‘Scripture Alone’: Re-Affirming the ‘Material Principle’ of the Reformation

By Dr. Cornelis Venema 

If there is one story that many people associate with the Reformation in the sixteenth century, it is the story of Luther’s appearance before the Diet of Worms in 1521. Convened by Charles V, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, the Diet (official assembly) took place in order to judge Luther and his teachings. Prior to the meeting of the Diet, Pope Leo X had issued a papal bull or decree that termed Luther’s teaching a “poisonous virus,” demanding that he recant within sixty days or be excommunicated.

When Luther appeared under escort before the Diet, he was confronted with the choice: either recant or suffer the consequence. After asking for 24 hours to consider his response, he appeared before a large crowd and offered the following statement: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me. Amen.”

With these words, Luther gave powerful testimony to what is often termed the “material principle” of the Reformation: the Spirit of God speaking in and with the Scriptures is the final, supreme standard for the faith and practice of the church of Jesus Christ. Luther anticipated a similar confession of the Reformed churches in Switzerland during the early period of the Reformation: “The holy Christian Church, whose only Head is Christ, is born of the Word of God, and abides in the same, and listens not to the voice of a stranger” (Article 1, The Ten Conclusions of Berne, 1528).

In commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we need to remember what this affirmation of sola Scriptura means, and does not mean, for the church of Jesus Christ today.

First, it means that the church must cultivate a healthy respect for the authority of the Triune God who speaks in and through the Scriptures. Notice Luther’s words carefully—“it is not safe.” Luther’s answer was not a testimony in the first place to his courage (though it was that, for sure). Luther’s answer was in the first place a testimony to the greatness of the God who speaks in Scripture. He was aware of a greater danger than suffering at the hands of those who called him to recant. And that danger was to suffer God’s displeasure at his disobedience to the Word He had spoken!

Second, it means that the supreme authority for, and test of, the church’s preaching and teaching is always the Word of God in Scripture. Though the decisions of church councils and assemblies are important and instructive, they do not stand alongside of, or in addition to, what is taught in Scripture. As the Reformed confessions uniformly insist, church councils may err but the Word of God does not err. When the church teaches anything contrary to or goes beyond what is taught in the Word of God, it abuses its authority and assumes a power that it does not possess.

Third, it does not mean that Reformed churches have no respect for, and therefore make little or no use of, “traditional” ways of reading and interpreting the Scriptures. The Reformation view of sola Scriptura is not to be confused with a doctrine of what some have called “solo Scriptura” (the Scriptures apart from and without any regard for the way the church has historically understood them). The Reformers of the sixteenth century (as well as Reformed churches today) had a high regard for the traditional interpretation of Scripture, particularly as this came to expression in the confessions. Theologians have a fancy way of expressing this, when they distinguish between the Scriptures as the “norm that norms” (norma normans) and the confessions as the “norm that is normed” (norma normata). The churches’ confessions have real authority, though in subordination to the higher authority of Scripture to which they must be conformed.

And fourth, this slogan means little if it is merely a matter of “sloganeering.” You can say sola Scriptura as often as you wish, but it means little or nothing if it does not shape the way preachers treat the Scriptures in their sermons, or the way hearers receive the Word as the living voice of Christ. As Calvin put it, Jesus Christ “holds out his arms to receive us, as often as the gospel is preached to us. … Let us assure ourselves that God offers himself to us in the person of His only Son, when He sends us pastors and teachers.”

This publication was adapted from the August 2017 edition of The Messenger