On Sola Scriptura



On Sola Scriptura

The Bible is the most unusual book ever produced. It was written by around 40 authors (35 are named) over a period of 1,600 years (circa 1500 B.C. to A.D. 100). It consists of two parts, the Old and New Testament, comprising 39 books in the Old and 27 books in the New Testament. The whole Bible has 1,189 chapters and 31,103 verses. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and Aramaic, and the New Testament in Greek.

Among the authors were kings (David, Solomon) prophets (Moses, Daniel, Malachi), fishermen (John, Peter), singers (sons of Korah the Levite), a shepherd (Amos), a scribe (Ezra), a tax collector (Matthew), a physician (Luke), and a tentmaker (Paul).

Hebrew, the major language of the Old Testament, belongs to the Northwest Semitic languages like Amorite, Moabite, and Aramaic. The earliest biblical reference to Hebrew is found in Genesis 31:47, in which Laban called a heap of stones in Aramaic Jegar Sahadutha, while Jacob called it in Hebrew Galeed (both meaning “heap of witness”). This would place spoken Hebrew circa 1950 B.C. Moses was told repeatedly to write down what God had spoken (Ex. 17:14; 34:27; Deut. 6:9). This took place in the 15th century B.C. at the time of the Exodus (1440 B.C.).

Aramaic was the language of the Arameans; Aram was the fifth son of Shem (Gen. 10:22). The word Aram as a region appears for the first time in a cuneiform inscription in the 23rd century B.C.1 in what is today Syria. The early Arameans were a nomadic tribe that in the 12th century B.C. established a number of small states throughout ancient Syria. In the sixth century B.C., Aramaic became the lingua franca in the Babylonian and Persian empires. Therefore, during the Babylonian exile (597–508 B.C.) the Jews began to speak Aramaic, and when they returned to Judah, they needed an interpretation when the Hebrew Scripture was read in the temple or in the synagogues. These translations, called Targumim (“translations,” “interpretations”), go back the time of Ezra (Neh. 8:8). They started as oral interpretations but began to be written down in the second century B.C.

All the New Testament books were written in Greek, the lingua franca of the Eastern Roman Empire. Specifically, it was koine (common) Greek, the language spoken in the streets and marketplaces, not the Greek of the philosophers and academics. The Septuagint (LXX, so called because it was supposedly translated by 70 Jewish scholars) was the first translation of the Old Testament into Greek in the third and second century B.C., also written in koine Greek. Because the New Testament authors frequently used the LXX, rather than the Hebrew Bible when quoting from the Old Testament, the LXX became the Bible of the early Christians.


The State Church

The early Christians were first persecuted by the Jews (Acts 8:1, 2), and then by the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, “First-century Christianity was a spiritual explosion. Ignited by the Event, the presence of Jesus Christ, the church hurtled in all directions, geographic as well as social. The second and third centuries provided the channel for this power.”2

In A.D. 311, Constantine became emperor, and two years later, in February 313, the Edict of Milan gave Christianity legal status and stopped the persecution of Christians. Throughout the next 10 centuries, church and state worked together to extend the prestige and power of Christianity. In the process, many non-biblical practices entered the church, e.g.,

1. Prayers for the dead (A.D. 300);

2. Veneration of angels and dead saints (375);

3. The daily Mass (394);

4. Exaltation of Mary as the “Mother of God” (431);

5. The doctrine of purgatory (593);

6. Worship of the cross, images, and relics (786);

7. Celibacy of the priesthood (1079);

8. Sale of indulgencies (1190);

9. Transubstantiation (1215);

10. Auricular Confession of sins to a priest (1215).3

The complete list, enumerated by Loraine Boettner, of “Roman Catholic Heresies and Inventions”4 over a period of 1,650 years consists of 44 items.

It was the sale of indulgences in the 16th century that was the impetus for Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and the resulting Protestant Reformation.

The sale of indulgences, introduced during the Crusades, remained a favored source of papal income. In exchange for a meritorious work—frequently, a contribution to a worthy cause or a pilgrimage to a shrine—the church offered the sinner exemption from his acts of penance by drawing upon its “treasury of merits.” This consisted of the grace accumulated by Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross and the meritorious deeds of the saints.5

In 1520, Pope Leo X needed funding to complete the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He sent out monks to raise money through the sale of indulgences. One of them was the Dominican monk Johann Tetzel, who promised the people in Germany that the indulgences he was selling would get their relatives’ souls out of purgatory. “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,” went his jingle, “the soul from purgatory springs.”6 According to the teaching of the Catholic Church, when Christians sin and then repent and confess, they are forgiven and saved from eternal punishment in hell, but they are still liable to temporal punishment in purgatory. The length of this temporal punishment can be reduced by works of mercy in this life and through the purification of the soul in purgatory.

In response, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther went to the Schlosskirche (Castle Church) in Wittenberg and posted 95 Theses against the sale of indulgences on the church door. This was nothing special; announcements of coming discussions and events were regularly posted to the door of the Schlosskirche. But in this case, something special did happen; what Luther did that morning started the Protestant Reformation that split Christianity.

