Do We Still Believe in Sola Scriptura? | Sam Waldron

by | Mar 31, 2022 | Reformed Theology, Systematic Theology


I. What I Believe and the Reformed Faith Teaches


The Reformed faith believes or holds sola scriptura (the doctrine of the Scriptures alone as the basis for faith and practice) and does so “with a vengeance.” It disagrees with Roman Catholicism which holds that the rule of faith and practice is the Scripture plus oral, apostolic traditions preserved infallibly in the church. It even disagrees with Lutherans and Anglicans who, though they held sola scriptura with regard to the doctrines of the faith, did not regard the polity and practice of the church to be part of the doctrines of faith. Hence, Luther did not think he needed clear, scriptural basis for infant baptism. Cf. Paul Althaus in The Theology of Martin Luther, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 359f. Hence, Anglicans do not think that they need to ground their view of church government in the Scriptures but may ground it in Scripture plus the creeds and traditions of the first five centuries of church history. Richard Hooker is representative of Anglican views. In his work, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, he expressly denies the regulative principle.  One writer says of Hooker’s classic work, “Its object is to assert the right of a broad liberty on the basis of Scripture and reason.” Cf. The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, (Funk & Wagnalls, New York, 1909), vol. V, p. 360.

The Reformed (beginning with Calvin) disagreed. While Luther adopted the policy of preserving the worship of Medieval Catholicism except where it contradicted Scripture, Calvin, on the other hand, adopted the principle that said that the contents of worship had to have warrant in Scripture.  Cf. John Calvin, “The Necessity of Reforming the Church,” Selected Works, 1:128-129. The Reformed believed that, if infant baptism was to be practiced, it had to have a scriptural basis. They believed that the government of the church, like the worship of the church, had to have a scriptural basis either explicitly or by good and necessary inference. They made this belief explicit in the Westminster Confession of Faith and these beliefs are explicitly reiterated in our own 1689 Baptist Confession.

Worship had to have a clear, scriptural basis. Here is the Westminster at 21:1 (and the same wording may be found in 22:1 of the 1689).

… But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped 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 Scripture.

Like worship, church government is to be deduced from Scripture—only the circumstances being left to Christian prudence and the light of nature. Here is the Westminster at 1:6 (and the same wording may be found also at 1:6 of the 1689.)

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.

Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed

The Westminster (again followed by the 1689) emphasizes this commitment to the sufficiency of sola scriptura by affirming the supremacy of Scripture at 1:10:

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.

I find these confessional assertions to be fully and completely scriptural. Anyone committed to one of these confessions also ought to find in them clear and important scriptural truth.


II. Why I am Concerned

With such clear and crucial scriptural truth and confessional affirmation before us, it is nothing less than shocking to be confronted in recent years with assertions by Reformed men that (seem to me) directly undermine the truth of the supremacy and sufficiency of sola scriptura.


First Troubling Statement

A few years ago, this statement troubled me when I heard it, and it still troubles me today.

Semper Reformanda … does not mean changing doctrine, but it means applying the doctrine to our lives. It is a clarion call to a vital experiential understanding of the truth in the lives of Christ’s sheep. So it’s not changing our doctrine, but applying the doctrine that we already know to be biblical.

The origin of the phrase semper reformanda does seem to emphasize bringing our practices into line with our confessional doctrines. Cf. W. Robert Godfrey’s online article here:

At the same time, it seems to me, whatever semper reformanda originally meant, we must embrace the notion that our confessions are subject to being reformed on the basis of sola scriptura. Even our confessions must be subject to being reformed by Scripture. Yes, our practice must change, but sometimes our confessional statements need to be modified. The American Presbyterians had to do this with the Westminster Confession in and around 1788-89 to take out of it the deadly doctrine of the union of church and state. Let us not deny that our confessions are subject to the authority of Scripture and subject to being reformed by Scripture.


