16 October 2009

Luther on Sola Scriptura

Several weeks ago, a post about inerrancy led to discussion about the Sola Scriptura principle. Sola Scriptura, when wrongly understood, fails logically because Scripture itself does not list those writings which should be received as Scripture.

Often Lutherans avoid this fallacy by arguing that Scripture is true because it is prophetic and apostolic; that it testifies to itself not through a table of contents, but through the inner consistency of proclaiming the Gospel; and that those writings universally received and confessed by the churches are Scripture. These are good and legitimate arguments, but don't solve the problem of the Antilegomena, as Fr Hollywood pointed out.

Luther argued for Sola Scriptura a little differently: "Now it is the office of a true apostle to preach of the Passion and resurrection and office of Christ, and to lay the foundation for faith in him, as Christ himself says in John 15[:27], “You shall bear witness to me.” All the genuine sacred books agree in this, that all of them preach and inculcate
Christ. And that is the true test by which to judge all books, when we see whether or not they inculcate Christ. For all the Scriptures show us Christ, Romans 3[:21]; and St. Paul will know nothing but Christ, I Corinthians 2[:2]. Whatever does not teach Christ is not yet apostolic, even though St. Peter or St. Paul does the teaching. Again, whatever preaches Christ would be apostolic, even if Judas, Annas, Pilate, and Herod were doing it" (Prefaces to the New Testament, LW 35:396).

This argument is not really different in kind than that of the inner testimony, but it clarifies exactly what that inner testimony is. Scripture is not authoritative because it consists of a divinely inspired list of writings, but because it is the prophetic and apostolic witness to Christ and his work. Without the salvific work of Christ as the central theme and proclamation of a writing, it cannot be Scripture, regardless of authorship, and regardless of reception.

What of a truly faithful sermon preached after the time of the apostles? Because it proclaims Christ and his work faithfully, why could this not be recorded and retained as Scripture? Notice that Luther also includes the need for the apostolic imprimatur. The apostles have a unique witness to the person and work of Christ, a distinct witness which is not given to other ministers of the gospel outside of apostolic oversight.

Galatians 1:9 says, "If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed." Luther comments on this passage that the Gospel, the person and work of Christ, are authoritative for the teaching and confession of the church, so that even Paul, an apostle, must submit to this rule--the apostle himself should be be condemned if he preached contrary to the Gospel. But Luther goes on to note that the testimony of the Gospel is retained and preserved today first in the Scriptures: "Here Paul subordinates himself, an angel from heaven, teachers on earth, and any other masters at all to Sacred Scripture. This queen must rule, and everyone must obey, and be subject to her. The pope, Luther, Augustine, Paul, an angel from heaven -- these should not be masters, judges, or arbiters but only witnesses, disciples, and confessors of Scripture. Nor should any doctrine be taught or heard in the church except the pure Word of God. Otherwise, let the teachers and the hearers be accursed along with their doctrine" (Lectures on Galatians, 1535, LW 26:57-58).

Thus, the message of Scripture is the person and work of Christ. It is a message that is spoken and done first by Christ himself, then preached and recorded by the apostles, so that the Scriptures are also apostolic, and in this way the supreme authority, although not the only authority, residing in the church. Yet even the apostles must submit to the message of the Gospel.

What does this say to us about the Antilegomena? Certainly they must submit to the Gospel principle. To the extent that they preach Christ, they may serve as bases for proclamation and teaching. But what of the Lutheran accommodation that ministers are free to reject them from Scripture? Perhaps this is a recognition of the apostolic ministry that has been retained by ministers of Jesus Christ to this day. Bearing the apostolic ministry by mediation, not immediately, they cannot add to the witness of Scripture, yet they confess the extent of the apostolicity of the Antilegomena. So the Gospel principle and the apostolic principle work in harmony with each other.


Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Nice post. Your summary and assessment of Luther's approach to the authority of Holy Scripture reminds me of St. Ignatius of Antioch, who likewise points to Christ as the definitive "archives," over against those who would site the Old Testament against the Gospel.

Chad Myers said...

When then, of John 21:25? What of 2 Thess. 2:15?

Paul several times refers to the tradition he gave to the various Churches. 1 Thessalonians is arguably the oldest written book/letter in the New Testament, so the Thessalonians would've only had a few letters, maybe fragments of the Gospel (which would later be compiled into the 4 main Gospels), and Paul's oral tradition.

What about all the numerous verses in which Paul, Peter, and others use a form of the Greek "paradosis" (tradition -- a noun or a verb)?

It's also curious that Christ never commanded anyone to write down the things he taught. He told them to remember, to hold fast, to obey, to teach, etc but never to write down.

