Sundoulos - Fall 2007

The Scripture as Our Ultimate Authority

Sola Scriptura

by Robert Saucy

It is one thing to acknowledge that the Bible is the revealed Word of God, which He gave for our salvation and guidance in life. It is another matter, however, to ascertain how God’s authority through His Word actually encounters our lives. To put it another way, how can we know the authoritative will of God? How a person responds to this question determines whether he or she has made the Scriptures his or her ultimate authority.

Through the centuries people have answered this question in one of three ways: God’s will is determined either by human spiritual experience or by the authoritative teaching of the church or by the Scriptures themselves as taught by the Holy Spirit. Some people may accept more than one of these as the voice of God; but inevitably only one can be considered supreme and therefore final.

Human Spiritual Experience

In this approach God’s authoritative will is found in the subjective opinions of the individual. The Scriptures as well as the testimony of God’s people may be useful in the process, but one’s own personal experiences finally determine God’s will.

In this view the Scriptures are authoritative to the extent that they are in harmony with reason. This may mean surrendering scriptural teaching and data to the latest conclusions of the historical-critical approach to the Bible. Or it may mean accommodating the Scriptures to the dominant ideas of modern culture.

This option in relation to the Bible’s authority is often held by those who reject the full inspiration of the Scriptures and its inerrancy. They feel that some authority outside the Scriptures must tell them where the Bible speaks God’s truth and where it is only the voice of a fallible human. Human knowledge and reason serve as the final court of appeal.

This view is held even by some who profess to believe in the highest view of divine inspiration. For example, some teach that homosexuality, when practiced in committed relationships, is in accord with Scripture. Also in the case of some who say that the roles of men and women are fully interchangeable in the home and in the church, human experience carries a strong if not determinative authoritative role. The following was written by a professed evangelical (at the time) to the editor of a popular Christian magazine for collegians. “At the historical moment when secular society is just beginning to wake up concerning centuries of injustice to women, it is unwise and unjust for evangelical publications to stress biblical passages concerning ancient inequalities between the sexes. By continuing on such a course, evangelicals will only add fuel to the widespread secular concept that the Christian church is an outmoded institution dedicated to the maintenance of the status quo, no matter how unjust and inhuman that status quo may be.”1

More recently an elder of an evangelical church acknowledged to a colleague of mine that he would be ashamed to read Paul’s teaching concerning husbands and wives in Ephesians 5:21-33 to those whom he invited to church.

For some people rational thought becomes the ultimate religious authority even over the Scriptures. For others that authority is religious feelings or mystical experiences. The prominence of this kind of thinking is evident in the work Fire from Heaven (1995), written by theologian Harvey Cox. Viewing the religious clash of the past three centuries between scientific modernity and traditional religion, Cox says the next struggle will be between fundamentalism, by which he means those who put a premium on cognitive truth, and experientialism, a sort of cafeteria-style spirituality wherein only those truths are accepted that “click” with their everyday experience.2

But on what basis can we conclude that a certain human experience (rational or emotional) is an authoritative expression of God’s voice? And whose experience is to be taken as normative? Rather than judging the Scriptures, our human experience is to be judged and transformed by them. The Bible must be received as the objective Word of God, standing above us so that all human experience is submitted to it.

The Teaching Authority of the Church

A second approach to the authority of the Scriptures says that the Bible’s authority is conveyed to us through the authority of the church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), initiated by Pope John Paul II and produced under his direction, states that the divine revelation of the gospel is transmitted in two forms: sacred Scripture and tradition.3 While these have traditionally been viewed as two separate sources of revelation, there is a tendency in recent Roman Catholic thought to view them as a unit. Citing a document from the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, the Catechism states, “Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God.”4 Everything in church tradition is allegedly found in the Scriptures either explicitly or implicitly.5

In this view the teaching office of the church, called the church’s Magisterium, has the task, as the successor of the apostles, of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God (that is, Scripture and tradition), which, when set forth as dogma, is considered infallible truth.6 This infallible truth then becomes part of the tradition or divine truth. The Roman Church, in her assumed role as infallible interpreter of tradition and Scripture, thus mediates the authority of the divine revelation of God's Word to His people. As the Catechism explains, “Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the Magisterium of the Church as so connected

and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. . . . The Church, in her doctrine, life, and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.”7 Roman Catholic writer Mark Shea explains this understanding of the relationship of the Bible to the church and tradition.

