Where Does Sola Scriptura Come From? The Humanist Origins of the Protestant Reformation
Evangelicalism is facing a crisis as growing numbers of Evangelicals convert to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. One reason is the crisis of sola scriptura — Scripture alone. Scott Hahn, a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and later a professor at a small Presbyterian seminary, tells the story how he was floored by the question: “Professor, where does the Bible teach that ‘Scripture alone’ is our sole authority?” (Hahn 1993:51). After his initial shock, Hahn approached several of the leading Evangelical theologians and was told that sola scriptura was the unquestioned premise of Protestant theology. One theologian told him: “This is the fundamental assumption of all our theology!” What is so striking about Hahn’s anecdote was the fact that none of the theologians were able to provide him with a biblical rationale for sola scriptura. This raises the question: Has anyone even addressed this question?
A review of the Protestant apologia for the Bible (See End Note 1) shows that where there is ample biblical support for the authority of Scripture, the veracity of Scripture, as well as its divine inspiration, nowhere is there biblical support for the Protestant principle: sola scriptura. D.H. Williams in his article: “The Search for Sola Scriptura in the Early Church,” openly admits the absence of biblical support for sola scriptura. This finding combined with the responses Hahn received from the leading Protestant theologians indicate sola scriptura is an axiom — something assumed to be true, to be taken for granted, and not to be questioned. This then raises the question: If sola scriptura does not come from the Bible, where does it come from? In this paper I will be arguing that sola scriptura has its origins in the Renaissance Humanist movement.
The origins of the Protestant Reformation must be understood against the backdrop of medieval Scholasticism and Renaissance Humanism (Kristeller 1979:66). For a long time Reformation studies emphasized the originality of the Reformation, and neglected or slighted the Reformation’s embeddedness in the spirituality and cultural mindset of the Middle Ages (Bouwsma 1988:3). Situating sola scriptura in its historical context will enable us to understand the historical and theological forces that gave rise to this foundational doctrine and to understand how sola scriptura relates to the historic Christian Faith.
Part I: The Emergence of Medieval Scholasticism
The Middle Ages (1100 to 1400) — the age of the great cathedrals, the Crusades, Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, and the rise of papal rule — were a formative period for Roman Catholicism. It is this period that gave Roman Catholic Christianity its distinctive character. Medieval Catholicism marks a break from Eastern Christianity as well as from the patristic consensus of the early Church.
The break between the East and the West was due in part to breakdown of the Roman Empire. The barbarian invasions that brought about the collapse of Pax Romana and of the infrastructure of the Empire’s western half resulted in Latin Christianity finding itself in a society wracked by anarchy, violence, instability, and isolated from the rest of the world. It was not until the 1100s that a semblance of peace and order became established in Western Europe. As commerce and trade with the outside world resumed, western Europe’s long isolation came to a close. The resumption of trade brought not only new commercial goods but also an influx of ancient texts of learning.
With the establishment of a stable social order, the priorities of life shifted from survival to expansion, consolidation, and unification. The papal reform movement in the eleventh century restored order to the western Church by making the pope effectively superior to the local churches (see Papadakis 1994:54-55). The concentration of students and teachers in schools provided a basis for the ordered production of knowledge across Europe. In time this would give rise to one of medieval Scholasticism’s enduring contribution to the modern West — the university. R.W. Southern in his Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe describes how the Scholastics worked to bring order to the mass of materials inherited from the ancient world.
…it was the twelfth-century innovators who first introduced systematic order into the mass of intellectual materials which they had inherited in a largely uncoordinated form from the ancient world. The general aim of their work was to produce a complete and systematic body of knowledge, clarified by the refinements of criticism, and presented as the consensus of competent judges. Doctrinally the method for achieving this consensus was a progression from commentary to questioning, and from questioning to systematization (Southern 1995:4).
Far from being a period of conservative stasis, the Middle Ages were a time of great intellectual freedom and theological ferment as various schools and masters competed against each other.
Scholasticism gave rise not only to the systematization of theological knowledge but also canon law. These two intellectual trends radically transformed the nature of the Catholic Church and its relations with the outside world. The systematization of theology (e.g., the works of Thomas Aquinas) promoted an internal theological consistency within the Church. The forensic emphasis in Anselm of Canterbury’s Cur Deus Homo gave Catholic theology a legalistic ethos not found in the Church Fathers. The systematization of canon law (e.g., Gratian’s Decretum) facilitated the centralization of papal rule. The systematization of canon law resulted in a shift from church government based on sacred ritual to one based upon legal rationality (Southern 1995:158 ff.).
