Was Sola Scriptura A Reformation Slogan And Doctrine?

Introduction: What Sola Scriptura Is and Is Not

Recently, in a couple of places (online and in print) I have run across the claims, which, in different ways question the Reformation bona fides of the slogan and doctrine, sola scriptura. In one place an author distinguished between sola scriptura, which she assigned to the Anabaptists and prima scriptura, which she assigned to the Protestant Reformers, e.g., Martin Luther and John Calvin. In the second instance, I ran across a claim on social media that the slogan sola Scriptura was an 18th-century thing, not a Reformation slogan.

Thus it seems as though some clarification and review is in order. First, let us establish what sola Scriptura is and is not. Scott Manetsch very helpfully distinguishes between sola scriptura and scriptura nuda.1

Evangelical Christians in North America sometimes misunderstand the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura to mean that the Bible is the Christian’s only theological resource, that it can and should be denuded of its churchly context (hence nuda Scriptura). Such an understanding is altogether incorrect.

Calvin believed that holy Scripture as the only infallible rule of faith and practice should serve as the final authority by which to judge Christian doctrine and practice, but it was not his only resource for theology. Consequently, he regularly consulted and appealed to early Christian documents and church authorities—most notably Augustine—to gain theological insight and clarity on contested doctrinal matters. He recognized the strategic importance of demonstrating the continuity of Protestant teaching with the core convictions of the early Church. Thus, his regular refrain: “The ancient church is on our side!”

Scriptura nuda is a shorthand way of signifying the biblicism of not a few sixteenth-century Anabaptist opponents of the Reformation and, as Manetsch says, a great lot of American evangelicals since the turn of the 19th century. It is the attempt, as one major Dispensational leader is fond of saying that he reads or preaches the text of Scripture as if no one has ever done it before. The attempt to read the Scripture independently of the church (e.g., the history of exegesis, ecclesiastical confessions) is biblicism. It is rampant in evangelicalism and Christian fundamentalism today but that is not sola Scriptura. Indeed, Calvin himself put the expression in the mouth of his Romanist critic, Albertus Pighius (c.14909–1542), when he paraphrased Pighius’ critique of sola scriptura as “Scriptura nuda” and had Pighius appealing to tradition over against bare Scripture.2

Further, the confessional Reformed and Lutheran theologians and churches saw in the Anabaptists not only an anti-historical reading of Scripture but also a subordinating of Scripture to direct, personal revelation. The phenomena we associate today with Pentecostalism, the sixteenth-century Protestants associated with Anabaptists such as Thomas Müntzer (about which I will say more below).3

In a search of a significant database of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformed texts, I was unable to find the expression prima scriptura. It is true that for the magisterial Reformers, Scripture certainly had the prime, i.e., the first place in authority. They had a unique authority but they also have a final authority and in that sense can be said to be alone.

Martin Luther (1483–1546)

Sola scriptura, often noted as the formal cause of the Reformation, the doctrine that the Scriptures are the unique, final, magisterial authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life and, in that sense, alone was crucial to the process of Luther’s Reformation breakthrough, particularly in the years 1518–21.4 When he declared at Worms that his conscience was captive to the Word of God, he was only repeating in public what he had begun to say in correspondence and what he had been implying at Leipzig in 1519. In March, 1521, a month before he he stood before God and the powers of this world at Worms, he had written to the Holy Father in Rome, in his response to the papal condemnation Execrabilis:

This is my answer to those also who accuse me of rejecting all the holy teachers of the church. I do not reject them. But everyone, indeed, knows that at times they have erred, as men will; therefore, I am ready to trust them only when they give me evidence for their opinions from Scripture, which has never erred. This St. Paul bids me to do in I Thess. 5:21, where he says, “Test everything; hold fast what is good.” St. Augustine writes to St. Jerome to the same effect, “I have learned to do only those books that are called the holy Scriptures the honor of believing firmly that none of their writers has ever erred. All others I so read as not to hold what they say to be the truth unless they prove it to me by holy Scripture or clear reason.”

