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Contra Sola Scriptura (Part 3 of 4)

Where Does Sola Scriptura Come From? The Humanist Origins of the Protestant Reformation


French Medieval Scholar

French Medieval Scholar

Evangelicalism is facing a crisis as growing numbers of Evangelicals convert to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.  One reason is the crisis of sola scriptura — Scripture alone.  Scott Hahn, a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and later a professor at a small Presbyterian seminary, tells the story how he was floored by the question: “Professor, where does the Bible teach that ‘Scripture alone’ is our sole authority?” (Hahn 1993:51).  After his initial shock, Hahn approached several of the leading Evangelical theologians and was told that sola scriptura was the unquestioned premise of Protestant theology.  One theologian told him: “This is the fundamental assumption of all our theology!”  What is so striking about Hahn’s anecdote was the fact that none of the theologians were able to provide him with a biblical rationale for sola scriptura.  This raises the question: Has anyone even addressed this question?

A review of the Protestant apologia for the Bible (See End Note 1) shows that where there is ample biblical support for the authority of Scripture, the veracity of Scripture, as well as its divine inspiration, nowhere is there biblical support for the Protestant principle: sola scriptura.  D.H. Williams in his article: “The Search for Sola Scriptura in the Early Church,” openly admits the absence of biblical support for sola scriptura.  This finding combined with the responses Hahn received from the leading Protestant theologians indicate sola scriptura is an axiom — something assumed to be true, to be taken for granted, and not to be questioned.  This then raises the question: If sola scriptura does not come from the Bible, where does it come from? In this paper I will be arguing that sola scriptura has its origins in the Renaissance Humanist movement.

The origins of the Protestant Reformation must be understood against the backdrop of medieval Scholasticism and Renaissance Humanism (Kristeller 1979:66).  For a long time Reformation studies emphasized the originality of the Reformation, and neglected or slighted the Reformation’s embeddedness in the spirituality and cultural mindset of the Middle Ages (Bouwsma 1988:3).  Situating sola scriptura in its historical context will enable us to understand the historical and theological forces that gave rise to this foundational doctrine and to understand how sola scriptura relates to the historic Christian Faith.


Part I: The Emergence of Medieval Scholasticism

The Middle Ages (1100 to 1400) — the age of the great cathedrals, the Crusades, Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, and the rise of papal rule — were a formative period for Roman Catholicism.  It is this period that gave Roman Catholic Christianity its distinctive character.  Medieval Catholicism marks a break from Eastern Christianity as well as from the patristic consensus of the early Church.

The break between the East and the West was due in part to breakdown of the Roman Empire.  The barbarian invasions that brought about the collapse of Pax Romana and of the infrastructure of the Empire’s western half resulted in Latin Christianity finding itself in a society wracked by anarchy, violence, instability, and isolated from the rest of the world.  It was not until the 1100s that a semblance of peace and order became established in Western Europe.  As commerce and trade with the outside world resumed, western Europe’s long isolation came to a close.  The resumption of trade brought not only new commercial goods but also an influx of ancient texts of learning.

With the establishment of a stable social order, the priorities of life shifted from survival to expansion, consolidation, and unification.  The papal reform movement in the eleventh century restored order to the western Church by making the pope effectively superior to the local churches (see Papadakis 1994:54-55).   The concentration of students and teachers in schools provided a basis for the ordered production of knowledge across Europe.  In time this would give rise to one of medieval Scholasticism’s enduring contribution to the modern West — the university.  R.W. Southern in his Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe describes how the Scholastics worked to bring order to the mass of materials inherited from the ancient world.

…it was the twelfth-century innovators who first introduced systematic order into the mass of intellectual materials which they had inherited in a largely uncoordinated form from the ancient world.  The general aim of their work was to produce a complete and systematic body of knowledge, clarified by the refinements of criticism, and presented as the consensus of competent judges.  Doctrinally the method for achieving this consensus was a progression from commentary to questioning, and from questioning to systematization (Southern 1995:4).

Far from being a period of conservative stasis, the Middle Ages were a time of great intellectual freedom and theological ferment as various schools and masters competed against each other.

Scholasticism gave rise not only to the systematization of theological knowledge but also canon law.  These two intellectual trends radically transformed the nature of the Catholic Church and its relations with the outside world.  The systematization of theology (e.g., the works of Thomas Aquinas) promoted an internal theological consistency within the Church.  The forensic emphasis in Anselm of Canterbury’s Cur Deus Homo gave Catholic theology a legalistic ethos not found in the Church Fathers.  The systematization of canon law (e.g., Gratian’s Decretum) facilitated the centralization of papal rule.  The systematization of canon law resulted in a shift from church government based on sacred ritual to one based upon legal rationality (Southern 1995:158 ff.).


Part II: The Humanist Challenge to Scholasticism

As the Middle Ages progressed there emerged a broad based movement known as the Renaissance.  The Renaissance was not one movement but a series of cultural and intellectual movements.  It encompassed a wide array of disciplines: painting (Giotto, Michaelangelo, Raphael), literature (Dante), politics (Machiavelli), biblical studies (Erasmus), geography (Vasco Da Gama, Columbus), and the natural sciences (Leonardo Da Vinci, Copernicus).  It began in Italy in the 1300s then spread to other parts of Europe, to Germany in the mid 1400s, then to France in the late 1400s, reaching its peak in the 1500s.

One particularly significant development was the Humanist movement that would mount a major challenge against Scholasticism.  Humanist scholarship was driven by a number of social forces: (1) the establishment of great libraries under the sponsorship of rulers and popes, (2) the influx of classical and sacred texts, (3) the founding of academies throughout Europe for the purpose of studying and translating the ancient texts, and (4) the invention of the printing press.

The influx of ancient texts made it possible for scholars to read ancient texts directly giving rise to a new method and a new attitude towards the study of the literary text.  This stands in contrast to Scholasticism’s mediated access to sources buffered by layers of compendiums and commentaries compiled by ecclesiastical authorities.  Under the slogan ad fontes (back to the sources), Humanist scholars called for a return to the classical texts, in some instances the classical texts of paganism, in other instances a return to the Bible and the Church Fathers.

Unlike Scholasticism which uncritically accepted what had been received, Renaissance scholarship brought a more questioning attitude to the study of the texts.  Where Scholasticism preserved and elaborated upon accepted teachings, Renaissance scholars sought to recover the ancient sources and use them to critique contemporary forms of knowledge.  Lorenzo Valla’s (1407-1457) expose of the spurious nature of the Donation of Constantine is an example of the radical nature of the Humanist project.

Medieval Scholasticism was further challenged by the rise of Nominalism and via moderna.  Nominalism’s emphasis on experimentation and experience constituted a revolt against the abstract metaphysics of Scholasticism (Oberman1992:195).  Also, where via antiqua sought to subordinate all the sciences to theology, the queen of science, via moderna favored the relative autonomy for both the natural sciences and theology.  This was significant in that it led to the restructuring of the university resulting in greater autonomy for the various disciplines from the strictures of Scholastic theology.

Ad Fontes and the Challenge to the Latin Vulgate

Contrary to what some Protestants may think, medieval Catholicism took the Bible very seriously.  There arose in the thirteenth century an ambitious undertaking to organize and systematize Catholic theology.  Biblical studies flourished during this period as Scholastics sought to build upon a collection of authoritative texts with the Bible as the cornerstone of this body of knowledge.  However, it should be kept in mind that the scholars who carried out this ambitious project were relying solely on the Vulgate translation.  The western Church’s dependence on the Latin Vulgate reflected its isolation from the Byzantine East and the widespread loss of the clergy’s ability to read the New Testament in the original Greek.

