Book Report of Keith Mathison’s The Shape of Sola Scriptura

This article by our brother Linus Chua was originally written as part of his church history studies with Whitefield Theological Seminary.

The Shape of Sola Scriptura


This book is an attempt to present the true doctrine of sola scriptura amidst the various confusing and misleading notions of the relationship between scripture, church and creeds that exists in Christendom today. It looks at the doctrine from a historical, biblical and theological standpoint, and critiques the other positions that have veered from the truth in one way or another. As in the days of the reformation, the battle today for the truth of sola scripture must be fought on two fronts. On the one hand, we must deal with the errors of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy that essentially make the church a law unto itself. On the other hand, we must tackle the defective view of sola scriptura held by most evangelicals today that makes the individual a law unto himself. Both of these extremes undermine the true authority of scripture and must be rejected.

Chapter 1 examines the writings of the early church fathers and their understanding of the relationship between scripture and tradition. In the first century immediately following the death of Christ, the Apostolic fathers viewed “tradition” as the body of doctrine given to the church by Christ and His apostles both through oral and written means. Scripture and tradition coincided with each other and the true apostolic doctrine could only be found in the church. In the second and third centuries, the church had to deal with the Gnostic heresy which appealed to both scripture and a secret apostolic tradition given only to them. This heresy forced the early church to clarify the true relationship between scripture, tradition and church. The concept of the regula fidei or rule of faith was developed, which was essentially a summary of the faith taught by the Apostles and committed to their disciples. This rule of faith became the standard by which all doctrines claiming to be Christian were judged. It served as the guide and context for the interpretation of scripture. In the fourth and fifth century, the church had to deal with various Trinitarian and Christological heresies and that led to the Nicene and Chalcedon creeds. These creeds were essentially a continuation of the rule of faith, expressing the same truths in a fuller way. Only Scripture was regarded as the word of God and the sole source of revelation. The Church was to interpret scripture within the context of the rule of faith. This is defined as Tradition I. However, the first hints of a second source of revelation began to appear in some of the writings of the fathers in the fourth century like Basil the Great.

Chapter 2 covers the period of history known as the Middle Ages spanning a thousand years. Several important events and issues are examined which had an impact on the Church’s concept of scripture and tradition. The development of the Papacy and the doctrine of papal infallibility, which appeared in the thirteenth century, had tremendous impact on the church’s concept of authority. There was also some confusion regarding the extent of the canon, and complications involving the text of scripture and the gloss. The gradual shift from the allegorical method of interpretation to a more literal method resulted in the rise of the two-source concept of tradition as certain doctrines and practices could no longer be supported from scripture itself and had to find their foundation somewhere else, namely in post-canonical tradition. Tradition II, as opposed to tradition I which was held by the early church, asserts that the Apostles did not commit everything to writing and that an oral tradition was handed down to the church as a second source of revelation, complement to scripture. William Ockham of the early 14th century was one of the leading theologians who inspired tradition II. After the 14th century, we find a parallel development of both traditions I and II within the late medieval church.

Chapter 3 looks at the period of the protestant reformation and in particular at Martin Luther and John Calvin. One of the central issues of debate during that period relates to the source and standard of the church’s doctrine and practice. The reformers called the church back to her ancient position on the authority of scripture and its relationship to the church, i.e. tradition I. Martin Luther defended scripture as the supreme authority above Popes and councils and the only infallible authority in matters of faith. He did not reject tradition altogether but only those traditions that were contrary to scripture. He affirmed the authority of the church and the ancient creeds. Calvin, in book one of his Institutes, taught that the authority of scripture came from God and was not derived from the church. In book four, he discusses the relationship of the church, scripture and the creeds. The Word is the final authority while the church and ancient councils were subordinate authorities which were not inherently infallible. Like Luther, Calvin did not oppose tradition itself but rather human traditions. He upheld the apostolic tradition which the Roman Catholic church had departed from. The reformers rejected all equally authoritative extra-scriptural revelation. They saw that scripture was to be interpreted by the church according to the rule of faith.      