Holy Scripture must necessarily be clearer, simpler, and more reliable than any other writings. Especially since all teachers verify their own statements through the Scriptures as clearer and more reliable writings, and desire their own writings to be confirmed and explained by them. But nobody can ever substantiate an obscure saying by one that is more obscure; therefore, necessity forces us to run to the Bible with the writings of all teachers, and to obtain there a verdict and judgment upon them. Scripture alone is the true lord and master of all writings and doctrine on earth. If that is not granted, what is Scripture good for? The more we reject it, the more we become
satisfied with men’s books and human teachers.5

Luther regularly appealed to “Scripture alone” (sola scriptura) as the final authority for the Christian faith and life. Two yeas after Worms, in his reply to “Emser the Goat” Luther articulated the position that he would affirm to the end of his life:

St. Augustine did the same thing, and writes that he would believe no teacher, no matter how godly and learned he might be, unless he proved his teaching with Scripture or clear reason. From this we learn how the fathers should be read, namely, that we should not consider what they say but whether they use clear Scripture or reason. But Emser and the pope’s sects should not be blamed for fearing to do and to suffer such things and for inventing other ruses. For if they really would allow themselves to be pressured into proving their point with clear Scripture—God help them—then the abomination would be discovered and they could no longer deny that their sect is the rule of the Antichrist seducing the whole world in the name of “church” and “priesthood,” as I shall bring to light someday, if God grants it. That is why they are almost forced to blaspheme and to disgrace Scripture, to sweep it under the rug, and to pretend that it is an obscure fog and that one should follow the interpretation of the fathers and seek the light in the darkness. One should not use the fathers’ teachings for anything more than to get into Scripture as they did, and then one should remain with Scripture alone. But Emser thinks that they should have a special function alongside the Scriptures, as if Scripture were not enough for teaching us.6

In 1525, in On the Bondage of the Will, Against Erasmus, who appealed to Jerome and Origen, Luther replied:

Then there is Isaiah’s saying: “Thou hast made us err from thy ways, thou hast hardened our heart, so that we fear thee not” [Isa. 63:17]. Granted that Jerome, following Origen, interprets it thus: “He is said to lead astray when he does not at once recall from error,” but who can assure us that Jerome and Origen interpret it correctly? In any case, we have an agreement that we are willing to fight each other, not by appealing to the authority of any doctor, but by that of Scripture alone.7

Anyone who knows Luther knows that he was not a biblicist. He believed that the essence of what he was teaching was to be found in Augustine and in other patristic authorities. He did not imagine that he alone understood the truth of Scripture. He was not an Enlightened Modern nor a radical individualist. He did think, however, that Scripture stands over all other authorities, even a doctor of the church like Jerome. In contrast to Erasmus, he was utterly confident in the essential perspicuity of Scripture. Even as he asserted sola scriptura

We see him engaging with the tradition while asserting the primacy and uniqueness of Scripture in the 1539 preface to his German writings:

Herein I follow the example of St. Augustine, who was, among other things, the first and almost the only one who determined to be subject to the Holy Scriptures alone, and independent of the books of all the fathers and saints. On account of that he got into a fierce fight with St. Jerome, who reproached him by pointing to the books of his forefathers; but he did not turn to them. And if the example of St. Augustine had been followed, the pope would not have become Antichrist, and that countless mass of books, which is like a crawling swarm of vermin, would not have found its way into the church, and the Bible would have remained on the pulpit.8

Luther began articulating the Scripture principal, the formal cause of the Reformation, in 1519 but Zwingli was not far behind.

Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531)

Zwingli was one of the first theologians in the Protestant Reformation to use the expression sola scriptura. Like Luther he articulated it not only Rome against Rome but also against the Anabaptists. This is an important point since it has been argued for centuries perhaps and recently by the Baptist scholar Abraham Friesen, that Zwingli not only shared a common commitment to sola scriptura with the Swiss Brethren (Conrad Grebel, George Blaurock, and Balthasar Hubmaier) in and around Zürich, and followed their hermeneutic to its logical conclusion in denying infant baptism but abandoned them under pressure from the civil authorities. Friesen accuses Zwingi of “serving the times,”9 arguing that Zwingli knew that the Anabaptists were biblically correct to deny baptism to infants, of baptizing infants not out of conviction but on a pragmatic basis.