Second Troubling Statement

Recently, someone wrote online

2LCF 1.1 confesses the following: “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledgefaith, and obedience…” Notice what Scripture is sufficient for. Is it everything? No. It is not sufficient for changing the oil on my truck. It is not sufficient for installing a new hard drive in my computer. It is sufficient for saving knowledge, faith, and obedience. Everything necessary for the Christian life is found in the Bible. But not every detail of the faith is there.

True, the Bible does not tell us how to change the oil. But this cannot imply in any way that “every detail of the faith” is not derived from it. Scripture is the only rule for faith.  It is right there in the Confession.

Here is what I think. If something is not in Scripture either explicitly or by good and necessary inference, then it is not the faith. Whatever else it is, or may be, it is not the faith. This is what sola scriptura requires us to say. We must not say—we may never say of Scripture—“But not every detail of the faith is there.”


Third Troubling Statement

In my recent reading I came across another statement from a Reformed brother that worried me. Here it is:

To depart from the creed is to depart from scriptural teaching itself. … Heresy is a belief that contradicts, denies, or undermines a doctrine that an ecumenical church council has declared biblical and essential to Christianity. What makes heresy so subtle and dangerous? It is nurtured within the church and is wrapped within Christian vocabulary. Its representatives even quote the Bible. It often presents itself as the whole truth when it is a half-truth.

Once more, there is an element of truth in this statement. Until the Reformation, practically speaking, heresy consisted of views that contradicted the scriptural teaching regarding the Trinity and the Person of Christ which were articulated in the Nicene and Chalcedonian Creeds. But surely, formally and authoritatively speaking, heresy has to be defined as false teaching that overthrows foundational scriptural teaching. This is what 26:2 of the 1689 says: “not destroying their own profession by any errors everting the foundation.” Such errors must be finally determined by Scripture. Remember 1:10 of the Westminster and 1689?

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.

A statement like the one quoted above raises serious questions. So, when and where were the errors and heresies of Roman Catholicism condemned by an “ecumenical church council?” And how shall we decide if it was an ecumenical church council? Must not the answers to such questions finally be determined by sola scriptura? Heresy is not finally defined by church councils, but by Scripture Alone.


Fourth Troubling Statement

Here is a report I received from some friends of mine about a conversation they were having with a Reformed brother. It also troubles me. They were talking about a doctrine usually today associated with Roman Catholicism.

When pressed on the lack of biblical evidence for this, he insinuated that I was being a biblicist. I said that our doctrine should come both implicitly and explicitly from Scripture, he said some of our doctrine comes from outside of Scripture. He said this in response to my appeals to show the validity of that doctrine from Scripture. His concern was that there is significant historical precedent for this doctrine, and this indicates its validity in spite of the lack of data in Scripture.

Now perhaps my friends drastically misunderstood their friend in this conversation. But I doubt it! And if this reported conversation is true, it once more illustrates the really troubling confusion about the implications of sola scriptura spreading in Reformed circles.

Really? Does … some of our doctrine comes from outside of Scripture … ? We may have opinions that come from outside Scripture. We may have personal convictions that come from outside Scripture. We may have important applications that depend on something beyond Scripture. But if we believe sola scriptura, we may not have doctrine that comes from outside of Scripture.


Fifth Troubling Statement

I can summarize this fifth troubling statement this way. Thomas Aquinas held sola scriptura. Yes, there is actually a serious conversation going on over the last several years about whether Thomas Aquinas held sola scriptura! Fine Reformed men and other Evangelicals are in print affirming that he did. I do not need to mention their names. You can look them up yourself if you are interested.

