Sola Scriptura

Many protestants proudly ad loudly proclaim that they follow Martin Luther’s creed: “Sola Scriptura” [“Scripture alone”]. This creed was offered up as an alternative to the traditional Roman Catholic view that doctrine is based on a variety of authorities: scripture, tradition, and Church leaders. In this sense, I agree wholeheartedly with this aspect of Sola Scriptura, but I’m afraid something more needs to be said in order to reflect how protestants do theology.

I think one would be naive to think that protestants really do theology by studying the teachings of scripture without consulting any theological tradition. But how are we to make sense of this, if protestant’s insist on using the slogan “Sola Scriptura“? One way to understand this has been proposed by Roger Olson in The Mosaic of Christian Belief. Olson suggests a helpful analogy between theology and legal interpretation. He proposes that protestants consider the Bible to be like the Constitution, and the theological tradition to be like legal precedents from the Supreme Court. When considering how to interpret the Constitution, it is insightful to draw upon Supreme Court precedents. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court is not on the same authoritative par as the Constitution, and the Supreme Court can be overruled when a more faithful interpretation of the Constitution is demonstrated.

Likewise, protestants can consistently claim that Scripture is their highest authority, while continuing to draw from the tradition theological tradition that clearly informs their theology. On the one hand, to elevate the tradition to the status of scripture is unacceptable for protestants. On the other hand, to deny that a theological tradition influences our theology is naive and frankly irresponsible. The Constitution-Supreme Court analogy roughly captures a beneficial way for protestants to do theology under the banner of “Sola Scriptura.”


  1. Good Stuff John.

    I would agree that this is a great analogy. However, do you think that one can understand the Bible so well as to stand opposed to the “precedents” laid down for over a millenia?

  2. However, do you think that one can understand the Bible so well as to stand opposed to the “precedents” laid down for over a millenia?

    This is a good question, and it might make early church tradition seem unassailable. But I think when we approach the specifics on a case-by-case basis, we can see why early church tradition might be overturned in certain cases. For example, in some cases we have more knowledge of the world, so we might have better evidence by which to interpret scripture pertaining to the age of the universe and whether the sun revolves the earth. In other cases, we might suggest we have better information on and methods with regard to complicated scriptural passages. Many early church leaders relied heavily on allegorical interpretation of scripture, which we might reject today. And the list could go on and on.

    There are certain early church teachings (such as those found in the apostles’ creed) that probably will never be overruled. But as a protestant, I would accept this not because of a strong emphasis on church tradition. Rather, I would say that the core doctrines that make up these fundamentals are so clearly taught in scripture that there’s no hope of legitimately finding justification for their contraries.

  3. Matthew

    We might also want to weight church tradition differently in different cases. Some issues were dealt with the early church as a whole and intensively. Others were dealt with by only a part of the church (the Reformed), or without the full attention of a community (the position of the earth). These latter issues would be far easier to overturn than the former. In any case, the justification would be that these teaching are clearly taught in scripture.

  4. The only traditions that hold any merit are from scripture. Human traditions form circles that weak humans cling to and then their pride keeps them from seeing more from God. Here is a prophecy from Sir Isaac Newton that demonstarates this truth:

    “About the time of the end, a body of men will be raised up who will turn their attention to the Prophecies, and insist upon their literal interpretation, in the midst of much clamor and opposition.” Sir Isaac Newton 1642-1727

  5. Test



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