ones,

which are the third and fourth books of Esdras;
the books of Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Jesus Sirach, Baruch;
what was added to the Story of Esther;
the Song of the Three Children in the Furnace;
the Story of Susannah;
the Story of Bel and the Dragon;
the Prayer of Manasseh;
and the two books of Maccabees.

The church may certainly read these books
and learn from them
as far as they agree with the canonical books.
But they do not have such power and virtue
that one could confirm
from their testimony
any point of faith or of the Christian religion.
Much less can they detract
from the authority
of the other holy books.

The Second Helvetic Confession (1566) states that these books are inspired, but not sufficient for establishing doctrine, citing Augustine:

And yet we do not conceal the fact that certain books of the Old Testament were by the ancient authors called apocryphal, and by the others ecclesiastical; in as much as some would have them read in the churches, but not advanced as an authority from which the faith is to be established. As Augustine also, in his De Civitate Dei, book 18, ch. 38, remarks that “In the books of the Kings, the names and books of certain prophets are cited”; but he adds that “They are not in the canon”; and that “those books which we have suffice unto godliness.”

The 39 Articles stated similarly that the deuterocanon were for establishing good living among catechumens, but not sufficient to establish doctrine, citing Jerome:

The other Books (as Hierome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine; such are these following:

The Third Book of Esdras, The rest of the Book of Esther,
The Fourth Book of Esdras, The Book of Wisdom,
The Book of Tobias, Jesus the Son of Sirach,
The Book of Judith, Baruch the Prophet,
The Song of the Three Children, The Prayer of Manasses,
The Story of Susanna, The First Book of Maccabees,
Of Bel and the Dragon, The Second Book of Maccabees.

The furthest departed from this trend is in the Gallican Confession, which simply did not mention the deuterocanon (neither to include nor exclude), but that the undisputed canon (the 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament) were sufficient to establish faith. In a point we will return to later, this enumeration is justified from an internal witness, not an appeal to tradition. Nevertheless, from the testimony of the first century of the Reformation, it’s clear that the deuterocanonical books, as they were listed in the Council of Carthage, were still considered within the category of “Scripture” even if in a diminished capacity. Nevertheless, the Reformed will call upon Augustine and Jerome to support this contention.

The fatal flaw of many anti-Protestant apologists involves a shell-game. It may be true, granted the above, that a “canon list” does not decisively answer which books are then to be relied upon. As the argument usually goes, if Scripture does not reveal its own content in an infallible way, the Church (which is vaguely defined) must establish the canon of Scripture through a magisterial council. Usually, this counter-claim has the added flourish of modern scholars, who list differing canons of Scripture from the first centuries of the church. But there’s one problem: is this how the fathers think about Scripture? On the contrary, the fathers state uncritically their reliance on Scripture against their opponents. As Gregory of Nyssa will state against his Neo-Arian opponents: “Let the inspired Scriptures then be our umpire, and the vote of truth will be given to those whose dogmas are found to agree with the Divine words” (On the Holy Trinity).

But, one may object, this appeal to Scripture is within the context of a shared canon. It does not answer the question of what that canon is. But the earliest apologists, when disputing with Gnostics, argue similarly. As one paragon example, Irenaeus appealed to the Scripture as definitive for man’s knowledge of God and of the world:

If, therefore, even with respect to creation, there are some things [the knowledge of] which belongs only to God, and others which come within the range of our own knowledge, what ground is there for complaint, if, in regard to those things which we investigate in the Scriptures (which are throughout spiritual), we are able by the grace of God to explain some of them, while we must leave others in the hands of God, and that not only in the present world, but also in that which is to come, so that God should for ever teach, and man should for ever learn the things taught him by God? (A.H. II.28.3)

How does this argument make any sense against Gnostics (whether Valentinian, Ptolemaic, or Marcionite),  whose epistemological raise d’être was the existence of secret knowledge? If the Gnostics did not possess a shared canon of Scripture, why would Irenaeus appeal to “the Scriptures” as a fixed source of authority? If the canon of Scripture was as fluid as anti-Protestant apologists and modern scholarship say, then Irenaeus (as well as his opponents, it seems) was entirely ignorant of these differences. “The ignorance of the Fathers” is far from a traditional argument for trusting the doctors of the church!

