Scripture and Tradition in the Reformation

One of the central tenets of the Reformation was sola scriptura—by Scripture alone—meaning Scripture is the final authority on all issues. Only those Church traditions that find their root in Scripture were embraced by the Reformers.

Topics: History | The Bible

Sola scriptura,” meaning “by Scripture alone,” was one of the battle cries that echoed throughout the Reformation of the 16th century. The Protestant Reformation, in perhaps the most primary way, was a revolution of one book: the Bible. A fresh return to the Scriptures brought with it a reinfusion of biblical theology and a resurgence of the gospel message. Yet, with the recovery of Scripture as the primary authority of the Church, it also brought forth another question: what then is the proper place of Church tradition?

Reformers wanted to return the Church to the idea that Scripture, not tradition, was the true revelation of God. The Church should conform to the commands of Scripture, not the other way around. But, contrary to what many may think, the Reformers didn’t want to do away with all Church traditions. Tradition and Scripture didn’t need to be at odds. The way they saw it, affirming the central place of Scripture in the life of the Church and the spirituality of her people actually was Church tradition.  

The Bible is the Word of God for the people of God; it should be the final rule and pattern for the spiritual life of God’s people. And the history of the Church has demonstrated that Scripture is transformative—leading people to communion with the living God. However, in the years immediately preceding the Reformation, the proclamation of Scripture and proper preaching of God’s Word gradually dissolved so that the Bible was being used mainly in its liturgical, Latin form rather than the common language of the people. In many ways, it had become subservient to tradition in the Church, when it should have been the other way around. The Church had come to place Tradition (note the capital “T”) over Scripture, viewing the authority of the Church (manifested in the person of the Pope) as the very word of God Himself. This “book of the people” no longer belonged to the people of the book, which is why recovering Scripture’s authority over tradition became so pivotal within the Reformation.

Sola scriptura was not an excuse for the Reformers to remove themselves from reading the Church Fathers and medieval theologians; it was a way to verify their place among the theological and exegetical traditions of the Church. Early Church teachings always held to Scripture as their final authority, and the Reformers saw no difference between themselves and the faithful who had come before them, defending the faith and asserting the primacy of Scripture among the people of God. The Reformers didn’t come up with some new idea or understanding of Scripture, but in recognizing the history of their faith, they simply looked to the faithful men and women who preceded them. These were Christians who, throughout the centuries, affirmed the divine inspiration and authority of Scripture.

Sola scriptura does not mean Scripture as the sole authority; it means Scripture as the final authority.

Martin Luther wrote On the Councils and the Church to prove that he wasn’t simply tossing out 1,400 years of Church history. In this treatise, and other works of Reformers, a high regard for the Church fathers emerges. One such man the Reformers looked to was Augustine of Hippo, who later became known as the “Doctor of Grace.” Augustine was so crucial to the Reformation’s cause that one theologian described the movement as an “Augustinian renaissance.” In Augustine’s writings, Reformers saw agreement between Church tradition and the proper interpretation of Scripture in regard to salvation. From Romans 5, Augustine asserted the inability of man to obey God apart from His supernatural work of grace working in one’s heart to bring about love for God and His commands. “The reign of death is only destroyed in any man by the Savior’s grace,” Augustine argued. Reformers noted that such a view, which was the proper reading of Paul and other New Testament writings, was absent or had become extremely muddied in late medieval theology.

The Church had embraced many traditions the Reformers saw as unbiblical, so they helped correct the unbiblical distinction between clergy, the laity (what we would call non-staff members of the church) and the sacramental system. Reformers argued that clergy did not possess a higher spiritual status than the laity, simply a different calling. All believers, as Martin Luther strongly argued, were equally capable of glorifying God in their vocation. In his work, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther made the following declaration: “The works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ on whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks…all works are measured before God by faith alone.” Reformers also viewed the Roman Catholic sacramental system, consisting in various acts which provide God’s grace as administered by the Church, as removing the understanding of the “priesthood of all believers” (cf. 1 Pet. 2:5-9). Reformers such as John Calvin argued that the system of sacraments functionally replaced the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. Not only was the Reformation a recovery of Scripture, but a reinvigoration of the laity and their calling to glorify God in their daily lives while seeking to rely on the Spirit’s work.

Yet, the Reformers were not wary of all Church traditions. There were many traditions rooted in Scripture they affirmed, such as the “Rule of Faith,” or regula fidei. The Rule of Faith is the apostolic summary of the Bible’s redemptive storyline and asserts that any interpretation of Scripture that deviates from the original apostolic declaration is suspect. Works such as John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion were considered summaries of the redemptive message of God found in Scripture and confirmed in the Rule of Faith. Similarly, Reformers affirmed and promoted the use of early creeds, such as the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed, among others, which summarized Christian beliefs from Scripture.

So, what do we learn from the Reformers in regard to Scripture and tradition? The rich heritage and tradition of the Church is not something to cast aside. Scripture is the lifeblood of the Church, and its early traditions were shaped and formed by belief in the primacy of the revealed Word of God. Yet, no tradition rises above the final authority of Scripture. Sola scriptura does not mean Scripture as the sole authority; it means Scripture as the final authority. No creed is valid without being rooted in the Bible because the Church and its people can err, but God’s Word does not. We are to conform our worship, our theology and our daily lives to Scripture, not the other way around.

In the shifting sands of cultural whims, the Church should always stand upon the unwavering foundation of God’s Word, recognizing the tradition of theological reflection which confirms the validity of Scripture as our best and final authority. In the crucible of the Reformation debates on Scripture and tradition, this was the most valuable principle to be recovered.

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