The influx of ancient texts and the emergence of Renaissance scholarship would challenge the Catholic Church’s dependence on the Vulgate.  In 1516, Erasmus published the first critical edition of the Greek New Testament.  Then in 1521, the Complutensian Polyglot, the first complete Bible in the original languages, was published at the newly founded University of Alcala de Henares near Madrid.  When the Greek text of the New Testament became widely available to scholars, many became aware of the inadequacies of the Vulgate which led to their questioning not just the Vulgate but also long-standing theological positions based upon the Vulgate.  This crisis was aggravated by the rigidities of Scholastic theology that stemmed from Scholasticism’s attempt to create a comprehensive and unified body of knowledge.  The crisis was further aggravated by the Papacy’s insistence on the Vulgate as the doctrinally normative translation (McGrath 1987:135-137).  When Catholic scholars like the Augustinian order monk, Martin Luther, propounded views that conflicted with official doctrines and were based upon direct study of the Greek New Testament a theological crisis was not far off.

Another challenge to the Vulgate came from the Humanist support for the Bible in the vernacular.  Erasmus, one of the leading Christian Humanists, sought to reform the Catholic Church through scholarship and through the vernacular translation of the Bible.  He desired that every member of the church have a knowledge of the Scripture.  Erasmus penned the well known line:

I would to God that the plowman would sing a text of the Scripture at his plow and that the weaver would hum them to the tune of his shuttle…. (Opera V, 140)

The emphasis on vernacular translations is consistent with the Humanist priority on direct and immediate access to the Bible and other ancient texts.

From a sociology of knowledge perspective, the emphasis on the vernacular is significant because it undermines the relations of power and knowledge constructed under medieval Scholasticism.  Where Scholasticism with its systematization of doctrine and canon law centralized doctrinal authority under the Papacy and made the laity dependent upon the clergy, the Humanist movement and the Reformation’s insistence on immediate access to the Bible created conditions of autonomous, decentralized relations of power and knowledge that would challenge the monarchical Papacy.

The Reformation as the Fruit of the Humanist Movement

The Renaissance Humanist movement gave rise to a number of reforming movements of which the Reformation was one particular expression.  It is important that we not lose sight of these other attempts at reform and view the Protestant Reformation as The Reformation.

The intellectual origins of the Reformed church are not, it would seem, to be sought primarily in the context of tensions within late medieval theology, but in the context of the emergence of the new methods and presuppositions of the Renaissance (McGrath 1987:107).

The Protestant Reformers’ ability to challenge the teaching authority of Rome would not have been possible without the intellectual tools that they received from Renaissance Humanism.

Without access to the biblical texts in their original languages, without a working knowledge of those languages, and without access to the works of St Augustine, the Reformation could never have begun; without the support of the humanists during the fateful period after the Leipzig disputation, the Reformation could never have survived its first years; without attracting leading humanists, such as Melanchton, Bucer and Calvin, and without the rhetorical skills to proclaim the new theology, the Reformation could never have been perpetuated.  In all these respects, the Reformation owed its very existence to the humanist movement (McGrath 1985:52).

Protestantism’s emphasis on the Bible and its concern for careful biblical scholarship represent not so much a break from Roman Catholicism as a continuation of Renaissance scholarship.  The Protestant principle of sola Scriptura and the praxis of careful exegesis is paralleled by the Renaissance principle of ad fontes and the praxis of inductive reasoning and empirical observation.  However, McGrath also notes that the Reformation resembled the Renaissance Humanist movement more in form than in substance which leads him to conclude that Humanism did not father the Reformation but “merely acted as midwife at its birth” (1985:53).

The Intellectual Sources of Sola Scriptura

Although sola scriptura is regarded as one of the fundamental distinctives of Protestantism, the principle itself was not unique to the Protestant Reformation.  Among the medieval scholars sola scriptura was a widely recognized principle.  Richard Muller observes:

The Reformation did not invent the view that scripture is the prior norm of doctrine, the source of all necessary doctrines, sufficient in its teachings for salvation.  Such was the view of many medieval theologians and commentators.  (Muller 1996:36).

The Renaissance Humanists were not necessarily Protestant because of their adherence to sola scriptura.  Within the Renaissance Humanist movement sola scriptura had a wide range of meaning.  It had the broad inclusive sense “not without scripture” which allowed Humanist scholars to use other classical sources in addition to the Bible.  It also had the more narrow exclusive sense of “through scripture and through scripture alone” (McGrath 1985:51).  This fact leads McGrath to write:

… it is becoming increasingly clear that the medieval period in general was characterized by its conviction that scripture was the sole material base of Christian theology, thus forcing us to reconsider what, if anything, was distinctive concerning the Reformation principle of sola scriptura (1987:140).

McGrath’s question indicates that the Reformation’s’ sola scriptura was far from a simple slogan but a complex of theological concepts.  The Protestant version of sola scriptura emerged as a result of the convergence of several intellectual trends.  Oberman writes:

Together with the humanist quest for authentic sources (fontes), the insistence on nothing but God’s commitment, the sola potentia ordinata, may evolve into a sola Scriptura, the Reformation principle “Scripture alone” (1992:194).

Thus, Protestantism’s sola scriptura represents the crystallization of one particular expression of the Humanist approach to ad fontes.  To understand the emergence of the Protestant variant of sola scriptura we need to understand the role of the growing tension between Scripture and extra-biblical tradition in the medieval Catholic Church.

Scripture Versus Tradition

Oberman notes that there were two competing paradigms in the medieval Church: Tradition I and Tradition II (1963:371 ff.).  Tradition I saw Scripture and Tradition as organically related, the single source theory.  Tradition II saw Scripture and Tradition as two distinct phenomena, the two-source theory.  The two paradigms were unconsciously held to by the medieval Church without any attempt to integrate the two.  Lane makes a similar distinction noting that the early Church held to the “coincident view” while the medieval Catholic Church held to the “supplementary view.”

Medieval Catholicism’s adoption of Oberman’s Tradition II paradigm would have lasting consequences for the way theology was done in the West.  Pelikan notes the medieval understanding of Scripture and Tradition undermined the earlier patristic view which assumed the coherence of Scripture and Tradition:

Proponents of the theory that tradition was an independent source of revelation minimized the fundamentally exegetical content of tradition which had served to define tradition and in the specification of apostolic tradition (1971:119).

By subordinating Scripture and Tradition to the magisterium of the Papacy, Roman Catholicism drifted even further from the early patristic framework.

The tension between Tradition I and Tradition II grew in the fourteenth century as the canon lawyers took advantage of the two-sources theory to gain influence in the papal curia and the royal courts.  Under the guise of the two-sources theory, canon law was invested with an authority comparable to the Bible.  As the canon lawyers surpassed the theologians in status and influence in the papal curia and the royal courts, the theologians reacted by placing greater stress on the single source theory (Oberman 1963:371 ff.).  The rise of canon law and the subsequent rivalry between the canon lawyers and the doctors of theology was unique to Western Christianity and virtually unknown in the Byzantine East.

In the fourteenth century new currents of thoughts began to circulate straining the medieval synthesis of Scripture, Tradition, and Church.  One current of thought (the Scripturalists) posited the possibility that only a faithful remnant, not the Church, would be faithful to Scripture.  Another current of thought (the Curialists) introduced the notion of post-apostolic tradition and exalted the office of the Pope as a arbiter of post-apostolic tradition.  It is here in the tensions between the Curialists and the Scripturalists, and between the canon lawyers and the theologians, we see the incipient fault lines that would rupture in the sixteenth century giving rise to the Reformation and the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura.

The growing tensions between the Curialists and the Scripturalists would give rise to Protestantism which inverted the two-sources paradigm by opposing Scripture against Tradition and by placing Scripture over Tradition.  This upending of the medieval Scripture-Tradition paradigm resulted in what Lane calls the “ancillary view” (1975:42).  He notes that the Protestant Reformation was not so much a revolt against Tradition as it was a revolt against the authority of the Catholic Church.