Of course I believe the Scripture is the inerrant word of God, but I do not believe that it holds the entirety of what was revealed to the Apostles -- only the very most important things (as John points out).

I understand Luther's concern that this opens up a great possibility for abuse and misuse as was going on in his time by the leaders of the Church in his time, but that doesn't mean that it's automatically wrong. In essence, it seems he summarily and without authority, tossed out an important (in fact, THE MOST important) source of our faith and understanding. After all, it was through Sacred Tradition that the most important parts of the Gospel exist in written form in the first place.

It seems rather backwards to argue that the very source of faith that produced this written form is, in fact, wrong.

Chris Jones said...


Jn 21.25 is not particularly to the point, since it speaks of what Jesus did, not what he commanded to be taught. Given that our Lord is begotten of his Father before the ages, that all things were made through him, and that he upholds the universe by the word of his power, the full range of what he did (and continues to do) would certainly be beyond the scope of "all the books that should be written."

To use Jn 21.25 to argue that only a small part of the deposit of faith is recorded in Scripture (which is what you are saying by "only the very most important things") is a huge mistake. I do not believe that is a position which your own Church holds.

2 Th 2.15, on the other hand, is very much to the point. St Paul commands us to hold fast to the faith which he handed down ("traditioned"), whether orally or in writing. He distinguishes between two different modes (oral and written) by which the deposit of faith is handed down, but he does not distinguish the content of those two modes of transmission. The deposit of faith is the same, whether it is transmitted orally or in writing.

It is not that Scripture and Tradition are "two sources" of our faith; they are one source, in two modes of transmission. I will grant you that there is a sense in which the oral transmission is the more important of the two modes. Not only (as you point out) was the Gospel handed down orally long before it was written down, but even today the imparting of the Gospel to new believers is done (mostly) orally: from parent to child, catechist to catechumen, and week by week in the Church's liturgy.

Nevertheless, if the oral handing-down of the deposit of faith is to remain reliable and authentic, it must remain the same as the deposit of faith originally traditioned by the Apostles; and therefore it must remain the same as that which was traditioned by the Apostles in writing. The written Scriptures firmly anchor the Church's teaching in the original Apostolic deposit, preventing us from redefining "tradition" as "development" and adding our own inferences and speculations to the deposit of faith under the guise of "tradition."

Chad Myers said...


/John 21:25/ Except John was specifically talking about Christ's visit as a human.

@"I do not believe that is a position which your own Church holds."

Actually the Church teaches that it is the sole holder and protector of the entire Deposit of Faith revealed by Christ to the Apostles (most of which is captured in the Scriptures). The age of Apostolic revelation is over, so there is nothing new to be added to the faith. The only things which Protestants allege the Church has added have always been understood and taught since the beginning of the Church (such as Mary's perpetual virginity, bodily assumption into Heaven, Purgatory, etc).

@"It is not that Scripture and Tradition are "two sources" of our faith; they are one source"

This I agree with and you put it much better than I did, thank you. Tradition is the source, Scripture is a recording of most of the Tradition which is held by the Church.

Other examples might be the Liturgy (which is not recorded in Scripture, but is held fast -- even by Protestants who build their churches, use the symbols, and even most of the form of the Mass), the understanding of the Trinity, the understanding of the Mass as a sacrifice, etc. These were things all taught in one form or another by the very earliest Church, though they are not directly recorded in Scripture (though the Mass being a Sacrifice can be thoroughly substantiated through Scripture, the Trinity is a little more vague).

It's curious Sola Scriptura Protestants acknowledge the Trinity but not, say, the Immaculate Conception of Mary since the later is formally stated in Scripture and the former is not.

@"and therefore it must remain the same as that which was traditioned by the Apostles in writing."

Then you should all be Catholic because the very first writings of the Apostles and their immediate disciples wholly support the Catholic Tradition including perpetual virginity of Mary (St. Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, etc), the Mass being a representation of the Sacrifice (Justin Martyr, Polycarp, etc), the primacy of Peter (Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Polycarp, Clement I of Rome, all first and second century Church leaders).

These writings are readily available and if you study them, you will see a very accurate picture of the Roman Catholic Church as it still exists today described in rather stunning detail by 1st and 2nd Century Church leaders -- people who were disciples of the Apostles themselves. Peter himself ordained St. Ignatius of Antioch as Bishop of Antioch.

@"and adding our own inferences and speculations to the deposit of faith under the guise of "tradition.""

Which is ironic since all these Catholic Traditions of Mary and the Mass are attested to by the Church Fathers in the first few centuries of the Church, yet there is no mention of things like Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, etc.

