Scripture Alone (Sola Scriptura)
"Bibel, Bubel, Babel." Such was the theology of the German enthusiast and radical Thomas Müntzer, in mockery of Luther's (and by extension the Reformers') view of Scripture and Authority. Theirs was the spirit of the word, as opposed the "dead letter." And in such an early mockery of Luther, we see the difference between the Reformation view of Scripture and one Anabaptist view of Scripture.
As the Reformation burst onto the scene, the question being asked about Luther is, "Who does he think he is?" Centuries of slow corrosion had given rise to the illusion that the Medieval Catholic Church was the mere continuation of the early apostolic church, and that there was no essential differences between the two. What was present in the late medieval era was nothing more and nothing less than what Jesus and the Apostles had always taught, or so it was believed. Who was this small German monk from an obscure town to question the Church, to question Christ and the Apostles? How dared he questioned what was always believed (or so it was thought) to be true? Who is Luther compared to the many scholars of the Church who had themselves studied the Scriptures, giants such as Thomas Aquinas, Peter Lombard, or the theologians of the Sorbonne? How could Luther be so confident he is right and the scholars wrong?
Thus, the question of authority came up as Luther faced the late medieval church. That is why the formal principle of the Reformation is the principle of Scripture Alone or Sola Scriptura. The question has never been whether tradition, creeds or the writings of theologians could be appealed to, but rather what was the final authority on matters of faith. Was it Scripture, as the Reformers taught, or was it Scripture and Tradition in some manner (the relationship of the two changed between Trent and Vatican II)? It is after all a common misunderstanding that the medieval Catholic church did not read Scripture. The common people did not, but the learned theologians of the medieval church did read Scripture, and commented on it. Luther's opponents appealed to Scripture as well, but Scripture as understood by the church. For us today, we should not think it as a major improvement (since Vatican II) that the Roman Catholic Church promotes the reading of Scripture, since the issue was never the reading of Scripture per se, but rather how one is to read Scripture.
Against the late Medieval Catholic Church, Luther puts forward Scripture as the final authority on all matters of faith. Thus, at the Diet (pronounced "dee-AT") of Worms of 1521, when asked to recant before the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Luther refused, uttering his famous words,
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 alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted 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 recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.
For Luther and the Reformers, the formal principle of Scripture Alone implies that Scripture is the ultimate authority. Creeds, confessions and tradition are important but are not the ultimate authority. If they conflict with Scripture, they are to be discarded as false. Fanciful gymnastics of trying to square the circles of Scripture and Tradition are thus rejected as a matter of principle.
Over and against the Reformation principle of Scripture Alone arose three distinct principles derived from the Anabaptists, who rejected both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. The three principles are: (1) Solo Scriptura, Scripture only, otherwise known as biblicism; (2) Spirit above Word, or enthusiasm; and (3) Reason above Scripture, or Rationalism. The first principle was held by many Anabaptists and is the default view of modern-day Evangelicalism. The second principle was held by the mystical Anabaptists like the Zwickau prophets (or whom Thomas Müntzer was one representative), and is held to today by Charismatics. The third principle was held by the rationalist wing of Anabaptisms, or the Socinians, and is held by theological liberals today. All three principles are a distortion of Sola Scripura and should be rejected by those of us who are the heirs of the Reformers.
The first Anabaptist principle of Solo Scriptura rejects the use of all forms of creeds and tradition. It describes the phenomenon of "me and my Bible in the woods," where the perspicuity of Scripture is misunderstood to mean that everyone's interpretation of Scripture is equally valid. It is not surprising therefore that many of the Anabaptists were those with a little knowledge of Scripture, having enough knowledge to be dangerous and not enough knowledge to know what they were talking about. They read Scripture, and, refusing the aid of others, thought that they alone were the first ones to truly understand Scripture. The Swiss Anabaptist brethren were kicked out by the city council of Zurich after losing a disputation with Ulrich Zwingli, yet they refused to acknowledge their errors but continued to perpetuate their ignorance wherever they went.
The Reformation principle of Scripture Alone rejects the distortion of Solo Scriptura, as it acknowledges the benefits of creeds, confessions and tradition to help one understand Scripture. These are not the ultimate authority but they are to be taken into account as one interprets Scripture. In our rejection of Rome's distortion of biblical truth, we should not swing to the opposite extreme of rejecting tradition altogether, for rejecting its ministerial (as opposed to magisterial) use is dangerous, not because Scripture is insufficient, but because we humans are not infallible in our interpretations of Scripture. That is why the Reformers in their controversy with Rome did not just quote Scripture, but also cited the early church fathers against Rome, not to pit one "tradition" against another, but to express the ministerial use of tradition by the Reformers.
The third Anabaptist principle is the principle of the anti-Trinitarian rationalists known as the Socinians. Their elevation of reason above revelation implies that Scripture is dethroned into a subordinate authority, something which Rome does not even do (Rome has Scripture and Tradition as equal authority (Trent), or Scripture as authority and Tradition as authoritative interpreter (Vatican II)). According to the rationalists both past, present and future, and which is seen in theological liberalism today, reason is king over Scripture. Needless to say, this option is not even an option for anyone seeking to follow God and His Word.
The second Anabapist principle, as alluded to at the beginning of this section, is the "mystical" method of the mystical Anabaptists. Against Luther's focus on the Word of God, the Zwickau Prophets focused on the supposed "spiritual" meaning behind Scripture, leading Luther to declare that he would not listen to them even if they had swallowed the Holy Spirit "feathers and all." We are not Gnostics, and we do not think ourselves more capable to discern God's truth than the God who inspired the words of Scripture to us.
The Reformation principle of Scripture Alone therefore rejects this mystical principle of interpretation as well, and thus we should reject the charismatic view of revelation. God has given us His Word, and we have no right to think there is something behind the words, which only the "spiritual" can decipher. No, Scripture alone is our authority, and we ought to reject the thinking that pits God's Word against God's Spirit, as if the Spirit who inspired the Word (2 Tim. 3:16, 2 Pet. 1:21) will contradict what He Himself had inspired!
As we remember the Reformation on this 500th anniversary, let us remember what the Reformation has given us in grounding the authority of our faith in Scripture, and treasure the Word of God to us. Let us not veer into unbiblical paradigms of interpretation, and let us reject all three principles of Anabaptism, in addition to the principle of Rome herself. Amen.