The revolt was against church teaching rather than against tradition.  The Roman church was seen as a heretical body because it had perverted the Scriptures as well as added to them.  The root issue was one of ecclesiology: does the church define the gospel or vice-versa?  It is significant that the Reformers repeatedly sought to use tradition on their own side.  The prime enemy was not tradition, not even supplementary tradition, but the teaching of the contemporary (Roman) church (1975:42).

We find a similar observation made by Muller:

What the Reformation did in a new and forceful manner was to pose scripture against tradition and practices of the church and at the same time, define scripture as clear and certain in and of itself and therefore “self-interpreting” (Muller 1996:36).

Lane’s observation about the ancillary view gives us insight as to what was distinctive about the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura.  One, it did not entail the wholesale rejection of tradition which is the view held by the Radical Anabaptists and modern American Evangelicals.  Two, it assumed a divergence of Scripture from Tradition which is contrary to the coincidence view that underlies patristic theology. Three, it opposed the authority of Scripture against the Church.  It is the last point that differentiates the Protestant variant of sola scriptura from its Humanist predecessors.  Underlying the ancillary view is the belief that the Church can err and has erred, and for that reason recourse to Scripture is necessary for reforming the Church.


Part III: The Role of Sola Scriptura in the Protestant Reformation

Ulrich Zwingli — The First Appearance of Sola Scriptura

The Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura first emerged in Zurich, Switzerland, in the late Autumn of 1520.  A furor erupted when Ulrich Zwingli attacked clerical celibacy and the intercession of the saints on the basis of Scripture.  In response to the controversy the city council of Zurich met to settle the matter.  In its ruling the council affirmed the principle of sola scriptura and Zwingli’s preaching.

Unlike modern Evangelicalism’s highly individualistic reading of the Bible, the Swiss Reformation had a more civil and ecclesial approach to sola scriptura. For the Swiss Reformers Scripture was to be interpreted by the local political and church authorities independent of any interference from the Roman Papacy, councils, theologians, and canon lawyers.  Oberman writes:

This synod, with its two faces, toward the church of Zurich and toward the universal church, has only one judge: holy scripture.  The judge is joined by the doctores as consultants, the general clergy as its constitutive membership and the city council as its executive arm.  But together all of these are ‘brethren in Christ’.  Neither bishop, general church council, pope nor city council could preside as judge over the assembly’s deliberations.  The innovation introduced by the 1523 assembly consisted in the elevation of scripture from a canon of reference to an immediate and sufficient assurance of doctrinal rectitude which would lead the ‘brethren in Christ’ to truth: ‘We have here an infallible and impartial judge, namely holy scripture’ (1981:232).

The Swiss Reformation was the result of an alliance between the local church and the civil authority.  In it the interests of the Reformers and the civil authorities coincided, both were seeking greater autonomy from Rome’s centralizing project.  By sanctioning Zwingli’s sola scriptura the Zurich council was asserting the city’s autonomy from the Roman Papacy and the universities, the stronghold of Scholasticism.  In turning an academic doctrine into an political principle and a social movement, Zwingli and the Zurich council inaugurated the Reformation in Switzerland and South Germany.  In this context sola scriptura was both a theological and a political statement.

Martin Luther — Augustinian Scholar

The rise of the Lutheran Reformation cannot be understood apart from the formative influence of the Humanist movement.  The University of Wittenberg, where Martin Luther labored as professor of biblical studies, became part of the Humanist movement when Andreas Karlstadt, dean of the theology faculty at Wittenberg, was won over from Scholasticism’s Aristotelianism to the vera theologia of Augustinianism (McGrath 1985: 16 ff., 47 ff.).  Karlstadt’s conversion led to a major restructuring of the curriculum at the Wittenberg seminary.  Augustine superseded Aquinas, and direct exegetical study of the biblical text was emphasized.  Karlstadt also introduced to the seminary sola scriptura as a working principle for biblical scholarship.

It may be pointed out that it is Karlstadt, rather than Luther, who is associated with the enunciation of the sola scriptura principle, which later became the programmatic basis of the Zurich Reformation …. (McGrath 1985:51 no. 81)

Although Luther was working in an obscure seminary, the explosive effect of Luther’s Ninety Five Theses was amplified by the Humanist network that spanned the European continent.  The Humanists enthusiastically supported Luther because it was consistent with their desire for reform in the Catholic Church.

The Lutheran Reformation originated as a university reforming movement in an academic context, initially fighting an essentially academic battle until the intervention of the humanist movement turned a minor local academic debate into a major cosmopolitan ecclesiastical confrontation (McGrath 1987:102).

Without this network, it is quite possible that Luther’s disputation over indulgences would have remained a local controversy and the Protestant Reformation would have been still born (McGrath 1987:65 ff.).

An examination of Luther’s life will show that sola scriptura was not the initial issue in Luther’s career as a reformer.  The initial issue was his discovery of sola fide “justification by faith alone” which he discovered possibly as early as 1515 when he was lecturing on Romans.  Luther’s paradigm shift would later lead him to attack the sale of indulgences and the posting of the Ninety Five Theses in 1517 which brought Luther into open conflict with church authorities.  The Leipzig Debate held in mid 1519 marked another watershed for Luther.  At this debate Luther was forced by Eck to reject not only the authority of the Papacy but also the authority of the councils.

By February 1520, in the course of defending his beliefs Luther began to have serious doubts about the authority of the Papacy even to the point of wondering whether the pope was the Antichrist (Kittelson 1986:138).  Luther’s doubts eventually turned into an outright rejection of the Papacy.  In April 1521, Luther made an open declaration of sola scriptura at the Diet of Worms when he gave his famous speech before Emperor Charles V and the representatives of the Papacy:

Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scripture or with open, clear, and distinct grounds and reasoning–and my conscience is captive to the Word of God–then I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience.  Here I stand.  I can do no other.  God help me!  Amen.  (Kittleson 1986:161)

Luther’s defiant “Here I stand!” at the Diet of Worms serves as a paradigmatic event that shapes the Protestant character.  For Protestants Luther’s courageous stand exemplifies the Protestant principle of sola scriptura, lifting it up from a merely abstract theological principle into an act of courage and conviction.

What we see happening is that sola scriptura was not something that Luther first discovered, but something Luther was forced to accept in the course of his defending his discovery of sola fide.  The roots of Luther’s sola scriptura can be seen in his working methods as a professor of biblical studies trained in the ways of via moderna.  Eventually, Luther’s uncompromising affirmation of sola fide led him to reject the authority of the Papacy and to affirm the authority of the Bible over all other authorities.  This supports Lane’s argument that sola scriptura was primarily a revolt against the authority of the Church, not Tradition (1975:42).

John Calvin — French Humanist Scholar

At the age of twelve John Calvin was sent by his father to the University of Paris, the leading intellectual center in Europe at the time.  Calvin came to Paris at a time when the Italian Renaissance had begun to affect the educational program there.  The educational reforms emphasized the “three languages”:  Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and included philology and study of the literary classics.  All these studies would form an indispensable foundation for Calvin’s career as a biblical scholar and preacher of the Word of God.  Calvin was strongly influenced by Erasmus’ intellectual program and remained in many ways a Humanist of the late Renaissance, even after his break with Catholicism (Bouwsma 1988:13).  Calvin’s massive commentaries on the Old and New Testament with all the learning that they contained constitute the fruit not only of the Reformation, but also Renaissance Humanism.

Just as Calvin’s conversion is shrouded in mystery, so likewise the circumstances of his acceptance of sola scriptura (See End Note 3).  Calvin did not use the phrase “sola scriptura” in his Institutes of Christian Religion, but it is clear that he accepted this principle.  This principle is implicit in his assertions of the superiority of Scripture over all other sources of knowledge.  Section 1.6.1 of Calvin’s Institutes has the subheading: “God bestows the actual knowledge of himself upon us only in the Scripture” which clearly point to where Calvin’s sympathies lie.  In Book I chapters 7 to 10, Calvin affirms the superiority of Scripture over all other forms of knowledge: creation (1.6.4), the Church (1.7.2), human reason (1.8.1), the doubts and questioning of the skeptics (1.8.9), and the fevered imaginings of the Enthusiasts (1.9.1).