The Catholic faith can agree that Scripture is sufficient. But. . . it also warns that there is a distinction between material and formal sufficiency. What’s the difference? Simply put, it is the difference between having a big enough pile of bricks to build a house and having a house made of bricks. Material sufficiency means that all the bricks necessary to build doctrine is ­[sic] there in Scripture. However, it also teaches that since the meaning of Scripture is not always clear and that sometimes a doctrine is implied rather than explicit, other things besides Scripture have been handed to us from the apostles: things like Sacred Tradition (which is the mortar that holds the bricks together in the right order and position) and the Magisterium or teaching authority of the Church (which is the trowel in the hand of the Master Builder). Taken together, these three things—Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium—are formally sufficient for knowing the revealed truth of God.8

Roman Catholicism is not alone in asserting the infallibility of tradition alongside the Scriptures. Timothy Ware, in a popular work on the Orthodox Church, says plainly, “The doctrinal definitions of an Ecumenical Council are infallible. Thus the eyes of the Orthodox Church, the statement of faith put out by the seven councils, possess, along with the Bible, an abiding and irrevocable authority.”9 Thus certain teachings of the church are placed alongside Scripture as having equal ultimate authority.

Some Protestants today are encouraging Christians to grant a more respectful place for tradition. They rightfully point out that the historic orthodox teachings on the central tenets of the Christian faith can help guard the church against the dangers of accommodating to the prevalent cultural norms. However, sometimes their emphasis on appreciating tradition comes dangerously close to blurring the status of the Scriptures alone as our ultimate authority. An example of this is seen in the recent work Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism, by Daniel H. Williams, an ordained Baptist minister who also teaches patristics and historical theology at Loyola University of Chicago. He frequently links the Scriptures and the early church fathers together as the normative authority for believers. He refers to “the one apostolic and patristic foundation.”10 Again he says, “Like Scripture, the consensual Tradition of the church has its source in the triune God himself, coming to us from the Father, through the Son in the Spirit. Scripture and Tradition are not two different sources of authority and truth.”11 The statement that “the early Tradition of the church provides the grounds for ascertaining its foundation”12 sounds close to the Roman Catholic view that the church is needed to mediate the authority of the Scriptures to Christians.

The Scriptures Alone

A third view is that the Holy Spirit presents His authority to His people through the Scriptures alone. This classic Protestant doctrine, known as sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”), is well stated in the French Confession of Faith of 1559.

We believe that the Word contained in these books has proceeded from God, and receives its authority from him alone, and not from men. And in as much as it is the rule of all truth, containing all that is necessary for the service of God and for our salvation, it is not lawful for men, nor even for angels to add to it, or to take away from it, or to change it. Whence it follows that no authority, whether of antiquity, or custom, or numbers, or human wisdom, or judgments, or proclamations, or edicts, or decrees, or councils, or visions, or miracles, should be opposed to these Holy Scriptures, but on the contrary, all things should be examined, regulated, and reformed according to them.13

The term sola Scriptura also refers to the sufficiency of Scripture, that is, the fact that the Bible contains all truth that is necessary for salvation and the spiritual life. To a people of unbelief who were looking to mediums for direction, Isaiah declared, “Should not a people inquire of their God? . . . To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn” (Isa 8:19-20, NIV). These words of Isaiah were a favorite saying of John Wesley as he “sought to implement his dictum that every teaching must be tested by Scripture.”14

Similarly Jesus continually pointed only to the Scriptures as God’s final authority. In response to the rich man’s request that someone from the dead be resurrected to warn his brothers of the judgment of hades, Jesus pointed only to the authority and sufficiency of the Scriptures: “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). His response to His questioners on one occasion is illustrative of His continual use of the Scriptures alone as the ultimate arbitrator of truth in their conflicts: “You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures” (Matt 22:29). He said of the Scriptures, “It is these that bear witness of me” (John 5:39).

Most telling are the times when Jesus rejected the traditions that had been built up around the Scriptures by Jewish religious authorities. Questioned as to why His followers “transgress the tradition of the elders,” Jesus replied, “And why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? . . . You invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition” (Matt 15:2-3, 6). Then, citing the words of Isaiah, Jesus rebuked these authorities for “teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (15:7-9; see also Mark 7:5-13).

