Sola Scriptura—What Does it Mean, and Why is it so Important?
Sola scriptura is a term that originated during the Protestant Reformation. It represents the way many Christians view the Bible and its authority.
While the idea is simple enough, there is so much more to sola scriptura than its basic definition.
In this post, we’ll look at
- What is sola scriptura?
- How sola scriptura was born
- How sola scriptura is emphasized in churches today
Let’s start by digging into what sola scriptura means and what it covers.
What is sola scriptura?
This Latin phrase literally means “by Scripture alone” or “Scripture only.” It was the battle cry of the Protestant Reformation, which began in 1517.
Contrary to the teachings of those days (that whatever “the Church” commanded was on the same level as, or more important than, the Bible), sola scriptura teaches that the Bible is the only infallible source Christians can rely on. Other extra-biblical books, such as the Book of Jasher or the Apocrypha, might be useful for study. But the canonical Bible is the ultimate standard for spiritual matters.
To help this concept be defined, understood, and applied, it was divided into 4 areas:
1. The sufficiency of Scripture. The Bible is a divine book; sola scriptura maintains that it is all we need to build our framework of faith.
2. The authority of Scripture. The Bible has the last word on spiritual matters and contains the necessary principles to discern right and wrong.
3. The clarity of Scripture. The Bible’s essential teachings, such as Jesus, faith, or judgment of the righteous and wicked, are clear and easily understood. But this doesn’t mean everything in the Bible is easy to understand—it’s still a complex collection of different authors and styles of writing. But as far as the big picture goes, it’s clear what ultimately has happened, what we’re up against, and what we’re aiming for in the future.
4. The interpretation of Scripture. When we don’t understand something, we can turn to other verses to help us understand it.1
Sola scriptura is central to Christians’ beliefs and priorities. If other teachings are held higher than the Bible, we can lose sight of what the gospel is really about.
And this concept has been emphasized throughout Scripture itself.
Jesus confirms sola scriptura in Mark 7:5-13, when He calls out the Pharisees for putting their own traditions on the same level as Scripture.
The apostle Paul, in the New Testament, also warns Timothy in his letters that the church members should look to Scripture only, and avoid false doctrines that go against the Bible (1 Timothy 1:3; 2 Timothy 3:13-17).
In his epistles, Paul continuously tells readers to rely on Scripture only—at that time, the Old Testament—and Jesus’ teachings (1 Corinthians 4:6; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; Colossians 2:8; Ephesians 2:20).
How sola scriptura was born
The concept of sola scriptura was rediscovered during the Protestant Reformation. This began with Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517.
Previously a monk, Martin Luther became convinced that the Catholic Church, the only Christian church at the time, was corrupt. It had gone far astray from the early church and the Bible.
His 95 Theses was a list of disagreements he had with the way the Church had been doing things, and he felt they conflicted with Scripture. Since he went back to the Bible to find the real answers, this was the basis for the belief of sola scriptura.
The 95 Theses were meant to reform the Church, but they turned out to be the spark that grew into the Protestant Reformation.
Luther spread his newfound beliefs around Germany and Europe. This infuriated the Roman Catholic Church at the time. But as he read the Bible further, he came to believe other common truths most Protestants hold today.
He defended sola scriptura at the famous Diet of Worms in 1521:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures, or by evident reason . . . I am bound by the scriptural evidence adduced by me, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot, I will not recant anything, for it is neither safe nor right to act against one’s conscience. God help me. Amen.2
This speech got him excommunicated from—or kicked out of—the Church.
But the Catholic Church could not squelch the Reformation by excommunicating its leader. The revival had already spread. Other religious leaders like John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli soon joined.
And while Luther was the author of the Reformation, he was not the first to spot discrepancies between what the Church said and what the Bible said.
John Wycliffe, called the “morning star” of the Reformation, lived in the 1300s and was a priest of the Church. He came to a similar conclusion as Luther.3
Wycliffe was not excommunicated, but after he died, the Church had his bones dug up and burned, condemning him as a heretic.4
Another earlier reformer and sola scriptura believer was Jan Hus. In the late 1300s, he was a philosophy professor at the University of Prague. Here he was introduced to Wycliffe’s beliefs. He began to study the Bible and came to the same conclusion as Luther would over one hundred years later: the Church was corrupt.5
The Church didn’t like that and Hus was tried for heresy and eventually burned at the stake.6
Then Luther came along.