Part II: The Humanist Challenge to Scholasticism
As the Middle Ages progressed there emerged a broad based movement known as the Renaissance. The Renaissance was not one movement but a series of cultural and intellectual movements. It encompassed a wide array of disciplines: painting (Giotto, Michaelangelo, Raphael), literature (Dante), politics (Machiavelli), biblical studies (Erasmus), geography (Vasco Da Gama, Columbus), and the natural sciences (Leonardo Da Vinci, Copernicus). It began in Italy in the 1300s then spread to other parts of Europe, to Germany in the mid 1400s, then to France in the late 1400s, reaching its peak in the 1500s.
One particularly significant development was the Humanist movement that would mount a major challenge against Scholasticism. Humanist scholarship was driven by a number of social forces: (1) the establishment of great libraries under the sponsorship of rulers and popes, (2) the influx of classical and sacred texts, (3) the founding of academies throughout Europe for the purpose of studying and translating the ancient texts, and (4) the invention of the printing press.
The influx of ancient texts made it possible for scholars to read ancient texts directly giving rise to a new method and a new attitude towards the study of the literary text. This stands in contrast to Scholasticism’s mediated access to sources buffered by layers of compendiums and commentaries compiled by ecclesiastical authorities. Under the slogan ad fontes (back to the sources), Humanist scholars called for a return to the classical texts, in some instances the classical texts of paganism, in other instances a return to the Bible and the Church Fathers.
Unlike Scholasticism which uncritically accepted what had been received, Renaissance scholarship brought a more questioning attitude to the study of the texts. Where Scholasticism preserved and elaborated upon accepted teachings, Renaissance scholars sought to recover the ancient sources and use them to critique contemporary forms of knowledge. Lorenzo Valla’s (1407-1457) expose of the spurious nature of the Donation of Constantine is an example of the radical nature of the Humanist project.
Medieval Scholasticism was further challenged by the rise of Nominalism and via moderna. Nominalism’s emphasis on experimentation and experience constituted a revolt against the abstract metaphysics of Scholasticism (Oberman1992:195). Also, where via antiqua sought to subordinate all the sciences to theology, the queen of science, via moderna favored the relative autonomy for both the natural sciences and theology. This was significant in that it led to the restructuring of the university resulting in greater autonomy for the various disciplines from the strictures of Scholastic theology.
Ad Fontes and the Challenge to the Latin Vulgate
Contrary to what some Protestants may think, medieval Catholicism took the Bible very seriously. There arose in the thirteenth century an ambitious undertaking to organize and systematize Catholic theology. Biblical studies flourished during this period as Scholastics sought to build upon a collection of authoritative texts with the Bible as the cornerstone of this body of knowledge. However, it should be kept in mind that the scholars who carried out this ambitious project were relying solely on the Vulgate translation. The western Church’s dependence on the Latin Vulgate reflected its isolation from the Byzantine East and the widespread loss of the clergy’s ability to read the New Testament in the original Greek.
The influx of ancient texts and the emergence of Renaissance scholarship would challenge the Catholic Church’s dependence on the Vulgate. In 1516, Erasmus published the first critical edition of the Greek New Testament. Then in 1521, the Complutensian Polyglot, the first complete Bible in the original languages, was published at the newly founded University of Alcala de Henares near Madrid. When the Greek text of the New Testament became widely available to scholars, many became aware of the inadequacies of the Vulgate which led to their questioning not just the Vulgate but also long-standing theological positions based upon the Vulgate. This crisis was aggravated by the rigidities of Scholastic theology that stemmed from Scholasticism’s attempt to create a comprehensive and unified body of knowledge. The crisis was further aggravated by the Papacy’s insistence on the Vulgate as the doctrinally normative translation (McGrath 1987:135-137). When Catholic scholars like the Augustinian order monk, Martin Luther, propounded views that conflicted with official doctrines and were based upon direct study of the Greek New Testament a theological crisis was not far off.