In Book IV, Calvin follows up on his earlier position taken in Book I.  Calvin challenges the authority of the Catholic Church by insisting that the doctrinal authority of the Catholic Church is subject to Scripture (4.8.4).  Furthermore, he implies that the doctrinal authority of the true Church is derived from the authority of Scripture (4.8.8 and 4.8.13).  Calvin further undermines the authority of the Papacy by asserting that councils can err and that only those councils that conform to the teaching of Scripture can be considered true church councils (4.9).  Calvin redefines the Church by making “the Word of God purely preached and heard” a mark of the true church (4.1.9).

Calvin exerted an enormous influence over Protestantism through his Institutes by establishing sola scriptura as a working principle.  His views on Scripture as the supreme norm and his insistence that Christian faith and practice be derived from Scripture are themes that continued to be reiterated even to the present day.


Part IV. The Legacy of Sola Scriptura

Protestantism’s adoption of sola scriptura was to have a profound effect on the way it did theology.  Carlton notes that in contrast to the classical theological confessions which began with an affirmation of belief in one God, many Protestant creeds open with a statement about the authority of Scripture.

The belief in the Bible as an object of faith and as a subject of Credal affirmation, however, represents a radical departure from the faith of the early Church.  None of the ancient creeds of the Church begins with a statement about the Bible; rather, all begin with an affirmation in one God, the Father (1997:1; italics in original).

Another consequence of sola scriptura was the downgrading of the doctrinal authority of the Ecumenical Councils.  Where the Bible was held to be inerrant, the Councils were held to be errant and fallible (e.g., Westminster Confession, Chapter XXXI).

Sola scriptura led the Protestant Reformers to adopt a different hermeneutic.  By making Scripture the sole norm, the Reformers situated the regula fidei within Scripture rather than within the Church, the approach taken by the early Church (cf. Carlton 1997:1).  This relocation of the regula fide can be seen in the principles: “Scripture interpreting Scripture” and “the canon within the Canon.” The elevating of Scripture over the Church and the opposing of Scripture against Tradition was something unheard of for the first millennium and a half of church history.

The magisterial Reformation sought to maintain the relationship between Scripture and Tradition.  They vigorously opposed the Scripture-only hermeneutics of the Radical Anabaptists which excluded any other sources.  Keith Mathison labeled this position: solo scriptura.  However, it was this version of sola scriptura that would become the dominant paradigm in American Protestantism.  The spread of solo scriptura was due to a number of cultural factors: the Enlightenment which rejected traditional authorities and American culture which emphasized the freedom of individual conscience.  Thus, the solo scriptura of American Evangelicalism bears very little resemblance to that of Luther and Calvin.  This has created considerable confusion in current theological discussions because many people confuse the classic Protestant sola scriptura with the later version  —  solo scriptura— that rejects outright historical tradition.

The historical evolution of sola scriptura — from a working principle of the medieval Humanists, to the rallying cry of the Protestant Reformers, to its popular form in American Evangelicalism — underscores sola scriptura’s fluid and dynamic nature.  This fluidity means that sola scriptura lacks the capacity to provide Protestant Christianity with a stable hermeneutical framework it so badly needs.  The fluidity of sola scriptura helps us to understand Protestantism’s bewildering theological and denominational diversity.  As Luther and Calvin feared, sola scriptura opened up a hermeneutical Pandora’s Box (Williams 1998:358).

The Irony of Protestantism

The irony of Protestantism is that much of what the Reformers were protesting against was not Tradition, i.e., the commonly held beliefs and practices of the early Church, but innovations invented during the Middle Ages, e.g., indulgences, purgatory, transubstantiation, papal supremacy.  In many ways the Protestants can be seen as innocent victims of Rome’s break from Eastern Christianity and the patristic consensus of the early Church.  Medieval Scholasticism which many see as one of the high points of Catholicism, can be seen as Western Christianity’s fall away from Tradition.

Lane notes perceptively that Protestantism’s ancillary view of Scripture is based upon the assumption that the Church can err and has erred, and for that reason Scripture is needed as a corrective.  A corollary of the ancillary view is the presupposition that at some time the Church experienced a “Fall” from the original apostolic teaching.  Many Orthodox Christians would point to the Schism of 1054 as the decisive turning point.  For the first thousand years the churches of the East and West shared the coincident view of Scripture and Tradition.  The Pope’s unilateral insertion of the Filioque clause into the Nicene Creed signaled the Western Church’s move away from the patristic consensus and the principle of conciliarity.  Thus, the origins of Protestantism’s sola scriptura needs to be traced, not just to medieval Catholicism, but also the Great Schism of 1054 (See End Note 2).

The ascendancy of medieval Scholasticism gave rise to a break from the earlier patristic consensus.

By the late twelfth century western theologians by and large had ceased to speculate ad mentem patrum or to work in the same atmosphere in the same atmosphere of the fathers preferred until then by both Churches.  Because of his attitude towards the proof from authority, the new professional Latin theologian was arguably willing to relativize the patristic inheritance (Papadakis 1994:181).

Kristeller likewise argues that Scholasticism’s attempt to create a logically coherent theological system represents a novel break from the patristic period (1979:71).  This break from the earlier patristic consensus would have profound consequences.  Differences in methods, doctrines, and even vocabulary impeded attempts to restore Christian unity.  The Greek delegates at the Council of Ferrara-Florence discussions were repelled by the Latins’ insistence on syllogistic reasoning (Hussey 1986:278).  Dialogue between Anglicans and Orthodox in the 1600s was stymied when the Anglicans’ insistence on conceptual clarity ran head on into the Greeks’ apophatic theology (Runciman 1968:338 ff.).  Scholasticism also gave Western theology a dynamic evolutionary quality.  The frequent complaint that Eastern Orthodoxy’s theology has stagnated or failed to move ahead can be viewed positively as evidence that Eastern Orthodoxy has maintained continuity with the patristic consensus while Roman Catholicism and Protestantism have evolved along a different theological paths.

In many ways the Protestant Reformers in their attempt to reform the Church were circumscribed and hampered by western Europe’s long isolation.  The state of medieval scholarship was such that it is debatable whether the medieval Scholastics really understood the Church Fathers, even Augustine, the premiere Church Father of the West.  McGrath notes,

Augustine tended to be studied atomistically, in the form of isolated quotations, or ‘sentences’, culled from his writings.  In that the medieval reader of these sentences had no way of knowing their immediate context, the possibility of seriously misinterpreting such isolated Augustinian gobbets was ever present (1987:176-177).

Even as late as the sixteenth century, scholars like Luther’s colleague Karlstadt were forced by circumstances to read Augustine at second hand (McGrath 1987:61).  The state of patristics in medieval Europe was such that Luther mistakenly believed that Tertullian, who lived from the latter part of the second century into the beginning part of the third century, was the earliest of ancient Christian writers after the apostles (Pelikan 1984:9).  For Luther this meant that a sharp distinction could be drawn between Scripture and Tradition.

Unlike the West, Eastern Christianity was able to maintain its patristic base.  This was because the laity and the clergy of the Eastern Church being able to read and speak Greek had an uninterrupted history of direct access to the Church Fathers and the New Testament text in the original language.  Also, unlike the West which was cut off from the larger world, Constantinople continued to thrive as a center of civilization.

The Greek-speaking (that is, the eastern) church had always relied directly upon the Greek text of the New Testament, rather than upon an intervening translation.  In that the early western church tended to depend upon the eastern for its theology (such as its Christology and Trinitarianism), but developed essentially independently in the aftermath of the theological renaissance of the twelfth century, one would expect that the most serious difficulties would arise in relation to doctrines which developed within the Latin-speaking church during the period 1150-1450 (McGrath 1987:132-133).

