Does Protestant truth still matter?

Following the reception of former Bishop of Rochester Dr Michael Nazir-Ali into the Roman Catholic Church we are publishing a series of posts by Garry Williams examining its historic and contemporary theology.

Dr Michael Nazir-Ali has been closely associated with the evangelical wing of the Church of England and in particular with Gafcon (Global Anglican Futures Conference), which describes itself as ‘a global family of authentic Anglicans standing together to retain and restore the Bible to the heart of the Anglican Communion’ (

The fact that Dr Nazir-Ali has become a Roman Catholic suggests that he holds the popular view that the doctrinal divisions of the Reformation era are a thing of the past. This therefore seems to be an appropriate moment to revisit the question of what the Roman Catholic Church teaches, whether it has changed its teaching since the Reformation, and, where it has changed it, how we should understand and gauge the implications of the changes. In the coming weeks we will be posting section-by-section a piece by Garry Williams entitled ‘Why Protestant Truth Still Matters: A Biblical Perspective’. The piece is structured like this:

1. Introducing the Five Solas

2. The Solas Stated:

Sola Scriptura

Sola fide

Sola gratia

Solus Christus

Soli Deo gloria

3. Roman Catholicism before Vatican II

4. Contemporary Roman Catholicism

5. Protestant Truth Still Matters

We post the first part and the section on sola Scriptura today. The printed version of the full publication can be obtained from the Protestant Truth Society here

1. Introducing the five Solas

The five great Solas – sola Scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria – represent a summary of some of the key theological commitments of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.1 Though the five-fold list post-dates the Reformation itself, they provide an accurate summary of the concerns of the major Reformers and the different Protestant churches that were born in the diverse nations of Europe.

The Solas were of course expressed first in a specific historical context, the context of a multi-national attempt to reform the Roman Catholic Church. That attempt met with immediate resistance, and it was apparent very early that Rome would not tolerate any kind of doctrinal reform. Rome’s reaction to Martin Luther should have left that in no doubt, but the event that made the impossibility of reconciliation clear to all was the failure of the Colloquy of Ratisbon (Regensberg) in 1541.

When it came, Rome’s own ‘Catholic Reformation’ was willing to embrace the need for a practical and moral reform of the church, a need that had been clear from a long line of anticlerical satirists, culminating with Desiderius Erasmus. But just as Erasmus himself, for all his stinging mockery of the Church, would not accept Luther’s theology, so Rome’s official response at the Council of Trent (1545-63) to the Protestant doctrinal critique was one of reactionary entrenchment.

The fact that Protestantism was therefore defined in the crucible of conflict with Rome’s doctrinal resistance means that there is always a protesting aspect to the Solas: they are, when described with their historical origins in view, always to be understood as reactive against Rome’s errors. This does not mean, however, that the substance of the Solas was generated by the Reformation conflict. Their content was re-discovered by the Reformers in the teaching of Holy Scripture, as the first Sola suggests: sola Scriptura. The Reformation is rightly understood as a return ad fontes, to the original, inspired, binding, and sufficient canonical texts of the Christian faith. None of the Reformers believed that they were innovating. Their desire was to go back, to rediscover the biblical teaching that had been maintained in the church until the expansion and dominance of the corrupt Papacy in the mediaeval period. As the Elizabethan bishop John Jewel puts it in his apology for the Church of England, ‘God’s holy Gospel, the ancient bishops, and the primitive church do make on our side’.2 Understood historically, Protestant theology involved breaking through the accreted layers of unbiblical tradition and was always reactive to Rome; understood theologically, it is the fruit of obedient submission to the tutelage of Scripture.

To appreciate why Protestant truth still matters in our own day, priority must be given to Scripture as its theological ground. I will therefore examine first the theological foundation for the Solas in biblical teaching, and second their ongoing role in defining Protestantism over against Roman Catholicism. As soon as we broach this second aspect it becomes vital to consider the ways in which Rome has changed since the sixteenth century. Is the Rome of Trent still the Rome of Vatican II (1962-65)? Are the Solas applicable now as they were then?