Another challenge to the Vulgate came from the Humanist support for the Bible in the vernacular. Erasmus, one of the leading Christian Humanists, sought to reform the Catholic Church through scholarship and through the vernacular translation of the Bible. He desired that every member of the church have a knowledge of the Scripture. Erasmus penned the well known line:
I would to God that the plowman would sing a text of the Scripture at his plow and that the weaver would hum them to the tune of his shuttle…. (Opera V, 140)
The emphasis on vernacular translations is consistent with the Humanist priority on direct and immediate access to the Bible and other ancient texts.
From a sociology of knowledge perspective, the emphasis on the vernacular is significant because it undermines the relations of power and knowledge constructed under medieval Scholasticism. Where Scholasticism with its systematization of doctrine and canon law centralized doctrinal authority under the Papacy and made the laity dependent upon the clergy, the Humanist movement and the Reformation’s insistence on immediate access to the Bible created conditions of autonomous, decentralized relations of power and knowledge that would challenge the monarchical Papacy.
The Reformation as the Fruit of the Humanist Movement
The Renaissance Humanist movement gave rise to a number of reforming movements of which the Reformation was one particular expression. It is important that we not lose sight of these other attempts at reform and view the Protestant Reformation as The Reformation.
The intellectual origins of the Reformed church are not, it would seem, to be sought primarily in the context of tensions within late medieval theology, but in the context of the emergence of the new methods and presuppositions of the Renaissance (McGrath 1987:107).
The Protestant Reformers’ ability to challenge the teaching authority of Rome would not have been possible without the intellectual tools that they received from Renaissance Humanism.
Without access to the biblical texts in their original languages, without a working knowledge of those languages, and without access to the works of St Augustine, the Reformation could never have begun; without the support of the humanists during the fateful period after the Leipzig disputation, the Reformation could never have survived its first years; without attracting leading humanists, such as Melanchton, Bucer and Calvin, and without the rhetorical skills to proclaim the new theology, the Reformation could never have been perpetuated. In all these respects, the Reformation owed its very existence to the humanist movement (McGrath 1985:52).
Protestantism’s emphasis on the Bible and its concern for careful biblical scholarship represent not so much a break from Roman Catholicism as a continuation of Renaissance scholarship. The Protestant principle of sola Scriptura and the praxis of careful exegesis is paralleled by the Renaissance principle of ad fontes and the praxis of inductive reasoning and empirical observation. However, McGrath also notes that the Reformation resembled the Renaissance Humanist movement more in form than in substance which leads him to conclude that Humanism did not father the Reformation but “merely acted as midwife at its birth” (1985:53).
The Intellectual Sources of Sola Scriptura
Although sola scriptura is regarded as one of the fundamental distinctives of Protestantism, the principle itself was not unique to the Protestant Reformation. Among the medieval scholars sola scriptura was a widely recognized principle. Richard Muller observes:
The Reformation did not invent the view that scripture is the prior norm of doctrine, the source of all necessary doctrines, sufficient in its teachings for salvation. Such was the view of many medieval theologians and commentators. (Muller 1996:36).
The Renaissance Humanists were not necessarily Protestant because of their adherence to sola scriptura. Within the Renaissance Humanist movement sola scriptura had a wide range of meaning. It had the broad inclusive sense “not without scripture” which allowed Humanist scholars to use other classical sources in addition to the Bible. It also had the more narrow exclusive sense of “through scripture and through scripture alone” (McGrath 1985:51). This fact leads McGrath to write:
… it is becoming increasingly clear that the medieval period in general was characterized by its conviction that scripture was the sole material base of Christian theology, thus forcing us to reconsider what, if anything, was distinctive concerning the Reformation principle of sola scriptura (1987:140).
McGrath’s question indicates that the Reformation’s’ sola scriptura was far from a simple slogan but a complex of theological concepts. The Protestant version of sola scriptura emerged as a result of the convergence of several intellectual trends. Oberman writes:
Together with the humanist quest for authentic sources (fontes), the insistence on nothing but God’s commitment, the sola potentia ordinata, may evolve into a sola Scriptura, the Reformation principle “Scripture alone” (1992:194).
Thus, Protestantism’s sola scriptura represents the crystallization of one particular expression of the Humanist approach to ad fontes. To understand the emergence of the Protestant variant of sola scriptura we need to understand the role of the growing tension between Scripture and extra-biblical tradition in the medieval Catholic Church.
