There is a great lot of talk in the evangelical and Reformed world(s) about sola Scriptura but one has the growing sense that not only is the Reformation scripture principle not well understood (e.g., it is often misconstrued as an endorsement of biblicism) its implications for the doctrine of Christian liberty or what Martin Luther (1483-1546) described as The Freedom of the Christian Man are also not well understood anymore.
Luther articulated the fundamental principle of Christian freedom at the risk of his own life, at the Diet of Worms (1521): “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and by plain reason and not by Popes and councils who have so often contradicted themselves, my conscience is captive to the word of God. To go against conscience is neither right nor safe. I cannot and I will not recant.”
When Luther said “Scripture and plain reason” he was not making them coordinate but, despite his frequent condemnations of “that whore reason” neither did he reject a role for reason in theology. See David Bagchi’s terrific essay on this in Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment.
When Luther spoke of “conscience” he had in mind the conscience that is bound by God’s perspicuous Word. The authority resides not in the conscience but in the Word. The conscience has been taken captive by the Word of God.
Luther was articulating briefly the genuine Protestant doctrine of Scripture alone, i.e., that Scripture (not Luther) has a unique, final authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life. Implicit in the Scripture principle is the Protestant conviction that Scripture is inherently and sufficiently perspicuous so that what must be known for faith and the Christian life can be known.
The Protestant principle is not the autonomy of the individual believer. The church reads the Scripture but where the Roman communion places the church coordinate to or even over Scripture, the Protestants place the church under Scripture. We serve the Word, the Word does not serve us. Thus, we say that the church (as an institution and in her assemblies) has only ministerial authority. She did not produce the Word. She can never contradict the Word. She cannot change the Word. The church only administers the Word.
This means that though the Word is incorrigible, the church is corrigible. Historically, the church has always become corrupt and needed Reformation. That was true in the 16th century and it’s true today. This is why the Westminster Divines wrote what they did in Westminster Confession of Faith 25.5, “The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a church on earth, to worship God according to his will.”
The church as such is indefectible. There will always be an expression of the visible church on the earth. Nevertheless, particular expressions of the church are not necessarily indefectible. That is why we speak of “deformation” and “reformation.”
The sole, unique authority of the Bible, God’s inerrant, infallible Word is provides and guards our liberty against the tyranny of human opinion, as Luther knew, even when that opinion is ecclesiastical.
Originally published June, 2013.