With Janet Mefferd On Sola Scriptura

As early as the late 4th century, challenged by a variety of claims of religious authority, many of whom claimed to have an unwritten secret tradition or revelation, Basil the Great (c.330–79), one of the Cappadocian Fathers, rather than standing on the Scriptures alone, as the earlier church and pastors had done, gave in to the temptation to try to meet the heretics on their own ground. He claimed that the church too had an unwritten tradition from the apostles. This is not how the earlier fathers and church had met this tradition. E.g., when author to Diognetus (c., 150 AD) spoke about the “tradition of the apostles” he was referring to the New Testament epistles. Basil, however, had opened the door and others would walk through it. Over time the appeal to an authority beside Scripture or even above it became widely accepted. Faced with Luther’s challenge to this secret, unwritten “apostolic” tradition, Rome doubled down. The dogma of the Roman communion could not be clearer. At the Council of Trent, session 4, 1546, Rome declared:

[The gospel], before promised through the prophets in the holy Scriptures, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, first promulgated with His own mouth, and then commanded to be preached by His Apostles to every creature, as the fountain of all, both saving truth, and moral discipline; and seeing clearly that this truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand….

For Rome, there are two sources of authority, the putative unwritten tradition of the Apostles transmitted infallibly from “hand to hand” and Scripture and where they conflict, the unwritten tradition wins. This is a great way to win an argument. When the Protestants object to any Roman practice as unbiblical, she simply replied, “No matter, we have the secret, unwritten authority of the apostles.”

The Protestants disagreed categorically. In 1561 the Reformed Churches replied:

We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein. For since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures: nay, though it were an angel from heaven, as the apostle Paul says. For since it is forbidden to add unto or take away anything from the Word of God, it does thereby evidently appear that the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects. Neither may we consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils or decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God, since the truth is above all; for all men or of themselves liars, and more van than vanity itself. Therefore we reject with all our hearts whatever does not agree with this infallible rule, as the apostles have taught us saying, Test the spirits, whether they are of God. Likewise: any one comes to you and brings not this teaching, receive him not into your house (Belgic Confession, art. 7).

It is widely assumed today that somehow, at some time, this great chasm was healed. Typically, people assert that everything changed during the Second Vatican Council (1962–65). Some things did change. Roman Catholics were given the freedom to read the Scriptures in their own language but Rome did not change her position relative to the sources of revelation and authority. She still appeals to an unwritten apostolic authority and to Scripture. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992), she summarizes her dogma this way:

§76 In keeping with the Lord’s command, the Gospel was handed on in two ways:
– orally “by the apostles who handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they gave, by the institutions they established, what they themselves had received – whether from the lips of Christ, from his way of life and his works, or whether they had learned it at the prompting of the Holy Spirit”;
– in writing “by those apostles and other men associated with the apostles who, under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, committed the message of salvation to writing”.
. . . continued in apostolic succession
§77 “In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority.” Indeed, “the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time.”
§78 This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition, since it is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it. Through Tradition, “the Church, in her doctrine, life and worship, perpetuates and transmits to every generation all that she herself is, all that she believes.” “The sayings of the holy Fathers are a witness to the life-giving presence of this Tradition, showing how its riches are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and her prayer.”
§82 As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, “does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honoured with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.”

Rome may bless Luther as a “witness to the gospel” but according to Luther not only does she not corrupt the gospel but she still has not submitted as a servant to the Bible as the sole, final, unique authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life.

Perhaps more importantly, there are many, doubtless millions of ostensibly Protestant Christians across the globe who essentially agree with Rome on this point. They do not point to a claimed “apostolic” tradition handed down unwritten through the church but they have their own private revelations or sources of authority that are parallel to holy scripture. How many Evangelicals and Pentecostals claim to receive “a word from the Lord”? How often has someone justified a decision on the basis that “the Lord told me” or “revealed it to me”? If you are not familiar with this phenomenon you have not spent much time in the Evangelical, Charismatic, or Pentecostal sub-cultures. There are even self-identified Reformed leaders who believe and teach in an extra-canonical, continuing, private revelation.

For Reformation Day 2017, the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we all do well to remember and to re-commit ourselves to the formal principle of the Reformation: according to Scripture alone (sola scriptura). The Bible, God’s holy, inerrant, infallible, inspired, immutable Word (“Scripture cannot be broken” John 10:35) is the ruling (magisterial) and final authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life. The Reformed and Presbyterian churches  confess what they do because we believe that is what the Word teaches. If we thought they Word taught something else, we would confess that. Our confessions are summaries of God’s Word not a competing source of authority. They are subordinate standards. Sermons are authoritative proclamations of God’s law and his gospel but any proper sermon serves the Word. It is authoritative insofar as it is faithful to God’s Word as confessed by the churches. The Word is the final standard.

Perhaps no other area in P&R life needs Reformation today as much as our practice of worship. Far too often “conservative” churches do things because “that is the way we have always done them” (and Rome cheers as she sees us appealing to our own unwritten tradition—and tragically it is not true. The P&R churches have not “always” conducted worship as we do today) or because “it is moving.” More “progressive” P&R churches institute practices in worship because they are “meaningful” or because they are “efficient” (e.g., intinction) or because, it is claimed, they will be profitable for evangelism and church growth. According to God’s Word as we confess it, the Word alone (sola scriptura) norms our worship. No session or consistory has authority to impose any practice on a congregation not taught by God’s Word. We confess this explicitly in the Belgic Confession  and in Westminster Confession chapter 21. In Belgic 32 we say:

Therefore we reject all human innovations and all laws imposed on us, in our worship of God, which bind and force our consciences in any way.

Reformation Day is a great opportunity, especially during the 500th anniversary, to remember what God’s Word teaches, to do again as we did then, as God’s people did under Josiah (2 Kings 22:8–13), to recover Scripture as the magisterial authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life.

Recently I sat down with Janet Mefferd to talk about sola scriptura on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

Janet Mefferd Today airs more than 150 great radio stations across the USA. Find your station here.

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  1. So much for Sola Scriptura in top-selling Contemporary “Christian” Music:
    “Good Good Father”
    I’ve heard a thousand stories of what they think you’re like
    But I’ve heard the tender whispers of love in the dead of night
    And you tell me that you’re pleased
    And that I’m never alone

  2. Yes, ‘Christian’ music is just so direly bad, that they almost persuade me to become a Regulatory Principle worshipper!

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