Scripture Versus Tradition
Oberman notes that there were two competing paradigms in the medieval Church: Tradition I and Tradition II (1963:371 ff.). Tradition I saw Scripture and Tradition as organically related, the single source theory. Tradition II saw Scripture and Tradition as two distinct phenomena, the two-source theory. The two paradigms were unconsciously held to by the medieval Church without any attempt to integrate the two. Lane makes a similar distinction noting that the early Church held to the “coincident view” while the medieval Catholic Church held to the “supplementary view.”
Medieval Catholicism’s adoption of Oberman’s Tradition II paradigm would have lasting consequences for the way theology was done in the West. Pelikan notes the medieval understanding of Scripture and Tradition undermined the earlier patristic view which assumed the coherence of Scripture and Tradition:
Proponents of the theory that tradition was an independent source of revelation minimized the fundamentally exegetical content of tradition which had served to define tradition and in the specification of apostolic tradition (1971:119).
By subordinating Scripture and Tradition to the magisterium of the Papacy, Roman Catholicism drifted even further from the early patristic framework.
The tension between Tradition I and Tradition II grew in the fourteenth century as the canon lawyers took advantage of the two-sources theory to gain influence in the papal curia and the royal courts. Under the guise of the two-sources theory, canon law was invested with an authority comparable to the Bible. As the canon lawyers surpassed the theologians in status and influence in the papal curia and the royal courts, the theologians reacted by placing greater stress on the single source theory (Oberman 1963:371 ff.). The rise of canon law and the subsequent rivalry between the canon lawyers and the doctors of theology was unique to Western Christianity and virtually unknown in the Byzantine East.
In the fourteenth century new currents of thoughts began to circulate straining the medieval synthesis of Scripture, Tradition, and Church. One current of thought (the Scripturalists) posited the possibility that only a faithful remnant, not the Church, would be faithful to Scripture. Another current of thought (the Curialists) introduced the notion of post-apostolic tradition and exalted the office of the Pope as a arbiter of post-apostolic tradition. It is here in the tensions between the Curialists and the Scripturalists, and between the canon lawyers and the theologians, we see the incipient fault lines that would rupture in the sixteenth century giving rise to the Reformation and the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura.
The growing tensions between the Curialists and the Scripturalists would give rise to Protestantism which inverted the two-sources paradigm by opposing Scripture against Tradition and by placing Scripture over Tradition. This upending of the medieval Scripture-Tradition paradigm resulted in what Lane calls the “ancillary view” (1975:42). He notes that the Protestant Reformation was not so much a revolt against Tradition as it was a revolt against the authority of the Catholic Church.
The revolt was against church teaching rather than against tradition. The Roman church was seen as a heretical body because it had perverted the Scriptures as well as added to them. The root issue was one of ecclesiology: does the church define the gospel or vice-versa? It is significant that the Reformers repeatedly sought to use tradition on their own side. The prime enemy was not tradition, not even supplementary tradition, but the teaching of the contemporary (Roman) church (1975:42).
We find a similar observation made by Muller:
What the Reformation did in a new and forceful manner was to pose scripture against tradition and practices of the church and at the same time, define scripture as clear and certain in and of itself and therefore “self-interpreting” (Muller 1996:36).
Lane’s observation about the ancillary view gives us insight as to what was distinctive about the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura. One, it did not entail the wholesale rejection of tradition which is the view held by the Radical Anabaptists and modern American Evangelicals. Two, it assumed a divergence of Scripture from Tradition which is contrary to the coincidence view that underlies patristic theology. Three, it opposed the authority of Scripture against the Church. It is the last point that differentiates the Protestant variant of sola scriptura from its Humanist predecessors. Underlying the ancillary view is the belief that the Church can err and has erred, and for that reason recourse to Scripture is necessary for reforming the Church.
Part III: The Role of Sola Scriptura in the Protestant Reformation
Ulrich Zwingli — The First Appearance of Sola Scriptura
The Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura first emerged in Zurich, Switzerland, in the late Autumn of 1520. A furor erupted when Ulrich Zwingli attacked clerical celibacy and the intercession of the saints on the basis of Scripture. In response to the controversy the city council of Zurich met to settle the matter. In its ruling the council affirmed the principle of sola scriptura and Zwingli’s preaching.
