This excerpt is taken from John MacArthur’s contribution in Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the Bible.
The Reformation principle of sola Scriptura has to do with the sufficiency of Scripture as our supreme authority in all spiritual matters. Sola Scriptura simply means that all truth necessary for our salvation and spiritual life is taught either explicitly or implicitly in Scripture. It is not a claim that all truth of every kind is found in Scripture. The most ardent defender of sola Scriptura will concede, for example, that Scripture has little or nothing to say about DNA structures, microbiology, the rules of Chinese grammar, or rocket science. This or that “scientific truth,” for example, may or may not be actually true, whether or not it can be supported by Scripture—but Scripture is a “more sure Word,” standing above all other truth in its authority and certainty. It is “more sure,” according to the apostle Peter, than the data we gather firsthand through our senses (2 Peter 1:19). Therefore, Scripture is the highest and supreme authority on any matter on which it speaks.
But there are many important questions on which Scripture is silent. Sola Scriptura makes no claim to the contrary. Nor does sola Scriptura claim that everything Jesus or the apostles ever taught is preserved in Scripture. It only means that everything necessary, everything binding on our consciences, and everything God requires of us is given to us in Scripture (2 Peter 1:3).
Furthermore, we are forbidden to add to or take away from Scripture (cf. Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Rev. 22:18-19). To add to it is to lay on people a burden that God Himself does not intend for them to bear (cf. Matt. 23:4).
Scripture is therefore the perfect and only standard of spiritual truth, revealing infallibly all that we must believe in order to be saved and all that we must do in order to glorify God. That—no more, no less—is what sola Scriptura means.
“The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.” —Westminster Confession of Faith
Pdf – Scriptura Alone by R. C. Sproul: Introduction and First Chapter (here)
What Do We Mean by Sola Scriptura? – Article by Dr. W. Robert Godfrey (here)
Sola Scriptura in Dialogue – Article by Dr. James White (here)
Video & Audio Resources:
Phil Johnson – Why We Can’t Abandon Sola Scriptura:
Dr. James White – 2 Hours on Sola Scriptura:
Dr. Robert Godfrey: Martin Luther and Sola Scriptura:
Dr. Michael Horton: John Calvin and Sola Scriptura:
A young James White:
Dr. James White – Audio Message from 2017:
Dr. Al Mohler (speaking from Deut. 4):
Dr. Al Mohler – Sola Scriptura:
Dr. Steve Lawson: The Puritan Commitment to Sola Scriptura:
Strange Fire Panel Question and Answer, Session 1:
Strange Fire Panel Question and Answer, Session 2:
Dr. John MacArthur – What has happened after the ‘Strange Fire’ Conference:
Duncan, Mohler and MacArthur – 2016 Shepherds Conference Q & A:
Resources on ‘Continuing Revelation’ (here) – quote: “The point is that, from the outset, the Reformed have always been aware that a piety of Word and sacrament will not be satisfactory to all, but that’s our piety. We understand that canonical age is past. We don’t live in redemptive history. The apostles are dead. The Spirit isn’t giving anyone the power to raise the dead or put the living to death. We’re not speaking in natural foreign languages by the power of the Spirit and we’re not receiving canonical or extra-canonical revelation.
To seek those things is to seek what Luther called “a theology of glory” and it’s antithetical to Reformed piety. I realize this makes us look “dead orthodox” to revivalists and restorationists, but I can live with that. I spent a long time questing after the “small, still voice” and living with the disappointment that I seemed to be the only one not to be receiving ongoing revelation—until I realized that my Pentecostal friends simply re-describe every ordinary thing that happens in extraordinary, apostolic, supernatural categories. When I did the biblical exegesis, I realized that much of what the Pentecostals seek isn’t even biblical. “Tongues of angels” has nothing to do whatever with languages spoken by angels and by Pentecostals. It’s just Pauline hyperbole to make a moral point.”
