This may not be the most anticipated topic for a blog like Notes on Liberty, but in the past I wrote about the Protestant Reformation and its influence in the modern world and received a comment that the Protestant Reformation was based largely on the principle of sola scriptura (scripture alone), but this principle is not in scripture. Well, I think it is worth talking about, even because I hold my view that the Protestant Reformation was a key event (if not the key event) for the development of the little freedom we still have in the modern world. What I am going to write here is quite summarized. Anyone interested in learning more can look up to numerous texts. One suggestion is Sinclair B. Ferguson’s excellent text “How Does the Bible Look at Itself.”
In the first place, yes, sola scriptura is one of the most important principles of the Protestant Reformation. Within a widely used nomenclature, sola scriptura is the formal principle of the Reformation. But what does sola scriptura mean?
Before we speak what sola scriptura means, let’s see what it does not mean. Sola Scriptura does not mean that the Bible is the only source of revelation about God. It does not mean that the Bible reveals all things. It does not mean that the Bible is equally clear in all its passages. It does not mean that we have a license to subjectivism or that the Bible has multiple meanings. It does not mean that the testimony of the church is irrelevant to the study of the Bible. I will not go into detail on each of these points, but I hope they are enough to avoid straw men on this subject.
So, what does sola scriptura mean then? It fundamentally means that the Bible has an authority that is its own. The Bible is sufficient, necessary, authoritative, and clear. The Westminster Confession of Faith sums up as follows:
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressedly 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.
An important point I want to highlight is that Sola Scriptura does not invalidate the authority of ecclesiastical tradition. It only subjects it to the authority of the Bible. Again, I quote the same confession of faith:
We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to a high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture.
The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.
All synods or councils, since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both.
So, to be clear, Sola Scriptura does not invalidate tradition. It does not mean that any interpretation of the Bible is valid. And it certainly is not an invention of the Protestant Reformation. Sola Scriptura means that the Bible has an authority that is its own, that can not be compared to human authority, because the Bible is the Word of God. The Bible authors were well aware that they were writing something that went beyond their authority as human beings. And also, the human authors of the Bible did not leave this authority to their successors, even because this authority was not theirs so they could do it. That is why we see the Apostle Paul saying something like this:
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!
Is there any contribution to this for liberty? I think so. It was from this civilizational source that classical liberalism emerged. We all need principles. We all need a place to start. The principle of the Protestant Reformation (and deriving from it, of classical liberalism) was the Bible.
Today when a terrorist attack happens, the press too often avoids naming the perpetrators and instead seeks to be uncompromised by phrases like “car hits people.” But not long ago, the press usually blamed fundamentalists for terrorist attacks.
The name fundamentalist originated, interestingly enough, in Protestant circles in the US. Only much later was it used to describe other religions, and then mostly to Muslims. Among Protestants, the name fundamentalist was used to designate people against theological liberalism. I explain. With the Enlightenment, an understanding grew in theological circles that modern man could not believe in supernatural aspects of the Bible anymore. The answer was theological liberalism, a theology that tried to maintain the “historical Jesus,” but striping him from anything science couldn’t explain. Fundamentalism was an answer to this. Fundamentalists believed that some things are, well… fundamental! You can’t have Jesus without the virgin birth, the many miracles, the resurrection, and the ascension. That would be not Jesus at all! In other words, it is a matter of Principia: either science comes first and faith must submit, or faith comes before science.
The great observation made by fundamentalist theologian Cornelius Van Til is that fundamentalist Protestants are not the only fundamentalists! Everybody has fundamentals. Everybody has basic principles that are themselves not negotiable. If you start asking people “why” eventually they will answer “because it is so.”
If everybody has starting points that are themselves not open to further explanation, that means that our problem (and the problem with terrorism) is not fundamentalism per se. Everybody has fundamentals. The question is what kind of fundamentals do you have. Fundamentals that tell you about the holiness of human life, or fundamentals that tell you that somehow assassinating people is ok or even commendable?