Luther and Sola Scriptura

Robert Ritchie said on my latest post on sola Scriptura:

Reading through your Sola Scriptura tagged posts, the thing that has most struck me is that the official doctrine of Sola Scriptura (i.e. a denial of (2)) is so obviously problematic that the most thoughtful of Protestants–people like C.S. Lewis, Alvin Plantinga, and Timothy Keller–would never explicitly defend it. Instead, as you have said “In response, Protestants (ironically) violate sola Scriptura, and try and defend the doctrine on the basis of logic, the writings of the Reformers, misinformed early Church history, and appeals to an interior light of the Holy Spirit.” And they do this, it seems to me, because to do otherwise would be manifestly absurd.

My question, then, is do you know how this manifestly absurd doctrine arose historically?

My “barstool history” guess is that the reformers originally set out to reform the Catholic Church and did not object to the her authority in all its forms. One form they accepted was its ratification of the canon. That is, the reformers didn’t believe in sola scriptura per se.

Years later it became clear that the reformed churches were no longer involved in reformation as such, but that they had started churches at odds with Catholic authority. But the reformed churches depended on Catholic authority for the legitimacy they possessed. This situation gave rise to a terrible corollary for the reformers: either the Catholics were right or they were both wrong. But the reformers shrunk from this corollary by inventing the doctrine of sola scriptura.

This is all just a guess. But if it is true, showing that Protestant theology hinges on an ad hoc intellectual manuever would be a powerful Catholic apologetic. For, as Ronald Knox has said: “It is a mark of intellectual cowardice, to shrink from corollaries. God wouldn’t have given us an intellect, if he didn’t want us to think straight.”

So, given all the research that your posts show you to have done, I’ll turn to you to ask: Have you seen the real history of the doctrine?

The traditional understanding of sola Scriptura can be traced back to Luther, who is believed to have said at the Diet of Worms something to the effect of:

“Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scriptures or with open, clear and distinct grounds and reasoning—and my conscience is captive to the Word of God—then I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God.”

These may not have been his actual words (the earliest records are later, and at the start of a sort of hagiography of Luther as a modern saint). But almost certainly he said something to this effect.  In so doing, Luther was explaining that he wouldn’t listen to Church Councils, since he thought that they were contradictory.

Now, it’s immediately apparent, by Luther’s concession to Scripture or reason, that sola Scriptura isn’t workable in reality. But this is particularly true for the canon, as Luther himself realized.

Because he couldn’t accept a canon based off of a Church Council (Carthage) or papal confirmation of that council (Damasus’ ratification of Carthage’s canon), he tried to create a canon using just Scripture and reason. The result was that he discarded the Deuterocanon as non-Scriptural, and was clear that he denied the canonicity of Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation.

There’s a very good account, from a Protestant perspective, outlined here.  What’s disturbing is that the author of the post realized that Luther’s right: without a Church Council confirming the canon of Scripture, who’s to say which canon is right?  In Luther’s translation of the Bible, you’d find near the end of the New Testament these words:

“Up to this point we have had to do with the true and certain chief books of the New Testament. The four which follow have from ancient times had a different reputation.”

The four which followed – contrasted with the “true and certain chief books” – were James, Jude, Hebrews, and 2 Peter.
  • Luther denied that James was written by an Apostle, and said that whoever really wrote James “mangles the Scriptures and thereby opposes Paul and all Scripture. He tries to accomplish by harping on the law what the apostles accomplish by stimulating people to love. Therefore, I will not have him in my Bible to be numbered among the true chief books.” He also famously called this “an epistle of straw,” and claimed that James was “flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works.
  • His view of Hebrews was higher – that the Book should be honored, but that “to be sure, we cannot put it on the same level with the apostolic epistles.
  • Luther also denied the authenticity of Jude, saying that “Concerning the epistle of St. Jude, no one can deny that it is an extract or copy of St. Peter’s second epistle, so very like it are all the words.
  • Luther’s analysis of Revelation is very telling: “For myself, I think it approximates the Fourth Book of Esdras; I can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it. . . .Finally, let everyone think of it as his own spirit leads him. My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is neither taught nor known in it
So the four books ranged from ‘good book, but not Scripture’ (Hebrews) to ‘not even a good book’ (Revelation) to insinuations of outright forgery (Jude).
Internet Monk, the Evangelical site I draw virtually all of those quotations from, points out the obvious: no Evangelical publishing house in America, nor any Christian bookstore, would ever dream of stocking a Bible teaching those kinds of doctrines.  And that’s an important point to remember — that it wasn’t out of hatred of Scripture that Catholics burnt Luther’s Bible-trashing Bibles, but out of love of Scripture.  I have little doubt that if Luther were writing today, Evangelical bonfires would blaze with his writings.
Many Protestants “defend” Luther by arguing that he eventually reversed course on these views.  But that’s not particularly edifying, is it?  The founder of Protestantism denied, and then maybe recanted denying, four books of the Bible, after declaring that the Bible was to be the epicenter of Christian faith?  Is Luther going to fair better by being lukewarm than by being just cold to these Scriptures (Revelation 3:15-16)?
But the point isn’t to trash Luther.  My point is simply that without a Church, Luther was left unsure (at best) of the canon, and a result, rationalized the idea of different Christians having different canons of Scripture.  Go back to that commentary on Revelation – he’s got a relativistic idea that ‘Revelation may be fine for you, but not for me.’ Of course, when each Christian is free to construct their own canon from what they think the Spirit is telling them is Scripture, there’s literally no way to have Christian unity.  There’s also no coherent way to tell Christians not to embrace the Book of Mormon, which says in Moroni 10:4-5:

And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.