Nevertheless, a certain level of fluidity may be granted to the precise canon of Scripture. An ancient method for counting the books of Scripture appealed to the alphabet of the dominant language. This altered between twenty-two (the letters in the Hebrew proto-alphabet) and twenty-four (the letters in the Greek alphabet). Hence Josephus will claim, against the Hellene Apion, that the Jews have a solid set of twenty-two books as the ancient and divine source of the Jews’ doctrine and law:

For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another, [as the Greeks have,] but only twenty-two books, (8) which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine; and of them five belong to Moses, which contain his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death. (Against Apion, I.8)

Scholars have raised the specter that these books are not listed and thus this adds nothing to the debate. However it makes little sense, if there was as much chaos and confusion over the list of sacred scripture as scholars say, then this argument is a pathetic rhetorical bluff. Couldn’t Apion, a trained scholar in Homeric hermeneutics, look for himself? The Torah (if not more) had been translated into Greek for Egyptian Jews. At the very least, Josephus’ uncritical claim of a stable set of books as divine Scripture makes it difficult to sustain that it was epistemic chaos to know, precisely, what those books, generally, were.

I would go as far as to argue that there really was no dispute as to what “the Scriptures” was as a category of sacred texts. Rather, there were debates about which books were appropriate to be read in the synagogue or church, as well as which inspired books had more or less authority. Thus, at the so-called council of Yamnia (end of the first century) the question was not so much deciding a canon, but whether certain books were more or less sacred at the core of Holy Scripture. It was not whether Esther or Song of Songs were inspired works or not, but whether they “stained the hands,” that they had the requisite level of holiness to be read in the Synagogue alongside the other, undisputed, works of canon (such as the Pentateuch, the Prophets, or the Holy Writings). The general concern was found in the content of these books: Esther (in its Hebrew form) does not mention God and Song of Songs, read superficially, is royal erotic poetry.

It’s in a similar vein that there was really no dispute among Christians as to what the canon was. The controversy around Marcion was the exception to prove the rule: when the canon was critically savaged, it was in a radical and post-Christian way. Marcion rejected the entirety of the Old Testament and most of the New. He did not do this out of a concern for a true canon of Scripture, as much as it flowed from his Gnostic “secret knowledge” that revealed the God of the Old Testament as the Demiurge, a created (and corrupt) entity that had enslaved the world in the bonds of materiality. Christian opposition to Marcion rejected this alternate cosmology, but revealed little anxiety as to what, precisely, the canon of Scripture was. It neither reflected the scholar’s or modern apologist’s notion that the Church needed to magisterially define the canon of Scripture against heretics. Rather, Christian councils claimed that they were merely restating what the Church had always believed. There was no development of doctrine or innovation. Even changes in grammar, as shown in Athanasius’ apology for Nicaea, required major justification. Most Christians believed, as the Apostle Paul and Irenaeus did, that the form of words was important to preserve the doctrine deposit that the Church’s bishops were to faithfully guard and pass down unchanged.

Given later Protestant use of the deuterocanon (even as they rejected its equivalence with the Scriptures proper), there’s no reason to think that the patristic era had a different notion about their use in argument. While Protestants certainly are averse to using Wisdom of Solomon as a prophecy of Christ, the aversion is not from the text in itself. The prophecy of the suffering servant in Wisdom 2 is not unlike what one finds in Isaiah. Therefore, given the later context of dispute about the canon of Scripture from within the world of Humanist textual criticism, it’s unnecessary. The patristics lacked much of this skeptical analysis, but even Jerome (as Protestants are fond of citing) doubted the inspiration of texts like Tobit and Judith. Nevertheless, he submitted. Again, the question is not whether these texts are inspired and sacred, but whether they operate the same way as Scripture proper.

