There is a great deal of discussion in Reformed Baptist circles about What Sola Scriptura Does and Does Not Mean. I thought it might be helpful to you if I offered you some reflections on this issue. There are those who are decrying what they call biblicism. These folks warn us constantly that sola scriptura does not mean solo scriptura or biblicism. There are others to whom I have spoken who have a really hard time thinking of biblicism as something bad and wonder what all the concern is about.
In order to address this subject, I will first attempt to provide a confessional definition of sola scriptura and in this way show what sola scriptura does mean. Having done that, I want to explain briefly what is wrong with biblicism properly defined and how it differs from sola scriptura.
I want to assert that chapter 1 of our Confession (which is entitled, Of the Holy Scriptures) provides us with an extended explanation of what our Baptist forefathers understood sola scriptura to mean when they affirmed it. It takes the diamond of sola scriptura turns it in different ways to show us the various brilliant facets of sola scriptura. With this venerable and extended explanation of sola scriptura in hand, we will attempt to distinguish what is condemned as biblicism from it.
Section 1: What Sola Scriptura Does Mean
I. Paragraph 1: The Necessity of Holy Scripture
The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith and obedience, 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; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and his will which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord at sundry times and in divers manners to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church; and afterward 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; which maketh the Holy Scriptures to be most necessary, those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.
Sola Scriptura means that Scripture alone provides the saving knowledge which men require to be saved. The 1689 adds the words that I have placed in bold italics at the beginning of the first paragraph of the Confession. The very first assertion distinctive to the 1689 as opposed to the Westminster is sola scriptura. The light of nature has the power to condemn men, but it does not have the power to save them. Scripture alone provides that.
II. Paragraphs 2-3: The Identity of Holy Scripture
Under the name of Holy Scripture, or the Word of God written, are now contained all the books of the Old and New Testaments, which are these: [There follow the names of the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament and the twenty-seven books of the New.] All of which are given by the inspiration of God, to be the rule of faith and life.
The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon or rule of the Scripture, and, therefore, are of no authority to the church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved or made use of than other human writings.
Sola Scriptura means that Scripture consists in the 66 books of the Hebrew and Greek testaments alone and does not include the Apocrypha or any other merely human writings.
III. Paragraphs 4-5: Its Authority
The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the Author thereof; therefore it is to be received because it is the Word of God.
We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church of God to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scriptures; and the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, and the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, and many other incomparable excellencies and entire perfections thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God; yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.
Sola Scriptura means that Scripture is self-authenticating and self-attesting. We do not believe in Scripture because of the testimony of any man or church. The testimony of the church of God in a secondary and subordinate way may move us to esteem Scripture. Yet, the great assertion of Calvin and the Reformed tradition following him is that Scripture is self-attested and not church-attested. Cf. Calvin’s Institutes Book 1, Chapter 7. It attests itself and the Holy Spirit enables fallen men to accept that powerful and self-authenticating testimony.
IV. Paragraph 6: Its Sufficiency
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelation 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.
Sola Scriptura means that we need nothing else to know what is for God’s glory, man’s salvation, faith and life. It further means that the proper way to worship God formally and corporately is entirely contained in God’s holy Word. Cf. 22:1: “But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imagination and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.”
V. Paragraph 7: Its Clarity
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain to a sufficient understanding of them.
Sola Scriptura means that Scripture is clear enough in itself that unlearned men may by ordinary means obtain a sufficient knowledge for their salvation and life. Though learned studies of the grammatical and historical backgrounds of the Scripture may deepen our knowledge of Scripture, they are not necessary for ordinary men through ordinary means to understand sufficiently what they teach for his salvation and life. If unlearned men may with ordinary means attain a sufficient understanding of Christian doctrine, clearly courses in philosophy are not necessary to rightly divide the Scriptures.
VI. Paragraph 8: Its Availability
The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old),1 and the New Testament in Greek (which at the time of the writing of it was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentic; so as in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal unto them. But because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have a right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded in the fear of God to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar [i.e. common] language of every nation unto which they come, that the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship him in an acceptable manner, and through patience and comfort of the Scriptures may have hope.
Sola Scriptura means that God will preserve the Scriptures so that men have an authentic understanding of their message. Thus, the church may appeal to them as the final authority in religious controversies and is not forced to appeal to other religious foundations.
VII. Paragraph 9: Its Finality (For the Interpretation of Scripture)
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.
Sola Scriptura means that Scripture alone is sufficient for the interpretation of Scripture. It is self-interpreting. Sola Scriptura is seen in the fact that the Scriptures are self-interpreting.
VIII. Paragraph 10: Its Supremacy (For the Resolution of Controversies)
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 Scripture delivered by the Spirit, into which Scripture so delivered, our faith is finally resolved.
Sola Scriptura means that Scripture alone is sufficient for the resolution of all religious controversies. Scripture alone is the supreme court of religious truth. Heresy is discovered and determined not by the ancient creeds but by the teaching of Scripture.
Section 2: What Sola Scriptura Does Not Mean
This is a very extensive and variegated understanding of sola scriptura with which the Confession provides us. Clearly, its place in the Confession (as the very first chapter) and its prominence in the Confession (as one of the longest chapters) show its importance for our Baptist forefathers. Given this, the question might be asked, What could remain to be said?
Yet much remains to about what Sola Scriptura does not mean. There are some common misunderstandings of sola scriptura which bedevil contemporary Christian thought. The Confession itself mentions and rejects many of them. Together these deficiencies have been described as biblicism. That is, they compose an exaggerated and unqualified understanding of Sola Scriptura. They are “solo scriptura” and not Sola Scriptura. Let me identify seven such distortions of Sola Scriptura.