Unlike modern Evangelicalism’s highly individualistic reading of the Bible, the Swiss Reformation had a more civil and ecclesial approach to sola scriptura. For the Swiss Reformers Scripture was to be interpreted by the local political and church authorities independent of any interference from the Roman Papacy, councils, theologians, and canon lawyers. Oberman writes:
This synod, with its two faces, toward the church of Zurich and toward the universal church, has only one judge: holy scripture. The judge is joined by the doctores as consultants, the general clergy as its constitutive membership and the city council as its executive arm. But together all of these are ‘brethren in Christ’. Neither bishop, general church council, pope nor city council could preside as judge over the assembly’s deliberations. The innovation introduced by the 1523 assembly consisted in the elevation of scripture from a canon of reference to an immediate and sufficient assurance of doctrinal rectitude which would lead the ‘brethren in Christ’ to truth: ‘We have here an infallible and impartial judge, namely holy scripture’ (1981:232).
The Swiss Reformation was the result of an alliance between the local church and the civil authority. In it the interests of the Reformers and the civil authorities coincided, both were seeking greater autonomy from Rome’s centralizing project. By sanctioning Zwingli’s sola scriptura the Zurich council was asserting the city’s autonomy from the Roman Papacy and the universities, the stronghold of Scholasticism. In turning an academic doctrine into an political principle and a social movement, Zwingli and the Zurich council inaugurated the Reformation in Switzerland and South Germany. In this context sola scriptura was both a theological and a political statement.
Martin Luther — Augustinian Scholar
The rise of the Lutheran Reformation cannot be understood apart from the formative influence of the Humanist movement. The University of Wittenberg, where Martin Luther labored as professor of biblical studies, became part of the Humanist movement when Andreas Karlstadt, dean of the theology faculty at Wittenberg, was won over from Scholasticism’s Aristotelianism to the vera theologia of Augustinianism (McGrath 1985: 16 ff., 47 ff.). Karlstadt’s conversion led to a major restructuring of the curriculum at the Wittenberg seminary. Augustine superseded Aquinas, and direct exegetical study of the biblical text was emphasized. Karlstadt also introduced to the seminary sola scriptura as a working principle for biblical scholarship.
It may be pointed out that it is Karlstadt, rather than Luther, who is associated with the enunciation of the sola scriptura principle, which later became the programmatic basis of the Zurich Reformation …. (McGrath 1985:51 no. 81)
Although Luther was working in an obscure seminary, the explosive effect of Luther’s Ninety Five Theses was amplified by the Humanist network that spanned the European continent. The Humanists enthusiastically supported Luther because it was consistent with their desire for reform in the Catholic Church.
The Lutheran Reformation originated as a university reforming movement in an academic context, initially fighting an essentially academic battle until the intervention of the humanist movement turned a minor local academic debate into a major cosmopolitan ecclesiastical confrontation (McGrath 1987:102).
Without this network, it is quite possible that Luther’s disputation over indulgences would have remained a local controversy and the Protestant Reformation would have been still born (McGrath 1987:65 ff.).
An examination of Luther’s life will show that sola scriptura was not the initial issue in Luther’s career as a reformer. The initial issue was his discovery of sola fide “justification by faith alone” which he discovered possibly as early as 1515 when he was lecturing on Romans. Luther’s paradigm shift would later lead him to attack the sale of indulgences and the posting of the Ninety Five Theses in 1517 which brought Luther into open conflict with church authorities. The Leipzig Debate held in mid 1519 marked another watershed for Luther. At this debate Luther was forced by Eck to reject not only the authority of the Papacy but also the authority of the councils.
By February 1520, in the course of defending his beliefs Luther began to have serious doubts about the authority of the Papacy even to the point of wondering whether the pope was the Antichrist (Kittelson 1986:138). Luther’s doubts eventually turned into an outright rejection of the Papacy. In April 1521, Luther made an open declaration of sola scriptura at the Diet of Worms when he gave his famous speech before Emperor Charles V and the representatives of the Papacy:
Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scripture or with open, clear, and distinct grounds and reasoning–and my conscience is captive to the Word of God–then I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me! Amen. (Kittleson 1986:161)
Luther’s defiant “Here I stand!” at the Diet of Worms serves as a paradigmatic event that shapes the Protestant character. For Protestants Luther’s courageous stand exemplifies the Protestant principle of sola scriptura, lifting it up from a merely abstract theological principle into an act of courage and conviction.
