The issue of sola scriptura is an important one in Protestant thought. But what that concept means is still an area of confusion. James Payton, in his book Getting the Reformation Wrong, devotes an entire chapter to what the Reformers meant by sola scriptura. One of the first things that fascinated me was to learn that this discussion was not new to the Reformation. Payton notes that “theologians and canon lawyers had already been arguing about the question for almost two hundred years by the dawn of the sixteenth century.” (132 Payton refers the reader to the discussion in The Harvest of Medieval Theology by Heiko Oberman, chapter 11 “Holy Writ and Holy Church”) As Payton surveys the issue in the thought of the Reformers a couple of things become clear:

(1)   “For Luther, sola scriptura did not imply that everyone could thus legitimize his own understand of Scripture. . . Sola scriptura did not invite a free-for-all approach to Scripture in which any and all had the right to assert its authority to substantiate whatever insights they claimed to have attained from it.” (138)

(2)   “Sola Scriptura thus meant for Luther that Scripture was the only unquestioned religious authority. It did not mean that Scripture was the only religious authority—as has often been assumed or misunderstood in subsequent Protestantism.” (142)

(3)   “ . . . Melanchton repudiated those who claim to follow Scripture but show no interest to stand with the consensus of the faithful through the ages, preferring to posit their new insights instead.” (147)

(4)   “Bucer urged that, among other questions, a candidate for ordination should be asked ‘whether he firmly believes all the canonical Scriptures acknowledged by the early Church according to the canon of Irenaeus, Origen, Eusebius and Jerome’; ‘whether he accepts the three Creeds, Apostles’, Nicene and ‘Athanasian’, as scriptural and therefore worthy of undoubting faith’; and ‘whether he holds that any works produced subsequent to the canonical Scriptures, of whatever content or origin, must be tested by the faithful and measured by the Scriptures themselves, and believed and accepted only if shown to be derived from the actual Scriptures: yet nonetheless that the writings of the early saints and the orthodox Fathers are to be received with respect.” (153, Emphasis Payton’s)

(5)   “Sola Scriptura has also been misused by some to defend the right of private judgment, as if this assertion of the Reformation legitimized a freedom to come to one’s own conclusion on religious matters. Seen in context, such a claim has little to do with the Reformation and far more to do with the freewheeling independence of post-Enlightenment individualism. The subjectivism entailed in such an approach was a reproach thrown in Luther’s face. He did not welcome, approve or embrace it; rather, he repudiated it. He found in the clear teaching of Scripture—teaching set forth by the church fathers, the ancient creeds and the doctrinal decrees of the ecumenical councils—the assurance that he was not following his own private opinions. Too often in subsequent centuries, sola scriptura has been used as an excuse for a subjectivistic attitude which none of the Reformers allowed as responsible.” (158)

So I was a bit frustrated when I read point 47 in Christian Smith’s book How to Go From Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps. Point 47 reads: “Realize that the doctrine of sola Scriptura is itself not biblical but, ironically, is received and believed as a sacred (Protestant) church tradition.” Now I don’t mind if Smith wants to object to sola scriptura but I expected he would raise objections to the theory as it’s properly understood and not its common misunderstanding. In two places he states “the doctrine of sola scriptura: “the Bible alone and no other human tradition as authority” and “that the Bible is and should be the only and sufficient authority guiding the beliefs and practices of God’s people, to the exclusion of sacred Church tradition.” (83 & 89) What I find curious is that Smith repeatedly refers to Payton’s book as a good resource for understanding the Reformation. So I know he has read it and yet he continues to perpetuate the common misunderstanding of sola scriptura. Only late in the discussion of point 47 does he acknowledge something close to the proper understanding when he says,

“At this point, some Protestants may admit the necessity of authoritative church tradition in principle, but still reject Catholic sacred tradition. They may do this because, they claim, some Catholic traditions not only go beyond what the Bible explicitly teaches—which they admit in principle to be okay—but actually, they believe, positively violate some clear biblical teachings. In short, sacred tradition that is consistent with the Bible is one thing, but tradition that contradicts the Bible is another.” (91)

Smith later deals with some of the biblical support for certain Catholic traditions but he says this concession is “an enormous step away from evangelicalism’s Bible-onlyism.” Again, I think this misrepresents sola scriptura as understood by the major Protestant Reformers.