Some months ago someone from a fundamental, Bible-believing church wrote to me to seek some advice. She was having a debate with some Roman Catholics concerning the doctrine of sola scriptura, and was being drawn to a corner by her opponents, and in her own words was “fighting a losing battle.” Her opponents were using the Scripture to show her that the Scripture does not teach sola scriptura as she claimed. She referred me to a 1995 article apparently written by a Protestant convert to Roman Catholicism. This article begins with the words:

The Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura—that the Bible alone is a Christian’s authority in matters of faith and morals—was one of the central tenets on which the Reformers broke away from the Catholic Church. But in one of those strange quirks of history, sola scriptura lately has been one of the central tenets on which some Evangelical Protestants have returned to Rome.

As I read the article, and another, which I was also referred to, it became clear to me that a suspicion that I have had for some time now,—concerning sola scriptura,—is probably more correct than I thought. No, I have no doubt that the Reformed position of sola scriptura is biblical. My suspicion was that much of modern evangelicalism and fundamentalism have, in fact, deviated from the doctrine of sola scriptura as taught by the magisterial Reformers, such as Calvin and Luther. And it occurred to me that it is this deviant sola scriptura that some Protestants are trying desperately to defend, and that it is also this deviation that some erstwhile Protestants have abandoned for Romanism.

Shortly, after that, a dear sister in the faith very kindly sent me a book by Keith A. Mathison entitled The Shape of Sola Scriptura (Idaho: Canon Press, 2001), 364 pages. What this book did was essentially to confirm my suspicion and also to reinforce my own convictions in regards to sola scriptura. In this article, I do not intend to review this book, though I would refer to it and quote from it quite extensively. I can do no better than to highly recommend you to read the book if you still have any doubts or would like to study the issue more after reading this short article.

In this article, I would like to examine briefly the four views in regards to the Scripture, that are held in the visible professing churches today. These four views are dealt with quite exhaustively in Mathison’s book.

Tradition I: The Reformed View
or classic Sola Scriptura

The Reformed View of sola scriptura may be thought of as having two aspects. The first and primary aspect asserts that there is only one source of divine revelation available to us, namely the Holy Scripture, and that it alone is the ultimate authority for our faith and life. This doctrine is succinctly expressed in WCF 1.6a—

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.

It is a doctrine that finds unassailable support from the Scripture. Writing under a divine superintendence which no true child of God will deny, the Apostle Paul asserts:

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works (2 Tim 3:16–17).

The Scripture, in other words, is God-breathed and given principally to instruct us on what we are to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of us. We must concede that this verse by itself does not prove that the Scripture is sufficient and is the sole authority for the Church. However, when seen together with other inspired verses, this must be the conclusion we have to arrive at. There are numerous places in the New Testament, for example, which teach us to test and prove all that we hear or read (e.g., Gal 1:8–9; 2 Thes 2:2; 1 Thes 5:21 and 1 Jn 4:1). From these verses, we have to conclude that there must be an authoritative repository of divine revelation, without which it is impossible to verify anything today. And the Church has not known of any reliable, self-authenticating or universally accepted repository except the 66 books of canonical Scripture. Of this Canon, the 39 books of Old Testament received implicit approval by the Lord Jesus Himself, whereas the 27 books of the New Testament were written by the Apostles or apostolic men, and were regarded as authoritative during a time when the supernatural gift of spiritual discernment was not yet withdrawn (see 
“Canonicity of the Bible” in PCC Bulletin, vol. 2, no. 39, dated 25 March 2001). For this reason, the Church must accept as truth anything that is inscripturated in the Canon, regardless of what we may think their documentary sources were: be they direct revelation from God, annals of kings, war records, travel manifests, letters or oral tradition. Whatever is found in Scripture is there by inspiration of God. The Scripture must therefore be our ultimate authority of doctrine and practice.

The second, and secondary aspect of sola scriptura, is given in WCF 1.6b andWCF 31.3, viz.—

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.

It belongeth to synods and councils ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of His Church; to receive complaints in cases of mal-administration, and to authoritatively to determine the same: which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God, appointed thereunto in His Word.

