Will the Real “Sola Scriptura” Please Stand Up!

This is an excursus that our pastor wrote for a study on the New Testament epistle of Jude.


Excursus: Will the Real “Sola Scriptura” Please Stand Up!

To make his theological points, Jude liberally referred to parts of the Old Testament, which his readers viewed as authoritative.  He called on such authority to show that he was not simply asserting his own opinion, but the teachings of the Church, that which “was once for all delivered to the saints.”

However, what makes us uncomfortable about Jude’s references are those he includes from the Assumption of Moses and 1 Enoch, both of which are not Scripture.  Yet, Jude quoted and referenced them as if they were Scripture–for he made no distinction between his biblical quotes and his non-biblical quotes!  So, what are we to make of them?

First, we must not deny that Jude, in some way, saw the Assumption of Moses and 1 Enoch as authoritative, for that’s how he referenced those works.  The question is why were they authoritative?

Perhaps, this may help.  The New Testament writers referenced other works in three ways.

  1. They referenced the Old Testament, including the Apocrypha, simply as the authoritative sources they were.
  2. They referenced other, non-biblical writings that had some authority in the Church, based on Church tradition, even though those books were not Scripture.  That is what Jude did when he referenced the Assumption of Moses and 1 Enoch.
  3. New Testament writers also referenced secular works simply to help make a point.  Those works had no authority outside the point being made.  That is what Paul does when he preaches at the Areopagus, in Acts 17.

Jude simply acted from a worldview that did not see Scripture as the only authority.  That’s why he could reference the Assumption of Moses and 1 Enoch as he did.  But Jude was not the only New Testament writer with such a worldview.  The Apostle Paul also saw a role for tradition as authoritative in some way.

–          1 Corinthians 11:2: Paul writing to the church in Corinth, “I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold to the traditions just as I delivered [“traditioned”] them to you.”

–          2 Thessalonians 2:15: Paul writing to the church in Thessalonica, “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions you were taught, whether by our spoken word or by our letter.”

So, what then are we to make of our Lutheran principle of “sola scriptura”?  Today, a different version of “sola scriptura” has taken hold, which asserts that Scripture alone is the only authority in the Church.  Although, at first blush, that sounds fine, a problem exists with such a view–that view contradicts Scripture and is itself unscriptural!  In other words, that distortion of “sola scriptura” is a man-made tradition that goes against the Scriptures it is meant to uphold.

Yet, no problem exists if we understand “sola scriptura” in its original context–that Scripture alone is the final authority.  That worldview does not contradict Scripture.  That is also the worldview in our Lutheran Confessions.  Our Formula of Concord reads:

We believe, teach, and confess that the only rule and norm according to which all teachings, together with all teachers, should be evaluated and judged are the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures of the Old and of the New Testament alone. (Ep, Summary, 1)

Because Scripture is “the only rule and norm” that we are to use to evaluate and judge all teachings, our Confessions can assert that a teaching that originated from within the Church (such are the Nicene Creed) can be authoritative.  Our Confessions could only do that because they viewed the traditions of the Church passed down to us as authoritative–in a secondary way–which Scripture is still to evaluate and judge.

Since nothing in the Creed contradicts Scripture, the Creeds, based on Church tradition, become authoritative for us.  Nonetheless, no Church tradition may ever override Scripture.  That is the difference between the real “sola scriptura” and the caricature of it that exists today.

Seeing Scripture as the final authority instead of the only authority is what our Lutheran Confessions teach.  It also allows a role for the Church that Scriptures teaches.  The Apostle Paul, writing to Pastor Timothy, told him that “the Church of the living God, [is] the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).  Note that the Scriptures do not say that Scripture is the pillar and foundation of the truth.  Yet, if Scripture taught that Scripture was the only authority, then Paul could not make such a statement about the Church.

When we see the roles God has given to His Church and to His Scriptures, we see a divine balance.  The Church has a teaching and preaching role to be the foundation of the truth.  This prevents each person from inventing his own truth and interpretations from the Scriptures.  The Apostle Peter wrote, “You should know this: no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20).  This also keeps a “me and Jesus” approach from dominating one’s own faith life at the expense of the Communion of the Saints.

Yet, by having such a prominent judging and evaluating role for the Scriptures, they then can serve as a correcting rod when the Church errs.  Those within the Church then act as “the Berean Jews … for they received the word with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11).