Sola Scriptura: a Question of Authority

Here is where Sola Scriptura comes into play. To summarize a major thread among the Reformers (constituting it as one of the solae), the question is authority. When Luther, Zwingli, and other Reformers examined the claim of authority, they were baffled. Apologists of Rome may claim the councils, but which ones? What if they contradicted? They claimed tradition, but which strand of tradition? The fathers don’t always speak with a single voice. They claim the authority of the papacy, but papal bulls revised each other. For many of the Reformers, soaked in the Humanist methodology of ad fontes, using techniques of textual criticism and scholarship, the question of authority had reached a boiling point. What if the Church had required belief in something that not only had no justification, but was spiritually harming the lives of the faithful? What if the sales of indulgences (and the requisite belief in purgatory) had made Christians lose sight of God’s grace? What if the canonical fasts had made Christians self-righteous, focused on outward performance and neglecting an inward conversion? It’s for this reason that Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses (1517) and Zwingli led his band of reformers to eat sausage during the Lenten fast (1522). The only way out of this morass was the appeal to Scripture as the ultimate authority to bind the conscience with life-saving doctrine. The question is not whether there are other sources of authority besides Scripture. All the Reformers accepted the role of textual scholarship, reason (scholastic or otherwise), and the tradition of the Fathers and the councils. The question was that when these authorities disputed, Scripture operated as the supreme referee.

A major qualifier in the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura is binding the conscience. It is not a question of what one can believe, in se, but what beliefs are necessary for eternal life. Hence, as the early Reformed confessions explicated, the doctrine of God and Christ (shared with Rome) flowed naturally into Christ’s saving and atoning work. These doctrines were the several jewels that surrounded the core of saving faith: the interrelated doctrines of justification by faith alone (Lutheran emphasis) and union with Christ (Reformed emphasis). While it may be true that the Virgin Mary was an ever-virgin (something that most Reformers emphatically believed), this doctrine was not necessary to safeguard the atoning work of Christ (and thus is not included in any Reformation confessions of faith). In contrast, the meritorious invocation of saints, purgatory, and the Mass as meritorious sacrifice of Christ damaged the once-and-for-all atonement and Christ’s sole mediatorship between God and man. Thus these doctrines were ejected as harmful errors. Similarly the Reformers repeat the laundry list of Christological heresies that all churches had denied. Arians, Nestorians, Doceticists, Ebionites, and Eutychians were denounced as diminishing Christ as mediator. If Christ was not, according to Chalcedonian orthodoxy, both God and man, a single divine person, with divine nature, who assumed a human nature, then Christ’s could not atone in the way Scripture described. Christ had to be described in this way, as God and man, in order to be the mediator between God and man.

The alternative view, pace Apologists, was not Papal fiat, conciliar authority, or the tradition of the fathers. The appeal to these was precisely the problem, because if they conflicted (as the Reformers made clear they did) how were they to be resolved? Rather than the Reformers’ notion that the Scripture (Old and New) were the binding word of God, Rome split the Word into two: the written (Scripture) and unwritten. As “Session III” at the Council of Trent puts it:

The purity itself of the Gospel be preserved in the Church; which (Gospel), before promised through the prophets in the holy Scriptures, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, first promulgated with His own mouth, and then commanded to be preached by His Apostles to every creature, as the fountain of all, both saving truth, and moral discipline; and seeing clearly that this truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand.

To restate the problem: how could Christians know whether a council was faithful to the Word of God or not if they contradicted? For Rome, the appeal was to a dual source of authority: the Scriptures and the Unwritten Tradition. The latter subsists precisely as unwritten & thus whatever past authority mentioned something that pertained to current Roman practice, such was not authoritative in itself but described what Christ had dictated. If the Reformers asked where the papacy or the cardinals were in Scripture, the Roman apologist would appeal to this unwritten tradition. Christ had privately taught these doctrines as binding, and references to these through time were testimonies to this original doctrine.

In a way, this argument involved a kind of fideistic presentism that allowed Rome to retroject itself backwards as a timeless and unchanging bulwark against novel heresies. Again, it should be clear that this approach is not what most contemporary apologists posit. It is far more similar to the ultramontanism fideism of Cardinal Manning than any claim of developed doctrine or that the traditions, in themselves, are sufficient for additional doctrines. Of course, most apologists are relatively ecumenical, not threatening Protestants with damnation for continuing in their error (even the papacy effectively teaches ecumenism, both in and out of Christianity proper). The Eastern Orthodox struggle to gain their composure in the particular confines of this debate, and often ape Roman arguments without understanding what this means for their own doctrine. There are ways out for them (such as the ecclesiastical organicism of the 1848 Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs or Georges Florovsky’s “Mind of the Fathers”), but I won’t judge them. This leaves no wiggle room for Protestants in terms of Sola Scriptura. It’s either that or an unwritten tradition. But in the same vein, it opens the rich use of the Fathers, councils, tradition, and reason that defined Protestants through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was not Rome, but the Lutherans, who developed Patristics as a serious humanistic field of inquiry. It was this notion of Sola Scriptura, where Scripture was the final authority, that made Anglican ministers the stupor Mundi in their learned exegesis and textual scholarship. And thus the Reformation advanced this doctrine of Sola Scriptura upon this generally given definition of Scripture.

