The Centrality of Scripture by Thiago Silva, ThM
This article seeks to reflect on the centrality of Scripture as the foundation of all our theology and theological reasoning, and I am going to focus on one of the pillars of the Reformation – Sola Scriptura.
The Reformers were unanimous on the foundation of their theology: Holy Scripture. Sola Scriptura has to do with the sufficiency of Scripture as the absolute truth and the supreme authority in all spiritual matters.
This Reformation principle means that all the truth necessary for our salvation and Christian life is taught explicitly or implicitly in Holy Scripture, the inspired Word of God. The Reformers believed that the Bible is the written revelation of God, and the truth above all other truths.“All the truth necessary for our salvation and Christian life is taught explicitly or implicitly in Holy Scripture, the inspired Word of God.”
This Protestant Reformation slogan simply states that everything that is necessary for salvation, and everything that God requires of us, is revealed in Scripture (2 Peter 1:3).
However, when it comes to the task of theology today, there is a debate on what Sola Scriptura really means. Does Sola Scriptura prohibit the use of other extra-biblical sources and restrict theology to the biblical text only, or not?
I will argue that Sola Scriptura does not prohibit the theologian from making use of extra-biblical information; the theologian can make use of extra-biblical sources in his theological work, without diminishing or damaging the sufficiency and centrality of Scripture.
Therefore, while faithfulness to the Scripture must always be central and foundational to Reformed theology, Sola Scriptura should not be seen just as a restrictive criterion for our theological thinking and writing.
In other words, Sola Scriptura should not be understood restrictively, limiting the task of theology to simply exposing and interpreting biblical texts.
So, what other extra-biblical sources can a theologian use in his theology and theological reasoning?
John Bolt writes that if the audience of systematic theology is just the church, and if it serves only those already converted and committed to Christ, then there is no need to deal with the metaphysical issues of our modern world, as it would be enough to simply restate and summarize biblical texts.“Sola Scriptura should not be understood restrictively, limiting the task of theology to simply exposing and interpreting biblical texts.”
If so, the role of systematic theology would be limited to simply helping believers to better understand the Bible.
If that is the role of systematic theology, it would fail to communicate the gospel to those outside the Christian circle, and would only bring a restricted message to those who belong to the circle.
However, Bolt suggests that, if we claim that the role of theology is to help the church in its mission to present the truth of the gospel to the world in an understandable way, something more is needed.
For the Dutch neo-Calvinist theologian, Herman Bavinck, a good theological method must always take into account three sources: Scripture, the tradition of the church and the sense of divinity implanted in human consciousness by God himself (Reformed Dogmatics [RD], vol.1, p. 84).
However, he understands the primacy of Scripture when he affirms that the Reformation honestly assumed its position in the original gospel and restored to Scripture the place of honor that is due to it (RD, vol.1, p. 63).“Theologians need to consider the three sources of research indispensable for systematic theology: Scripture, tradition and religious experience.”
The Brazilian systematic theologian, Heber Carlos de Campos states that, just as the researcher “has to use all sources of information for the elaboration of his concepts. . .in theology, this is not much different. The theologian. . .has to use all resources to systematically elaborate his work.”
Unlike the Roman Catholic Church that placed the authority of the church tradition above the authority of Scripture, for the Reformers, Scripture was (and still is) the foundation of theology.“How do we keep Scripture as the foundation of our theological thinking and writing, without neglecting the value of tradition and experience as theological sources?”
However, Sola Scriptura does not mean that the task of theology is simply explaining biblical texts. It is also necessary to consider the Christian tradition and human religious experience (sense of divinity); i.e., the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit in creation and in humanity throughout history.
Having said that, how do we keep Scripture as the foundation of our theological thinking and writing, without neglecting the value of tradition and experience as theological sources?
Sola Scriptura and the Importance of Tradition
Tradition is a set of practices, liturgies, customs, and doctrines of the church that are formed throughout history.
We all belong to a certain tradition. This means that our reading of Scripture is never neutral; it is always influenced by some interpretive tradition, and even without realizing it, we usually read the Bible from the perspective of the tradition to which we belong.