By 1523, however, Zwingli had rejected the Anabaptist hermeneutic in favor of an early version of what would become standard Reformed covenant or federal theology.10 In his 1523 Opus Articulorum, i.e., the Sixty-Seven Articles, in art. 18 he defended his view of the Supper as a memorial (yes, he used the word memorial) on the basis of Scripture alone (sola Scriptura).11 In his 1530 Fidei Ratio he argued from the continuity of the Abrahamic covenant with the New Covenant but the role of sola scriptura is an under-appreciated aspect of his argument.12 He argued that our infants are in the same position as those of the Hebrews. They did not profess faith prior to circumcision and neither do our infants.13 The promise that God made to the Hebrews, “I will be a God to you and to your parents,” is still in effect.14 To Charles V, in 1530, he denied agreeing with the Anabaptists, and in a rhetorical flourish worthy of President Trump, claimed “I have been the first to teach and write against them.”15 In his 1527 Refutation of the Tricks of the Catabaptists,16 Zwingli repeatedly appealed at length and in detail to Scripture for his defense of infant baptism. Indeed, apart from the rancorous tone of the essay, many of the arguments are identical to those
conducted by between Baptists and Paedobaptists today.

Against the Anabaptists, Zwingli appealed to Scripture (rather than to private revelation). He argued his case for infant baptism not from tradition (as a time server might) but from Scripture as the unique, final authority for the Christian faith and life.

We are considering a two-part question: 1) was sola scriptura an authentic sixteenth-century Reformation slogan and 2) was the doctrine of sola scriptura taught? Thus far we have sought to establish what sola scriptura meant and did not mean and found that, in fact, two of the earliest magisterial Reformers did both teach sola scriptura materially (the doctrine) and formally (the expression).

John Calvin (1509–64)

John Calvin not only taught the substance of sola Scriptura but used the formula regularly. In the 1537 Instruction and Confession, in which Calvin certainly had a significant hand, the church confessed:

First we affirm that we desire to follow Scripture alone as rule of faith and religion, without mixing with it any other thing which might be devised by the opinion of men apart from the Word of God, and without wishing to accept for our spiritual government any other doctrine than what is conveyed to us by the same Word without addition or diminution, according to the command of our Lord.17

We will consider other confessions below under a separate heading but this approach and language sets a pattern that we see reflected in Calvin’s writing and teaching through the rest of his ministry. E.g., in the 1539 Institutes, in his defense of justification by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), he remarked “Here I implore the pious, I entreat that they might know the true rule of righteousness from Scripture alone, that they might judge religiously and seriously as Scripture itself judges it, without cavils, that they might be rightly reconciled.”18

In his first biblical commentary, on Romans (1540), reflecting on Paul’s appeal to Scripture (Gen 15) Calvin wrote:

We are, by this passage, reminded of the duty of seeking profit from the examples recorded in Scripture. That history is the teacher of what life ought to be, is what heathens have with truth said; but as it is handed down by them, no one can derive from it sound instruction. Scripture alone justly claims to itself an office of this kind. For in the first place it prescribes general rules, by which we may test every other history, so as to render it serviceable to us: and in the second place, it clearly points out what things are to be followed, and what things are to be avoided.19

Notice how he appealed to Scripture as the sole (i.e., unique and final, not that we read in absolute isolation) authority. He appealed to the unique and final authority of Scripture in the context of considering other kinds of texts and authorities, with which he was familiar.

In his 1543 Defense of the Sane and Orthodox Doctrine of the Bondage and Liberation of the Human Will against the Dutch Romanist Albertus Pighius (c. 1490–1542), Calvin defended his doctrine from Scripture on the basis that Jesus himself did the same. It might seem hard to believe after Vatican II, but prior to Vatican II, Romanists regularly argued that the reading of Scripture caused more difficulties than it solved. To that Calvin replied, “Now it is well known what shield, what sword , and what armor he used then to drive Satan back. ‘It is written,’ he said. Since he emerges as the victor by relying on Scripture alone.”20

In his 1547 Antidote to the Council of Trent, he appealed repeatedly to the the formula and doctrine of sola scriptura. On the fourth session he wrote:

What, then, are we to do with this victorious and now, as it were, triumphal Session? Just stand and let the smoke clear away. In regard to Traditions, I am aware that not unfrequent mention of them is made by ancient writers, though not with the intention of carrying our faith beyond the Scriptures, to which they always confine it. They only say that certain customs were received from the Apostles. Some of them appear to have that origin, but others are unworthy of it. These touch only upon a few points, and such as might be tolerated. But now we are called to believe, that whatever the Romanists are pleased to obtrude upon us, flowed by tradition from the Apostles; and so shameless are they, that without observing any distinction, they bring into this class things which crept in not long ago, during the darkness of ignorance. Therefore, though we grant that the Apostles of the Lord handed down to posterity some customs which they never committed to writing; still, first, this has nothing to do with the doctrine of faith, (as to it we cannot extract one iota from them,) but only with external rites subservient to decency or discipline; and secondly, it is still necessary for them to prove that everything to which they give the name is truly an apostolical tradition. Accordingly they cannot, as they suppose, find anything here to countenance them either in establishing the tyranny of their laws, by which they miserably destroy consciences, or to cloak their superstitions, which are evidently a farrago gathered from the vicious rites of all ages and nations. We especially repudiate their desire to make certainty of doctrine depend not less on what they call αγραφα, (unwritten,) than on the Scriptures. We must ever adhere to Augustine’s rule, “Faith is conceived from the Scriptures.”21