It should be noted that this stable basis for canon suffered some turbulence during the rise of Humanist textual scholarship. Prior to and during the Reformation, Christian humanists had their questions about the contents of the Scripture. While it’s true that Luther had dismissive words for the Epistle to James, he was not alone in questioning this book (along with Hebrews and Revelation) as truly canonical. Lutherans to this day (whether out of traditional concern or modernist theology) will distinguish between the homolegoumena (undisputed primary books) and the antilegoumena (books of disputed, but still accepted, orthodoxy). Hence why the New Testament, as a bound book, is ordered with the four Gospels first, with Acts following, and then Paul’s canon of letters; at the end of the book are included 2 Peter, 2-3 John, Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation, which took a lower priority in determining the doctrines of the Scripture. Even as these concerns existed among both Roman and Reformation humanists (Cardinal Cajetan had similar doubts about the canon), these antilegoumena were widely accepted and nevertheless valid. Their disputed inclusion itself defined the role these books played in shaping doctrine. While Luther should be censured for his cavalier commentary about James, it is true that the clarity and primacy in Luke or Romans should not be doubted against a statement in James. Despite the occasional bad conscience from James’ denunciation of “faith alone,” the Reformers from the very beginning interpreted James in light of Paul in Romans and Galatians. Flowing from Sola Scriptura, the Reformers emphasized Scripture interpreting Scripture. Clearer statements of faith (e.g. Rom. 10:9) should interpret more ambiguous statements. This ordering in no way jeopardizes the authority of Scripture, but is a subsequent question as to how the good bishop or priest utilizes his office to properly teach from the Scriptures.

Returning to the content of canon, it’s not only the early Fathers and the Reformers which had this similar approach to canonical definition. In John of Damascus’s An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, after extolling the authority of Scripture, proceeds to enumerate the books of the Old Testament:

Observe, further , that there are two and twenty books of the Old Testament, one for each letter of the Hebrew tongue. For there are twenty-two letters of which five are double, and so they come to be twenty-seven. For the letters Caph, Mem, Nun, Pe, Sade are double. And thus the number of the books in this way is twenty-two, but is found to be twenty-seven because of the double character of five. For Ruth is joined on to Judges, and the Hebrews count them one book: the first and second books of Kings are counted one: and so are the third and fourth books of Kings: and also the first and second of Paraleipomena: and the first and second of Esdra. In this way, then, the books are collected together in four Pentateuchs and two others remain over, to form thus the canonical books. Five of them are of the Law, viz. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. This which is the code of the Law, constitutes the first Pentateuch. Then comes another Pentateuch, the so-called Grapheia, or as they are called by some, the Hagiographa, which are the following: Jesus the Son of Nave, Judges along with Ruth, first and second Kings, which are one book, third and fourth Kings, which are one book, and the two books of the Paraleipomena which are one book. This is the second Pentateuch. The third Pentateuch is the books in verse, viz. Job, Psalms, Proverbs of Solomon, Ecclesiastes of Solomon and the Song of Songs of Solomon. The fourth Pentateuch is the Prophetical books, viz the twelve prophets constituting one book, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel. Then come the two books of Esdra made into one, and Esther. There are also the Panaretus, that is the Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Jesus, which was published in Hebrew by the father of Sirach, and afterwards translated into Greek by his grandson, Jesus, the Son of Sirach. These are virtuous and noble, but are not counted nor were they placed in the ark.