2. The Solas stated

Sola Scriptura

Measured theologically, two of the five Solas stand out: sola Scriptura and solus Christus. In the order of knowing, sola Scriptura comes first because Scripture is the means by which we come to know Christ. We encounter Christ through encountering at least the truths, if not the very words, of Scripture. The knowledge of the unique Christ comes to us by means of the Scriptures as they are read and preached in the power of the Holy Spirit, and it is in knowing Christ that we know the Father. The Scriptures testify of Christ (John 5:39), and anyone who has seen Christ has seen the Father (John 14:9). The order of knowing (traditionally known as the ordo cognoscendi) is clear: in knowing the message of the Bible we come to know Christ, and in knowing Christ we know the Father.

As well as being the instrument by which we know Christ, Scripture also has a determinative effect on the rest of our theology. Sola Scriptura describes the way in which we know God, and our view of how we know God will determine what we think on all other theological questions. If we know the mind of God through contemplating nature, then we will believe A, B, and C about God. If we know it through the teaching of a particular church, we will know D, E, and F; and so forth. Sola Scriptura expresses the understanding of authority and method that shapes the rest of Protestant theology.

Why should Christians submit to the authority of Scripture? Because Jesus Christ himself modelled such submission in his prophetic office as revealer of God the Father. To put it plainly, the authority of Scripture and the authority of Christ come together. In the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly rebukes a variety of opponents by asking them ‘Have you not read?’ or ‘Is it not written?’. He corrects the Sadducees: ‘You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God’ (Matt. 22:29). He affirms that ‘the Scripture cannot be broken’ (John 10:35). And he resists the temptations of Satan by taking a stand on biblical texts (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10). Furthermore, Jesus evidently understood the words of Scripture to be the very words of God. In the Gospels he readily ascribes words to God himself that in the Old Testament are not presented as words of God. For example, he attributes the words of the narrator in Genesis to God himself: ‘Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning “made them male and female”, and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”?’ (Matt. 19:4-5). He bases arguments not only on the words but even on the smallest letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In Matthew 22:43-45 he uses Psalm 110:1 to prove that he is ‘Lord’ only because David says ‘my Lord’, a meaning conveyed by a tiny consonant of the Hebrew pronominal suffix. John Murray rightly concludes that in debating the authority of the Bible it is not the Bible so much as the authority of Jesus that is at stake: ‘the integrity of our Lord’s witness is the crucial issue in this battle of the faith’.3 Jesus Christ has inextricably attached his authority to that of the Bible. It is impossible to follow Christ faithfully if we do not submit to Scripture.

In one sense this point was not part of the debate with Rome at the Reformation. Rome readily professed belief in the inspiration and authority of Scripture, and it is more a characteristic of liberal theology to deny outright the authority and inspiration of the Bible. The point at which sola Scriptura expresses a distinctive of the Protestant Reformation is more in its affirmation of the sole final authority of Scripture than in the affirmation of its inspiration. In theory, Rome agreed that Scripture was an authority, but not that it was the authority. Why do Protestants insist on the unique and unequalled authority of Scripture? Again, because the Lord Jesus himself did, most notably in his debates with the Pharisees. In theory the Pharisees did not deny the authority of the Hebrew Scriptures, but they added to them, and thereby undermined them in practice. The Lord Jesus insisted on the unique authority of the written Scriptures over against any additional oral tradition. The only expansion of the Hebrew Scriptures that he authorised was his own teaching and that of his apostles. He extended his authority to include the apostles, the eyewitnesses of his ministry (e.g. John 14:25-26; 15:26-27; 16:12-15), but he said nothing at all about extending it beyond them to their successors in later generations, nor indeed about who their successors would be or what offices they might hold. The New Testament itself contains the beginnings of its own recognition as God’s word when Peter describes the letters of Paul as ‘Scripture’ (2 Pet. 3:16, graphē) and when Paul uses the same term to refer to a text from Luke (1 Tim. 5:18 citing Luke 10:7). The authority of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, is thus unique and exclusive of all other claims to equal authority. There are subordinate authorities in the life of the church such as confessions or catechisms, but they always depend on conformity to Scripture for their weight.