This is a classically Protestant assertion of the primacy and uniqueness of the authority Scripture (and in that sense, sola). He returned to sola scriptura at least twice more under this section when he complained about Rome’s “tyrannical edict”

to deprive the Church of all liberty, and arrogate to themselves a boundless license; for, be the meaning which they affix to Scripture what it may, it must be immediately embraced. Except themselves, moreover, no man will be permitted to prove anything out of Scripture. Would that they were equal to the performance of so great a task. But oxen usurp the reins, or rather asses the lyre. In short, their aim is to make all revere a Scripture hidden in darkness like the mysteries of Ceres, and let none presume to aspire to the understanding of it.22

Rome would prevent Christians from consulting that authority which constitutes the church, which is the charter of Christian liberty, thereby depriving the Christian of his court of appeal.

They cry out that the whole authority of the Church must fall if it is denied the right of interpreting Scripture—that a door would thus be thrown open to lascivious minds, allowing them to break through every restraint. Nay, in order to cast obloquy upon us, they are wont to charge us with arrogating the interpretation of Scripture to ourselves, in order that there may be no check on our licentiousness. Modesty will not allow me to speak of ourselves as fact would justify; and yet I will most truly declare that we have thrown more light upon the Scriptures than all the doctors who have appeared under the Papacy since its commencement. This praise even they themselves dare not deny us. Still there is none of us who does not willingly submit his lucubrations to the judgment of the Church. Therefore we neither contemn nor impair the authority of the Church; nor do we give loose reins to men to dare what they please. I wish they would shew us such a Church as Scripture itself pourtrays; we should easily agree as to the respect due to it. But when, falsely assuming the name of Church, they seize upon the spoils of which they have robbed it, what else can we do than protest?23

In the final (1559) Latin edition of his Institutes he re-asserted the unique authority of Scripture.

Before I go any farther, it is worth-while to say something about the authority of Scripture, not only to prepare our hearts to reverence it, but to banish all doubt. When that which is set forth is acknowledged to be the Word of God, there is no one so deplorably insolent—unless devoid also both of common sense and of humanity itself—as to dare impugn the credibility of Him who speaks. Now daily oracles are not sent from heaven, for it pleased the Lord to hallow his truth to everlasting remembrance in the Scriptures alone [cf. John 5:39]. Hence the Scriptures obtain full authority among believers only when men regard them as having sprung from heaven, bas if there the living words of God were heard. This matter is very well worth treating more fully and weighing more carefully. But my readers will pardon me if I regard more what the plan of the present work demands than what the greatness of this matter requires.24

Scripture, not the church nor private continuing revelation, alone is to be considered the definitive, authoritative revelation of God’s Word and will.

In book 3, in his defense of justification sola gratia, sola fide, as he had in 19 years before, Calvin again asserted Scripture alone as the ground of the doctrine of justification:

But I now come to the second type, in which there is especial difficulty. Paul advances no firmer proof of faith righteousness than what he writes of Abraham, that “his faith was reckoned to him for righteousness” [Rom. 4:3; Gal. 3:6]. Since, therefore, it is said that the deed committed by Phinehas “was reckoned to him as righteousness” [Ps. 106:31], Paul’s contention concerning faith permits us to infer the same concerning works. Accordingly, our opponents, as if having victory in hand, decide that without faith we are indeed not justified but that we are also not justified by it alone—that it is works that complete our righteousness. Here I beseech the godly, if they know the true rule of righteousness is to be sought from Scripture alone, religiously and earnestly to ponder with me how Scripture may, without quibbling, be duly brought into agreement with itself.25

In 1561, on the Supper, against the Gnesio-Lutheran Tilemann Heshusius,

But let this be as he will; what is more futile than to frame the question in terms of physical body? since often before this I have declared that in this matter I pay no regard to physical arguments, nor insist on the opinions of philosophers, but acquiesce in the testimony of Scripture alone. It is plain from Scripture that the body of Christ is finite, and has its own dimensions. Geometry did not teach us this; but we will not allow what the Holy Spirit taught by the apostles to be wrested from us.26

