The Difference Between Sola Scriptura And Biblicism

The Reformation solas (by grace alone, through faith alone, according to Scripture alone) are not well understood today. Yesterday, however, was the anniversary of Luther’s famous declaration at the Diet of Worms. Although already under ban for his teachings, Charles V had promised him safe conduct from Wittenberg to Worms.  When he arrived amidst great fanfare he was brought into the Imperial Hall in the center of which stood a table with his books.  He was asked if they were really his and if he was ready to recant.  He nervously asked for more time.  He was given a day to think.  The next day he was once again brought into the Imperial Chamber.  He began to debate.  He said the books were his but that they were all various in nature.  He began a long discussion about their contents. Eck, the Imperial theologian, cut him short and demanded that he answer candidly and “without horns” (without dialectic) whether he would recant.  Luther responded:

Since then your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.

The historicity of most famous words associated with the Diet (Imperial Reichstag) of Worms (“Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen”) is uncertain. What we need to understand, however, is what he said about the authority of Popes, councils, reason, and Scripture. Luther was no biblicist. What he was asserting at Worms was sola Scriptura (according to Scriptura alone) not biblicism. He was asserting the unique, final authority of Holy Scripture and the necessity of good and necessary consequences inferred from Scripture. He was asserting the perspicuity of Scripture, i.e., that Scripture is sufficiently clear that Christians, with the help of the Holy Spirit, are able to understand Scripture and to find what we need to know for the Christian faith and the Christian life. Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6 is a brilliant summary of what confessional Protestants mean by sola Scriptura:

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

Under the influence of Anabaptist radicalism, which swept across and transformed American evangelicalism in the 19th century (the causes of which are the subject of another post) led it away from the Reformation understanding of sola Scriptura to a different doctrine: biblicism or the attempt to understand Scripture by one’s self and by itself, i.e., in isolation from the history of the church and in isolation from the communion of the saints. In biblicism the interpreter, not Scripture, becomes sovereign. Historically biblicists, although they boast about their devotion to Scripture, are actually devoted to the supremacy of reason. As someone, somewhere said, “All heretics quote Scripture.” It is one thing to quote Scripture but it is another to read it well and to interpret it properly.

Scripture is sufficient and it is sufficiently clear but, because of sin, our minds are not always clear. I cannot count the number of conversations I’ve had with rationalists, i,e,, those who place the authority of the intellect above all other authorities and mystics, i.e., those who place the authority of religious experience above Scripture, who all the while insisted that they were following Scripture. A rationalist knows a priori what Scripture must say. Rome is guilty of this error. She knew before she ever read Scripture that God can only justify one who is already, by grace and cooperation with grace, inherently and entirely sanctified. That’s a form of rationalism. The anti-Trinitarians in the early 16th century knew before they ever got to Scripture that God could not be one in three persons. The Socinians in the late 16th and early 17th century claimed to be following Scripture but they rejected the universal (catholic) understanding of Scripture that God is one in three persons, that Jesus is God the Son incarnate, that died as our substitutionary atonement. They were rationalists posturing as sincere students of Scripture. Before they ever came to Scripture that had a prior commitment to reason: they were willing to believe those things that they could explain and understand comprehensively. The doctrines of the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, and salvation were DOA for the Socinians. The theology of the rationalist is driven by the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty (QIRC). He can have no mystery.

Mystics start with their personal experience of God or of the risen Christ. What matters most to them is not what God’s Word actually and clearly says but what they knew from their immediate, personal, mystical encounter with God. Though they start with experience and affection (feeling) they end up in the very similar place to that of the rationalist. They talk about Scripture but they follow it only when it confirms what they have already experienced. They are resistant to what Scripture actually and clearly teaches. They may talk about sola Scriptura but what really drives and shapes their theology, piety, and practice is sola experiente (according to experience alone). The mystic is committed to the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience (QIRE). He is ultimately unsatisfied with Scripture.

The confessional Protestants, by contrast, beginning with Luther, Tyndale, Calvin et al were committed to the sole, unique, final, and perspicuous authority of Scripture as the Word of God but none of them read Scripture as if they were the first to read it. They read Scripture with the church. They read Scripture with other Christians. They regarded Scripture as normative and definitive, as the final authority. They did not start with reason or religious experience. When Luther spoke of “plain reason” at Worms he was not asserting the final authority of the human intellect. He was recognizing that humans do indeed interpret Scripture. We do draw good and necessary inferences from Scripture. There are inferences that are unavoidable that we are bound to believe. There are other inferences that are less certain and those are debatable. The church universal (i.e., the church catholic) has confessed those good and necessary inferences in the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, and the Athanasian Creed. The Reformed Churches have confessed their understanding of Scripture in their confessions, which are the product of reading the Scriptures with the church universal and reading the Scriptures together. Yet, at every point the church has submitted itself to Scripture. It has not regarded, as Rome does, itself as the mother of Scripture. We have not granted to ourselves authority to create new sacraments (as Rome did in the 13th century) or to impose upon believers ceremonies, doctrines, or experiences which God’s Word does not.

When Luther stood on the sole, final and perspicuous authority of God’s Word he could not have known all the ways in which that assertion would be twisted but he knew most of them since they had already happened in the history of the church. Biblicism is one thing and sola Scriptura is another. Biblicism is rationalist and irrationalist but sola Scriptura is not. If you’re not reading the Scriptures with the church and in the communion of the saints you’re not following Sola scriptura and the confessional Protestants.

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  1. And along with Calvin, I believe in the aseity of Christ which does not contradict the creeds of the church universal.
    This is excellent in its brevity and I will use it with my students when I teach the first half of American history survey.

  2. If someone believes their mindset to be that of a rationalist, yet accepts the veracity of Scripture pre- suppositionally (a priori), just like mathematics and logic and so understand in the event of an Antinomy it is the observer(individual) or the observation (apparent conflict) that must be moved because one of those two rather than the observed (Scripture) which must be at fault to have caused the apparent Antinomy. What then are they (the thinker) called? You have said repeatedly that this is not rationalism being demonstrated, yet from my limited viewpoint it seems rational, internally consistent and able to fully accept Sola Scriptura as it is described, as well as the ‘6 forms’ [3 Forms of Unity and Westminster]

    So other than ‘wrong’ does such a philosophy have a name? Because if it is wrong, I would like to see it shown internally inconsistent or presuppositionally invalid so I can move on and find what is right.

  3. What about the part of Anabaptists who claimed to have been following the traditions of the Church Universal such as Riedemann in his Hutterite Confession of Faith? He does appeal to the Apostles Creed and mentions examples out of church history. Where did they go wrong ( from a reformed perspective of course)?

  4. As for “all heretics quote Scripture”, I think it was Bellarmine, and he meant Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Tyndale, and De Bres. Still, I get what you’re saying.

    Still, while the Bible should be read with an eye to what Christians have found in it in ages past, the fact that the Reformation was necessary shows that large sections of the church, including its most revered leaders, have been wrong.

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