John Calvin himself makes numerous references to other sources, including the church fathers in his theology, showing the need and importance of the Christian tradition for the development of theology.
The Reformers’ big problem with Rome was that the Roman Catholic Church was elevating tradition to a status of authority above and often against Scripture itself.“Our reading of Scripture is never neutral; it is always influenced by some interpretive tradition, and even without realizing it, we usually read the Bible from the perspective of the tradition to which we belong.”
The consequence was that many of the doctrines and practices of the Catholic Church, such as the canonization of saints, among others, cannot be proven by any biblical text.
Faced with this reality, the 16th century Reformation rescued the supreme authority of Scripture over the tradition of the Church, affirming Sola Scriptura as the rule of faith and practice and as the inerrant and infallible source of salvation.
R. C. Sproul writes that by Sola Scriptura, the Reformers did not mean that the Bible is the sole authority of the church. On the contrary, they meant that the Bible is the only infallible authority for the church.
Therefore, Sola Scriptura does not exclude or ignore the Christian tradition. As Grant R. Osborn, in his book The Hermeneutical Spiral, writes, “The key is to recognize the interpretive nature of church traditions. They do not possess intrinsic authority but are valid only in the extent to which they cohere to scriptural truth.”
The authority of tradition must be subjected under the final and supreme authority of Scripture.
Joel Beeke and Paul M. Smalley, in their Reformed Systematic Theology, affirm that “the principle of Sola Scriptura neither rejects tradition nor sets it alongside the Bible as another source of divine revelation, but requires that tradition be tested and sifted by the written Word of God.”“The authority of tradition must be subjected under the final and supreme authority of Scripture.”
In light of this, Sola Scriptura does not mean that the role of theology is to use only biblical texts and to reaffirm biblical doctrines, disregarding all tradition and everything that has been done in the history of the church over the centuries.
The Reformers did not neglect what God did in the course of history, and modern theologians must also consider the value of history and tradition.
Sola Scriptura and the Importance of Human Religious Experience
With respect to experience, there is a theological rule that teaches that experiences cannot serve as a basis for the development of doctrines; however, it is very difficult to separate the human being who thinks from his own experience.
John Calvin claims that there is a seed of religion or a sense of divinity (sensus Divinitatis) implanted in all humans by nature.
Within each individual, God planted a perception of Himself; a seed of religion. The function of such consciousness of God is to make human beings inexcusable before the one who created them.“Scripture is the only infallible and inerrant authority, however, tradition is, for the theologian, a source of research that should not be overlooked.”
They cannot plead ignorance when it comes to divine judgment in their lives. Thus, this knowledge of God implanted by God himself in humans, by nature, is closely related to clearly moral and theological concerns.
Bavinck writes, “if the Christian dogmatician is to take a stand in revelation, we must ask where revelation can be found. At most three factors come up for consideration—Scripture, the church, and the Christian consciousness—and all three in turn, successively or in conjunction, have been used as sources for dogmatics.” (RD, vol.1, p. 78).
According to Bavinck, if God reveals himself in nature, human consciousness, and Scripture – general revelation and especial revelation – all these sources provide material for theology.
However, the Reformers’ emphasis on the authority, power, and clarity of Scripture remains relevant and necessary today.
Nowadays there are several voices that are against Sola Scriptura. One example is the contemporary existentialism that postulates biblical interpretation as an individual and completely subjective experience.“We need to be careful not to allow subjective experience to be the guiding principle of biblical interpretation.”
The idea is that a biblical text does not have just one valid meaning, but many meanings depending on who is reading the text.
We need to be careful not to allow subjective experience to be the guiding principle of biblical interpretation.
Some still make the erroneous separation between letter versus Spirit; as if “letter” was the study of the Bible and the “Spirit” was equivalent to the supernatural action of the Holy Spirit, thus neglecting serious study of the Scripture.