“If it’s orthodox, it’s not dead and if it’s dead, it’s not orthodox. I am becoming more aware, however, that we have always had forms of pietist, mystical, pentecostal and charismatic excess amongst us, at least since the Montanist movement of the early third century. Montanus and his followers practiced something like what modern Pentecostals (since Topeka or Azusa Street) have called “tongues.” They too practiced something like what today is called being “slain in the Spirit.” They claimed to have prophecies immediately from God. Possibly they were reacting to the close of the canon and the cessation of apostolic phenomena by trying to keep it alive. I submit that some seminary students go through an analogous sense of withdrawal. Our modern church life and the modern paradigm for religious experience has been highly influenced by pietism, neo-Pentecostalism, and the charismatic movement so that many of our worship services and much contemporary Reformed piety has become indistinguishable from neo-Pentecostalism or the charismatic movement. To give a benchmark: when the Reformed encountered a similar piety in the sixteenth century, in the Anabaptists, they denounced it as religious fanaticism. Given choice between Muntzer and Calvin, we should choose the latter.” – R. Scott Clark, “Did God Leave Me When I Went To Seminary?”
“If we would be faithful children of God, if we would be noble, we must proceed as the Bereans did. We must follow the example of Moses, Paul, and our Lord Jesus. We must not rest our confidence on the wisdom of men who claim infallibility. Rather, we must stand with the apostle Paul, who wrote in 1 Corinthians 4:6, “Do not go beyond what is written.” — Robert Godfrey
“For the classic Protestant, though the individual believer has the right to the private interpretation of Scripture, he is capable of misinterpreting the Bible. But while he has the ability to misinterpret Scripture, he does not have the right to do it. That is, with the right of private interpretation comes the responsibility of making an accurate interpretation. We never have the right to distort the teaching of Scripture. Both sides agree that the individual is fallible when seeking to understand Scripture, but historic Protestantism limits the scope of infallibility to the Scriptures themselves. Church tradition and church creeds can err. Individual interpreters of Scripture can err. It is the Scriptures alone that are without error.” — R. C. Sproul
“Oral Roberts once told the nation that God had revealed to him that his life would be taken if he didn’t raise a large amount of money in donations. Robert Tilton promised his constituents that he would mail them a special message from God if they sent in their donations. These, of course, are crude forms of modern claims to added revelation. How these claims can be entertained by the credulous is a matter of consternation for me.
But it gets more subtle. We hear respected Christian leaders claiming that God has “spoken to them” and given specific guidance and instructions they are duty-bound to obey. They are careful to note that this divine speech was not in audible form and there is a disclaimer that this is not new “revelation.” Yet the message that is “laid on the heart” is so clear and powerful that to disobey it is to disobey the voice of God. I am not speaking here of the work of the Holy Spirit, by which He illumines the text of Scripture in such a sharp manner as to bring us under conviction or direct our paths; in such times, the Spirit works in the Word and through the Word. I am speaking of the voice of the Spirit that men claim is working apart from the Word and in addition to the Word.” — R. C. Sproul
Even if the Bible made no claim as to its inspiration and consequent infallibility/inerrancy, Scripture could still be said to possess a certain authority by virtue of both its (unique) witness to the events of redemptive history and the tradition of several thousand years, by which it has been regarded as authoritative for matters of doctrine and practice within the community of the church. Even moderate liberals, who do not affirm a view of the plenary (verbal) inspiration of Scripture, concede that the Bible has a unique role in the life of the church.
However, the Bible’s claim to be the Word of God adds a dimension of authority that goes beyond mere sentiment or tradition. By this assertion, the Bible claims for itself the authority of God. Additionally, since Scripture is given by “inspiration of God,” or more accurately, is the product of God’s “out-breathing” (2 Tim. 3:16, theopneustos), the Bible’s authority is comprehensive and total, down to the very words themselves. This is the view the Bible claims of itself. To cite John Calvin in the final edition of his Institutes (1559), “Scripture exhibits fully as clear evidence of its own truth as white and black things do of their own color, or sweet or bitter things do of their taste… . [T]hose whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and that Scripture indeed is self authenticated [autopiston].” It is for this reason that the Westminster Confession states, “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.” — Derek Thomas
Tradition in effect becomes a lens through which the written word is interpreted. Tradition therefore stands as the highest of all authorities, because it renders the only authoritative interpretation of the sacred writings.