Scripture has this unique authority because it alone is inspired. As we have seen, the Lord Jesus appealed to the divine authority of even the letters of the Hebrew text. When we speak of the inspiration of the Bible we do not mean that it is a dry, static book, a kind of deadly dull encyclopaedia of the divine. Nor do we mean to separate it from God himself, as if it had a life of its own and we might fashion an idol out of it. Rather, as the God-breathed word, the Bible is the living voice of God himself, his letter of saving love to a dying world. The Bible itself speaks of the creative, life-giving power of the word and breath of God, for example in Psalm 33:6: ‘By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth.’ Here God’s word and his breath are paralleled, as they are in 2 Timothy 3:16 when Paul says that ‘all Scripture’ is ‘God-breathed’. By its very nature God’s breath has creative power: it gives life to Adam (Gen. 2:7) and to spiritually dead Israel (Ez. 37:9-10). This is why the Bible needs no additional authority beyond itself: as the breathed out word of the living God it comes with all of his power. As the voice of Almighty God it is self[1]authenticating. Who would dare claim to authenticate it, as if God’s authority needed to be propped up by another? That would be nothing better than idolatry. Paul is clear: Scripture, the apostles and prophets, founds the church, not the church Scripture (Eph. 2:19-22). As Luther asks, ‘who begets his own parent?’.4

The idea of the self-authenticating authority of Scripture is not a circular argument, contrary to what many among both Protestants and their critics think. Circular arguments are bad arguments, since they have no resting point, no firm foundation. If I hold to a circular argument, then when asked why I appeal to X, I refer to Y, and when asked why I appeal to Y, I refer to X, revolving endlessly round and round. By contrast, the appeal to the self-authenticating authority of Scripture is an argument from a final first principle: God in his word. All systems of thought either have no first principle (because they are indeed circular), or they have some such first principle; there is no shame in it. For the Protestant, the first principle is God in his word. No higher or more noble principle can be imagined.

Is there not, however, a problem with knowing what Scripture means and how we are to understand it? Do we not need an authoritative interpreter, one who can bind the sense of Scripture and provide a final statement of what it means? To think that we need such an interpreter is to imply the deficiency and weakness of Scripture. It is to imply that Scripture cannot authenticate its meaning to us, that it lacks sufficient power and clarity. But the Bible teaches its own powerful, living, active authority. It is the voice of God. It needs no help to speak plainly and bindingly. Who would dare to tell God that he has not spoken clearly? Moreover, it is not at all clear that the multiplication of voices actually helps to narrow the range of possible interpretations. We only need to observe heated debates among Roman Catholic theologians concerning the meaning of the Council of Trent’s decree on Scripture and tradition or Vatican II’s position on non-Christian religions to realize that the plurality of texts produced by the Roman Catholic Magisterium has not made its total theology any clearer to many Catholics. If there is a difficulty in understanding words, then adding more words will not solve it: Denzinger is susceptible of more, not less, interpretative variety than the Bible.5

Let me be clear that the Bible teaches the principle of sola but not nuda Scriptura. The unique final authority of Scripture does not mean that it should be taken on its own in artificial isolation, as if I could achieve my best theology if I could just get away from everyone else, leaving behind the church and two thousand years of reflection on the biblical text. It is obvious that the catholic (i.e. universal) church has progressed in its grasp of such doctrines as the Trinity, the incarnation, and justification, not by adding to Scripture but by deepening its grasp of it. Only a madman would want to leave all that behind and start again. Pastors are enjoined to teach and congregations to learn from them and honour them (e.g. Titus 2:1-10; 1 Tim. 5:17), and this applies to the previous generations of godly pastors as it does to the present

You can read the second article in this series here


[1] ‘Solas’ is widely used as an Anglicized plural of the feminine of the Latin word solus, meaning ‘alone’.

[2] An Apology, or Answer, in Defence of the Church of England, in The Works of John Jewel, ed. by John Ayre for the Parker Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1848), p. 56.

[3] ‘The Attestation of Scripture’, in The Infallible Word, ed. by N. B. Stonehouse and Paul Woolley, 2nd edn (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 1967; repr. 2002), p. 42.

[4] The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, in Three Treatises (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), p. 238.

[5] ‘Denzinger’ is a common label for the Compendium of Creeds, Definitions, and Declarations on Matters of Faith and Morals, ed. by Heinrich Denzinger, et al., 43rd edn (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), which extends to around 1,400 pages.