That is to say, sola scriptura does not deny that illumination of the Holy Spirit is necessary for understanding the Scripture, nor does it deny that there is any other authority than the Scripture. The Scripture is the only infallible authority, but through the appointment of Christ and the work of illumination by the Holy Spirit, the Church, as well as lawfully ordained Councils and Creeds carry subordinate authority (though not infallibly, see WCF 31.4). The Church, according to Paul, is “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). She is not the truth itself. Christ and the Word of God are truth (Jn 14:6; 17:17). But she is where the truth is taught and upheld. In other words, Reformed sola scripturadenies that we should disregard all traditions and interpretations that have already been made in the Church. Mathison puts it well:

We may say that our final authority is Scripture alone, but not a Scripture that is alone. Scripture alone is the source of revelation. Scripture alone is inspired and inherently infallible. Scripture alone is the supreme normative standard. But Scripture does not exist in a vacuum. It was and is given to the Church within the doctrinal context of the apostolic gospel. Scripture alone is the only final standard, but it is a final standard that must be utilised, interpreted and preached by the Church within its Christian context. If Scripture is not interpreted correctly within its proper context, it ceases to function properly as a standard (op. cit., 259).

This understanding of sola scriptura was the consensus of the early church from the time of the Apostles until the early part of the fourteenth century, when a two-source theory of revelation (Tradition II) was propounded by William of Ockham (ca. 1280–1349) (ibid., 19–81). When the Reformation begun in the 16th century, the Roman Catholic Church still did not have a dogmatic view on the two traditions. Some held to Tradition I, others held to Tradition II explicitly or implicitly. The magisterial Reformers argued according to Tradition I to show how far the Church had deviated from the Word of God, but they did not introduce a novel doctrine of the Scripture. It was a view that existed all along (ibid., 83–121). It was only in reaction to the teachings of the Reformers that Rome, at the Council of Trent (1545–1563), dogmatised Tradition II (ibid., 128–129).

Tradition II: The Romish View
or the Two-Source Theory

The Romish view of the Scripture may be best summarised in the pronouncement of the Council of Trent, that it…

Clearly [perceived] that [all saving] truth and [moral] discipline are containedin the written books and in 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 to us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand: (the Synod) following, then, the examples of the orthodox Fathers, receives and venerates… the Old and… New Testament—seeing that one God is author of both—as also the said traditions, as well as those appertaining to faith as to morals, as having been dictated, either by Christ’s own word of mouth, or by the Holy Ghost, and preserved in the Catholic Church by a continual [i.e., unbroken] succession (italics mine; Philip Schaff,The Creeds of Christendom, II.80).

Apparently, during the preliminary debates, there was an earlier draft proposing that revelation is contained “partly in the written books and partly in the unwritten tradition.” This proposal was rejected for various reasons, but, as Mathison has shown quite convincingly, the framers of the decree did intend to teach the two-source theory despite the ambiguity of the wording finally chosen (see op. cit., 129–132).

There are many problems and objections to this theory (see details in ibid., 211–216).

First, and foremost, it is impossible for fallen man to discern what the Apostles or even the Lord might have taught apart from what we may learn from the Scriptures. The Apostles and apostolic men might have alluded to or made use of oral traditions in some cases, and by their canonical writings they declared them to be truth (e.g., 2 Tim 3:8; Jude 9); but they were only able to do so under the special work of the Holy Spirit in inspiration (2 Pet 1:20–21).

Secondly, there is no promise by the Lord to intervene in the preservation of oral tradition, unlike His promise to preserve His Church or His Holy Word.

Thirdly, if tradition is on par with Scripture as a source of revelation, then there is simply no way to discern whether something taught orally is true or false. Then, how would we know we are not worshipping God in vain and teaching for doctrines the commandments of men (Mt 15:9)?

Fourthly, Rome has never produce any evidence that there were any unwritten traditions handed down from the time of the Apostles. And even if new traditions could be created from time to time, there is no way for any Christian to verify the authenticity and authority of the tradition.

