Sola Scriptura: A Biblical Casuistry Case with a Test for Truth over Experience
When Martin Luther took his stand at the Diet of Worms, proclaiming, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason…, I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God,”[i] he affirmed that divine revelation is the only absolute, normative authority for truth. This doctrine of Sola Scriptura is of no little consequence today because at its core is the question, “What is our ultimate authority for what we are to believe and how we are to live?” How we answer it makes all the difference.
The Reformers answered unequivocally that God’s revelation is our only authority. In providing this particular answer, they were reacting against the medieval Roman Catholic Church’s reliance on Tradition, which was an amalgamation of handpicked authorities: Church Fathers, Church councils, papal pronouncements, and medieval philosophers. From this, the doctrine of transubstantiation developed more out of medieval philosophy than biblical exegesis.
It started with exegesis of the text (“This is my body”), but over time theologians employed a little hermeneutical legerdemain, gradually adding philosophical reasoning until in 1215 they pulled transubstantiation out of the hat! Thus, Rome’s authoritative basis for it was really a sleight of hand. It was precisely this concoction of biblical truth and human philosophy that the Reformers reacted against. They pared down the number of sacraments from seven to two because they had already pared down the number of sources of authority to one.
But are the Reformers guilty of committing their own theological prestidigitation and inventing Sola Scriptura? Could they be accused of a heavy-handed use of Occam’s razor to narrow authorities based solely on their own preferences?
The clear answer is No. They did not invent the doctrine; on the contrary, they embraced Sola Scriptura because it arises from the biblical text itself. One passage in which it is clearly taught is Deuteronomy 13. The first three verses constitute God’s authoritative test for a prophet:
“1 If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, 2 and the sign or the wonder comes true, concerning which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods (whom you have not known) and let us serve them,’ 3 you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your God is testing you to find out if you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” (NASB)
These verses can be considered a sort of casuistry, which was a learning technique popular among Puritan authors. Casuistry provides a case study in which a particular set of circumstances are laid out and moral and practical lessons are to be drawn from it.
A practical application of Sola Scriptura gleaned from this situation is that the Lord is providing a reliable test for truth, one by which we are to evaluate our experiences. Even if our senses should entice us to believe a glittering spectacle, we should nevertheless be cautious. For while it seems reasonable to believe such a miracle, the decisive determiner of authoritative truth lies solely in the message that squares with divine revelation. This “message over miracle” test was designed to safeguard God’s people from the ever-present danger of syncretism (the harmful blending of belief systems) and its follow-on danger, apostasy.
The admonition to be skeptical of our experience is quite counter-intuitive to the little Adam inside all of us…after all “Seeing is believing,” so why question the authenticity of our experience? Luther was forced to combat credence given to appearances of spirits and to healings that were alleged to have occurred at the graves of certain saints, “all of which,” he said, “were contrary to the received Gospel.”[ii] While we may not be in danger of being wowed by a wonder-worker today, there still remains the constant allure of our experience: worship music that is full of emotion but bereft of biblical content that should move us to worship, or a sermon that excites our desires to fix our dysfunctions, but never informs us how to be imitators of God or how to become partakers of all the benefits which are freely offered through Christ.
Luther’s admonition regarding Sola Scriptura still holds authority today: “One must rest wholly on the Word alone and shut out everything from eyes and senses, because when the Word is lost, God is lost.”[iii]
James Rich is the Assistant Pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Harleysville, PA, and holds a Ph.D. in Church History from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He taught high school history and Bible and has served as an adjunct faculty member at the college and seminary level.
[i] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 32: Career of the Reformer II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 32 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 112.
[ii] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 9: Lectures on Deuteronomy, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 9 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 130, f.n. 1.
[iii] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 9: Lectures on Deuteronomy, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 9 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 129.