The argument concerned the two natures of Christ and the nature of Christ’s presence in the Supper. Note that the question was not whether Christ is present, contra the mere memorialists, but rather how Christ is present. In contrast to rationalist appeals to physics and philosophy, Calvin saw himself as arguing sola scriptura. That is, the Reformed view of the Supper (and the two natures of Christ) is not the product of reason (as the Lutherans alleged) but the fruit of a careful reading of Scripture. Thus, Calvin refused to surrender the high ground to Hesshusen, Westphal et al.

Near the end of his life, in his 1563 lectures on Jeremiah, we see Calvin appealing one more time to sola scriptura, to its sufficiency and essential perspicuity:

Examples of this in our time give a plain exposition to this passage. For when the Papists feel themselves driven to an extremity, when they prevail nothing by clamour and falsehood, they run to this sort of evasion, “Ho! if we must determine everything in religion by the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospel, what certainty can be found? The Scripture is like a nose of wax, for it can be turned to anything, and no moaning can with certainty be elicited; thus all things will remain perplexed and doubtful, if authority belongs to the Scripture alone.” We then see that the enemies of truth at this day, when they cannot otherwise cover their filthiness, labour to throw all things into confusion, and to discredit God’s word, and to introduce such darkness, that white cannot be distinguished from black, that light becomes mixed with darkness.27

The Roman critics of the Reformation caricatured sola scriptura as mere biblicism (scriptura nuda) and sought to undermine the sufficiency and essential clarity of Scripture because the magisterial Reformers spoke of and taught and defended sola scriptura.

Calvin’s Orthodox Successors and Their Confessions

The successors of the magisterial Reformers received and inherited the Reformation solas, grace alone (as distinct from grace and cooperation with grace), faith alone (as distinct from faith formed by love), and scripture alone as distinct from the Roman doctrine and from those Anabaptist doctrines that marginalized Scripture in favor of some form of continuing revelation. Richard Muller explains:

The Reformation itself was rooted in the question of authority, which it answered with the language of sola Scriptura and of the priority of Scripture as the ultimate norm of doctrine over all other grounds of authority. The Protestant orthodox doctrine of Scripture is a codification of this answer—and the focus of the entire doctrinal exposition is clearly the character of Scripture as rule or norm and the way in which Scripture ought to be considered as prior to the church and its traditions. This issue is the underlying reason for the form taken by the Protestant doctrine of Scripture in its development from the Reformation through the era of orthodoxy. There is some irony, therefore, in the fact that this elaborate doctrine, with its theological and hermeneutical stress on text and exegesis, could serve so well against the claims of churchly authority in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries—and then fare so poorly against the claims of reason and of the autonomous exegete advanced late in the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries. The great shield of Protestantism against popery would ultimately become a liability in the war against rationalism.28

Guy de Bres (1522–67)

We see this assertion of the primacy and uniqueness of Scripture over against tradition, which the magisterial Reformation did not reject, and continuing revelation (whether Roman or Radical), which they did reject, in the defense of the Reformation published in 1552 by Guy de Bres, a student of Beza and Calvin and the primary author of the Belgic Confession (1561), the confession of the Dutch Reformed Churches. This treatise was The Rise and Spring of the Anabaptists. One of his major criticisms of the Anabaptists was of their view of Scripture and specifically of their denial of sola scriptura.

He began his critique by focusing on Thomas Muntzer’s claim “that ministers and preachers of the gospel were not sent of God, but are ministers of the dead letter.” He objected to their claim “That the writing of the Old Testament, and preaching of the eternal word, was not the word of God, but was only the testimony of thereof; and that we must search or the word in the internal part, i.e., in our hearts, where God hath put it, that we need not go far to seek it from without us. . . .”

There be some who have daily some new command from God, to make known unto their brethren and strangers. Some are rapt into an extasie, and have their visage and countenance changed, lying upon the ground certain hours. Some Tremble and Quake for two or three hours together; after that, when they are come unto themselves, they prophecie and speak strange things, as if they had been in another world, or as if they had fallen from out of heaven: and they account to have that in common with the Apostle, when he was taken up into the third heaven.

