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  • Scriptural AuthorityA Christian (Protestant) Perspective
  • Reinhold Bernhardt

The Sola Scriptura Principle in the Reformation Movement

In curbing the authority of the ecclesiastical Magisterium the Reformation movement brought the authority of the Holy Scripture to the forefront as the normative foundation of Christian theology. One of its basic axioms is the sola scriptura principle, meaning that all one needs to know in order to live in a salvific relation to God can be acquired “by scripture alone.” This constitutes the formal, epistemological principle of Protestant theology up to today, and complements the material principles solus Christus, sola gratia, and sola fide. Whereas these material principles refer to the manifestation of salvation in Christ (alone), to the eternal ground of salvation through the grace of God (alone), and to the gift of salvation by faith (alone), the formal principle of sola scriptura calls upon the Christian to realize that these three principles of material truth are made known to us (only) by the formal principle—by Holy Scripture. “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.” 1

On the one hand, the Reformers taught that Holy Scripture not only offers testimony to the Word of God but also is itself of divine origin since the authors wrote under the immediate influence of God. In view of this, God is ultimately the principal author, while the writing humans are only instrumental scribes. It follows from that that the Bible possesses divine authority.

On the other hand the Reformers distinguished between the Bible as the Word of God and the Word of God in the Bible. Furthermore they made a distinction between the written word of the biblical books and the “Logos,” the eternal word of God, which speaks through the words of the Bible and addresses the reader here and now, existentially. As a testimony to and a medium of the Word of God the Holy Scripture for Luther is “Christ’s spiritual body,” 2 and thus the authority of the biblical scriptures is a derived and secondary authority. This authority does not rest simply on the sacred text as such but rather on the proclamation of God’s grace-filled Lordship over nature [End Page 73] and history in general and over the individual life in particular. It is not the text as such which is to be regarded as Word of God, but the text’s message. “Message” does not refer primarily to the semantic focus of the text as intended by the human author and as understood by the reader, but to the kerygma, the living and effective word of God. The Reformers stressed the soteriological efficacy of the “Word of God” as witnessed in the Scripture. Not only does this Word bear a specific significance and lead to insight and knowledge, but it also heals the broken relationship between the human and God, imparts forgiveness, incorporates into the community of saints, creates faith, and renews life. The Bible is the instrument of God through which God reveals Godself and opens the way to salvation through faith (which signifies existential incorporation) in Christ.

Let us now take a closer look at the differences among the three branches of the Reformation movement—the Lutheran, the Calvinist-Reformed, and the Spiritualist—with regard to their understanding of scriptural authority.

Lutheran

For Luther there is a normative core message in the New Testament, a gospel within the gospels. It consists in the “good news” of the justification of the sinner sola gratia in Christ, without any contribution on the part of the one justified. God is the author of that “good news,” though it is not expressed in all of the biblical scriptures with equal clarity. As a consequence of this difference between the gospel and the scriptures Luther assesses the relative worth of the various books of the Bible, using the gospel of unmerited and unconditionally granted grace as the criterion for interpreting and evaluating the various biblical texts. The Epistle of James, for instance, he dismissed as a stroherne Epistel—a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-9472
Print ISSN
0882-0945
Pages
pp. 73-84
Launched on MUSE
2010-09-30
Open Access
No
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