The Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura is one of the most misunderstood doctrines I know of. The misconceptions come not only from those who repudiate the doctrine (such as Roman Catholics), but also from those who affirm it. Here is a list of some things that sola Scriptura myths.
1. Sola Scriptura means that the Scripture is the only source of spiritual insight.
Spiritual insight can come from any number of sources, both secular and Christian. I remember in 1995, I received quite a bit of spiritual motivation and inspiration from the movie Braveheart. The idea of a person giving up his life for something bigger than himself possessed my thoughts and hopes. There are many things – songs, wise words, books, and movies (Christian and secular), among other things – that can be sources of insight and inspiration. Remember, all truth is God’s truth. It does not have to be in the Scriptures to be true.
2. Sola Scriptura means that there are not other authorities in our lives.
We believe that the Scriptures are our final and only infallible authority, but not that they are our only authority. For example, we believe that our pastors and church leaders have authority in our lives. Hebrews 13:7 says that we are to obey our leaders. Wives are to submit to their husbands (Eph. 5:2). People are to obey the government (1 Pet. 2:13). Children are to do what their parents say (Eph. 6:1). There can be no excuse like, “Dad, the Bible does not say I have to clean my room, so I choose not to.” Or “Officer, it says nothing specific about running red lights in the Bible.”
As well, tradition (church history) is an authority in our lives. Those who have gone before us in the faith must be respected. Their collective and unified influence creates an authority which, I believe, is second only to Scripture. After all, they had the same Holy Spirit as us, didn’t they? The Holy Spirit does not teach us everything new as individuals, but educates and inspires us in and with those who have gone before us. That is why I love dead theologians!
As I read through the Institutes of John Calvin a couple of years ago, I did so with a fine-toothed comb, underlining every time another source was referenced, especially a source from another church father. One cannot study the Protestant doctrine of sola Scriptura and come away with the idea that the Reformers ever meant that the Scriptures were our only authority. Ultimate, yes. Only, no.
None of these are our final authority, and if the Scriptures contradict what these authorities say, the Scriptures trump.
Romans 1 speaks of the binding authority of the message of creation: “For since the creation of the world, his eternal attributes, divine power and nature have been clearly understood so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20). As well, in Romans 2, we are told that our conscience testifies to us about God’s will (Rom. 2:14-16). As Christians, we must be willing to take our cue from all forms of what we call “general revelation:” rationality, moral conscience, and the message of creation all qualify.
Whether it is rationality or the message of creation and the conclusions drawn from it, we cannot turn a blind eye and say that since it is not in the Scripture, it does not make any difference.
4. Sola Scriptura means that the Scriptures are an exhaustive source for us to know how to live our lives each day.
Think about how many things the Bible does not tell us. It does not tell us any particulars about where to work, whom to marry, what to eat, how often to shower, how many elders to have, or how, exactly, to conduct a Sunday morning service. It gives us general principles and then extends lots of freedom for the wisdom in each of us to work out the details.
The Scriptures equip us spiritually for every spiritual service (2 Tim. 3:17). There is no knowledge deposit or missing database which contains essential information about how to have a right relationship with God. In this, Scripture is completely sufficient for every spiritual task.
5. Sola Scriptura was invented by Protestant Reformers
While it is true that sola Scriptura is confessed exclusively by Protestants, it is not true that the Reformers invented this doctrine. It was articulated in the sixteenth century to a greater degree than ever before, but this was only because of the abuses of the institutionalized church (primarily beginning with the Gregorian Reforms in the eleventh-century). Therefore, like all doctrine, it went through a maturation. But we can find the seed principles of the doctrine ofsola Scriptura throughout the history of the church. Here are some examples:
Basil the Great (379)
Enjoying as you do the consolation of the Holy Scriptures, you stand in need neither of my assistance nor of that of anybody else to help you comprehend your duty. You have the all-sufficient counsel and guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead you to what is right (LetterCCLXXXIII, ANCF, p. 312).
In the end, the doctrine of sola Scriptura means that the Bible is the final and only infallible source of divine revelation and is, therefore, the ultimate guide for the conscience of the Christian.
Gregory of Nyssa (335-394)
“We make the Holy Scriptures the rule and the measure of every tenet.”
“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.” (Reply to Faustus the Manichaean, 11:5)
There are many more examples here.
As a matter of fact, there are some joint declarations between Protestants and Eastern Orthodox which demonstrate that when properly understood (all myths aside), there is great agreement on this doctrine. Roman Catholics, who hold to a dual-source authority (Tradition + Scripture interpreted by the church), are the only ones who outright reject sola Scriptura.
6. Those who hold to sola Scriptura are uncertain about the canon of Scripture
The whole idea here is that if the Scriptures are the only infallible authority, then there are no Scriptures since there is no infallible authority who can tell us which books belong in the Scriptures (since the table of contents is not inspired). While it is true that there is no infallible canon or list of books that belong in the Scripture, this does not mean that one has to be forever uncertain about what books belong in the Bible. We can have strong and binding conviction without having infallible knowledge of many important things. We don’t have infallible knowledge that our interpretation of the Scripture is correct, however, when the Scriptures are clear there is no need for an infallible interpreter.
But, more to the point: even if we have an infallible definer and interpreter of Scripture (e.g. Pope, Watchtower, Councils, church, etc), this does not mean we infallible interpret these sources. For example, who interprets the Roman Catholic catechism? How does one know they are interpreting it right? As well, while there is no infallible canon of books that belong in the Bible, there is also no infallible canon of dogmas the Pope has made. Even Roman Catholics can’t agree about when the Pope has spoken infallibly. Therefore, having an infallible interpreter has not solved as many problems as people like to think. In short, we don’t need an infallible list of books in order to be convicted that we have the right books.
I think this is an accurate way to put it:
The Bible is carried by reason, aided by experience, guarded by tradition, but ruled by none.