The Reformers’ doctrine of sola scriptura even with its high regard for Tradition did not mean a return to early Church, but rather a new form of Christianity.



The Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura is rooted in the complex history of medieval Catholicism.  Following the Schism of 1054, the Latin Church became increasingly detached from its patristic roots.  This detachment and Scholasticism’s highly speculative approach to theology gave rise to doctrinal expressions alien to the patristic consensus.  The emergence of a papal monarchy and the growth of canon law replaced the earlier principle of conciliarity.  Crucial to the emergence of sola scriptura was the Humanist movement which emphasized critical scholarship and direct access to textual sources.  Initially, there were several variants of sola scriptura among the Humanist scholars. Distinctive to the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura was the assertion of Scripture being the supreme norm over other sources like Tradition and the Church.

This particular emphasis was a reaction to the contradiction between the Humanists’ reading of Scripture and the extra-biblical innovations promulgated by Scholastic theologians and canon lawyers and the Papacy’s endorsement of these innovations.  As doctrine and practice moved further away from its patristic roots tensions became severe to the point that later traditions and Scripture contradicted each other.  To resolve this problem the Papacy made itself the supreme arbiter of Scripture and Tradition.  In response to this crisis the Protestant Reformers put forward an ancillary view — Scripture having authority over Church and Tradition — as a corrective to the Papacy’s ecclesiastical tyranny.

From a historical standpoint there is no evidence of sola scriptura in the Bible, neither is there any evidence that any of the Church Fathers ever taught or used this principle.  Lane notes that the early Church held to the coincident view of Scripture in which Scripture and Tradition are understood to coincide with each other and having the “same force” (την αυτην ισχυν) (Lane 1975:41).  There is no evidence the early Church held the Protestant ancillary view which held Scripture possessed an authority over Church and Tradition and assumed the Church could fall from the apostolic Faith.  If it is true that sola scriptura is a product of medieval Catholicism, then certain conclusions can be drawn: (1) it is a relatively recent development, and (2) it is peculiar to Western Christianity.  Sola scriptura is, therefore, a novel doctrine that lies outside of the historic Christian Faith.

Robert Arakaki



Barth, Karl.  1995.  The Theology of John Calvin. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, translator.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Bloesch, Donald G.  1978.  Essentials of Evangelical TheologyVolume I: God, Authority and Salvation.  San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers.

Bouwsma, William J.  1988.  John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait.  New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Calvin, John.  1960.  Institutes of the Christian Religion.  Ford Lewis Battles, translator.  The Library of Christian Classics. Volume XX. John T. McNeill, editor.  Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

Carlton, Clark.  1997. “Credo” The Christian Activist Volume 11 (Fall/Winter): 1-6.

Davis, John Jefferson.  1984.  Foundations of Evangelical Theology.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House.

Hahn, Scott and Kimberly.  1993.  Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism.  San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

Hussey, J.M.  1986.  The Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire.  Oxford History of the Christian Church.  Henry Chadwick and Owen Chadwick, editors.  Oxford, Great Britain: Clarendon Press.

Kittelson, James M.  1986.  Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career.  Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House.

Kristeller, Paul Oskar.  1979.  Renaissance Thought and Its Sources.  Michael Mooney, editor.  New York: Columbia University Press.

Lane, A.N.S.  1975.  “Scripture, Tradition and Church: An Historical Survey,” Vox Evangelica (9): 37-55.

Lints, Richard.  1993.  The Fabric of Theology: A Prolegomena to Evangelical Theology.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

McGrath, Alister. 1985. Luther’s Theology of the Cross: Martin Luther’s Theological Breakthrough.  Cambridge, Massachusetts: Basil Blackwell.

McGrath, Alister.  1987.  The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation. Oxford, England and Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd..

McGrath, Alister.  1990.  A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture. Reprinted 1997.  Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers.

McKim, Donald K., ed.  1984.  Readings in Calvin’s Theology.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House.

Muller, Richard A.  1996. “Scripture” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation.  Volume 4.  Hans J. Hillerbrand, editor in chief.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Oberman, Heiko A.  1967.  The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism.  First published, 1963.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Oberman, Heiko A.  1981.  Masters of the Reformation: The Emergence of a New Intellectual Climate in Europe.  Dennis Martin, translator.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Oberman, Heiko A.  1992.  The Dawn of the Reformation: Essays in Late Medieval and Early Reformation Thought. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Papadakis, Aristeides with John Meyenorff.  1994.  The Christian East & the Rise of the Papacy: The Church AD 1071-1453.  Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Pelikan, Jaroslav.  1971.  The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600).  Volume I of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Pelikan, Jaroslav.  1985.  The Vindication of Tradition.  The 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities.  New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Pinnock, Clark H.  1971.  Biblical Revelation — The Foundation of Christian Theology.  Chicago: Moody Press.

Runciman, Steven.  1955.  The Eastern Schism: A Study of the Papacy and the Eastern Churches During the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries.  Great Britain: Oxford University Press.

Runciman, Steven.  1968.  The Great Church in Captivity: A Study of the Patriarchate of Constantinople From the Eve of the Turkish Conquest to the Greek War of Independence. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Southern, R.W.  1995.  Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of EuropeVolume I: Foundations.  Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers.

Ware, Timothy.  1963.  The Orthodox Church.  Reprinted 1973.  Middlesex, England: Penguin Books.

Williams, D.H.  1998. “The Search for Sola Scriptura in the Early Church” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology Vol. 52 No. 4 (October), pp. 354-366.



End Note 1: See J.D. Douglas (ed.)  The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church (1974); J.D. Douglas (ed.)  The New Bible Dictionary (1962); Walter A. Elwell (ed.) Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (1984).  Also a review of Bernard Ramm’s Protestant Biblical Interpretation (1970:1-4), Clark Pinnock’s Biblical Revelation (1971:113-137), Donald Bloesch’s Essentials of Evangelical Theology Vol. I (1978:57 ff.), John Jefferson Davis’ Foundations of Evangelical Theology (1984: 226 ff.), and Richard Lints’ The Fabric of Theology (1993:290 ff.), all failed to address the question of biblical support for sola scriptura.

End Note 2: The division between the Church of Rome and the other four eastern patriarchates: Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem was a complex process.  Cardinal Humberto’s placing the bull of excommunication on the altar of Hagia Sophia in 1054 provides a useful historical event demarcating the split.  For a more careful examination see Steven Runciman’s The Eastern Schism (1955).

End Note 3: A review of Bouwsma’s John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait, McGrath’s A Life of John Calvin, Barth’s The Theology of John Calvin, and McKim’s (ed.) Readings in Calvin’s Theology have much to say about Calvin’s indebtedness to humanist scholarship but are silent on the matter of Calvin’s acceptance of  sola scriptura.


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  1. Vincent

    Well done.

  2. John the second

    “The rise of canon law and the subsequent rivalry between the canon lawyers and the doctors of theology was unique to Western Christianity and virtually known in the Byzantine East.”

    Not to nitpick, Robert, but I’m sure you meant “unknown” in the above. Normally I would not address an error in spelling or a slip of the finger at the keyboard but I think this does warrant the necessary change to make sure that there is no confusion. Just trying to help.


    • robertar

      Thanks John! Correction made.

  3. Perry Robinson

    Some added bibliography,

    Rupert Davies, The Problem of Authority in the Continental Reformers

    Per Erik Persson, Sacra Doctrina: Reason and Revelation n Aquinas

  4. John

    What this article appears not to have developed was the implications of Lorenzo Valla’s demolition of the “donation” of Constantine. Perhaps this lacunae will be addressed in a later article. We will have to wait and see.

    This forged “donation” was based inter alia on the Theodosian “settlement” which included the ecclesiology of Pope Damasus and the Alexandria Patriarchate as the basis of the Imperial “Catholic” Church. In both East and West, this Theodosian “settlement” was the starting-point of the development of both Tradition and Ecclesiology.

