Scriptural Authority: Solo Versus Sola Scriptura (Part 1)

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Scriptural Authority: Solo Versus Sola Scriptura (Part 1)

Editorial Note: This excerpt from Dr. Nicholas Miller’s Reformation and the Remnant is republished here by permission from Pacific Press.


The story illustrates the principle of Sola Scriptura like no other. A single, solitary monk stands against the arrayed prestige of both religious and civil leaders of his world—including representatives of the Pope and the person of the Holy Roman Emperor himself. This monk—arguably the most influential figure of the last thousand years—has come to some important and unique insights about the meaning of belief and faith and the pathway to salvation. For him, it is a path that leads from the individual directly to Jesus Christ in the heavenly sanctuary, where grace and salvation is dispensed freely to the humble, repentant soul.

These deep, personal, spiritual truths carry earth-shaking implications for the powers of his day. Should his claims be true, this monk has found a shortcut bypassing the regime of church/state-mediated salvation that had dominated the western world for more than a thousand years. From the time Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the West, popes, prelates, and magistrates have, in the popular mind, controlled the pathway to heaven. These religious and civil leaders have conspired to set conditions, hand out penances, sell indulgences, and set all manner of human requirements for the soul to obtain peace with God.

Now this monk, with a simple set of biblical beliefs, is poised to sweep this entire medieval enterprise into irrelevance. He has arrived at his beliefs about Christ, grace, and faith on the basis of one other doctrine, a doctrine that has allowed him to pierce the medieval façade: the supreme authority of Scripture. Luther’s feet stood firmly on the foundation of Sola Scriptura, allowing him to uphold the other “sola” doctrines: sola fide, sola gratia, sola Christo—by faith alone, by grace alone, by Christ alone. He recognized that without Sola Scriptura, these doctrines were left to be re-defined and compromised by church tradition and papal teaching.

So at the Diet of Worms, in 1521, the monk Martin Luther made his stand on the doctrine of Scripture before the arrayed authorities of church and state. But he did so using words that might sound strange—maybe even heretical—to our modern ears and to our conceptions of Sola Scriptura. Listen to his closing argument at Worms:

Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments [“manifest reasoning,” some translations read] I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound in the word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do anything against the conscience.[i]

Much of this statement is familiar to us: “my conscience is bound by the word of God;” and “I cannot and will not recant;” these are all phrases that have become part of our collective Protestant cultural memory. But what about Luther’s willingness to be convinced of error not only by Scripture, but also by “clear arguments” or “manifest reasoning?” How does this appeal to reason square with his commitment to the authority of Scripture?

Luther’s reference to reason raises the question of what the doctrine of Sola Scriptura actually meant to the reformers. Did it mean that Scripture was the only place they could obtain knowledge about God and spiritual things? Did it mean that they would consult no other sources in relation to religious questions? What exactly is the proper relation between Scripture and other sources of truth about the world and God?

The term Sola Scriptura is not found in the Bible. But it is a good shorthand phrase to capture the doctrine of scriptural centrality and authority that the Protestant reformers developed from the Bible. It is highly instructive that at probably the most crucial moment of his life and ministry, when all hung in the balance, Luther clearly showed that he believed in Sola Scriptura—assessing truth “by Scripture alone”—and not what we might call Solo Scriptura, obtaining truth “from Scripture alone.”

Luther’s appeal to “manifest reason” was a simple recognition that God speaks through at least two methods or avenues: scriptural revelation and the created world of nature that we examine with the reason He has given to us. Correctly understood, these two worlds, Scripture and nature, God’s first and second books, will agree. Here is illustrated the difference between Solo Scriptura and Sola Scriptura. Solo Scriptura says that all religious knowledge and belief can come only from the Bible. Sola Scriptura says that all religious knowledge and belief must be filtered, or measured, by the Bible. It holds that the Bible is the ultimate standard of truth and that while all doctrines must be based securely on the Bible, that God can provide knowledge of Himself and certain kinds of truths through nature and human reason.[ii]

For some, this idea of two books of God seems a radical proposal that undermines the authority of Scripture.  Yet the Bible itself recognizes this truth: “For since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20). This echoes Psalm 19:1-3: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork. Day unto day utters speech, and night unto night reveals knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard.”