As for that which they tax the Ministers, to be Ministers of the dead letter, one may plainly see the Lords taking vengeance upon the outrage offered unto his holy Word; smiting them with the spirit of giddiness, for having despised the true and only means of coming unto God, which is the Scripture and the Word of God. In the passage of the Corinthians where Paul saith, The letter killeth, and the Spirit quickeneth; let any closely consider, against whom the Apostle disputeth, and they will understand his drift. It is very evident that Paul in this place, had to do with false Apostles, who preached and extolled the Law without Christ, and caused the people to recoil from Salvation purchased by Christ, and the grace of the new Covenant, whereunto the Lord had promised to write his Law in the heart of the faithful: the Law then being separated from Christ, as a body without a soul; and nothing cometh from it but death, to those that are under it: it doth nothing but beat and strike the ears, without any quickening the soul, until by faith we are sent from it unto Christ, as from the Usher unto the Master; and then the Law will be found such as David sings it, The Law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul; the testimony of the Lord is faithful, making Wise the simple: the commandments of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart, & c. Thus must we understand how it is said, The Letter killeth: Paul called the Law, The killing Letter, and saith, The Spirit quickeneth, i.e., The Ministry of the Gospel, which he opposeth unto the naked Law; and he himself calleth his preaching The Ministry of the Spirit.29

He replied by arguing that Timothy was not instructed to receive new revelations, but rather to be studious in the Scriptures. “It is not the office of the Holy Spirit, that which Christ promised, to dream of dreams, of new and unknown revelations, or to hold forth new Doctrine: but it is the work of the Spirit of God, to confirm us in that which he hath already spoken, by the Prophets and Apostles, seeing also that the Lord promiseth not to send us another Doctrine, saying, Hold fast that which thou hast, until I come, Revel. 2.24, Gal. 1.8,9.”

He attacked Muntzer as a false prophet, equating him with Mohammed. He appealed to Col 2:18 and Jer 23 to warn against false prophets. He appealed to the objectivity of the Scripture as the norm against which to judge the claims to new revelation. This was nothing but the substance of the magisterial Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura.

The Reformed Confessions

This same posture toward Scripture is evident formally and substantially in his Belgic Confession (1561), of which he was the primary author, which was adopted as the confession of the Dutch Reformed Churches. Art. 7 is a classic expression of the doctrine of sola Scriptura:

We believe that this Holy Scripture contains the will of God completely and that everything one must believe to be saved is sufficiently taught in it. For since the entire manner of service which God requires of us is described in it at great length, no one—even an apostle or an angel from heaven, as Paul says [Gal 1:8]—ought to teach other than what the Holy Scriptures have already taught us. For since it is forbidden to add to or subtract from the Word of God [Deut 12:32; Rev 22:18–19], this plainly demonstrates that the teaching is perfect and complete in all respects. Therefore we must not consider human writings—no matter how holy their authors may have been— equal to the divine writings; nor may we put custom, nor the majority, nor age, nor the passage of time or persons, nor councils, decrees, or official decisions above the truth of God, for truth is above everything else. For all human beings are liars by nature and more vain than vanity itself. Therefore we reject with all our hearts everything that does not agree with this infallible rule, as we are taught to do by the apostles when they say, “Test the spirits to see if they are of God,”[1 John 4:1] and also, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house.”[2 John 10]

We may be certain that the Dutch Reformed Churches, in adopting this language, was not intending to agree with Thomas Müntzer.

In the Belgic, however, the Reformed Churches were echoing the consensus of the Reformed Churches from the 1520s and 3os, e.g., the Ten Theses of Bern (1528) and the First Confession of Basel (1534). In the former, the first two theses assert the Scripture as the sole, final authority for the Christian faith and life:

1. The holy catholic church, whose sole head is Christ, has been begotten from the Word of God, in which also it continues, nor does it listen to the voice of any stranger.

2. The Church of Christ establishes no laws or statutes beyond the Word of God. Thus all traditions of men, which are called by us precepts of the Church, bind our consciences only insofar as they are founded or have been commanded in the Word of God.30

In the latter, after rejecting the errors of the Anabaptists, the churches confessed: ”

Of the Finishing Touch to the Confession of Basel, which has been Demonstrated from Sacred Scripture Alone, as it were a Singular and Perfect Rule of Faith, we Submit [this] for Evaluation with a Promise of Emendation if any Place in an Article is Against what is Written [in Scripture.31  (Emphasis original)