Damascene’s justification for the inspired, but non-canonical status, works of the deuterocanon flows from a traditional belief that the Scriptures were finished when Ezra placed them in the Temple at the end of Israel’s fleshly exile. Juxtaposed from this still patristic source is the nineteenth-century patriarch-saint Philaret of Moscow. In his authoritative catechism for the Russian church, Philaret described the contents of Holy Scripture as the 22 books of Scripture:

34. Why is there no notice taken in this enumeration of the books of the Old Testament of the book of the Wisdom of the son of Sirach, and of certain others?

Because they do not exist in the Hebrew.

35. How are we to regard these last-named books?

Athanasius the Great says that they have been appointed of the Fathers to be read by proselytes who are preparing for admission into the Church.

While this in no way covers over differences over the necessary or licit doctrine of the church, it’s clear that Eastern Orthodoxy justified the same canon of Scripture that the early Reformers utilized. The deuterocanon is purely for moral formation, but it’s demoted to be strictly for catechumens! Again, there may be alternatives (as listed above) to either Protestant or Roman doctrines of authority, but it does not depend upon the fact that the Fathers (or Orthodox patriarchs) do not know the content of the Scriptures without an authoritative statement from a magisterial council.

However, the caricature between Ultramontane Fideism fighting the paper-pope of increasingly austere biblicists has some root in truth. Without rehashing the entirety of the post-Reformation period, suffice to say that the fighting between Rome and the Reformers (both Lutheran and Reformed, who increasingly divided among themselves) produced increasing rigidity on both sides. Confessions became more elaborate to exclude error. A new wave of Schoolmen sought to build more elaborate systems of doctrine to impose upon the faithful. Generally cooler heads prevailed (manifest in the Epitome of Concord or the Synod of Dordt, which were rather generous in their orthodoxy as they excluded error). Nevertheless, both sides intensified their defense of doctrines along increasingly self-defeating lines. As mentioned above, Roman Catholics recouped their losses in patristics through a reappraisal of Pyrrhonian skepticism. Textual scholarship, if applied more vigorously, could destroy confidence not only in the manuscripts of the Fathers, but the Scripture itself. The purpose was not apathetic skepticism, but to ring a warning bell. If Christians did not flee to Mother Rome then the scholarly methods of the humanists would lead to atheism. For if the authority of the Church could not backstop the Scripture and the Fathers, then the naked conscience was on its own. Of course, this method found adherents among radical Anabaptists as well. Quakers, in their early “wild-man phase,” utilized similar arguments in defense of Inner Light. One’s subjective experience of truth, given through interior confirmation, alone could ground faith. Not amount of external witnesses, Scripture or otherwise, could shore up truth.

Inerrantists and Elite Secularity

On the other side, Reformed stalwarts, like John Owen, boxed himself into defending not only the infallibility of Scripture, but of particular texts. The Masoretic text wasn’t just an ancient and sure witness to the Scripture, it was itself inspired. However, the problem was that textual scholarship had revealed its vowel-points were an invention of a later age. Owen found himself defending the inspiration of the vowel-points in order to back-stop trust not only in the Scripture (given historically), but a perfect text that existed out there. This may seem like a strengthening of Sola Scriptura, but it fatally weakened it. If scholarship could not adequately defend a particular text, then confidence in the Scripture (free of textual errors) would decline. In contemporary terms, this problem marks out much of the “inerrantist” movement. The problem isn’t whether Scripture is infallible or inerrant (a teaching common to all Christian churches), but whether a certain text has a near inspired protection from error. Most inerrantists do not opt to protect any particular textual tradition (least of all the Textus Receptus, which many Evangelicals have simply abandoned without reason). Instead they defend a phantom: the Original. Of course, the originals don’t exist and thus this opens the door to constantly revising the content of Scripture. Otherwise conservative Baptist excludes John 8 and the end of Mark 16 from his preaching: these cease to be inspired Scripture since they’re, supposedly, not included in the original.