Most of what we know about prophecy relies on sources of history outside Scripture. We cannot arrive at the specific dates of 457 BC (the Persian decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem), 538 AD (the beginning of the 1,260-year period of medieval persecution), 1798 AD (the end of medieval papal supremacy), or 1844 AD (the beginning of the antitypical day of atonement), without reasoning from archaeology, secular history, and other extra-biblical sources.

This truth of natural revelation can certainly be abused, and people can use nature and reason to subvert and overthrow Scripture in their lives. Liberals who use science to deny the biblical creation account do this very thing. But the opposite can also happen. People can turn the text of Scripture into an idol to overthrow the living Word of God.

Consider the Pharisees in Christ’s time. They had the words of God in the Bible, but they did not have the Word of God in their hearts. Christ said of them, “You do not have His word abiding in you, because whom He sent, Him you do not believe. You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me” (John 5:38-40).

The Bible is the Word of God. But it is not the only Word of God. In a most remarkable passage, Ellen White indicates there are at least three different aspects or manifestations of the Word of God:  “The great storehouse of truth is the word of God—the written word, the book of nature, and the book of experience in God’s dealing with human life. Here are the treasures from which Christ’s workers are to draw.”[iii]

Of course, Christ Himself is the ultimate Word of God. If Christ speaks in a variety of ways, as the Bible says He does (through the written word, through nature, the Holy Spirit speaking to our consciences in our own experiences), we could actually use the Bible as a barrier to the voice of God, as the Jewish leaders did, or twist it for our own purposes, as the devil did in tempting Christ.  Of course, Christ will only communicate in these other ways in a manner consistent with Scripture, which always must remain the ultimate authority in our Christian walk.

Apart from God’s natural revelation through nature and reason, the reformers also recognized the value of using church councils and the church fathers as “patristic testimony” to biblical truth. Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, Zwingli, Bucer and other famed reformers recognized the usefulness of reading the Bible in the light of church history and of the church fathers as reliable witnesses for testing and checking their understanding of the Bible.[iv]

One historian has summarized Luther’s approach to the church fathers this way:

Luther appreciated the church fathers; indeed, he quoted them profusely in his works. He summarized his entire program by urging, ‘Back to the Bible, to Augustine and to the church fathers!’ The last two of these may surprise some readers who assumed that sola scriptura would eliminate them. But Luther’s extensive reading of Augustine’s works had prepared him to turn to the Scriptures as the ultimate religious authority. He came to see Scripture as superior to patristic writings, to be sure. Even so, Luther repeatedly cited the church fathers . . . to document his teaching.[v]


Of course, these witnesses, as we discussed in chapter 1, were subject to the Bible and were valid insofar as they supported and agreed with it. As Luther put it, “All the holy fathers, when they speak apart from the Scriptures, are as fallible as anyone else.” He used the church fathers to show that his own views of Scripture were not entirely peculiar or of new invention, but he insisted that he would “take their [the fathers’] books and go with them to Christ and his Word as the touchstone and compare the two.”[vi]

Luther’s colleague Philip Melanchthon had a very similar view. He said, “We know that what has been set forth in the Canonical Books is the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. We do not know that what is decided by the councils is the doctrine of the Holy Spirit unless it agrees with Scripture.”[vii]  Melanchthon also made clear that while other subordinate authorities existed, all doctrine must be based and rooted in Scripture alone. “Articles of faith must be judged simply in accordance with the canon of Holy Scripture. What has been put forth outside Scripture must not be held as an article of faith. Establishing doctrine,” Melanchthon declares, “belongs to ‘Scripture alone.’”[viii]

Many other reformers, including Ulrich Zwingli, Johannes Oecolampadius, John Calvin, and Martin Bucer also quoted church fathers and councils.  At the same time, they made clear that Scripture is the ultimate authority, and that these other sources should be accepted only if they agree with Scripture. Thus, Scripture was the sole infallible authority. They also asserted that Scripture is the sole foundation and basis for church doctrine. In other words, no doctrine or church ritual could be instituted that was not rooted and based in Scripture.[ix]

One helpful way to compare the authority of Scripture and other “witnessing” or “aiding” authority, such as history, reason, church councils, and fathers, is to consider the difference between a norming norm and a formative norm. A norm is a rule or standard. A norming norm would be a rule or standard that rules all others, which is the role the Bible plays. A formative norm is a source of authority that helps form and fill out a norming norm.  Such formative norms might be history, reason, and our own experiences as well as that of other believers.