Fifthly, making tradition on par with Scripture often necessitates undermining the authority of Scripture. One clear example is the Romish doctrine that Mary is a co-mediator of Christ. But this contradicts the Scripture, which teaches us that “there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5). To believe Rome would be to deny Scripture. Another shocking example of how Romish tradition clashes with Scripture may be found in the Council of Trent’s Decree concerning Original Sin, which dogmatises that baptism washes off Original Sin:

This concupiscence, which the apostle sometimes calls sin, the holy Synod declares that the Catholic Church has never understood it to be called sin, as being truly and properly sin in those born again, but because it is of sin, and inclines to sin. And if anyone is of contrary sentiment, let him be anathema (Creeds, II.88).

This pronouncement effectively declares that the Apostle Paul did not understand concupiscence as the Church did, and then proceeds to anathematise anyone who seeks to teach as Paul did!

With so many weighty arguments against this theory, we can expect it to be unstable and to be rejected in due time by any thinking practitioners who would ponder about it or seek to defend it rationally or scripturally. This turns out to be the case in many instances, as Mathison observes:

Most modern Roman Catholic Theologians have conceded the problems with Tradition II and rejected the idea of a two-source concept of tradition. Many have instead adopted the concept of tradition… in which the magisterium of the Church is the real source of revelation. It is perhaps inevitable that the problems inherent in Tradition II would have led to Tradition III (ibid., 216).

Tradition III: The Emerging Roman View

We will not say much about Tradition III because it is least relevant to us, though it shows that popular Roman apologetes for Tradition II are in fact a little behind time!

What Tradition III essentially teaches is that whatever the Roman church teaches at present is tradition by definition.

Walter Burghardt, a Roman Catholic theologian, explains how this position works in relation to the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary:

A valid argument for a dogmatic tradition, for the Church’s teaching in the past can be constructed from her teaching in the present. And that is actually the approach theology took to the definability of the assumption before 1st November 1950. It began with a fact: the current consensus, in the Church teaching and in the Church taught, that the Corporeal Assumption was revealed by God. If that is true, if that is the teaching of the magisterium of the moment, if that is the Church’s tradition, then it was always part and parcel of the Church’s tradition, then it was always part and parcel of the Church’s teaching, part and parcel of tradition (cited in Heiko Oberman, The Dawn of the Reformation [T&T Clark, 1986], 295).

Mathison’s assessment is incisive:

It goes without saying that this view of tradition is a virtual declaration of autonomy on the part of the Roman church, and when it is combined with the doctrine of papal infallibility, it amounts to a Church for whom Scripture and tradition are essentially irrelevant. If whatever the Church teaches now is by definition the unadulterated apostolic faith, the finding support in Scripture or the fathers is really superfluous. With Tradition III Rome has, in effect, freed herself not only from the Scripture but also from the burden of her own past authoritative decisions (op. cit., 135).

Tradition 0: The Anabaptistic View
or Solo Scriptura

The human heart is prone to extremism. And experience teaches us that whenever human autonomy is part of the equation, gravitation toward autonomy may be expected. As Rome has in recent days gravitated towards autonomy (from God) as a church, so there are confessing Protestants who have unwittingly swung towards human autonomy, thinking that they are defendingsola scriptura.

During the time of the Reformation, these Protestants were known as the “Radical Reformers” or more commonly “Anabaptists,” for their rejection of infant baptism and therefore requiring re-baptism for adults who were baptised as infants. The difference between the Mainline and Magisterial Reformers, and the Radical Reformers, how-ever, went much beyond the question of baptism, despite their popular namesake. The difference between them was really their conception of Scripture and authority.

The Radical Reformers agreed with the Magisterial Reformers that the Scripture was the sole infallible authority, but unlike the latter who held secondary authorities, such as the Creeds of old and the opinion of the fathers, in high esteem, the Radicals insisted that all tradition is irrelevant and unnecessary. According to them, the Bible was all they need and that each individual not only has the right to, but must, interpret the Scripture by himself and for himself in whatever manner seemed right to him. Thus, “according to the radicals, the magisterial Reformers may have done away with many of the scholastic theological accretions, but they wrongly insisted on adhering to the creedal formulations of ancient Christianity” (Mathison, op. cit., 126). The Radicals, in other words, did not hold to the concept of sola scriptura espoused by the Reformers. Unlike the Magisterial Reformers, they not only disregarded medieval “tradition,” but discarded also “tradition in the sense of the regula fidei [i.e., the “rule of faith” or the creeds which all catechumen had to profess before admittance to the church], the testimony of the fathers, the traditional interpretation of Scripture, and the corporate judgement of the church” (ibid., 128). They may be said to be holding to, “solo scriptura,” in the words of Douglas Jones (ibid., 238), or “Tradition 0,” in the words of Alister McGrath (ibid., 126).