The next year, in the Bohemian Confession, the churches confessed (in art. 1) that the “Holy Scriptures” are given “canonical authority” as “unshakeably and most certainly true” and “these Scriptures are to have preference over any other writings.”32 Yet they also affirmed the value of the “writings of the doctors of the church (e.g., Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, and Gregory) are “to be held as true and trustworthy and useful for the instruction of the people but only as they do not disagree with the holy Scriptures.”  They quoted Augustine from book 3 of De trinitate on this very point.33

The same sort of language is found in the First Helvetic Confession (1536). Article 1 begins with an affirmation of the Canonical Scripture as “the Word of God, given by the Holy Spirit…the most perfect an ancient philosophy” which “alone Fontaine’s all godliness [and] all reasonable manner of life.”34 As in the Bohemian Confession, the First Helvetic affirms the value of tradition and the fathers insofar as they agree with Scripture. The Reformed are not biblicists.

The same pattern is to be found throughout the corpus of the Reformed confessions. In the French Confession (1559), the French Reformed Churches declared:

We believe that the Word contained in these books has proceeded from God, and receives its authority from him alone, and not from men. And inasmuch as it is the rule of all truth, containing all that is necessary for the service of God and for our salvation, it is not lawful for men, nor even for angels, to add to it, to take away from it, or to change it. Whence it follows that no authority, whether of antiquity, or custom, or numbers, or human wisdom, or judgments, or proclamations, or edicts, or decrees, or councils, or visions, or miracles, should be opposed to these Holy Scriptures, but, on the contrary, all things should be examined, regulated, and reformed according to them. And therefore we confess the three creeds, to wit: the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian, because they are in accordance with the Word of God (Art 5).

The Scots Confession (1560) article 18 confessed the same thing. Heinrich Bullinger’s Second Helvetic Confession (chapter 1; 1566) articulated the substance of the doctrine of sola Scriptura: “And in this Holy Scripture, the universal Church of Christ has the most complete exposition of all that pertains to a saving faith, and also to the framing of a life acceptable to God; and in this respect it is expressly commanded by God that nothing be either added to or taken from the same.”

The Synod of Dort used the phrase explicitly in its preface to the Canons, after explaining how the civil magistrates had convoked the Synod: “They called upon God’s Name and were bound by a holy oath to judge only after the rule of Holy Scripture (solam Scripturam) and to act with a good conscience in the examination and judgment of this matter.


Contrary to the claim that it was the Anabaptists who taught sola scriptura and the magisterial Protestants who taught prima scriptura and contra the claim that the sola scriptura is an eighteenth-century phenomenon, we have seen that there is abundant evidence that the magisterial Protestants as individuals and corporately, as churches, in their confessions teaching and confessing both the formula sola scriptura and the substance of the doctrine.

Further, we have seen that sola scriptura was not a banner touting the sort of radically individualist biblicism that one sees today—that would be scriptura nuda, which we saw Calvin explicitly rejecting—rather we have seen the Reformed valuing the Christian past, tradition, the Fathers, and the corporate, ecclesiastical reading of Scripture which was embodied in the Reformed confessions.


1. Scott Manetsch, “Is the Reformation Over? John Calvin, Roman Catholicism, and Contemporary Ecumenical Conversations” Themelios 36.2 (2011): 199.

2. “Verum excipiet fortassis, Deum non in nuda Scriptura, sed per Ecclesiae traditionem audiendum esse. Corpus Reformatorum, 34.269. Hereafter CR.

3. Some of the Anabaptists, e.g., Balthasar Hubmaier, did use the expression sola scriptura and, some instances he may have intended by it what the Protestants did but that is coincidence. Certainly the various strains of Anabaptism were far more taken with primitivism, biblicism, spiritualism, and rationalism than any of the magisterial Reformers.

4. Part of this essay is drawn from an as yet unpublished paper, “Bible, Babble, Bubble: Sola Scriptura Contra Thomas Müntzer and the Sixteenth-Century Radicals” (2017).

5. 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), 11–12. Hereafter, LW.

6. LW, 39.166–67.

7. LW, 33.167.

8. LW, 34.285.

9. Abraham Friesen, “Erasmus, the Reformers, and the Birth of Swiss Anabaptism,” in Malcom B. Yarnell III, ed. The Anabaptists and Contemporary Baptists: Restoring New Testament Christianity (Nashville: B & H Academic, 2013), 199, 20.

10. Zwingli, “Exposition and Basis of the Conclusions or Articles Published by Huldrych Zwingli, Zurich 29 January 1523” in Huldrych Zwingli Writings, vol. 1, trans. E. J. Furcha (Allison Park, PA: Pickwick Publications, 1984).