The doctrine of Christ’s first coming and the timing of his baptism and crucifixion are set out in Scripture. However, the prophecies that assert these truths, the normative norms, are complete only when they are filled in with extra-biblical historical facts about the year that the decree to rebuild and restore Jerusalem was made.  Likewise, we have a basic outline of church order in the New Testament, deacons, elders, and overseers (similar to our deacons, elders, pastors and conference and union presidents), but our community of believers can fill in the blanks based on its experience to create other offices, such as church secretary, treasurer, and religious liberty leader.

We can use basic information and facts from history and nature to fill out and interpret biblical truths and teachings as long as we always recognize the superiority of the biblical source.  The church’s pragmatic rule-making should not become new scripture; the church manual should not be mistaken for a new part of the canon.

But it is unavoidable to bring our reason and experience to Scripture.  Even simple rules of scriptural interpretation like, “the Bible should be read literally unless it is clearly using symbolism,” make sense only if we have a good grasp from our experience in nature about what is literal and what is symbolic. We can treat seven-headed dragons and winged lions as symbols because our experience with history and nature tells us that these are not real. In this sense, we are using experience and reason to help “form” or understand the normative teachings of Scripture. Experience and reason are not authorities over or alongside Scripture, but they operate in support of it, and are always subject to its over-riding authority.

Two hundred years after Luther and Calvin, reformer John Wesley put into a clear and helpful formula how these various sources of truth relate to each other. His model is sometimes called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, and it relates four items to each other:  Scripture, reason, experience, and tradition. The scriptural stool might be a more accurate name for it, as “quadrilateral” gives a sense that all the parts are equal, and neither Wesley nor the earlier Protestant reformers believed that. All elements were subject to the “norming norm” of Scripture, and all doctrine needed to be rooted in scripture.

Thus, while other elements could flesh out or inform a doctrine, the doctrine itself must have its basis in Scripture.  Christ himself was clear that the tradition of the community did not have equal authority with the commandment of God.  He criticized the Pharisees who found fault with his disciples for not engaging in ceremonial washings.  Christ accused the Pharisees of “teaching for doctrines” merely the “commandments” or “traditions” of men.  (Mk. 7:7-9).  The creation of doctrine based on human sources would lead inevitably to a clash with God’s teachings, thus “making the word of God of none effect through your tradition.”  (Mk. 7:13).

This model illustrates both Sola Scriptura (all doctrines must be solely based on infallible Scripture) and Prima Scriptura (Scripture is primary over the secondary authorities of reason, experience, and tradition that contribute to the shaping and understanding of scriptural doctrine). These two ideas do not need to be, as some would suggest, in opposition to each other.  Rightly understood, they are complementary.

A further complementary element of the reformers’ Sola Scriptura teaching, one also practiced by Wesley and the other reformers, is captured in the phrase “Tota Scriptura.” This conveys the idea that all relevant Scripture should be brought to bear on a teaching or topic, and thus Scripture should be used to interpret itself.  This principle can be seen in Christ’s own use of scripture, when on the road to Emmaus, “beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.”  (Lk. 24:27).

While much time and effort is spent defending and arguing about sola and prima scriptura in the church today, it is actually tota scriptura that may be the most overlooked and undervalued part of the scripture principle.  We live in an age of specialization, and the specializing tendency has hit the field of biblical studies in a dramatic fashion.  No longer is someone merely a biblical scholar, as one might be in the days of Luther, Calvin, or even Elle White.  Rather, one specializes in the Old Testament, or the New Testament, or systematic theology, or early church.

