The Five Solae: Sola Scriptura

“What is truth?”

In thinking of “fake news” over the past year, many of us have probably asked that ancient question – especially since we cannot agree on what even constitutes “fake news.” But when Pilate said these words to Jesus (John 18:38), he did not realize that he was staring at the Truth himself (14:6) – the Word of God made flesh (1:1-14) – the answer to his question. By his education, he had been trained to ask this question, a deeply human question, and to uncover the answer by dialogue and reason. He missed that the man he was about to hand over to be executed was God’s own demonstration for him of the Truth.

For Christians, Jesus Christ is the Truth of God in the flesh. But there was some disagreement at the time of the Reformation in how we approach or understand this Truth. Four years after Martin Luther mailed his Ninety-Five Theses to his archbishop, he was on trial. The pope himself had pronounced that there were errors in his writings, and several of them had been banned. At the Diet of Worms in 1721, Luther’s works were laid out on a table in front of him, and he was asked to recant. His famous reply:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen.

For Luther, the only completely trustworthy way of knowing what’s true about the Truth – Jesus Christ – was through the Bible. This was the “formal” cause of the Reformation, the reason Luther thought that his teachings were justified. The ancient councils were important for understanding the Truth. The church was essential for coming to know the Truth. But the teachings of councils and the church must be measured against the teachings of Scripture.

Three hundred years after Luther, the founders of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church used Scripture as their justification for breaking away from the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.: “All church-power however exercised, is ministerial and declarative only; that is, the Holy Scriptures are the only infallible rule of faith and practice.” (Introduction to 1883 Confession) This is carried on in our current Confession when we say that the Bible is “the authoritative guide for Christian living” because “the authority of the scriptures is founded on the truth contained in them and the voice of God speaking through them.” (1.05-06) We do not interpret Scripture alone – we need the help of the church, other Christians, the ancient councils, and especially the illumination of the Holy Spirit – but when justified by the teaching of Scripture, we hold that even one person can help correct the whole church.

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