What we see happening is that sola scriptura was not something that Luther first discovered, but something Luther was forced to accept in the course of his defending his discovery of sola fide. The roots of Luther’s sola scriptura can be seen in his working methods as a professor of biblical studies trained in the ways of via moderna. Eventually, Luther’s uncompromising affirmation of sola fide led him to reject the authority of the Papacy and to affirm the authority of the Bible over all other authorities. This supports Lane’s argument that sola scriptura was primarily a revolt against the authority of the Church, not Tradition (1975:42).
John Calvin — French Humanist Scholar
At the age of twelve John Calvin was sent by his father to the University of Paris, the leading intellectual center in Europe at the time. Calvin came to Paris at a time when the Italian Renaissance had begun to affect the educational program there. The educational reforms emphasized the “three languages”: Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and included philology and study of the literary classics. All these studies would form an indispensable foundation for Calvin’s career as a biblical scholar and preacher of the Word of God. Calvin was strongly influenced by Erasmus’ intellectual program and remained in many ways a Humanist of the late Renaissance, even after his break with Catholicism (Bouwsma 1988:13). Calvin’s massive commentaries on the Old and New Testament with all the learning that they contained constitute the fruit not only of the Reformation, but also Renaissance Humanism.
Just as Calvin’s conversion is shrouded in mystery, so likewise the circumstances of his acceptance of sola scriptura (See End Note 3). Calvin did not use the phrase “sola scriptura” in his Institutes of Christian Religion, but it is clear that he accepted this principle. This principle is implicit in his assertions of the superiority of Scripture over all other sources of knowledge. Section 1.6.1 of Calvin’s Institutes has the subheading: “God bestows the actual knowledge of himself upon us only in the Scripture” which clearly point to where Calvin’s sympathies lie. In Book I chapters 7 to 10, Calvin affirms the superiority of Scripture over all other forms of knowledge: creation (1.6.4), the Church (1.7.2), human reason (1.8.1), the doubts and questioning of the skeptics (1.8.9), and the fevered imaginings of the Enthusiasts (1.9.1).
In Book IV, Calvin follows up on his earlier position taken in Book I. Calvin challenges the authority of the Catholic Church by insisting that the doctrinal authority of the Catholic Church is subject to Scripture (4.8.4). Furthermore, he implies that the doctrinal authority of the true Church is derived from the authority of Scripture (4.8.8 and 4.8.13). Calvin further undermines the authority of the Papacy by asserting that councils can err and that only those councils that conform to the teaching of Scripture can be considered true church councils (4.9). Calvin redefines the Church by making “the Word of God purely preached and heard” a mark of the true church (4.1.9).
Calvin exerted an enormous influence over Protestantism through his Institutes by establishing sola scriptura as a working principle. His views on Scripture as the supreme norm and his insistence that Christian faith and practice be derived from Scripture are themes that continued to be reiterated even to the present day.
Part IV. The Legacy of Sola Scriptura
Protestantism’s adoption of sola scriptura was to have a profound effect on the way it did theology. Carlton notes that in contrast to the classical theological confessions which began with an affirmation of belief in one God, many Protestant creeds open with a statement about the authority of Scripture.
The belief in the Bible as an object of faith and as a subject of Credal affirmation, however, represents a radical departure from the faith of the early Church. None of the ancient creeds of the Church begins with a statement about the Bible; rather, all begin with an affirmation in one God, the Father (1997:1; italics in original).
Another consequence of sola scriptura was the downgrading of the doctrinal authority of the Ecumenical Councils. Where the Bible was held to be inerrant, the Councils were held to be errant and fallible (e.g., Westminster Confession, Chapter XXXI).
Sola scriptura led the Protestant Reformers to adopt a different hermeneutic. By making Scripture the sole norm, the Reformers situated the regula fidei within Scripture rather than within the Church, the approach taken by the early Church (cf. Carlton 1997:1). This relocation of the regula fide can be seen in the principles: “Scripture interpreting Scripture” and “the canon within the Canon.” The elevating of Scripture over the Church and the opposing of Scripture against Tradition was something unheard of for the first millennium and a half of church history.