This “Me and my Bible” emphasis led the Radicals not only to reject infant baptism, but, as Timothy George noted, it also “led many of them to question the traditional Trinitarian and Christological dogmas of the ancient church” (Theology of the Reformers [Broadman Press, 1988], 255).

Though many of us would wince at the thought of how the Roman Catholics and the Protestants alike persecuted the Radicals, few of us reading about their divisiveness and disruptive practices, would hesitate to agree that they were the fanatics of the age.

Nevertheless, few of us will realise that, in fact, many, if not most, of modern evangelicals today are holding to a concept of Scripture which is really much closer to that of the Radicals’ solo scriptura rather than the Reformed sola scriptura.

This reappearance of solo scriptura, however, cannot be historically traced to the Radicals. It may be traced rather to the humanistic philosophical rationalism of the 17th century Enlightenment (or “Endarkenment” as John Gerstner calls it). Colin Brown’s succinct comment sums up this influence well:

The motto of enlightenment was: dare to use your own understanding. This applies especially to religion. No generation should be bound by the creeds and dogmas of bygone generations (Philosophy and the Christian Faith[IVP, 1968], 91; cited in Mathison, op. cit., 142).

Though many of us are unaware of the historical developments of the Enlightenment, there is no doubt that most, if not all, of us who are brought up under modern Western education systems have been inculcated with the philosophies of the Enlightenment from young. While it may be argued that this philosophy of autonomy in thought is beneficial to society in many ways, it is also true that its unbridled application in the realm of the Christian faith is a major cause of the confusion, individualism, and denigration of authority in most modern churches.

Sadly, this application has entered the Church under the guise of sola scripturaand the Berean spirit. Consider the following quotations (taken from Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity [Yale University Press, 1989], 6; cited in Mathison, op. cit., 144):

In religious faith we have but one Father and one Master, and the Bible, the Bible, is our only acknowledged creed book—(A.B. Grosh, Universalist minister).

  Why may I not go to the Bible to learn the doctrines of Christianity as well as the Assembly of Divines?—(Jeremy Belknap, Liberal Boston clergyman).

  Lay aside all attachment to human systems, all partiality to names, councils and churches, and honestly inquire, “what saith the scriptures”—(Simeon Howard, Liberal clergyman).

  The whole is written from the scripture account of the thing and not from any human scheme—(Charles Chauncy, on his published defence of universalism).

It is perhaps true that these are the exceptions rather than the rule. However, is it not true that the same individualistic independency have given rise to plethora of divisive theologies, which were unknown in earlier days? We think of Dispensationalism, and how much confusion it has caused in the last 170 years of its existence. Think of the Lordship debate and the theologically sanctioned easy-believism. Think of the great amount of time and effort that has been spent debating on whether pre-tribulation rapture, or mid-tribulation rapture, or post-tribulation rapture is correct. Think about the amount of heat generated in the debate on how many Temples would be rebuilt and when and what would be done in them, etc., etc.

The concept of solo scriptura, moreover, has many problems and caused many problems in the modern church (see details in ibid., 237– It is “the ecclesiastical equivalent of a nation with a constitution but no court of law to interpret the constitution” (ibid., 251). It tends to exalt private and individualistic interpretations above confessional interpretations, as well as the interpretations of ecclesiastic authority instituted by Christ.