The context for these metastases was not only intellectual. Confessional warfare happened not only with the pen, but the sword. The French Wars of Religion, the Thirty Years War, the Eighty Years War (or Dutch Independence), and the English Civil Wars reflected confessional divisions on the battlefield. In the aftermath of these battles, Confessional orthodoxy (whether Roman, Lutheran, or Reformed) suffered irreparable loss. Confessional standards were not sufficient to establish Christendom, and thus new methods of rationalism and empiricism challenged historicism and scholasticism as the new basis for social stability. Again, without getting into the changing dimensions of European society and politics, with the rise of increasingly powerful commercial interests, a form of “elite secularity” settled in, changing the role of ecclesiastical polity. And subsequently, as these intensified and reified standards offered less flexible means, they no longer served as a means of stability. While still a generous statement of Reformed orthodoxy, the Westminster Confession of Faith reveals the shift towards Sola Scriptura as not only a source of authority, but an increasingly import source of epistemology. It is necessary to quote its first three statements at length:

Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; (Rom. 2:14–15, Rom. 1:19–20, Ps. 19:1–3, Rom. 1:32, Rom. 2:1) yet they are not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation. (1 Cor. 1:21, 1 Cor. 2:13–14) Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manner, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His Church; (Heb. 1:1) and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing: (Prov. 22:19–21, Luke 1:3–4, Rom. 15:4, Matt. 4:4,7,10, Isa. 8:19–20) which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; (2 Tim. 3:15, 2 Pet. 1:19) those former ways of God’s revealing His will unto His people being now ceased. (Heb. 1:1–2).

After listing the core canon of Scripture (39 books of the Old Testament and 27 books of the New), Westminster delegitimizes the deuterocanon:

3.The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of the Scripture, and therefore are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings. (Luke 24:27, 44, Rom. 3:2, 2 Pet. 1:21)

4. 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.

Here we return to the curious clause of Scripture’s self-affirmation as an internal assurance.  Formally this may be true, but the importance of traditioned authority is diminished to Scripture’s detriment. It’s important to recognize that, indeed, Scripture’s ultimate authority flows from God. But knowledge of what this scripture is cannot rely on what appears to be an individualized witness of the Holy Spirit, or one separated from the contours of church history. It is important not only to know the content of Scripture from the witness of the Fathers in all ages, but also authorial details. Would Mark possess this received authority if the name “Mark” is really an empty signature for an unknown author? It was precisely through this historic knowledge that this book of Scripture possesses its authority. For as the tradition testified, Mark wrote what Peter dictated to him, a witness of the Twelve to the world. Scripture possesses an interior witness, where reading is a portal to God’s presence who confirms that this in fact is his holy word, but it’s not a process separated from either history or the church. It’s the internal witness of the church, through time, that appeared in and through these historic witnesses. Hence there was no immediate soul-searching, or any manic search for an ur-text, to back-stop the witness of the Scriptures simplicitur.  To repeat: the earliest Reformed and Lutheran confessions don’t even offer a list of inspired books. It was simply a given from and through church history.

The Fluid and Confident Sense of Scripture

Protestants must resource the fluid and confident sense of the Scripture that existed at the beginning of the Reformation (so too, for that matter, should Rome and Byzantium). Such is not a return to innocency, as if Christians should simply close their eyes to scholarly developments. But it’s the deep appreciation of the witness of the Fathers, which the early Reformers possessed, which grounds the doctrine of Scripture, even Sola Scriptura. Hence Anglicans should return to Bishop Joseph Butler above all. It’s in his use of probabilistic reason, grounded in historicist use of sources and a dependence on the testimony of the centuries, that Protestants can find their footing. The recent historical scholarship of Anglicans like Richard Bauckham have fruitful potential to not simply give up the field to skeptics (both believing and unbelieving). Instead of a quest for an ur-text or entering into a mush of traditionalism (which usually fails to understand the core issues at stake during the Reformation), a dynamic Sola Scriptura will restore a lively faith in the text as given.

In short, rather than staking one’s faith in an academic textual guild or the particular politics of this or that magisterium, Christians should once again state with Jude:

“contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints”


A man asking the questions. Interests in patristics, continental philosophy, early modern history (with a focus on Britain). Long live the Keswick Movement. Blog: http://lettherebejustice.blogspot.com/ Podcast: https://www.patreon.com/gloryofkingz

'What Do We Mean By Sola Scriptura?' has 1 comment

  1. December 7, 2021 @ 6:34 pm Granular

    Good work my friend, I have been a longtime fan. If this site receives unusual traffic it’s because I loaded it many times at school between classes to read.


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