Well, I am with my friend James White on this matter. Thomas did not believe in sola scriptura; and it is not even a close call. Furthermore, White is right when he says that the fact that Aquinas did not hold sola scriptura is a foundational matter of doctrine. This means that he is not a safe guide to the interpretation of Scripture. Cf. James White’s broadcast on “Reformed Thomists?” It may be found here:

The fact that people can be confused on this shows that they are quite confused about the meaning of sola scriptura and its implications. Perhaps the problem here is that people have not realized the complexity of the issue of sola scriptura prior to the Reformation. I would urge anyone to read Heiko Oberman’s Forerunners of the Reformation on this matter. He deals with the problem of Scripture and tradition in chapter 2 on pages 51 to 120. I think you will see that this matter is “complicated.” I think a failure to see how complicated it is has led some to naively quote statements of Thomas Aquinas out of context. While such statements show that he believed in Scripture, they do not show that he believed in Scripture Alone or sola scriptura.

I cannot in this article go into detail about this. I do, however, want to illustrate it by looking at one commonly cited statement of Thomas which sounds like sola scriptura. I suggest a perusal of this site for more detail: The statement often quoted is this: (I place the key statement in bold italics.)

“It should be noted that though many might write concerning Catholic truth, there is this difference that those who wrote the canonical Scripture, the Evangelists and Apostles, and the like, so constantly assert it that they leave no room for doubt. That is what he means when he says ‘we know his witness is true.’ Galatians 1:9, “If anyone preach a gospel to you other than that which you have received, let him be anathema!” The reason is that only canonical Scripture is a measure of faith. Others however so wrote of the truth that they should not be believed save insofar as they say true things.” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John 21)

This sounds to many like sola scriptura. But it is not. Several things must be noted.

  • First, the contrast Thomas is drawing in context is between canonical Scripture and non-canonical writings. He is not contrasting Scripture with the oral traditions of the church.
  • Second, he does not say that the canonical Scripture is the measure of faith, but “a measure of faith.” The author of the article on this site makes this point clearly.

“First, what does it mean that “only canonical Scripture is a measure [or rule] of faith” … What St. Thomas is doing is contrasting Scripture to other apocryphal or non-canonical writings (as noted by Catholic Dossier above). And Catholics/Orthodox today would agree. Aquinas was not opposing “the canonical Scriptures” against the Church or her tradition which he also affirmed was a measure, a rule for faith and practice. In other words, St. Thomas is not saying sacred tradition is not ALSO A rule for faith and practice. How do I know this? He says so below.”

  • Third, Thomas Aquinas explicitly repudiates sola scriptura in a number of places in his writings. Here are a couple of examples:

Summa Theologica: Third Part, Question 25, Article 3:  “The Apostles, led by the inward stirring of the Holy Ghost, handed down to the churches certain instructions which they did not leave in writing, but which have been ordained in accordance with the observance of the Church as practiced by the faithful as time went on. Therefore the Apostle says: ‘STAND FAST, AND HOLD THE TRADITIONS WHICH YOU HAVE LEARNED, WHETHER BY WORD’ — that is by word of mouth — ‘OR BY OUR EPISTLE’ — that is by word put into writing (2 Thess 2:15)….”

Summa Theologica: Third Part, Question 64, Article 2 on “Whether the Sacraments are instituted by God alone?” “REPLY 1: Human institutions observed in the Sacraments are not essential to the Sacrament, but belong to the solemnity which is added to the Sacraments in order to arouse devotion and reverence in the recipients. But those things that are essential to the Sacrament are instituted by Christ Himself, who is God and man. And though they are not all handed down by the Scriptures, yet the Church holds them from the intimate tradition of the Apostles, according to the saying of the Apostle : ‘THE REST I WILL SET IN ORDER WHEN I COME’ (1 Cor 11:34).”


III. What I Want to Warn You About


Is Sola Scriptura Now Biblicism?

There is such a thing as biblicism. What is it properly understood? It is the demand for explicit, scriptural prooftexts and the rejection of what may be by “good and necessary” inference deduced from Scripture. Not a few “New Testament” scholars seem unwilling to allow systematicians to synthesize the teaching of Scripture and require explicit prooftexts before they will accept any teaching.