This tendency to view tradition as the supreme authority is not unique to pagan religions. Traditional Judaism, for example, follows the scripture-plus-tradition paradigm. The familiar books of the Old Testament alone are viewed as Scripture, but true orthodoxy is actually defined by a collection of ancient rabbinical traditions known as the Talmud. In effect, the traditions of the Talmud carry an authority equal to or greater than that of the inspired Scriptures.
This is no recent development within Judaism. The Jews of Jesus’ day also placed tradition on an equal footing with Scripture. But in actuality they made tradition superior to Scripture, because Scripture was interpreted by tradition and therefore made subject to it.
Whenever tradition is elevated to such a high level of authority, it inevitably becomes detrimental to the authority of Scripture. Jesus made this very point when He confronted the Jewish leaders. — John MacArthur
It is necessary to understand what sola Scriptura does and does not assert. The Reformation principle of sola Scriptura has to do with the sufficiency of Scripture as our supreme authority in all spiritual matters. Sola Scriptura simply means that all truth necessary for our salvation and spiritual life is taught either explicitly or implicitly in Scripture.
It is not a claim that all truth of every kind is found in Scripture. — John MacArthur
Scripture Alone by Michael Kruger
We live in a world filled with competing truth claims. Every day, we are bombarded with declarations that something is true and that something else is false. We are told what to believe and what not to believe. We are asked to behave one way but not another way. In her monthly column “What I Know for Sure,” Oprah Winfrey tells us how to handle our lives and our relationships. The New York Times editorial page regularly tells us what approach we should take to the big moral, legal, or public-policy issues of our day. Richard Dawkins, the British atheist and evolutionist, tells us how to think of our historical origins and our place in this universe.
How do we sift through all these claims? How do people know what to think about relationships, morality, God, the origins of the universe, and many other important questions? To answer such questions, people need some sort of norm, standard, or criteria to which they can appeal. In other words, we need an ultimate authority. Of course, everyone has some sort of ultimate norm to which they appeal, whether or not they are aware of what their norm happens to be. Some people appeal to reason and logic to adjudicate competing truth claims. Others appeal to sense experience. Still others refer to themselves and their own subjective sense of things. Although there is some truth in each of these approaches, Christians have historically rejected all of them as the ultimate standard for knowledge. Instead, God’s people have universally affirmed that there is only one thing that can legitimately function as the supreme standard: God’s Word. There can be no higher authority than God Himself.
Of course, we are not the first generation of people to face the challenge of competing truth claims. In fact, Adam and Eve faced such a dilemma at the very beginning. God had clearly said to them “You shall surely die” if they were to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:17). On the other hand, the Serpent said the opposite to them: “You will not surely die” (3:4). How should Adam and Eve have adjudicated these competing claims? By empiricism? By rationalism? By what seemed right to them? No, there was only one standard to which they should have appealed to make this decision: the word that God had spoken to them. Unfortunately, this is not what happened. Instead of looking to God’s revelation, Eve decided to investigate things further herself: “When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes … she took of its fruit and ate” (3:6). Make no mistake, the fall was not just a matter of Adam and Eve eating the fruit. At its core, the fall was about God’s people rejecting God’s Word as the ultimate standard for all of life.
But if God’s Word is the ultimate standard for all of life, the next question is critical: Where do we go to get God’s Word? Where can it be found? This issue, of course, brings us to one of the core debates of the Protestant Reformation. While the Roman Catholic Church authorities agreed that God’s Word was the ultimate standard for all of life and doctrine, they believed this Word could be found in places outside of the Scriptures. Rome claimed a trifold authority structure, which included Scripture, tradition, and the Magisterium. The key component in this trifold authority was the Magisterium itself, which is the authoritative teaching office of the Roman Catholic Church, manifested primarily in the pope. Because the pope was considered the successor of the Apostle Peter, his official pronouncements (ex cathedra) were regarded as the very words of God Himself.