I. Sola Scriptura does not mean that all of Christian doctrine is found explicitly in Scripture.
Scripture truth is composed not only of what is taught explicitly in Scripture, but also what is “necessarily contained in Scripture.” This is what the Westminster calls in the same paragraph: good and necessary consequence. This is the meaning of the contrast in paragraph 6a between expressly set down and necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture. This is a contrast between what is explicit and what is implicit in Scripture. What is necessarily contained in Scripture by good and necessary consequence is Scripture.
Of course, the key word in both the 1689 and Westminster is necessary. The consequences which logical analysis draws from Scripture must necessary. Sola Scriptura means that such consequences as we may draw must be more than compatible with Scripture. They must be deductions which it is necessary to draw from Scripture. Otherwise, we are on the path back to oral traditions that may be compatible with Scripture, but which are not necessary deductions from Scripture.
This means, however, that we must arrive at some truth by the synthesis of Scripture like that in which systematic theology engages. We do not need an explicit proof-text to prove a doctrine if it may be deduced from a synthesis of scriptural premises. Modern, New Testament theologians have fallen into this problem and sadly rejected doctrines like double imputation because of such an insensitivity to the proper synthesis of Scripture. D. A. Carson in Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debates (Edited by Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Treier. Downers Grove: IVP, 2004) properly critiques this.
II. Sola Scriptura does not mean that we may safely ignore the witness of the Christian tradition in the way we interpret Scripture.
Christ has been giving the gift of pastor-teachers to the church for 2000 years. It is a proud man who thinks he may safely ignore those teaching gifts in his own approach to the interpretation of Scripture. Such a man is practicing solo scriptura not sola scriptura.
Nevertheless, two things must be remembered and not concealed.
- The value of this tradition is only to help us understand Scripture itself. It has no authority in and of itself. It is only helpful as it assists us to see the meaning of Scripture.
- The emphasizing of this tradition must never assume that this teaching tradition is monolithic and unvarying. It is not. It is Roman Catholicism which speaks of what has believed by all everywhere. St. Vincent of Lerins epitomized this when he wrote in his Commonitory(ca. 434) his famous maxim: “Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.”
III. Sola Scriptura does not mean that all truth of every kind is found in Scripture.
As we have seen, paragraphs 1 and 6 of the Confession are very clear in limiting the sufficiency of Scripture to saving truth. We must distinguish between such truth and other truth not sufficiently contained in Scripture. The Bible is not a textbook on auto mechanics or biology. It is not sufficient for such studies.
IV. Sola Scriptura does not mean that the light of nature fails to proclaim truth to men for which they are held accountable and may be condemned.
Paragraph 1 makes clear that the light of nature reveals the existence and character of God and that by this truth men are justly condemned for what they know.
V. Sola Scriptura does not mean that the divine revelation found in Scripture does not assume the light of nature and reason in men.
Paragraph 6 makes clear that the light of nature is necessary to apply properly the principles of the Word of God to the circumstances of corporate worship and the government of the church. This in turn implies that the light of nature or natural reason is assumed in the interpretation of Scripture.
VI. Sola Scriptura does not mean that the work of the Spirit in understanding Scripture is unnecessary.
The Spirit’s work is necessary because the natural reason just mentioned is fallen and inevitably twists the light of nature and scriptural teaching. Thus, the testimony of the Spirit is necessary to untwist the fallen reason and make the truth known to men. Cf. Matthew 16:17.
Cf. 1:5: our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.
Cf. 1:6b: 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.
VII. Sola Scriptura does not mean that a “simple” grammatical-historical interpretation of Scripture is sufficient.
I was taught in my Bible college that the right method of interpreting Scripture could be summarized as grammatical-historical interpretation. This was wrong.
The Reformed tradition (Cf. Louis Berkhof’s Principles of Biblical Interpretation and many other treatises.) is committed to the need to supplement such grammatical-historical interpretation with a theological interpretation of Scripture which remembers that the Scripture has a divine author as well as human authors. Thus, the canonical trajectory of Scripture, its divine authorial intention, its unfolding interpretation of its earliest parts, its typological character, and its messianic metanarrative must be considered in its interpretation. (Remember according to 1689:1:9 that Scripture is self-interpreting.) Thus, we may attribute meaning to Scripture which goes beyond what the human author might have comprehended. “Us” in the creation narratives (Cf. Genesis 1:26) may refer to the Trinity even if Moses would not have comprehended this meaning. The meaning of the divine author may go beyond the understanding of the human author of Scripture. Thus also, the meaning of Genesis 2:3 is illumined and confirmed by the canonical trajectory of Scripture. Cf. the comments of Yahweh in Exodus 20:8-11 and Jesus in Mark 2:27 on Genesis 2:1-3.
The 1689 Baptist Confession gives us an extensive doctrine of sola scriptura. This is a glorious inheritance from our Baptist forefathers. We must not truncate its meaning or significance.
Nevertheless, there is abroad an exaggeration of sola scriptura in the ways I have attempted to explain in the second half of this short paper. We need to be wary always of our fallen, human tendency to swing from one extreme to another which is equally in error.
Dr. Sam Waldron is the Academic Dean of CBTS and professor of Systematic Theology. He is also one of the pastors of Grace Reformed Baptist Church in Owensboro, KY. Dr. Waldron received a B.A. from Cornerstone University, an M.Div. from Trinity Ministerial Academy, a Th.M. from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. From 1977 to 2001 he was a pastor of the Reformed Baptist Church of Grand Rapids, MI. Dr. Waldron is the author of numerous books including A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, The End Times Made Simple, Baptist Roots in America, To Be Continued?, and MacArthur’s Millennial Manifesto: A Friendly Response.