Biblicism is also interpreting Scripture without the benefit of the guidance of the pastor-teachers which Christ has given the church over the last 2000 years. We need and benefit from those pastor-teachers. This teaching tradition ought never to be ignored. When it is neglected or denied, that is a kind of biblicism. Such biblicism trusts its own interpretation of Scripture blindly against the “great tradition.”

Yet we must say (contrary to Roman Catholicism) that this tradition is neither unified nor universal. There are differences in the tradition. It is certainly not inerrant or infallible. Some parts of that tradition actually deviate from apostolic doctrine.

Nor does that tradition have any authority apart from Scripture. Its value, like the value of any good teacher, is simply to help us see what is already there. The good teacher does not tell us to believe something just because they say it. The good teacher shows us what is already there and helps us to see it for ourselves. Thus also, the “great tradition” simply helps us to see what is already in the Bible with our own eyes. It has no more “authority” than this.

Like Luther, then, we must be convinced from Scripture of what we must believe. We cannot take the word of creeds or councils as the basis of our faith. Luther said it clearly at the Diet of Worms in 1521: “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me.”

Here is the bottom line. The “great tradition” is a wonderful guide and teacher to what the Bible says and means. But it is a terrible lord and master. We listen to guides and teachers, but we only submit and obey sola scriptura as our lord and master. I fear that this distinction is being lost in the wave of emphasis on interpreting the Scriptures according to the “great tradition.”


Do We Understand the Danger with the Current Emphasis on the Analogy of Faith?

The hermeneutical principle of the analogy of faith is a valuable help in the interpretation of the Bible.  It says that no assertion of Scripture should not be interpreted in such a way as to contradict another clearly taught doctrine of Scripture. It is at least implied by the statement of its sister principle the analogy of Scripture in the 1689 Baptist Confession at 1:9: “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly.”

Once more, however, I think a warning is in order. While the principle is true, our applications of it may be false. The classic illustration of this misuse of the analogy of faith is the one made by the Protestant Reformed and Herman Hoeksema when he argued that, since the doctrine of unconditional election is true, the doctrine of the free offer of the gospel and common grace cannot be true. God cannot offer Christ freely and show common grace to people whom he has not elected to salvation. He perceived that the free offer of the gospel and common grace contradicted the doctrine of election. This is a bright flashing yellow light cautioning us against an over-confident use of the analogy of faith.

And this leads me to another concern.


Have Our Systematics Become Incorrigible To The Bible?

I am a systematician. That is the area in which I did my Ph.D. studies. I love and believe in systematic theology with all my heart. I think the lack of systematic teaching is a blight on a lot of modern preaching.

But we must never become so enamored with the logic of our systematics that we are unable to hear the Scriptures plainly contradict our views. This is what I mean by our systematics becoming incorrigible to the Scriptures. Our systematic theology must always be able to be corrected by the Scriptures. It must never be put in a place where it is incorrigible, irredeemable, or incurable by sola scriptura.


Did the Development of Doctrine Cease in the 17th Century?

I love the high Reformed and Puritan theologians of the 17th century. I have read most of Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics. Unquestionably, it was a great advance on the confusion of the Medieval period and even on the adolescence of the Early period of church history.

But I cannot accept the view that the development of doctrine ceased in the 17th century. This really seems to be the perspective of some. The New Testament teaches that the organic development of Christ’s church continues throughout this age and only ceases when the church is finally built and Christ returns. This infers the development of doctrine throughout this age.

Please don’t now attribute to me what I am not saying. I am perfectly happy with Classical Theism, the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity, and the Chalcedonian Christology. I see no need for any alteration in these great truths.

But there have been important theological developments since the 17th century. The doctrine of last things is clarifying in the modern period. The doctrine of the relation of church and state is becoming more clear with the entire shedding of the idea of a state-church in the modern period. The distinction between natural and moral ability associated with Jonathan Edwards and Andrew Fuller is another example of such development.

We must not assume the perfection and finality of the High Reformed construction of doctrine. They did not assume it. We should not either. All of our development of doctrine is subject to the lord and master, sola scriptura!


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