Also the apostles appealed only to the Scriptures as their final court of appeal. Paul commended the believers at Berea because they were “examining the Scriptures daily, to see whether these things [his teachings] were so” (Acts 17: 11). The apostle desired that the Corinthians “not go beyond what is written” (1 Cor 4:6, NIV), that is, to live only by the Scriptures.15 The Scriptures alone are sufficient for believers. As Paul wrote to his son in the faith, “The sacred writings… are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” The inspired Scriptures are “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate [capable, proficient, able to meet life’s demands], equipped [completely outfitted] for every good work” (2 Tim 3:15-17). Chrysostom, the great fourth-century preacher and church father, paraphrased these words of the apostle in this way: “Thou hast Scripture for a master instead of me; thence thou canst learn whatever thou wouldst know.”16

It would seem reasonable that if there is an authoritative non-written apostolic tradition, which is a revelatory word of God in addition to the written Scriptures in the church, we could expect a similar authoritative non-written tradition in relation to the Old Testament prophets. However, the New Testament shows no evidence of such an authoritative non-written prophetic tradition equal to the Scriptures. In fact, as we have seen, it points up the danger of placing extrabiblical tradition on a par with the written Word.

True, the people Of God were to submit to the authoritative teachings of the apostles (and of the Old Testament prophets), whether written or spoken. Thus Paul exhorted the believers at Thessalonica to “stand firm, and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us” (2 Thes 2:15; see also 3:6; 1 Cor 11:2). Timothy was to pass on to others the things he had “heard” from the apostle Paul, not just what he had read in Paul’s letters (2 Tim 2:2). True prophetic or apostolic teaching is authoritative, whether spoken or written, for it is communicating God’s will. But after the apostolic era the only teaching that can be authenticated as genuinely apostolic is what we have in written form. There is no biblical evidence for a succession of apostles, who give an infallible interpretation of the words of Scripture and add to this written tradition through their own development of infallible dogmas. The apostolic word thus continues in the church through the authoritative Scriptures and not in an authoritative teaching office of the church. As Oscar Cullmann says, “The apostle cannot, therefore, have any successor who could replace him as bearer of revelation for future generations, but must continue himself to fulfill his function in the Church of today: in the Church, not by the Church, but by his word . . . (John 17.20), in other words, by his writings.”17

This is, in fact, the testimony of some of the great leaders of the church. To be sure, the early fathers at times spoke of the “rule of faith” as the tradition taught by the church, because there was yet “no clear distinction between the apostolic tradition and the writing of the apostles.” By the middle of the second century, however, it was apparent that the apostles’ oral teaching, which had been heard by the first-generation church and was passed on to others, was becoming polluted with unreliable legend. The Scriptures, then, which recorded the teachings of the apostles, along with the Old Testament, gradually became the only decisive authority.18

The following statements serve as examples of the historical witness to the belief in the doctrine of sola Scriptura. Fourth-century theologian Athanasius wrote, “For indeed the holy and God-breathed Scriptures are self-sufficient for the preaching of the truth.”19 Cyril (around 315-387), bishop of the church in Jerusalem, declared, “In regard to the divine and holy mysteries of the faith, not the least part may be handed on without the Holy Scriptures. . . . Even to me, who tell you these things, do not give ready belief, unless you receive from the Holy Scriptures the proof of the things which I announce. The salvation in which we believe is not proved from clever reasoning, but from the Holy Scriptures.”20 Augustine, perhaps the most influential theologian from Paul until Calvin, respected by both Roman Catholics and Protestants, wrote, “There is a distinct bound­ary line separating all productions subsequent to apostolic times from the authoritative canonical books of the Old and New Testaments. . . . In the innumerable books that have been written latterly we may sometimes find the same truth as in Scripture, but there is not the same authority, Scripture has a sacredness peculiar to itself.”21 Even the great thirteenth­century Roman Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas, clearly believed in sola Scriptura. He declared that “we believe the successors of the apostles and prophets only in so far as they tell us those things which the apostles and prophets have left in their writings.”22

Conclusion

The belief that the Scriptures alone are the final authority for the believer is crucial to Christianity. For only as the authority of the Bible stands supreme over the authority of the individual and even the church can we truly be addressed by the Word of God and not our own word. Only when the difference between the work of the Holy Spirit in the inspiration of the Holy Scriptures is recognized as different from His work in the teaching ministry of the church can the church hear a word from God rather than its own voice.23 John Calvin wrote that we must distinguish between the apostles and their successors. The apostles, he said, “were sure and genuine scribes of the Holy Spirit, and their writings are therefore to be considered oracles of God; but the sole office of others is to teach what is provided and sealed in the Holy Scriptures.”24

The recognition of the Scriptures’ final authority does not negate the value of the teaching of the church and the decrees of historic councils. The church is called to be “the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15), to teach and uphold God’s truth, but at the same time the church remains under it. The church’s teaching must always be judged by the truth of Scripture, for history clearly reveals that such teaching has not always been in accord with Scripture. Even the writings of the earliest post-apostolic fathers, who because of their proximity to the apostles are often held up as giving us normative Christianity, must be recognized as different from the Scriptures.25

Only if the Scriptures are viewed as the infallible Word of God and made the final authority over our thoughts, feelings, and actions can we truly live by the Word of God. Only through an objective Word, which addresses our needs, can our Lord exercise His lordship over us.