If there is any invention or 'development' going on, it is most certainly within the Protestant circles.

I will grant you that the Church's unfortunate meddling in secular and political affairs -- while quite helpful immediately after the fall of Rome -- became a terrible mistake and led many to sin.

Never, however, was the actual teaching of the Church ever corrupted.

Chad Myers said...

I ran out of space, I wanted to make a few more points:

Imagine the U.S. Constitution and recent Presidents. That recent Presidents and Congress have wholly ignored large sections of the Constitution does not make the Constitution a 'bad' document nor do the secular developments of these Presidents or Congress change the Constitution itself.

Likewise, the teachings of the Church were abused and suppressed during the time before and for a short spell immediately after Luther.

In that respect, Luther did a great service to the Church in creating a crisis that eventually brought true and much needed reform within the hierarchy.

Unfortunately, Luther also took his newfound fame and and power and allowed his pride to give him self-granted authority to change the very dogmatic teachings of the Church. In this, he sinned greatly and led many astray.

Many Saints before him faced an almost destroyed Church and wrested it back to Holiness through their heroic deeds and words (see St. Catherine of Siena). Luther could've been a great saint and possibly even a Doctor of the Church but instead chose to create his own church and wreaked terrible schism and havoc which is a shame.

But God turns all things to good and Protestants are wonderful Christians trying, like all us sinners, so follow Christ the best we all can.

Rev. Gifford A. Grobien said...

To uphold the Scriptures as the first and greatest authority is not a conflict with tradition, but is in fact to adhere to the tradition. This is actually the argument the Apostle is making, which Luther echoes. It is not the bearers of the tradition who have ultimate authority, as if the tradition can be interpreted differently over time, but it is the tradition itself which has authority. So St Paul condemns anyone, even an angel or an apostle, who would teach differently from the tradition.

When St Paul refers to tradition, he refers to and emphasizes the content of it: "the traditions which you were taught" (2 Th 2:25), "the tradition which you received from us" (2 Th 3:6). In two instances he specifically explicates the tradition, 1 Co 11:23 and 1 Co 15:3, both of which center on the suffering and death of Christ for forgiveness and justification. Again, Luther is merely echoing this when he iterates that the central message of Scripture is to proclaim Christ.

This is not to teach a reductionism or minimalism of the Gospel. There are many features and aspects of this Gospel which grow vibrantly out of the central tree of Christ's life and work, such as the sacrifice of thanksgiving, the ministry of the successors of the apostles, and even the perpetual virginity. However all of these testimonies to and expressions of the Gospel must in fact be retained in proper relationship to the person and work of Jesus Christ, or they become errors and false teaching.

The tradition does, then, hold first authority. This tradition has been kept for us most clearly and explicitly in the Scriptures, for the Scriptures are the actual prophetic, christological, and apostolic testimony. Thus Sola Scriptura merely seeks to defend the tradition in its most ancient and authoritative form against new or false interpretations of the tradition. Ministers certainly serve as stewards of this tradition, as those who perpetuate it, not as those who add onto or depart from it.

Chad Myers said...

@Rev. Gobrien:

I agree with everything you said. I think one statement requires some deeper diving though:

"This tradition has been kept for us most clearly and explicitly in the Scriptures, for the Scriptures are the actual prophetic, christological, and apostolic testimony."

I noticed you didn't include the word 'entirely'. I take it that you implied that the entirety of tradition is included in Scripture and here is where we disagree.

The Scripture itself says that the entirety of Tradition is not kept within the Scripture. It also says that the primary mode of transmission of the Scripture is orally and that the primary mode of retaining the scripture is through the Apostles and their successors (today known as 'Bishops'). Paul, Peter, Acts, all describe the passing on of Tradition and the holding fast to. Paul realizes the potential for abuse of an orally and successor-based transmission of the Word and admonishes people not to take it lightly. That much of the Tradition is captured in written form the in the Scripture is a gift from God but the faith would still be here without the Scripture and, God forbid, in the future if the Scriptures were persecuted and destroyed, the faith will live on without it.

We can see, however, that even with its written form, it's still not sufficient to prevent massive schism, great heresy, and apostasy. Thus we come back to the primary determinant of the Truth of Revelation which is a sole authority upon which Christ has given his guarantee of protection and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. He said to follow the Church, not the Bible.

Sects and denominations which follow Sola Scriptura have placed their faith in a portion of the written word of God and opened themselves to the massive problems of alternative interpretations which now plague and greatly undermine a large portion of Christendom.

So Sola Scriptura is a self-referencing logical fallacy that does not stand up to reason.

Fr. Timothy D. May said...