The magisterial Reformation sought to maintain the relationship between Scripture and Tradition. They vigorously opposed the Scripture-only hermeneutics of the Radical Anabaptists which excluded any other sources. Keith Mathison labeled this position: solo scriptura. However, it was this version of sola scriptura that would become the dominant paradigm in American Protestantism. The spread of solo scriptura was due to a number of cultural factors: the Enlightenment which rejected traditional authorities and American culture which emphasized the freedom of individual conscience. Thus, the solo scriptura of American Evangelicalism bears very little resemblance to that of Luther and Calvin. This has created considerable confusion in current theological discussions because many people confuse the classic Protestant sola scriptura with the later version — solo scriptura— that rejects outright historical tradition.
The historical evolution of sola scriptura — from a working principle of the medieval Humanists, to the rallying cry of the Protestant Reformers, to its popular form in American Evangelicalism — underscores sola scriptura’s fluid and dynamic nature. This fluidity means that sola scriptura lacks the capacity to provide Protestant Christianity with a stable hermeneutical framework it so badly needs. The fluidity of sola scriptura helps us to understand Protestantism’s bewildering theological and denominational diversity. As Luther and Calvin feared, sola scriptura opened up a hermeneutical Pandora’s Box (Williams 1998:358).
The Irony of Protestantism
The irony of Protestantism is that much of what the Reformers were protesting against was not Tradition, i.e., the commonly held beliefs and practices of the early Church, but innovations invented during the Middle Ages, e.g., indulgences, purgatory, transubstantiation, papal supremacy. In many ways the Protestants can be seen as innocent victims of Rome’s break from Eastern Christianity and the patristic consensus of the early Church. Medieval Scholasticism which many see as one of the high points of Catholicism, can be seen as Western Christianity’s fall away from Tradition.
Lane notes perceptively that Protestantism’s ancillary view of Scripture is based upon the assumption that the Church can err and has erred, and for that reason Scripture is needed as a corrective. A corollary of the ancillary view is the presupposition that at some time the Church experienced a “Fall” from the original apostolic teaching. Many Orthodox Christians would point to the Schism of 1054 as the decisive turning point. For the first thousand years the churches of the East and West shared the coincident view of Scripture and Tradition. The Pope’s unilateral insertion of the Filioque clause into the Nicene Creed signaled the Western Church’s move away from the patristic consensus and the principle of conciliarity. Thus, the origins of Protestantism’s sola scriptura needs to be traced, not just to medieval Catholicism, but also the Great Schism of 1054 (See End Note 2).
The ascendancy of medieval Scholasticism gave rise to a break from the earlier patristic consensus.
By the late twelfth century western theologians by and large had ceased to speculate ad mentem patrum or to work in the same atmosphere in the same atmosphere of the fathers preferred until then by both Churches. Because of his attitude towards the proof from authority, the new professional Latin theologian was arguably willing to relativize the patristic inheritance (Papadakis 1994:181).
Kristeller likewise argues that Scholasticism’s attempt to create a logically coherent theological system represents a novel break from the patristic period (1979:71). This break from the earlier patristic consensus would have profound consequences. Differences in methods, doctrines, and even vocabulary impeded attempts to restore Christian unity. The Greek delegates at the Council of Ferrara-Florence discussions were repelled by the Latins’ insistence on syllogistic reasoning (Hussey 1986:278). Dialogue between Anglicans and Orthodox in the 1600s was stymied when the Anglicans’ insistence on conceptual clarity ran head on into the Greeks’ apophatic theology (Runciman 1968:338 ff.). Scholasticism also gave Western theology a dynamic evolutionary quality. The frequent complaint that Eastern Orthodoxy’s theology has stagnated or failed to move ahead can be viewed positively as evidence that Eastern Orthodoxy has maintained continuity with the patristic consensus while Roman Catholicism and Protestantism have evolved along a different theological paths.
In many ways the Protestant Reformers in their attempt to reform the Church were circumscribed and hampered by western Europe’s long isolation. The state of medieval scholarship was such that it is debatable whether the medieval Scholastics really understood the Church Fathers, even Augustine, the premiere Church Father of the West. McGrath notes,
Augustine tended to be studied atomistically, in the form of isolated quotations, or ‘sentences’, culled from his writings. In that the medieval reader of these sentences had no way of knowing their immediate context, the possibility of seriously misinterpreting such isolated Augustinian gobbets was ever present (1987:176-177).
Even as late as the sixteenth century, scholars like Luther’s colleague Karlstadt were forced by circumstances to read Augustine at second hand (McGrath 1987:61). The state of patristics in medieval Europe was such that Luther mistakenly believed that Tertullian, who lived from the latter part of the second century into the beginning part of the third century, was the earliest of ancient Christian writers after the apostles (Pelikan 1984:9). For Luther this meant that a sharp distinction could be drawn between Scripture and Tradition.