Although tradition and experience are sources for theology, Scripture is central and both tradition and experience must be subjected to the final authority of Scripture and validated by Scripture. “The authority of Scripture is superior to that of the Church, tradition, and human experience.”
Tradition and experience can err, but Scripture is inerrant. Scripture alone is the supreme authority in matters of life and doctrine; Scripture alone is the supreme judge for all decisions of faith and life.
The authority of Scripture is superior to that of the Church, tradition, and human experience.
The Centrality of Scripture
The centrality of Scripture can be illustrated in the exposition that Luke makes about the conversation between the two disciples on the way to Emmaus (Luke 24) and the illustrious Unknown.
It is possible to follow at every step along this path the way the Unknown (Jesus) brings the two disciples back to faith in Christ, just by pointing out what was written in the Scriptures.
From Luke’s narrative one can extract the implication of the centrality of Scripture in the disciples’ experience.
Such an implication teaches us that we need to allow Scripture to guide how we live out the Christian faith. There are also at least three more implications about this.“Only in Scripture do we actually discover who Jesus is. Ignoring Scripture is the same as ignoring Christ, for Scripture testifies of him.”
First, without Scripture, our Christian experience and theological reasoning loses its meaning (Luke 24:23-24, 26-27).
The Scriptures only give meaning to reality if studied as a whole and with Christ’s resurrection as its climax.
Second, Scripture must precede experiences (Luke 24:28ff). When Scripture takes its central place, it becomes clear that faith and an understanding of biblical facts make us see Christ with us, even though we do not see him with our physical eyes.
Third, only in Scripture do we actually discover who Jesus is (Luke 24:21, 25). Ignoring Scripture is the same as ignoring Christ, for Scripture testifies of him.
The disciples must now return and report their experience. Mostly, their experience was full of meaning and based on Scripture explained by the Lord Himself. Scripture is central for our theological work.“The church does not arise out of tradition but out of the text of Scripture itself.”
Echoing the Reformation era, Richard Muller, in volume 2 of his Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, argues that Reformed orthodoxy proclaimed the following truth:
First, that Scripture is the foundation of all Christian theology (principium cognoscendi theologiae); i.e., Scripture is the sole authoritative norm of saving knowledge of God, above the church, tradition or person.
Second, in addition to the natural knowledge of God the Creator, because of human reason limitations, it is necessary to have a special revelation of Scripture in order for one to know God as the Redeemer and be saved.
Against all the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, Reformation and Post-Reformation theology hold that the doctrine of the church does not arise out of tradition but out of the text of Scripture itself.
Third, Scripture is not only a human book, but it has a divine character as the inspired Word of God.
Muller correctly states that “the divine knowledge that is contained in Scripture and the truth of biblical prophecy can only be explained by the influence of the Holy Spirit. Not only do these books exceed human comprehension, they appear also to be a ‘perpetual rule of faith and practice’ held free from error.”
Forth, the attributes of Scripture are truth, certainty, infallibility, purity, holiness, perfection, sufficiency, perspicuity and efficacy; it is the rule of faith and the judge of all controversies. “The influence of Renaissance humanism took the theologians of the Reformation and Post-Reformation back to the original sources of the biblical text (Hebrew and Greek).”
Muller also points to the fact that the Reformers and their orthodox successors did not invent the notion of attributes of Scripture, “rather, they inherited from the church fathers and the medieval doctors the assumption that various attributes or properties could be noted concerning the character of Scripture in its normative use in the church.”
Fifth, unlike in medieval times, the concern of Reformation and Post-Reformation learning was with the literal meaning of Scripture, that is, “the doctrinal meaning of Scripture would now have to be found in the literal sense of the text.”
In addition to their high view of Holy Scripture, the influence of Renaissance humanism took the theologians of the Reformation and Post-Reformation back to the original sources of the biblical text (Hebrew and Greek).