Here is a quote of Luther that I found regarding a different topic. With regard to the focus of this discussion note that Luther advocates adhering to the Scripture and sees no conflict later on in advocating what the "old fathers" taught. It is interesting that Luther mentions Scripture, Christology, Patristics and Creed together with no apparent conflict among them in passing on the faith:

"Therefore we must adhere to the speech and expressions of Holy Writ and retain and confess the doctrine that this Christ is true God, through whom all things are created and exist, and at the same time that this same Christ, God's Son, is born of the Virgin, dies on the cross, etc. Furthermore, Mary, the mother, does not carry, give birth to, suckle, and nourish only the man, only flesh and blood -- for that would be dividing the Person -- but she carries and nourishes a son who is God's Son. Therefore she is rightly called not only the mother of the man but also the Mother of God. This the old fathers taught in opposition to the Nestorians, who objected to calling Mary 'Mother of God' and refused to say that she had given birth to God's Son.

"Here we must again confess with our Creed: 'I believe in Jesus Christ, God the Father's only Son, our Lord, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered, was crucified, died.' It is always one and the same Son of God, our Lord."

(AE 24:107)

Rev. Gifford A. Grobien said...

Mr Myers,

Whether the entirety of the tradition is included in Scripture depends on the narrow or broad use of the term tradition. Certainly the Scriptures do not record everything that Our Lord said or did as part of his righteous work for our salvation. And there are other faithful expressions, records, and confessions of Christ's person and work outside the Scriptures. In the broad sense of the term, then, not everything in the tradition is contained in the Scriptures.

However, the Scriptures do contain the sufficiently complete record of the tradition. The testimony of Scripture confesses the life and work of Christ so that his obedience, suffering, death, and resurrection are the basis and constitution of our own righteousness and salvation.

You say that the "primary mode of transmission of Scripture is orally (sic) and that the primary mode of retaining the scripture is through the Apostles and their successors." I assume that you mean the primary mode of transmission of the tradition is orally, since Scripture by definition is something written.

But St Paul does not say that the primary mode of retaining the tradition is oral, just that the tradition passed on to his churches has come to them through the spoken word, example, and the Scriptures. This would readily be expected in the age of the apostles, when those very witnesses and apostles commissioned by Christ were alive and preaching to all the world. Their preached word and written word, so long as it was the testimony of Christ, were both authoritative.

To some extent that is true today: the preached word of the ministers of the Gospel is authoritative so long as it is faithful to the person and work of Christ. But it also differs from the testimony of the apostles in that the apostles rely on their eyewitness experience as the basis for their preaching and writing, and Christ's immediate commissioning as their authority, while today's ministers rely on this authoritative testimony of the apostles, retained for us in the Scriptures. Thus, it is not so much that the Scripture is retained through the successors of the apostles--Scripture is retained at some level by the fact that it is recorded--but that the successors to the apostles are taught by and bound to the testimony of Scripture

Finally, it is fallacious to think that heresy and schism will be avoided simply by appealing to the right authority. Even if we were to rely only on empirical evidence, the fact that there is heresy and schism demonstrates that the Magisterium is not able to prevent these. The argument that Scripture needs another authority for the defense of the truth preserved there can be repeated ad infinitum with every succeeding authority. Who will interpret what the Magisterium has said? Who will interpret what the priest preached? The problem here is not a lack of an interpreter, but rebellious disobedience to the truth.

Thus to make such a statement, "[Christ] said to follow the Church, not the Bible," is to rend the bond between the apostolic testimony and the present ministers of Christ. The Bible is the testimony of the church--it is the sure word left by the apostles. To follow the Church is to follow the Bible. Scripture indeed needs a preacher for the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit among the people, but it does not need another authority to serve as the determiner of its truth. Because of its christological and apostolic source, it already retains the truth of Christ, in se.

The one who ultimately determines the faithful interpretation and testimony is Christ himself, the source and subject of the Scriptures. Sola Scriptura is not, in this understanding, self-referential, but refers to Christ. My original post has already demonstrated this.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...


Rev. Grobein - excellent post!
Chris Jones - excellent comment on tradition.

Second, a comment.

Rev. Grobein notes: "Finally, it is fallacious to think that heresy and schism will be avoided simply by appealing to the right authority."

This truth itself is noted most clearly in all of the Scriptures, where from Genesis through Revelation we see people abandon the truth (whether that truth is spoken, written, or demonstrated via signs and wonders). I was going to write how the Epistles themselves are examples of heresy popping out of the oral tradition - but in reality all of the Scriptures show us this - Even our Lord asks the disciples if they too are going to leave Him upon hearing His preaching.