Unlike the West, Eastern Christianity was able to maintain its patristic base. This was because the laity and the clergy of the Eastern Church being able to read and speak Greek had an uninterrupted history of direct access to the Church Fathers and the New Testament text in the original language. Also, unlike the West which was cut off from the larger world, Constantinople continued to thrive as a center of civilization.
The Greek-speaking (that is, the eastern) church had always relied directly upon the Greek text of the New Testament, rather than upon an intervening translation. In that the early western church tended to depend upon the eastern for its theology (such as its Christology and Trinitarianism), but developed essentially independently in the aftermath of the theological renaissance of the twelfth century, one would expect that the most serious difficulties would arise in relation to doctrines which developed within the Latin-speaking church during the period 1150-1450 (McGrath 1987:132-133).
The Reformers’ doctrine of sola scriptura even with its high regard for Tradition did not mean a return to early Church, but rather a new form of Christianity.
The Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura is rooted in the complex history of medieval Catholicism. Following the Schism of 1054, the Latin Church became increasingly detached from its patristic roots. This detachment and Scholasticism’s highly speculative approach to theology gave rise to doctrinal expressions alien to the patristic consensus. The emergence of a papal monarchy and the growth of canon law replaced the earlier principle of conciliarity. Crucial to the emergence of sola scriptura was the Humanist movement which emphasized critical scholarship and direct access to textual sources. Initially, there were several variants of sola scriptura among the Humanist scholars. Distinctive to the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura was the assertion of Scripture being the supreme norm over other sources like Tradition and the Church.
This particular emphasis was a reaction to the contradiction between the Humanists’ reading of Scripture and the extra-biblical innovations promulgated by Scholastic theologians and canon lawyers and the Papacy’s endorsement of these innovations. As doctrine and practice moved further away from its patristic roots tensions became severe to the point that later traditions and Scripture contradicted each other. To resolve this problem the Papacy made itself the supreme arbiter of Scripture and Tradition. In response to this crisis the Protestant Reformers put forward an ancillary view — Scripture having authority over Church and Tradition — as a corrective to the Papacy’s ecclesiastical tyranny.
From a historical standpoint there is no evidence of sola scriptura in the Bible, neither is there any evidence that any of the Church Fathers ever taught or used this principle. Lane notes that the early Church held to the coincident view of Scripture in which Scripture and Tradition are understood to coincide with each other and having the “same force” (την αυτην ισχυν) (Lane 1975:41). There is no evidence the early Church held the Protestant ancillary view which held Scripture possessed an authority over Church and Tradition and assumed the Church could fall from the apostolic Faith. If it is true that sola scriptura is a product of medieval Catholicism, then certain conclusions can be drawn: (1) it is a relatively recent development, and (2) it is peculiar to Western Christianity. Sola scriptura is, therefore, a novel doctrine that lies outside of the historic Christian Faith.
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End Note 1: See J.D. Douglas (ed.) The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church (1974); J.D. Douglas (ed.) The New Bible Dictionary (1962); Walter A. Elwell (ed.) Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (1984). Also a review of Bernard Ramm’s Protestant Biblical Interpretation (1970:1-4), Clark Pinnock’s Biblical Revelation (1971:113-137), Donald Bloesch’s Essentials of Evangelical Theology Vol. I (1978:57 ff.), John Jefferson Davis’ Foundations of Evangelical Theology (1984: 226 ff.), and Richard Lints’ The Fabric of Theology (1993:290 ff.), all failed to address the question of biblical support for sola scriptura.
End Note 2: The division between the Church of Rome and the other four eastern patriarchates: Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem was a complex process. Cardinal Humberto’s placing the bull of excommunication on the altar of Hagia Sophia in 1054 provides a useful historical event demarcating the split. For a more careful examination see Steven Runciman’s The Eastern Schism (1955).
End Note 3: A review of Bouwsma’s John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait, McGrath’s A Life of John Calvin, Barth’s The Theology of John Calvin, and McKim’s (ed.) Readings in Calvin’s Theology have much to say about Calvin’s indebtedness to humanist scholarship but are silent on the matter of Calvin’s acceptance of sola scriptura.