Chapter 4 looks at the radical-reformation led by the Anabaptist, the Roman Catholic response to the reformation and certain Post-Reformation developments in the church. The radical reformers rejected tradition in any form and adopted an individualistic approach to the interpretation of scripture. Individual judgment was preferred to corporate judgment of the church. This is known as tradition 0. Rome on the other hand dogmatized tradition II at the council of Trent and taught that not all doctrinal truths are to be found in scripture. Tradition is seen as a second doctrinal source in addition to scripture. The Roman Catholic church has since developed a newer concept of tradition that sees not two but one source of revelation and this single source of revelation is the present Roman Magisterium, i.e. tradition III. Following the reformation, protestant theologians began to systematize their theology and a number of confessions which expressed the teaching of scripture on important subjects were crafted. The Westminster Confession of faith was one of these and it taught that scripture had the final authority, and that the church had the ministerial authority to interpret it. The rationalism of the enlightenment, the individualism of the radical reformation and democratic populism combined to create a radical version of tradition 0 in which scripture is seen as the only authority, while the authorities of the church and the rule of faith are utterly cast aside. The individual now becomes autonomous and is free to interpret the scripture apart from any doctrinal boundaries.

Chapters 5 and 6 examine various passages of scripture that deal with the nature of scripture, tradition and the church; passages which have become involved in the sola scriptura debate. 1) On scripture: Acts 17:10-11, one of the most used and abused texts in this debate, neither teaches the authority of an oral tradition today in addition to scripture nor a radical individualism in which each may determine for himself what the Bible says. A failure to differentiate between tradition 0, I and II has led to unnecessary confusion over 2 Timothy 3:16-17. While it is true that any word from God, whether given orally or in writing is God-breathed, only scripture is our God-breathed and infallible authority today. The passage in 2 Peter 1:19-21 teaches us that scripture does not originate from the mind of man but from God. It is also an implicit testimony to the unique authority of the Old and New Testament. Revelation 22:18-19 is applicable to all of revealed scripture. Together with Deuteronomy 4, it speaks against setting aside God’s commandments for men’s traditions. 2) On tradition: From Luke 1:1-4, we learn that oral tradition is inherently unstable over time and cannot be independently verified if the person who gave it is gone. Instead, the written word is a more stable form. In Mark 7:5-13, Jesus contrasts the tradition of the elders with God’s word. It teaches us that scripture and tradition cannot be synthesized or placed on the same level. 2 Thessalonians 2:15 is often ignored by those who hold to tradition 0. This verse teaches that holding to tradition in the sense of the rule of faith or the essential elements of the faith is explicitly affirmed and commanded. 3) On the church: Matthew 16:17-19 is the primary text used to support Roman supremacy and the papacy but it really teaches nothing of that sort. Even if the Rock is taken as Peter, still the text says nothing about succession, infallibility or supreme jurisdiction. Luke 22:31-32 neither teaches about the faith of Peter’s successors nor the gift of infallibility to Peter or any successor. John 16:12-15 contains nothing about the gift of infallibility and is not limited to Peter alone. John 21:15-17 is best understood with reference to Peter’s threefold denial and teaches nothing about a succession of supreme universal monarchial bishops. Acts 15:6-29 teaches the necessity of calling a church council to deal with certain problems. It also shows that it was James and not Peter who had the final word on the matter at hand. Romans 11:17-23 warns against the possibility of a church being broken off if it does not continue in the faith. Rome is not exempt from this warning. From Galatians 1:8-9, we learn the principle of testing and that if successors of the apostles were inherently infallible, then it would be impossible to distinguish between true and false successors. Today, the apostolic gospel alone remains the standard by which the church tests all who claim to be teachers of the truth. Finally, 1 Timothy 3:15 shows that the church does have true authority and is distinguished from the truth. She is subordinate to the truth and is the place where the truth may be found. In all these passages, we find that tradition I is most consistent with what scriptures teach concerning the nature of scripture, the church and tradition.

Chapter 7 is a critique of both Roman Catholic traditions i.e. tradition II and III as well as Eastern Orthodoxy. Roman Catholicism: Both tradition II and III are later developments in church history and can be shown to be self-contradictory. Charles Hodge gives eight difficulties facing the concept of tradition as another source of revelation. Besides the fact that there is no way to know with certainty what the apostles taught apart from their writings, such a view destroys the possibility of having a reliable criterion to distinguish true and false traditions, and it necessarily undermines the authority of scripture. Because of the problems with tradition II, most Roman Catholic theologians have moved on to tradition III which explicitly elevates the church to the place of supreme authority.  The doctrine of papal infallibility is very important to tradition III and if it can be shown to be false, then tradition III falls too. But neither scriptures nor history supports this doctrine. In fact, history alone disproves it. Numerous Popes have been known to err and even to be heretics. By declaring itself to be infallible, Rome has become a law unto herself and has rejected the authority of Christ Himself. Eastern Orthodoxy: Tradition is defined as the life of the Spirit within the church. Scripture, the seven ecumenical councils, the fathers, icons etc are all outward forms of tradition. Their concept of tradition is highly mystical and inherently ambiguous. One of their problems is that they claim that ecumenical councils are infallible but are unable to clearly identify or define such a council. Ultimately, the most significant problem with Eastern Orthodoxy is that of autonomy. The Eastern church, like Rome, becomes the final standard of truth and the Lordship of Christ is compromised in both cases.