11. Zurich, Christoph Froschauer (1523), 37. See also Huldrych Zwingli, Writings: The Defense of the Reformed Faith, trans. E. J. Furcha (Allison Park, PA: Pickwick Publications, 1984), 116.

12. “An Account of the Faith of Zwingli in Zwingli” in On Providence And Other Essays, trans. William John Hinke (Philadelphia: American Society of Church History, 1922).

13. Zwingli, Account, 45–46.

14. Zwingli, Account, 47.

15. Account, 48. See also On the Providence of God, 195 in On Providence and Other Essays.

16. Selected Works, 123–258.

17. Geneva Confession, 1536, (trans. from French) in J. K. S. Reid, Calvin: Theological Treatises (Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press, 1954), 26.

18. “Ego hic pios obtestor, ut si veram iustitiae regulam ex sola scriptura petendam norunt, mecum religiose et serio expendant, quomodo scriptura secum ipsa, sine cavillis, rite conciliari possit.” Institutio 10.68 in CR 29.785.

19. John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, trans. John Owen (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 182–83.

20. John Calvin, The Bondage of Liberation of the WillA Defense of the Orthodox Doctrine of Human Choice against Pighius, trans. A. N. S. Lane (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 53. “Quum sola scriptura fretus profligato subactoque hoste victor evadat, nonne et illuc quasi sublato signo nos vocat, et certam victoriam pollicetur?” Calvin, Defensio sanae, 268 CR 34.268.

21. John Calvin, Tracts Relating to the Reformation, vol. 3, trans. H. Beveridge (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1851), 69.

22. Calvin, Tracts, 3.74–75.

23. Calvin, Tracts, 3.76–77.

24. The Latin text says “Scripturae solae…”.  The translation is from John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion,  ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 1.7.1.

25. Calvin, Institutes, 3.17.8. Battles edition.

26. John Calvin, “To Dissipate the Mists of Tileman Heshusius”  in J. K. S. Reid, Calvin: Theological Treatises (Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press, 1954), 311–12.

27. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Prophet Jeremiah and the Lamentations, vol. 3, trans. John Owen (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 171.

28. Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 2: The Cognitive Foundation of Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 340–41.

29. de Bres, Rise and Spring, 34.

30. James T. Dennison Jr., ed. Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: 1523–1693, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008–14), 41–42.

31. Dennison Jr., ed., 1.295.

32. Dennison, Jr., 1.300-01.

33. Dennison, Jr., ed., 1.301.

34. Dennison, Jr., ed., 1.343.


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  1. I would like to add a resource to this conversation: Stuart Murray, “Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition.” Assuming that he correctly describes the history, Anabaptist hermeneutics was more about prioritizing a first sight reading of the Sermon on the Mount as the interpretive framework for the rest of the Bible. Murray notes that many of the Anabaptist leaders only had Matthew or only the New Testament as they started their churches. They in some ways had more in common with “red-letter” Christians than “No creed but the Bible.”
    The magisterial Reformers and Catholics unfortunately killed most of the scholastically trained Anabaptist like Hubmaier. This essentially placed the least educated and often most radical leaders at the forefront of the Anabaptist movement.
    The current confusion on the term Sola Scriptura seems to me to stem from the Stone-Campbell movement which was led by former Presbyterians who tended to use Reformation rhetoric without the Reformation content. They would argue that they were completing the Reformation around the Bible. The no creed but the Bible crowd with their Presbyterian influences (Finney and Campbell) tended to merge with synergies within the more established Presbyterian and Calvinist Baptist churches, leading to the confusion in terms.
    The intellectual framework for the Stone-Campbell movement and later “literalism” of Dispensationalism all flowed from Presbyterian institutions, particularly Scottish Common Sense Rationalism. Presbyterians like Brooks also introduced and help popularize Dispensationalism in the United States in opposition to the academic denominational institutions.
    I am not saying that Campbell, Brooks, Andrew Murray, and Finney correctly understood the confessions of faith they claimed to agree to, but their attachment to Presbyterian (Murray was Dutch Reformed) educational institutions and rhetoric tended to allow them misuse and misdirect the meaning of words as ordained and trained Reformed ministers.

    • Shane,

      Two keywords here:


      Some. I have learned over the years to say “some Anabaptists.” There were a variety of movements and a lot of diversity. This is why I distinguished Hubmaier from Müntzer—who was also educated.

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