1 Editor’s note: Dr. Saucy adapted this article from chapter 14 of his book, Scripture: Its Power, Authority, and Relevance (Word Publishing, 2001).

Virginia Mollenkott, letter to His magazine, 33 (June 1973): 23.

2 Harvey Cox, Fire From Heaven: the Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-first Century (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1994), 299-308.

3 Catechism of the Catholic Church (Mahwah, N. J.: Paulist Press, 1994), par. 81.

4 Ibid., par. 97.

5 At times it is difficult to see even an implicit link between Roman Catholic tradition and the teaching of the Scriptures, such as the Catholic dogmas on the immaculate conception of Mary (born without original sin), her sinlessness, and her “assumption” into heaven (being taken bodily into heaven at the moment of death).

6 This authoritative teaching voice of the church is also based on the belief that the Church is the continuation of the incarnation of Christ in the world.

7 Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 95.

8 Mark P. Shea, “What is the Relationship Between Scripture and Tradition,” in Not By Scripture Alone, ed. Robert A. Sungenis (Santa Barbara, CA: Queenship Publishing, 1997), 181.

9 Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin Books, 1993), 202.

10 D. H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 36.

11 Ibid, 215-216.

12 Ibid, 205

13 French Confession of Faith, quoted in John H. Armstrong, “The Authority of Scripture,” in Sola Scriptura, ed. Don Kistler, (Morgan, Penn.: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1995), 121-122.

14 John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1-39, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 238.

15 C. K. Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Harper’s New Testament Commentaries (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 106.

16 Chrysostom, quoted in William Whitaker, A Disputation on Holy Scripture against the Papist (Cambridge: University Press, 1849; reprint, New York: Johnson, 1968), 637.

17 Oscar Cullmann, The Early Church, ed. A. J. B. Higgins (London: SCM Press, 1966), 80 (italics his)..

18 A. N. S. Lane, “Scripture, Tradition and Church: An Historical Survey,” Vox Evangelical 9 (1975): 38-40.

19 Robert Thomson, ed., Athanasium: Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 2, quoted and translated from the Greek in James White, “Sola Scriptura and the Early Church,” in Sola Scriptura, 49.

20 Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Letters 4:17, quoted in White, “Sola Scriptura and the Early Church,” 27.

21 Augustine, Reply to Faustus 11.5, quoted in Norman L. Geisler and Ralph E. MacKenzie, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 200.

22 Thomas Aquinas, De veritate XIV, 10, ad 11, quoted in Norman L. Geisler and Ralph E. MacKenzie, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences, 201.

23 If as some believe there is a succession of apostles that continues throughout church history with the same gift of infallibility of teaching as given to the original apostles who wrote Scripture, Church teaching itself becomes the revelatory Word of God. The church no longer stands under the Word but speaks the Word itself. The following comments concerning the position of the Roman Catholic Church in this regard help to clarify this situation. “The magisterial interpretation of the Word of God prevented from erring by the assistance of the Holy Spirit, makes the question who has authority over whom [the Church or the Word of God] futile because in the Roman system this problem does not really arise. Much more important is the question whether the quasi-identification of Tradition (and so of Scripture which belongs to it and contains it in a special way) with the total being, teaching and action of the Church does not mean that ultimately it is not Tradition (in any sense of the term) or Scripture that is the source of revelation but the Church itself. In any case, how can Scripture stand vis-à-vis the Church as its superior and judge it, when its total being, teaching and action are equated with Tradition to which Scripture belongs?” (Rudolph J. Ehrlich, Rome: Opponent or Partner? [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965], 284).

24 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 4.8.9.

25 Paul W. Barnett, “Salvation,” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, ed. Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1997), 1074-1075. Similarly at the conclusion of his scholarly study on the Lord’s Supper, I. Howard Marshall points to many distinctions between the biblical teaching and several church practices. He writes, “The New Testament does not indicate that the bread and the cup were ‘consecrated’ in any way for the sacrament. Neither the practice of offering the elements to God nor that of offering a prayer of epiclesis [‘invocation upon’] for the Spirit to bless the elements [changing them into the body and blood of Christ] has any foundation in Scripture (Last Supper and Lord’s Supper [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980], 156).


Robert Saucy Distinguished Professor of Theology, has taught at Talbot since 1961. He has written seven books and numerous book chapters and articles. Bob now has the joy of sometimes teaching children of former students. He and his wife Nancy live in Anaheim.

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