For them, biblical exegesis should be understood as a foundation that leads to theological formulations; that is, doctrine arises out of biblical exegesis. As Muller claims,
The methodological link between text and system, both in the initial formulation of the locus out of the exegesis of the text and in the gathering of dicta for the sake of pointing the theological system toward the text and grounding it on the authority of Scripture, was the technique noted above of drawing logical conclusions from the text after the basic exegetical work had been completed. The assumption of the Protestant exegete was that the properly drawn conclusion carried with it the same authority as the text itself. While, in the general sense, Scripture was the principium cognoscendi theologiae, in the more specific and proximate sense, the individual dicta, loci, or sedes doctrinae provided the first principles of theology in the oldest sense of the identification of theology as scientia: a body of knowledge consisting in first principles and the conclusions that may be drawn from them.
It is interesting to see, from Muller’s perspective, how the Reformers and their orthodox successors were biblical exegetes before they were systematic theologians.
If doctrine arises out of exegesis, they had to have exegetical skills in order to develop systems of theology.
We live in a time where theological departments have become too specific and restrictive as if each department was completely distinct and independent from each other.
In this way we have, for example, systematic theologians that work only with doctrinal formulations without necessarily having skills in biblical exegesis. “We live in a time where theological departments have become too specific and restrictive, as if each department was completely distinct and independent from each other.”
We have biblical theologians that work with the biblical text itself but think that there is no necessity for systematics.
This is common among the professors in the seminaries in Brazil, and because of that, the church lacks pastors who preach sermons with both good exegesis and sound doctrine.
Just like during the Reformation and Post-Reformation, we need to make clear to pastors today that doctrine arises out of biblical exegesis and application and piety arise out of meditation on doctrine.
Scripture, tradition, and religious experience are important for our theology and theological work, and they are interconnected.
When someone reads Scripture, he does it from a certain hermeneutical (interpretive) tradition. The theologian is someone inserted in a certain culture, and also studies the culture of the biblical text under analysis.“The idea that scholarship and spirituality, or knowledge and practice are always in opposition is false.”
For this, he will use his reasoning ability (reason), and influenced by his own consciousness (sensus divinatis), he will also develop a certain practice from his theological conclusions.
The idea that scholarship and spirituality, or knowledge and practice are always in opposition is false.
However, although tradition and experience are theological sources, Scripture is the supreme judge and has the final authority over tradition and experience.
Scripture must be recognized and received, not only because the church has so determined and ordained it, but because it comes from God; and we certainly know that it comes from God, not through the tradition of the church, but by the Holy Spirit.“Only Scripture is the basis and the foundation for one’s faith and practices.”
Therefore, the centrality of Scripture is fundamental to theology, and we keep it as the foundation of our theological thinking and writing by understanding that Sola Scriptura means that the only rule of faith and practice for Christians is the Holy Scripture of the Old and New Testaments, for the simple reason that Scripture, and Scripture alone, is inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Tradition, the pronouncements of ecclesiastical councils and religious leaders and the opinions and experiences of theologians are not inspired.
They can be helpful in our understanding of the Scriptures and the origins of Christianity, as well as in applying their principles to today’s issues, when they do not contradict the Scripture.
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Vluchtende hugenoten op een boot by Adolphe Mouilleron, after Edwin White, 1859-87. The Rijksmuseum. RP-P-1942-592
 John Bolt, “Sola Scriptura as an Evangelical Theological Method”. In Gary Johnson e Ronald Gleason, ed. Reforming or Conforming? Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 78.
 Heber Carlos de Campos, Eu Sou: A Doutrina da Revelação Verbal de Deus, vol.1 (São José dos Campos, SP: Fiel, 2017), 76, 81.
 Heber Carlos de Campos, Eu Sou: A Doutrina da Revelação Verbal de Deus, 73-74.
 R. C. Sproul, “Sola Scriptura: Crucial ao Evangelicalismo,” In J. M. Boice, ed. O Alicerce da Autoridade Bíblica (São Paulo: Vida Nova, 1982), 122.
 Grant R. Osborn, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 380.
 Joel R. Beeke; and Paul M. Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology, vol. I: Revelation and God, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 65-66.
 Richard A. Muller Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 248.
 Richard Muller Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, 295.
 Richard Muller Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, 442.
 Richard Muller Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, 520.