    When Valla blew apart the legitimacy of Constantine’s so called “donation”, the Theodosian “settlement” was automatically, inexorably and unavoidably collateral damage. When Reformation scholars examined the turpitude of Pope Damasus – who authorised Jerome’s Vulgate, and saw the total Pneumatic bankruptcy of the papacy of the time which underlay that “settlement” and saw that huge swathes of Church Tradition (both East and West) had been built upon that “settlement”, Church Tradition itself became liable to scrutiny in a way which every Byzantine Emperor and almost all Byzantine Bishops totally abhorred.

    For what these Emperors would have seen, had they still been in office, and what Byzantine Bishops who were still around did see, was that likewise, huge swathes of their “authority” and “Tradition” rested on the pinnacle of that inverted pyramid which in turn rested on that Theodosian “settlement”. Post 325 Latin innovations, “donations”, “decretals” etc were merely legitimate, local Latin developments *within* that Theodosian “settlement”.

    In the Anglican tradition, this critique was the basis of Articles VI, XIX and XXI.

    Article XXI spells this out clearly:

    “. . . And when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and the Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Whereof things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of Holy Scripture”.

    This portion of the Article may be lightly paraphrased as follows:

    “. . . And when Bishops be gathered together – to either sanction or “reveal” Tradition, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof when all be not governed with the Spirit and the Word of God,) their Tradition may err, and sometimes has erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Whereof things ordained by them as Tradition as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless this Tradition may be declared that it be taken out of Holy Scripture”.

    Since Jerome’s Vulgate was promulgated by Damasus, it became part of Latin Tradition. In exactly the same way as the Byzantine Greek Textus Receptus was part of the Eastern Greek Tradition.

    And when the Reformers put both the Vulgate and the Greek Textus Receptus under scrutiny, for the Latins, Jerome’s Vulgate was proven to be inferior to the to the Lucianic Itala / Old Vulgate (c157 at Antioch); and the “Traditional” Greek Textus Receptus (not to be totally confused with Antioch’s Textus Receptus) was found to have sufficient variations to require a “critical edition” thereof; there arose a suspicion that both the Greek and Latin Traditions were not entirely faithful in their transmission of the text, and this pushed the “Ad Fontes” movement back into the Original Languages – which included Hebrew and Aramaic. Thus were the “Classical” Traditions of both Greek and Latin placed under unwelcome scrutiny – with the Latin Tradition increasingly seen as entirely disposable.

    Also, at that time, it laid a long-term time bomb which would eventually scuttle the LXX as being of such poor quality as to negate its “canonical authority”, and some 450 years later – post Nazi Holocaust, would question the idea that Greek was the Original Language of the NT. This trajectory imposes fatal collateral fracture-damage to the idea of the alleged “superiority” of the Eastern (Greek) Tradition.

    I would like draw this post to a close before it gets too long with a plausible “hypothetical”:

    What will happen to the Eastern Greek Tradition when (more than if), by around 2070 (and possibly even earlier) – should the Lord tarry and not come by then, there is sufficient material gathered – by way of new archaeology and the “Critical Texting” process in both Hebrew and Aramaic, to eliminate the need to refer to ANY Greek vorlage when producing new Translations of the Bible???

    Rodney Stark’s “Discovering God”, (ISBN: 978-0-06-117389-9) pp 299-301 in quoting Tresmontant (1927-1997) – especially, and Carmignac (1914-1986) indicates that this process is already underway. Glen David Bauscher’s NT translation into English from the original Aramaic is another straw in the wind. As is James Scott Trimm’s “Hebraic Roots” Version. The growing legitimacy of Syriac studies brings the Peshitta (c150)into the equation. When we see a sound Messianic Jewish Version that transcends both Stern and Cassirer, and circumvents the three NIV, NASB and Catholic Jerusalem Bible streams, we will know that it is on in earnest.

    Then full-circle will have been completed with both the sola scriptura and the solo scripture paradigms being totally superseded by the original, Jewish, first Century, “Jerusalem-Central” paradigm of “Scriptura *supra* omnes Traditione”. And those parts of the Imperial Roman Traditions (both Greek and Latin) – who support the superiority of Tradition over Scripture, will then be seen to be like that immortal emperor in that children’s fable – wholly lacking clothing, with his super-salesmen of the nonexistent (Church clergy whose whole raison-d’etre is predicated upon man-made Tradition) being banished and banished retrospectively into that outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

    • Jnorm

      I thought the Textus Receptus was a protestant text? Also, you are saying or “cutting and pasting from someone else” stuff that I don’t recognize from what I read and heard about the Christian East.

      • John

        Jnorm & Perry (July 2, 2011 at 5:27pm) below,

        Thanks for this.

        For too long, the ubiquity of the Classical “twins” of Greek and Latin have dominated the scene of Biblical Scholarship to the disadvantage of the Semitic Languages scholarship – which has (at least up to the end of WW2) was on the “eccentric fringe” of Biblical Studies.

        One of the benefits (if you dare to call it that) of the Nazi horror was the realisation that most of the foundation of the anti-Semitic Nazi horror (and earlier, that of the Romanovs) – and non-resistance thereto was based on their total “rooted-ness” in the “Classical” (i.e. Greek/Latin) tradition. This opened the way for the Semitic Languages stream to join the Greek/Latin paradigm on stage as at least an equal. All this by way of introduction.

        It was “discovered” that Aramaic could be quite satisfactorily transliterated phonemically from the Hebrew alphabet to that of the Syriac script. From there, it was only a minor step for the Syriac-script Peshitta translation to emerge. This generated its own “Textus receptus” vorlage in the Semitic-Syriac Tradition.

        I refer you to the introductions in the Lamsa Translation (ISBN 0-06-064926-7). which lays the foundation for the historicity and hence the legitimacy of the Aramaic Tradition. In Antioch, Edessa and points further east, Aramaic Traditions have remained strong. And it was in Antioch that the first translations were made from the Aramaic into the “Classical Languages” – of both the Tanak and the NT. To do this required an Aramaic “Textus Receptus” as the vorlage to transmit into both Greek and Latin a similar “Textus Receptus” status.

        It was Renaissance / Reformation-era scholars who, being dominated by the “Classical Tradition” to the point of suffocation, in creating *their* “Textus Receptus” thought that they were, so to speak, inventing the “wheel” of the concept of “Textus Receptus”. Post Nazi era, with the rapid and radical advance of Semitic studies, this has been proven to be a “Classical” conceit.

        Any resistance to these “Semitic” ideas by Classics-based scholars is rationally rooted in the fact that too many hundreds (perhaps thousands) of PhD’s in the preceding 10 centuries would be undermined, some in a minor way, others altogether fatally. Hence the group-think of their denigration of the Aramaic Tradition.

        Read Lamsa’s introductions, and Bauscher’s introduction, and then ask yourself, what are the “Greek-primacists” trying to hide? May it not be the unreliability and arbitrariness of the later, post-Antioch “traditional” Greek vorlage?

        Perry, I hope that this has answered your point of :

        “there is no Aramaic text of the NT in hand behind the GReek texts we do have. At best it coul donly be something alone thelines of Q or Mr. JEDP who have fallen on hard times.”

        and have proven the existence of an Aramaic NT. Lamsa explicitly declares that the Peshitta WAS based on an earlier NT Aramaic.

        Happily, I support your statement: “Q or Mr. JEDP who have fallen on hard times.” thesis. JEDP was always a Liberal fiction used to “de-canonise” the Torah.

        I also support your point that “Q” is likewise untenable. The entire notion of “Q” was based on the idea of a Marcan antecedence. The work of B Ward Powers: “The Progressive Publication of Matthew, An Explanation of the writing of the Synoptic Gospels” (ISBN 978-0-8054-4848-1) has conclusively and clinically trashed the legitimacy of this cursed “Quelle”.