There is nothing wrong with these divisions per se.  A world of increasing knowledge requires a breaking down and sharing of tasks among scholars.  If we allow these divisions, however, to become barriers to cooperation, they can lead scholars to become unable to bring all of scripture to bear on particular topics.  This danger has in fact been recognized in the larger world of biblical studies, as shown by the name of a recent book from Oxford University called The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies. The author, biblical scholar Michael Legaspi, has convincingly argued that the tendency of the scientific mind-set of the Enlightenment to break down topics and entities into their constituent parts to study and understand them, when applied to Scripture, undermined the overall message and authority of Scripture.[x]

Christian scholars and thinkers must resist this specializing, fragmenting tendency, and be willing to draw from throughout Scripture, even if their area of specialty may be some sub-piece of it.  This is especially important for Adventist scholars, as studying the books of Daniel and Revelation, where our prophetic message and identity lies, requires the use of all of Scripture, both New and Old Testaments, as well as history and archeology, to fully comprehend.  The weakening of some of our prophetic views in recent years may be attributed to an overly academic, specialized approach to Scripture.  In our struggle to maintain sola and prima scriptura, we cannot overlook our need to re-affirm and implement the truth of Tota Scriptura.

The full scriptural principle of the reformers then becomes expressed in the three phrases of Sola Scriptura, Prima Scriptura, and Tota Scriptura, as described in the chart below.[xi]

The Three Part Protestant Principle of Scriptural Authority

The real danger faced by those who adhere to Solo Scriptura (the view that study about God and religious truths begins, ends, and consists only of reading Scripture) is truncating or even denying these complementary principles in theory, especially that of Prima Scriptura, but actually secretly using them in practice. Even the most hardened, verbal-dictation fundamentalists actually use reason, experience, and the witness of other Christians, in interpreting and applying Scripture. If they did not, they would carry out all the literal commands of Scripture—sacrificial and ritual laws of the Old Testament, Christ’s instructions to cut off hands and pluck out eyes, and certainly Paul’s injunctions to not marry and for women to wear hats in church.

The absence of these practices in even the most hardline fundamentalist churches indicates the use of a certain amount of reason, reflection, and consideration of church history and modern culture. As these aspects are often denied in theory, their practice is often carried out unreflectively, and thus poorly. People think they are reading only Scripture, when they are smuggling in elements of their own reason, experience, and even tradition, shaped by their own cultures and backgrounds.

Most importantly, the notion of Solo Scriptura is not supported by Scripture itself. This is a very important point, as just because the reformers and Wesley used the quadrilateral, or scriptural stool, does not make it biblical. We have given some evidence of Scripture’s use of other sources of information above.  But it is important to examine the biblical verses that support the various supporting legs of the Scriptural stool.

Editorial Note: In part 2 of this series, Dr. Miller examines the Biblical basis for the “supporting legs of the Scriptural stool.”



[i] Quoted in Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church Vol VII: Modern Christianity, The German Reformation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1910, reprinted in 1994), 304-305.

[ii] Nobody really claims to believe “solo scriptura,” but they apply “sola scriptura” as though they did.  The difference between the two phrases is not meaningful in the Latin, but the English translation captures the idea of a solo performer versus a leading performer with accompanying and backup musicians.

[iii]  (COL 125.2)

[iv] Alister E. McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1999), 156.

[v] James R. Payton, Jr., Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010), 138.

[vi] Quoted in Ibid., 139.

[vii] Ibid., 143.

[viii] Quoted in Ibid., 145.

[ix] Ibid., 148-157;

[x] Michael C. Legaspi, The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010), 3-10.

[xi] See, McGrath, Reformation Thought, 151-160; Sola, Tota, and Prima Scriptura appear to be terms coined by historians looking back on the period of the early reformers.  But much as the word “trinity” is not found in the Bible but the idea is, the concept underlying these terms are certainly found in the writings, confessions, and statements of belief of various reformers and reforming groups.  A good example is found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, written in 1647 by British Puritans.  They declared the Sola Scriptura principle in Ch. 1.6:  “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 consequences may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or tradition of men.”  Then, in Ch. 9, they set down the Tota principle:  “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture . . . it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.”  Finally, in Ch. 1.6 & 10, they asserted the Prima principle: “there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and the 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,” and in 10, “the Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.”  Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. III (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 603-605.

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About the author


Nicholas Miller, J.D., Ph.D., is an attorney and director of the Lake Union Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department, as well as professor of church history at the Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University. Dr. Miller has argued many church/state cases in state and federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.