With the beginning of the Reformation, people threw off the chains of church tradition that had become tainted by human agenda. They sought to make their own churches, based on the Bible alone, or sola scriptura.
These churches were all called Protestant churches, and many denominations exist today, including Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Seventh-day Adventists.
Sola scriptura in churches today
Most Christian churches still firmly support sola scriptura. While the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church hold the Bible equal with their church traditions and doctrines, most Protestant churches uphold the doctrine of sola scriptura.
Adventists and sola scriptura
The first of the Seventh-day Adventists’ Fundamental Beliefs proclaims sola scriptura: “The Holy Scriptures are the supreme, authoritative, and the infallible revelation of His will. They are the standard of character, the test of experience, the definitive revealer of doctrines, and the trustworthy record of God’s acts in history.”7
While the writings of Ellen White, a co-founder of the Adventist Church, are quoted or emphasized frequently within Adventism, they are not to be held on level with or above the Bible.
Ellen White herself wrote in the Review and Herald:
“The Bible, and the Bible alone, is to be our creed, the sole bond of union; all who bow to this Holy Word will be in harmony.”8
And quite often throughout her writings she would say things like, “I recommend to you, dear reader, the Word of God as the rule of your faith and practice.”9 She was most interested in pointing people back toward the Bible if she noticed some tendency to stray from original Scriptural principles.
There are many excellent books available today that can teach us helpful things about life, spirituality, health, relationships, and more. But any of these books, including those by Ellen White, are tested against the principles of the Bible. Alignment with Scripture is key…because the Bible alone is the authority.
(Adventists don’t have their own Bible, either. They use the canonical Bible like most other Christians.)
Sola scriptura in our own lives
Claiming sola scriptura means we look to the Bible as the supreme authority. But it doesn’t mean we can’t read any other books, or even that we shouldn’t. It just means that as far as our beliefs and salvation are concerned, the Bible is the standard above anything else.
For example, the Bible doesn’t teach us how to fix a car, start a business, or invent the wheel.
The Bible gives us guiding principles to govern our thoughts and actions as we learn how to invent that gadget or start that business.
You might use a cookbook to teach you how to make a fancy meal, but the Bible teaches you to serve it with grace and a heart for others.
You might read a book on how to start a business, but the Bible outlines the proper attitude of honesty and integrity in your business.
The principle of sola scriptura establishes our belief framework. And that helps us appropriately discern what to do with the information we take in from things we experience. Anything we see, read, watch, hear, or feel can be measured within the framework Scripture gives us.
It helps us ask ourselves, Is this idea in harmony with the Bible’s principles for Christian behavior?
“Test all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21, NKJV).
Our human minds build frames of reference for everything. It’s how we learn to make sense of the world around us. And when we use the Bible alone, or sola scriptura, as our ultimate frame of reference, that means we seek to align our lives with the priorities God Himself emphasizes—compassion, love, humility, joy, peace, and mercy (Matthew 5; Galatians 5:22-26).
- Geisler, Norman L. and MacKenzie, Ralph E., “What is Sola Scriptura?” Christian Research Institute, https://www.equip.org/articles/what-is-sola-scriptura/. [↵]
- Wright, Shawn. “Luther’s Battle for Sola Scriptura,” https://equip.sbts.edu/publications/magazine/magazine-issue/fall-2017-vol-85-no-2/luthers-battle-for-sola-scriptura/. [↵]
- Kilcrease, Jack, “Reformers Prior to the Reformation,” https://lutheranreformation.org/history/reformers-prior-reformation/. [↵]
- Ibid. [↵]
- Ibid. [↵]
- Ibid. [↵]
- “Official Beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church,” https://www.adventist.org/beliefs/ [↵]
- White, Ellen G., Selected Messages, Vol. 1, p. 416. [↵]
- Ibid., p. 78. [↵]
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