        To return to the original thrust of Robert Arakaki’s posting, If B Ward Powers can posit an almost watertight “creation-narrative” of the Synoptics which simultaneously trashes both the Markan-primacy theory and the consequential “Q” theory, I put it to you, there is a similar “n-bomb” in the process of going off in demolishing the presumption of “Greek-primacy” of the NT and thus the legitimacy of the “Classics Tradition” primacy is likeway under challenge – the original point of my first post.

        I trust that this assists.

        • Perry Robinson

          John, Since you deploy a few ad homs, let me return the favor. I’d take Lamsa seriously if his works were peer reviewed and he wasn’t a Nestorian. He’s been pushing this line for a long time. But again, there is no Aramaic text of the NT in hand behind the Greek, academi bias against semetic languages or not. Its a fact, like it or lump it.

          Besides, if I were interested in being Nestorian, I’d go back to being a Calvinist.

          • John


            Thanks for this. Just two short questions:

            1) What do you then make of the KJV?

            Remember, ALL of its translators were either high-level Scottish Rite Masons or Rosicrucians. Most had Templar members of their Scottish Lodges.

            The KJV shows a remarkable translation-bias against Tradition and Eucharistic Real Presence.

            Are you then going to reject it on this basis?

            2) In modern Takak/OT translation efforts these days, Jewish specialists are now increasingly on board. Does this make these translations any less technically correct?

            I have yet to see any of these translations effectively undermine true Christology. Here, please apply the ad minora ex majora argument with respect to Lamsa.

            I trust that this assists.

          • Perry Robinson

            John, I don’t take conspiracy theories seriously. While I reject the Masons and Rosicrucians as theologically heterodox, I don’t find such claims plausible about the KJV, though I am not wedded to it.

            At best your argument is a Tu quo que, it isn’t a reason to accept Lamsa’s views, but rather concededs his heterodox standing. Thanks for conceding the point. And even if he weren’t his works aren’t to my knowledge peer reviewed and that by itself is sufficient to dismiss them out of hand.

            So you’ll need to troll for Lamsa some other place and with some other persons.

    • Perry Robinson

      This looks like a primisory note.

      2nd, there is no Aramaic text of the NT in hand behind the GReek texts we do have. At best it coul donly be something alone thelines of Q or Mr. JEDP who have fallen on hard times.

      The conclusion drawn is exactly the wrong one. The bible will be seen to be a product of and to be tradition for which there is no antecedent hidden text to find.

  5. Tim Enloe

    The sad thing about a post like this is that most Protestants out there don’t give a fig about exploring issues like this. These issues have to be raised in the context of a polemic against sola Scriptura, and even then, there aren’t many Protestants who are concerned enough or knowledgeable enough to engage them. For most, sola Scriptura as an axiom is enough, and those who question it are manifestly departing from the Faith Once For All Delivered. My hat goes off to you, Robert, for engaging the issues like this.

    I wish I could reply, as the intersections between Reformation and Renaissance, and the reaction of both to Late Medieval Scholasticism, are of particular interest to me. Unfortunately, my time on this blog has come to an end. We’ve just had our fourth child, a little girl, and we’re all trying to adjust to that and let mom recover. In addition, I’ve taken a new job and have to spend the remainder of the summer preparing both for that job and for moving out of state to take it. So, regrettably, I cannot participate here any longer.

    Thanks, all, for putting up with me this past month.

    • robertar


      Congratulations on the birth of your daughter! I enjoyed your contributions to our discussion. You’ll be missed. But there is more to life than blogging. Good luck with your new job. God be with you and your family!


    • David

      Thanks for your comments, but fully understand the time demands of your situation (deb & i have 8, but only H/S senior lft at hm). Great years ahead for you and your wife/family! But we will miss you comments greatly and pray you’ll be able to give us a quick visit and comment. I suspect/fear you’re right about most Protestant not giving a fig about such things. Nevertheless, we just might be amazed at the number of ‘lurkers’ (and who they are) out there who really are interested…privately. We do not know how God’s providence ahead of us.

    • Canadian

      Congratulations! Your quiver is getting fuller, but not as full as David’s I guess
      Thanks for contributing and having the patience to listen to, and engage my ramblings when you did. Sincerely hoping for your peace and joy in Christ.

    • Perry Robinson

      Tim, congrats on number four!!

  6. David


    Thanks again for another provocative post. I cannot claim close familarity with this argument though at first blush it seems at least partly plausible. Yet I would anticipate that Refomed scholars would maintain Humanist assumptions & methods (as well as experimental nominalism) were held at arms length, in check, and used by Reformed theologians in a cherrypick/usefulness manner — much like the Orthodox argue against the charge of Hellenism’s influence on them in the first several centuries. And also that the Refomation was far more a work of the Holy Spirit inside the ecclesial community — despite civil/political an other cultural infuences. What say ye…reductionisms notwithstanding? Also, I get mixed vibes from the Orthodox on the Reformation itself — sometimes seeming sympathetic to the Reformers, sometimes to Rome, sorta playing both sides. So which is it. Given the various specific corruptions Rome at he time, how could the Refomers have done anything else?

    • robertar


      Thanks for comments. I did mention in the posting that I saw Protestants as “innocent victims” of Rome’s break from Holy Tradition. I would say that the Reformers were motivated by a desire to serve Christ. We should honor the Reformers’ love for their love of Scripture even as we disagree with their low view of Tradition.

      I would not be surprised if Reformed Christians would take issue with the findings of this posting. If they do take issue with my research, I hope we can discuss the matter on this blog site. We need this dialogue. Ultimately, they will have to provide a more persuasive answer to the question: Where does sola scriptura come from? Keep in mind none of Scott Hahn’s professors were able to answer the question and to my knowledge no Protestant theologian has yet to give a good answer to that question. This silence is deafening and troubling. Probably, the more critical question that must be answered is: Can sola scriptura be shown to be part of the historic Christian Faith?

      One thing I regret about much of contemporary Protestantism is that they either: (1) chase after the latest theological fad, (2) rely on ahistorical syllogistic reasoning, or (3) cherry pick their way through the Church Fathers without regard for the fundamental integrity that bound the ministry of the Gospel to the ministry of the Church. There seems to be huge anti-historical streak among Protestants; a kind of collective amnesia as it were. That is why post-modernism is having a huge influence on modern Evangelicalism and mainline Protestantism. I would say that the best response to post-modernism is to give serious thought about the genealogies of our personal faith backgrounds and to be grounded in the historic Christian Faith. I’m rather surprised by the rather quiet reception this posting has received from its readers. It makes me wonder about the intellectual vitality of Evangelicalism in general and the Reformed community in particular.

      To return to your last point, the original Reformers were limited by the scholarship available in their day. But this is not the case with today’s Reformed Christians, not with growing prominence of Eastern Orthodoxy and the growing numbers of converts from Protestant background. They cannot claim ignorance as their excuse, they must face these fundamental questions of faith in these times of crisis. It is my hope that they possess the same courage and vitality that led the original generation of Reformers to ask fundamental questions of faith.


      • David


        I’m taking what you said as a concession, at least for the early Reformers (anabaptists notwithstanding) — that given their youth, education and historic context w/Rome’s plethora of gross abuses — that Luther, Calvin, et al’s attempt to ‘reform’ the Roman Church ’bout as good as could be expected. Or, that they can’t be chided for NOT forsaking their family, friends culture by moving to a monestary outside Constantinople, Kiev, Bulgaria or Jerusalem…to become Orthodox!

        More surprising is that at least a few zealous/pious Roman Catholic priests did not do this…convert openly to Orthodoxy and bid the Reformers join them? Of course, without the internet and auto/jet travel, the world was far more local & isolated…and where were the Orthodox missionaries all over Europe?

