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Sola Scriptura Then and Now: Biblical Authority in Late Medieval and Reformation Context

In the recent issue of Credo Magazine, “Sola Scriptura,” Gavin Ortlund has contributed an article called, Sola Scriptura Then and Now: Biblical Authority in Late Medieval and Reformation Context.” Gavin Ortlund (PhD from Fuller Theological Seminary) is associate pastor at Sierra Madre Congregational Church in Sierra Madre, California, and he blogs regularly at The Gospel Coalition.

Here is the start of his article:

Sola Scriptura (“by Scriptura alone”) was one of the chief rallying cries of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. Frequently it is regarded as the formal principle of the Reformation, while sola fide (“by faith alone”) is regarded as the material principle. The Reformers, in seeking to call the church back to the gospel, built their efforts on the foundation that Scripture alone is the final authority for matters of faith and life. But what led to the need for this doctrine in the first place? What alternative approach to the Bible was sola Scriptura intended to replace?

Sola Scriptura is often caricatured today, by both its detractors and proponents, as a simplistic posture of “no creed but the Bible.” But in its original context, the doctrine of sola Scriptura did not entail the wholesale rejection of tradition, but rather the affirmation of tradition in its proper, subordinate role under Scripture. Exploring how the church’s approach to the Bible and tradition developed in the centuries leading up the Reformation—and then how it functioned for the Reformers in relation to that context—may shed light on various ways this doctrine is still relevant to the church today.

The Bible in Late Medieval Roman Catholicism

The church’s view of the relation of Scripture and tradition has evolved throughout her history. A.N.S. Lane has summarized the major developments as follows, which we reproduce here as a conceptual starting point:

(1) The Coincidence view: tradition coincides with the teaching of Scripture (the practice of the church for roughly the first three centuries of the church).

(2) The Supplementary view: tradition is a second source of revelation to supplement Scripture (the view affirmed by Roman Catholic Church at the sixteenth-century Council of Trent).

(3) The Ancillary view: tradition is an aid in the interpretation of Scripture (view of the sixteenth-century magisterial Reformers).

(4) The Unfolding view: tradition is the process by which apostolic doctrine gradually unfolds (a view among modern Roman Catholicism, e.g., John Henry Newman).

Of course, collapsing the church’s diverse attitudes and practices over the centuries into a neat, four-fold categorization like this can run the risk of painting with too broad a brush. Furthermore, Lane’s schema has been critiqued on the grounds that it obscures the continuity between (1) and (3), and the extent to which the Reformers’ “ancillary” approach sought to return to the practice of the early church. Nonetheless, Lane’s schema, and particularly his distinction between (1) and (2), is one way to make visible the successive, developmental nature of the church’s approach to Scripture and tradition in the centuries leading up to Luther. As the centuries passed, the church began more and more to lean upon her own pronouncements, not merely as an interpretation and extension of the teaching of Scripture, but as a separate source of revelation and authoritative norm.

When exactly did this transition occur?…

Read the rest of this interview today!


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Protestantism today faces a crisis in authority. Living in the twenty-first century means we are born into a world that has experienced the full effects of the Enlightenment, Protestant Liberalism, and Postmodernism. Yet at the same time, God’s Word continues to stand undefeated. No doubt, the Bible is under fire today as critics, both secular and evangelical (oddly enough), attack the Bible’s full authority. But if we’ve learned anything from the sixteenth-century Reformation, we know that God’s Word will prevail in the end.

As he stood there trembling at the Diet of Worms, certainly it must have seemed to Martin Luther that the whole world was against him. Yet Luther could boldly stand upon the authority of God’s Word because he knew that not even his greatest nemesis was a match for the voice of the living God.

While our circumstances may differ today, the need to recover biblical authority in the church and in the culture remains. The next generation of Christians need to be taught, perhaps for the first time, that this is no ordinary book we hold in our hands. It is the very Word of God. In other words, if Christians today are to give an answer for the faith within them against those who would criticize the scriptures, then they need to be taught the formal principle of the Reformation: sola Scriptura—only Scripture, because it is God’s inspired Word, is our inerrant, sufficient, and final authority for the church.

Contributors include Justin Holcomb, Gavin Ortlund, Robert Kolb, Chris Castaldo, Paul House, and many others.






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