Chapter 8 is a critique of the evangelical doctrine of solo scriptura, i.e. tradition 0. The Bible is viewed as the sole basis of authority and no real authority is given to the creeds or to the church. The individual becomes the final authority in scriptural interpretation and this leads to much relativism, subjectivism and chaos. This doctrine is unbiblical, illogical and unworkable. It neglects the passages in scripture that teach that the interpretation of scripture belongs not to individuals but to the church and that Christ has given His church this authority. Also, it ignores passages that teach about true apostolic tradition. But besides scriptural problems, it also presents historical, theological and practical problems. Solo scriptura was neither the position of the early church nor that of the reformers. It cannot account for the canon of scripture and reduces essential doctrines to mere opinion. It leads to schisms and splits in the church and is ultimately rebellion against the authority of God for the sake of preserving man’s authority.

Having dealt with the erroneous concepts of scripture and tradition, Chapter 9 presents the doctrine of sola scriptura as it should be understood. It looks at what it means for scripture to be the sole source of revelation and the final authoritative norm. It then shows that scripture is to be interpreted in and by the church, and according to the rule of faith. As the sole source of revelation, scripture has the qualities of perfection and sufficiency. It contains all the revelation necessary for salvation and the Christian life. But the sufficiency of the scripture does not imply that it exists in a vacuum or is able to preach itself. In order to function as a standard, it must be taken and used within its Christian context. Scripture is the only inspired and inherently infallible norm, and thus the final authoritative norm. It is however not the only authority. The church is the authoritative interpreter and proclaimer of God’s word. Individuals are not to study the word in a way that disconnects them from the communion of saints past or present. The ancient creeds, which are essentially a continuation of the rule of faith, are the authoritative confession of the church throughout the ages. A denial of creedal authority leaves the church without any possibility of defining doctrinal boundaries and essential doctrines. A denial of this consensus of faith is in effect a denial of scripture itself.

Chapter 10 looks at some of the objections that have been raised against the doctrine of sola scriptura by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicals. A large number of these objections can be dealt with simply by making the distinction between tradition 0 and I. Tradition I does not deny the authority of the church or the importance of the rule of faith in understanding the scripture. It calls the church away from historical ignorance (tradition 0) as well as historical distortion (tradition III). It is not the cause of hermeneutical anarchy and denomination factionalism. In fact, it has worked very well for the first three to four hundred years of church history. Eastern Orthodox objections are largely the same as those raised by Rome. In addition, they have misunderstood the phrase ‘scripture interprets scripture’, which simply means to interpret scripture within its own context. They also raise the question of how one is to determine which are clear and which are less clear passages. Tradition 0 will find it difficult to respond to this objection. Tradition I overcomes this difficulty by depending on the corporate witness of the Spirit to the entire church and moves from the known of the rule of faith to the unknown of disputed passages. Evangelicals question whether tradition I is really sola scriptura. It has been shown that the reformers used that slogan to call the church back to her ancient tradition. Another objection from evangelicals is that tradition I places us under Rome. This is easily answered if one does not assume that the church is identical to Rome.

The final chapter looks at three main issues namely, sola scriptura in relation to the formation of the canon, sola scriptura and the doctrine of the church, and sola scriptura and the creeds. The formation of the canon does not pose any problems for tradition I. One must distinguish between infallibility and inerrancy. The church does not need to be infallible in order to preserve an inerrant canon. We know the canon through the witness of the Spirit given corporately to God’s people and received unanimously in the churches. One of the ways in which a church is identified is her adherence to the apostolic rule of faith, which the Spirit has borne witness to throughout Christendom just like the canon. There is no salvation outside the visible church. The question of whether the Roman Catholic church is to be considered a branch of the visible church is discussed. Rome is not a pure church but it is nevertheless a real church in the sense that it receives the early creeds. However, because of its claim to infallibility, it rules out the possibility of ever correcting her errors. As for evangelical churches, there is no requirement to continue clinging on to tradition 0 and that tradition I is a workable option. Creeds are not inspired but they may be considered inerrant in light of the corporate testimony of the Holy Spirit to God’s people. Creeds are necessary to detect and remove heresies. Scripture, creeds and the church are closely and intricately related and only tradition I brings balance to this relationship.            


~ The End ~