At the time, Luther, who was a professor of theology at the local university, did not foresee the results of his action. He did not plan to split Christianity. In the 95 Theses he stated: “Papal indulgences do not remove guilt, He who is contrite has plenary remission of guilt and penalty without indulgences.”7 He further said, “The saints have no extra credit. Every saint is bound to love God to the utmost. There is no such thing as supererogation [the performance of more work than duty requires]. If there were any superfluous credits, they could not be stored up for subsequent use.”8


Sola Scriptura

At the heart of the Protestant Reformation were the five solae: sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria. Luther emphasized in his writings primarily the first three principles. Sola scriptura means the Bible alone is the source of authority for the Christian faith. Sola fide refers to the fact that the believer is saved by faith alone rather than on the basis of faith and works. Sola gratia means we are saved by God’s grace alone; it cannot be earned. Solus Christus indicates that salvation is by faith in Christ alone. And soli Deo gloria expresses the thought that everything is done for God’s glory.

Martin Luther started out as an Augustinian monk; he was awarded his Doctor of Theology degree in 1512. During his teaching career at the University of Wittenberg, he developed respect and love for the Word of God. While he appreciated some biblical books more than others, he wrote, “Not one letter in Scripture is purposeless—for Scripture is God’s writing and God’s word.”9 He looked upon God’s Word “as a grand unity, in which every part must be read and understood in its relation to Christ who is the Lord of the Scriptures.”10

The sola scriptura principle became very important to Luther in his controversy with the church about its traditions. In contrast to the Roman Catholic Church, Luther and the other Reformers taught that the Bible alone (sola scriptura) is the authority for the Christian faith and practice. In response to the Protestant teaching, the Roman Catholic Church convened the Council of Trent (1545–1563) in an attempt to counter the doctrines raised and supported by the Reformers. Speaking of the truth of salvation and the rule of conduct, the council in its fourth session (April 8, 1546) declared: “The council clearly perceives that this truth and rule are contained in written books and in unwritten traditions which were received by the apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or else have come down to us, handed as it were from the apostles themselves at the inspiration of the holy Spirit. Following the example of the orthodox fathers, the council accepts and venerates with a like [lit. pari, “equal”] feeling of piety and reverence all the books of both the old and the New Testament, since God is the author of both, as well as the traditions concerning both faith and conduct.”11

After listing all the biblical books and seven apocryphal books, the decree concluded by stating, “If anyone should not accept as sacred and canonical these entire books . . . contained in the old Latin Vulgate edition, and in conscious judgment should reject the aforesaid traditions: let him be anathema.”12 Apart from the apocryphal books listed, the council did not define what these unwritten traditions were. The New Catholic Encyclopedia distinguishes three types of tradition: divine, apostolic, and ecclesiastical. “Historically speaking, such traditions represent the sacramental rite, the liturgy, ecclesiastical discipline and the practical conduct of Christians through the centuries.”13 Specifically it mentions Sunday and Easter observance, the Mass, the teaching authority of the church, and Marian veneration.14 Thus, Roman Catholics have two sources of authority: Scripture and tradition.

Martin Luther and the Reformers, therefore, emphasized sola scriptura, the Bible alone, as the authority for Christian faith and practice. At the Diet of Worms (April 1521), Luther was charged with being a heretic. When asked to recant what he had written, he defiantly took his stand on the authority of the Bible, declaring: “If I do not become convinced by the testimony of Scripture or clear rational grounds—for I believe neither the pope nor councils alone, since it is obvious that they have erred on several occasions—I remain subjugated by the scriptural passages I have cited, and my conscience is held captive by the Word of God. Therefore, I neither can nor will recant anything. For to act against conscience is difficult, obnoxious, and dangerous. May God help me. Amen.”15

Luther’s bold stand provides an example for all Christians to uphold God’s Word and defend its integrity in the face of relentless attacks on its authority today.



1. L. L. Walker and Merrill C. Tenney, eds., “Aram, Arameans,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1975), 1:246.

2. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1982), 41.

3. Loraine Boettner, Roman Catholicism (London: Banner of Truth, 1962), 20, 21.

4. Ibid.

5. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 258.

6. Ibid.

7. Quoted in Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press), 80.

8. Ibid.

9. Martin Luther’s Werke. Kritische Gesamtausgabe, 50:282. Cited in William M. Landeen, Martin Luther’s Religious Thought (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1971), 91.

10. Landeen, ibid., 92.

11. Norman P. Tanner, Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1990), 2:663. Italics supplied.

12. Ibid., 664.

13. J. A. Fichtner, “Tradition (in Theology),” New Catholic Encyclopedia (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University in America, 2003), 14:134–137.

14. Ibid., 135.

15. H. Jedin, ed., Reformation and Counter Reformation: History of the Church (New York: Seabury Press, 1980), 5:79.