That approach is almost exactly the approach Luther seems to outline in his commentary on Revelation.  Everyone chooses the Scriptures which seem right to them, and then follows those Scriptures. I’ve argued before that Protestantism leads to relativism, and that’s what I meant by it.  As he made clear, Luther rejected James because he disagreed with what the Book of James said about justification.  What’s to stop someone else from rejecting Matthew and Luke because of what those Books say about the Virgin Birth?  Who, if anyone, can police this, and say “if you reject those Books, you’re no longer an orthodox Christian”?

So the problem of sola Scriptura was present from the start. Robert’s right, though, that Luther’s version of sola Scriptura isn’t what later Evangelicals would call by the same name.  Luther, in using reason, listened carefully to what the Church Fathers said.  He also retained a strong Catholic ethic.  I think it was Hilarie Belloc who argued that the early Reformers didn’t realize that they were forming a separate denomination, with both sides imagining that this conflict would sooner or later resolve, and everyone would carry on as a single Church.

But the theological ideas which Luther and his compatriots introduced can’t have that result.  If everyone’s free to make their own canon, it’s naive to assume they’re going to make the same one.  And if different groups of Christians have different canons, and no central Church structure which they listen to, of course they’re not going to end up as a united body.  There’s no way for them to determine who’s right or wrong on anything, unless you rely on something arbitrary like popular Christian consensus (which is the typical Protestant gauge for orthodoxy, if we’re being totally honest).


  1. Thanks Joe.

    I think we’re on the same page, but I’ll start with a little clarification on terminology:

    You’ve said before: “If you have to rely on anything besides Scripture to know the canon – papal declarations, conciliar declarations, Sacred Tradition, or even natural reason – then sola Scriptura’s starting premise is false. And therefore,sola Scriptura is false.”

    So it seems to me that Luther didn’t accept Sola Scriptura after all. Or, at least, he had a purely negative conception of it. I.e. that scripture was “alone” only insofar as nothing else possessed the authority to settle disputes on faith and morals.

    This is a far cry from Sola Scriptura in the positive (as well as negative), self-contradictory, Westminster Confession sense, namely:

    “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.”

    So, it seems to me that there has been a silent reformation of the reformation that nobody talks about.

    And, I must say, it seems to be a further move in the wrong direction. This is because, on Luther’s view, one might at least fend off the Catholic apologist by arguing that most Catholics can’t show you–by the light of pure reason–that the Church is Spirit-led. There is something of an “intellectual division of labor,” as J.J. Haldane puts it, in the Church. Similarly, there could be an intellectual division of labor in Protestant Churches and those inclined towards apologetics can show you which books are inspired.

    A problem, of course, is that you could never prove that each individual book is inspired without also proving that the Catholic Church is Spirit-led. But, at least, on Luther’s “Sola Scriptura”, Protestants would avoid the non-sensical circularity and self-contradiction that you pointed out in the original post.

    Thanks so much for your prompt response!

  2. Robert,

    I’d say that not just Luther, but all Protestants rely upon resources besides Scripture (like their God-given reason), even those who cling to the letter of Westminster. I agree with you about the movement in the wrong direction — the rise of intentionally irrational fideism in Protestantism has been thoroughly regrettable, and the sort of development which would likely have given Luther pause.

  3. If “all Protestants rely upon resources besides Scripture (like their God-given reason)” to define the canon, we should be able to ask them what reason they have for their definition of the canon. This opens the door for an apologetic, because:

    (1) All valid reasons for believing a book canonical (or inspired, infallible, etc.) must ultimately emanate from the authority of Christ.
    (2) The only reason for believing the books of the Bible canonical that ultimately emanates from the authority of Christ is that Christ gave the Church the authority to do so (and guaranteed its judgments on the matter)
    (3) Therefore, the authority of the Bible emanates from the authority of the Church

    I think I can safely assume that Protestants will accept (1), so I will do so here arguendo. The key premise, then, is (2). But, if a Protestant thinks (2) is false, he must give reasons for accepting the books he does accept and for rejecting the (uncountably many) other books someone might think inspired. And this reason must ultimately emanate from the authority of Christ. But there is no evidence that Christ ever gave a reason for accepting the canon that didn’t run through the authority of the Church. So, it seems that one should accept premise (2). The only escape I can imagine is something akin Calvin’s “internal witness of the Holy Spirit.” But isn’t Luther’s doubt about James, etc. sufficient evidence to refute the hypothesis that the Holy Spirit makes the canon clear to Christians? I think so.

  4. R.C. Sproul’s response to that argument is pretty disheartening. He acknowledged that without a Church capable of acting infallibly, you can’t have an infallible canon. So he declared that the Bible is a “fallible list of infallible Books.”

  5. That’s a nice little dilemma:

    (1) Either (a) there exists (or at least existed) a Church capable of acting infallibly or (b) we have a fallible collection of infallible books.
    (2) If (a), sola scriptura is false.
    (3) If (b), God has left his followers with an immensely difficult task of identifying truly inspired books, which even Luther struggled with. Despite this foundational difficulty, Jesus didn’t feel the need to speak about this task at all. Moreover, the chief author of the NT told us not to worry about the task because the church was the “pillar and foundation of truth.”
    (4) (3) is absurd
    (5) Therefore, sola scriptura is false.

    I especially like this because it makes your interlocutor focus on the real issue, i.e. whether the Church can speak infallibly, which should be obvious, but I fear often is forgotten.

    PS–This is the commenter previously known as “Bert Power”. I switched to my full name, finally.

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