An Authority Issue
This is a really crucial question. And to grasp this, let’s go back to the Reformation itself where sola scriptura was born. The issue here was authority. That’s what sola scriptura was about and what you found in the Catholic church. That authority was actually answered with two masters: we have the biblical text, but we also have tradition.
And in fact, what was happening was the biblical text was being read through tradition and being understood through tradition. So in reality, the tradition of the church was the authority of the church. And when Luther realized that, he realized that is really the fundamental principle. And because of that, the gospel—this central and essential teaching of the Bible—was eclipsed. So they go hand in hand—sola scriptura and sola fide—because when we get back to the church and we strip away all those additions and all those layers of authority and we go back to the text there, we see the pure and simple gospel. But it was a question of tradition and a question of authority.
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Scripture and Historical Wisdom
Now, Luther was very quickly accused of dismissing 1500 years of church history when he did that. So Luther himself says, No, no, that is not what’s happening in ’sola scriptura.’ He wrote a very important text called “On the Councils and the Church,” and he said while Scripture is our authority—Scripture alone is our authority—we do not dismiss the councils and the church.
In fact, they are very helpful for us to understand Scripture and how to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. And then Luther just simply says, in fact, we have in the Bible itself and the office of teacher that God has given to his church to assist in understanding his Word and how to live it in their lives. And so sometimes we as Protestants—under the banner of sola scriptura— simply dismiss tradition and we sort of go the other extreme.
The Reformers did not do that. They held so white-knuckled to the sole authority of God’s Word, but they were able to recognize the true value and the true role that church history played in the life of the church. And we need to capture that back. We need not to commit the error of Rome, but neither do we need to go in the other direction and simply write off church history. The Reformers themselves didn’t do that. And we shouldn’t do that either as we uphold sola scriptura.
Stephen J. Nichols is an editor of the ESV Church History Study Bible.
The church cannot control our forgiveness because we are answerable not to human authorities, but to God.
Traditional Christians are typically those who take history seriously. If only we might be able to return to ancient worlds, we tell ourselves, all might be well.
Not long ago a friend asked what I’d say if I had thirty seconds with someone in an elevator and had to explain why I think Christian Confessions are so important. As you can see, I know what I’d say.
The Reformation still matters because the debates between Catholics and Protestants have not gone away.