Sola Scriptura

"The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for... salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture."

The difference between Catholic and Protestant teaching is more subtle than people realize, for Catholics confess that Scripture is inspired, infallible, and authoritative. It is wise to remember, too, that the first Reformers were encouraged to study Scripture by scholarly Catholics: Staupitz told Luther to get his doctorate in biblical studies, Erasmus encouraged Zwingli’s studies, and Faber Staupulensis and Lorenzo Valla inspired others. The difference lies in our views of the sufficiency of Scripture.    

 

On January 1 1519, Ulrich Zwingli became the pastor of the principal church of Zurich, Switzerland. When he preached through the New Testament from the Greek, the Reformation began in that city. Zwingli taught salvation by grace and justification by faith; he also compared what he saw in his church to what he read in Scripture. Four years later, church folk heard Zwingli say fasting during Lent had no biblical basis, and decided to force the issue by publicly eating sausage at the start of Lent. They were arrested and Zwingli defended them on the basis of Scripture in a public disputation before hundreds of Zurichers. Both sides had references books at hand. The Catholics had canon law, the law of the church, while Zwingli had the Greek, the Hebrew, a Latin translation, and nothing more.

Luther was in a similar scene in a debate with Catholic theologian John Eck Leipzig in 1519. When Luther advanced his proposed reforms and his gospel, Eck replied that Luther took the position of Hus, whom the church had condemned as a heretic. That is, Catholic tradition and authority said Luther was wrong. Luther didn’t dispute Eck’s point. Rather, he replied in essence, “Show my error from Scripture, not from tradition.” He stood on Scripture alone, hence “Sola Scriptura.”

The difference between Catholic and Protestant teaching is more subtle than people realize, for Catholics confess that Scripture is inspired, infallible, and authoritative. It is wise to remember, too, that the first Reformers were encouraged to study Scripture by scholarly Catholics: Staupitz told Luther to get his doctorate in biblical studies, Erasmus encouraged Zwingli’s studies, and Faber Staupulensis and Lorenzo Valla inspired others. The difference lies in our views of the sufficiency of Scripture.

The Catholic position is that Scripture is part of God’s revelation. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) said Scripture “is the true rule and a foundation of faith for Christians.” Notice “a foundation,” not the foundation. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621) explained: “The controversy between the heretics [Protestants] and ourselves focuses here on two points: first, when we affirm that the Scripture do not contain the totality of necessary doctrine, for faith as for morals… Apart from the Word of God written, it is necessary to have his non-written Word, that is to say, divine and apostolic traditions.”

So the RCC affirms prima scripture, the primacy of Scripture. Scripture is the primary source for theology, but not the final source. Tradition and church teaching effectively limit Scripture’s authority. If a matter is uncertain in Scripture, and tradition has an authoritative interpretation, then it has the final word.

By contrast, the Westminster Confession (1:6) says “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for… salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.”

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