It was at this point that the Reformers stood their ground. While acknowledging that God had delivered His Word to His people in a variety of ways before Christ (Heb. 1:1), they argued that we should no longer expect ongoing revelation now that God has spoken finally in His Son (v. 2). Scripture is clear that the Apostolic office was designed to perform a onetime, redemptive-historical task: to lay the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20). The foundation-laying activity of the Apostles primarily consisted of giving the church a deposit of authoritative teaching testifying to and applying the great redemptive work of Christ. Thus, the New Testament writings, which are the permanent embodiment of this Apostolic teaching, should be seen as the final installment of God’s revelation to His people. These writings, together with the Old Testament, are the only ones that are rightly considered the Word of God.
This conviction of sola Scriptura— the Scriptures alone are the Word of God and, therefore, the only infallible rule for life and doctrine—provided the fuel needed to ignite the Reformation. Indeed, it was regarded as the “formal cause” of the Reformation (whereas sola fide, or “faith alone,” was regarded as the “material cause”). The sentiments of this doctrine are embodied in Martin Luther’s famous speech at the Diet of Worms (1521) after he was asked to recant his teachings:
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 retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience…. May God help me. Amen.
For Luther, the Scriptures, and the Scriptures alone, were the final arbiter of what we should believe.
Of course, like many core Christian convictions, the doctrine of sola Scriptura has often been misunderstood and misapplied. Unfortunately, some have used sola Scriptura as a justification for a “me, God, and the Bible” type of individualism, where the church bears no real authority and the history of the church is not considered when interpreting and applying Scripture. Thus, many churches today are almost ahistorical—cut off entirely from the rich traditions, creeds, and confessions of the church. They misunderstand sola Scriptura to mean that the Bible is the only authority rather than understanding it to mean that the Bible is the only infallible authority. Ironically, such an individualistic approach actually undercuts the very doctrine of sola Scriptura it is intended to protect. By emphasizing the autonomy of the individual believer, one is left with only private, subjective conclusions about what Scripture means. It is not so much the authority of Scripture that is prized as the authority of the individual.
The Reformers would not have recognized such a distortion as their doctrine of sola Scriptura. On the contrary, they were quite keen to rely on the church fathers, church councils, and the creeds and confessions of the church. Such historical rootedness was viewed not only as a means for maintaining orthodoxy but also as a means for maintaining humility. Contrary to popular perceptions, the Reformers did not view themselves as coming up with something new. Rather, they understood themselves to be recovering something very old—something that the church had originally believed but later twisted and distorted. The Reformers were not innovators but were excavators.
There are other extremes against which the doctrine of sola Scriptura protects us. While we certainly want to avoid the individualistic and ahistorical posture of many churches today, sola Scriptura also protects us from overcorrecting and raising creeds and confessions or other human documents (or ideas) to the level of Scripture. We must always be on guard against making the same mistake as Rome and embracing what we might call “traditionalism,” which attempts to bind the consciences of Christians in areas that the Bible does not. In this sense, sola Scriptura is a guardian of Christian liberty. But the biggest danger we face when it comes to sola Scriptura is not misunderstanding it. The biggest danger is forgetting it. We are prone to think of this doctrine purely in terms of sixteenth-century debates—just a vestige of the age-old Catholic-Protestant battles and irrelevant for the modern day. But the Protestant church in the modern day needs this doctrine now more than ever. The lessons of the Reformation have been largely forgotten, and the church, once again, has begun to rely on ultimate authorities outside of Scripture.
In order to lead the church back to sola Scriptura, we must realize that we cannot do so only by teaching about the doctrine itself (although we must do this). Instead, the primary way we lead the church back is by actually preaching the Scriptures. Only the Word of God has the power to transform and reform our churches. So, we should not only talk about sola Scriptura, but we should demonstrate it. And when we do, we must preach all of God’s Word—not picking and choosing the parts we prefer or think our congregations want to hear. We must preach only the Word (sola Scriptura), and we must preach all the Word (tota Scriptura). The two go hand in hand. When they are joined together in the power of the Holy Spirit, we can have hope for a new reformation.