It is true that many proponents of solo scriptura are seeking to be true to the Scripture, which they believe they can interpret correctly by the illuminating help of the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Jn 2:27). But what often happens is that, in their enthusiasm to exercise their individual rights to interpret the Scripture, they forget or deny several important biblical principles. Firstly, they forget the effect of sin on the mind, and that no one can come to the Scripture as absolutely neutral observers without any biases, assumptions, worldviews and philosophies. Secondly, they overlook the fact that the Church is not merely a voluntary collection of individuals, but is by God’s appointment a covenanted body which corporately serves as the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). Thirdly, they tend to forget that God could have appointed more gifts suited to the study of Scripture, and given the Holy Spirit in greater measure to others (such as the godly ministers assembled to draw up definitive creeds for the Church). And so ultimately, the solo scripturist’s manner of studying the Scripture would be either to disregard all other interpretations or to measure the scriptural interpretations of other Christians, whoever they may be, against the standard of his own individualistic interpretation. Naturally, more often than not, this leads to hermeneutical anarchy. As Mathison puts it:

Rather than placing the final authority in Scripture as it intends to do, this concept of Scripture places the final authority in the reason and judgement of each individual believer. The result is the relativism, subjectivism, and theological chaos that we see in modern Evangelicalism today (op. cit., 240).

This confusion is inevitable. For solo scriptura is not the doctrine of the Scriptures! It was not taught by the Apostles, nor by the early church fathers, nor by the Reformers. In fact solo scriptura is biblically indefensible! (see how Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox theologians argue against it in ibid., 285–310). The Scripture, and those who held to sola scriptura, teach that the Scripture is the final authority of all Christian faith and duty, but Christ has also appointed His under-shepherds whom He endows with His Spirit and with gifts and skills to rightly divide the word of truth. Sometimes these under-shepherds may be wrong, corporately (in councils and assemblies) and individually, but unless they are proven to be wrong they ought to be submitted unto.

But of course, we are at a stage in the history of the Church, where that principle concerning tradition or the regula fidei has been abandoned in much of Protestantism just as sola scriptura was abandoned in Rome. And so present “under-shepherds” who are holding Tradition 0 and have veered from historical Christianity, such as the liberals we quoted above, cannot be relied upon. What do we do? I believe what we must do is to repent of our pride and return to the old paths through the writings of our forebears who held truly to sola scriptura.


We began this article by noting how many erstwhile Protestants have defected to Rome because they came to the conclusion that sola scriptura is unbiblical. But reading some of their arguments have led us to conclude that they had in fact reacted against solo scriptura rather than sola scriptura. But as we have shown, both Traditions II and III of Romanism are neither scriptural nor traditional in that it was never the unanimous or even majority understanding of the fathers before massive corruption infected the Church in the medieval age. Therefore we contend that the defectors to Rome have, as it were, jumped from the pot into the fire.

But what of us who remain? I believe we must carefully examine our own tendencies and guard against the individualistic and rationalistic spirit of the age. We must guard against holding solo scriptura in the name of sola scriptura. We must repent and return to the scriptural way if we have been guilty of so doing. If we fail to do so, I have no doubt that in one or two generations, this church will either go the way of the Charismatic movement or the way of liberalism. Indeed, I have no doubt that from a human standpoint Mathison is right that: “Protestantism cannot continue to operate under the individualistic principles of solo scriptura, or Protestantism as a branch of the true visible Church will eventually cease to exist” (ibid., 336). And therefore let me plead again that we do not raise our heckles when appeal is made to the Confession rather than directly to the Scripture, on occasions. Did you grimace at my quotation of the Westminster Confession of Faith when I introduced sola scriptura? Perhaps you may have a solo scriptura view of the Confession. Against such an attitude, we ought rather to regard our Confession as having subordinate authority, and therefore must not be ashamed to use it. It is no coincidence that the Reformed Princeton theologian Samuel Miller once remarked that the “most zealous opposers [of Creeds and Confessions] have generally been latitudinarians and heretics” (The Utility and Importance of Creeds and Confessions [Greenville: A Press, 1991], 15; cited in Mathison, op. cit., 273).

The Lord Jesus Christ will surely preserve His Church as He has promised (Mt 16:18), but will we hear His voice and follow Him (Jn 10:27) in the way He has instituted for the Church?

 J.J. Lim
27 January, 2002

Remember that the greatest misery to an honest heart is this, a misdrawing of rules out of the Word of God.

Walter Cradock