        What I missed in your answer is how/if Reformed scholars rejoin against your charge of sola scriptura’s origin being primarialy of Renaissance Humanism and the Reformers being mostly Renaissance Humanists? I assumed they’d respond much like the Orthodox do to charges of Greek philosophy (palamism) like Doug Jones charged in his Credenda Agenda artcles?

        Do we have Reformers facing the charge of Rena-Humanists, demostrating their struggle against it, and repudiating the dominant intellectual/world-view jugernaut sweeping Europe, as we do have with Greek & other Orthodox Bishops?

        Also, what looks to you like intellectual/theological apathy might be more protestant contentment. Given the plethora of protestant options, just finding a ‘good church’ that’s acceptable (not too objectionable) is enough for most. Few have had the privilege, background and theological encouragement to seriously ponder what the Church IS and should BE beyond superficial levels. That some Protestant (if not many in Reformed/Lutheran/Anglican/Charismatic camps) ARE being led by their Pastors to look, ask, read, about fundamental ecclesiological issues, is a good thing and could bear much good fruit in yrs to come. Thanks again for your kind but pointed interaction.

  7. David

    Since Robert is likely too swamped to reply, someone else wish to weigh in and comment on my last post…per these issues.

    1) Robert seems to essentialy concede sympathy (given the European context and their individual histories) with the nature of the Refomers revolt against Rome…and their failure (refusal?) to embrace a distant and remost Orthodoxy? And IF this is the consensus Orthodox read on the Reformers (not necessairly their theological conclusions) then why do many Orthodox seem sympathetic to Rome and hostile to the Reformation?

    2) What IS the Reformed rejoiner to the charge that sola scriptura’s origin (even the Reformation as a whole) was yet another socio-intellectual response of Renaissance Humanism & and the Reformers acted as Renaissance Humanists as much as pious Christians?

    3) Where were older the pious Catholic Priest in their 60s-80s who saw the merits of the Reformation — but took the “Othodox-Option” converted — and bade the Reformers join them? This might not have been a large movement…but you’d think it happened somewere, no? Why not?

    4) And where were the bright & zealous Orthodox Priests & Monks in their 20s-40s traversing Europe with zeal for the Church and a historic defense of Orthodoxy who bade the Reformers to “come and see” or even come-and-read/study with me? Again, though not broadspread, you’d expect at least a historic attempt at this somewhere?

    I realize history is compliated and not everthing that could happen…did. But if we wish to avoid simplistic reductionism and hopefully understand/learn from history…what say we to such questions?

    • Jnorm

      1.) It’s both. You will have some Orthodox sympathetic to Rome while other Orthodox sympathetic to Protestantism. And for alot of people it might depend on the issue or topic at hand.

      3.) What do you know about the Northern Crusades? Also the fall of Constantinople happened 50 something years before Martin Luther nailed his thesis on the door. I could be wrong, but I think the Muslim Turks got their weapons/Canons from the French. That is how they were able to take down the walls of Constantinople. There was alot of bad blood between the two groups.

      4.) A few Orthodox did flee to the west after the fall of Constantinople. Some of them became Roman Catholic. They brought new greek manuscripts with them along with greek classical works and other things. The other Orthodox were recovering from the Northern Crusades and they also had to fight off the muslims who were gaining new ground all the way to central Europe.

      • John

        Jnorm & David,

        Can I refer you to Rodney Stark’s “God’s Battalions” (ISBN 978 -0-06-158261-5) 2009 re your points #3 & #4.

        Post 1453, Orthodoxy was in no position to mount apologia in the West. Besides, as Stark above points out, Byzantium had lost the respect of the West by its duplicity, prevarication, and sometimes open betrayal by parleying with the Ottomans.

        When we had the Byzantine Empress openly saying “Rather the Muslim Turban than the Roman Mitre” – effectively saying that living in an Islamic Milet was a superior outcome than living in some Papal Milet. And when this got to the Latins, that was the final straw. “They made their bed with the Ottomans, let them lie in it and stew in their own juice” was the gist of the Latin response. “He who lies down with dogs gets up with fleas” was also – at least in sentiment, another Latin response.

        We must always remember, the incorporation of the word “Byzantine” into the western vocabulary as both a noun and adjective – with deeply perjorative connotations, was influenced by the course of the crusades, and bitter Western experience.

        That is a piece of “unfinished business” that Eastern Orthodoxy (primarily Greek) needs to finish, and then a reconciliation with the West will be brought forward several steps.

        I trust that this assists.

        • David

          I admit to being a novice on Byzantine history, and perhaps your point is partly the reason for the ‘limited-contact’ between Orthodox and Refomed Christians during the Reformation era. But were not Papal Roman Catholic armies the aggressors of the Crusades, military sacking and plundering their Orthodox Christian brothers’ city of Constantinople? I wonder at just whom began and is most responsible for the “bad blood” and lack of trust between East & West Christians?

          What we do know more about is the all but total intolerance in the West of Rome toward anyone who’d not bow the knee to the Pope’s rule/authority. Indeed, Bishop Ware’s chapter 5, ‘The Church under Islam’ in _The Orthodox Church_ begins with a brief discussion of the how the Orthodox adjusted to rule under the cresent where the Cross had stood triumphant.

          “It was not an easy transition: but it was made less hard by the Turks themselves, who treated their Christian subjects with remarkable generosity. the Muslims in the fifteenth cenury were far more tolerant towards Christianity than western Christians were toward one another during the Refomation and the seventeenth century.” (page 87)

          I think Luther has a famous quote expressing a similar sentiment preferring the rule of a pagan Turk over a pious Rome Catholic? Whomever might be most to blam for the bad-blood between Rome & Constantinople…does not really address why their was not more, and more friendly contact between the Reformers and the Orthodx on any number of levels.

  8. Jnorm

    The west wanted the East to submit to the Pope. That is why the Empress said what she said and I am happy she said it!

  9. Jnorm

    Under Islam our Faith would be kept in tact. Under the Pope our faith would of been compromised.

    • David

      Thanks Jnorm, for your succinct comments. I understand, or at least I’m resolved as to why the Orthodox did not flee a comparatively comfortable subjugation to Islam that tampered little with their theology and Church life — for a morally corrupt Roman Catholic tyranny that would.

      Now, the question before us is Why did not more of the Reformers go East — OR — did not thousand more Orthodox missonaries go West to a Europe to help, teach and appeal to the Reformers. It’s occurred to me that lack of Opportunity and Fear could be two reasons. We forget the Reformation was not mostly an academic and theological discussion and debate — it was often a bloody political rebellion that got tens of thousands killed. But I am open to others who know the history better than me. Like the bankruptcy of Western Europe today, it just seemed like a great missionary opportunity that Orthodoxy lost.

      • robertar

        Dear Folks,

        Interesting discussion! I wish I knew more about the circumstances that led up to 1453 and after. Probably, much of it will be shrouded in history. There were some limited interactions in the time of the Reformation but there are so many more opportunities today. I would suggest that instead of focusing on the what ifs, we should be looking at the issues before us today: Is sola scriptura scripturally sound?, Is sola scriptura part of the historic Christian Faith? Did Calvin get it right on the icon? What can Reformed and Orthodox Christians learn from each other? We HAVE so many more resources available today compared to Calvin and Luther’s time. We should be exercising our intellects and our faith in the pursuit of the Truth. I believe God will hold us accountable if we do not avail ourselves of the rich resources available today. I believe that the time we are living in now represents a reopening of a window of opportunity for Reformed-Orhtodox dialogue. Let’s not blow this great opportunity!

        I’m hard at work at another posting and hope to get it up shortly. Would appreciate your prayers.


  10. Lucian

    If it is true that sola scriptura is a product of medieval Catholicism, then certain conclusions can be drawn: (1) it is a relatively recent development, and (2) it is peculiar to Western Christianity. Sola scriptura is, therefore, a novel doctrine that lies outside of the historic Christian Faith.


  11. drake

    Where Does Hierarchical Interpretation come from? The Gnostic and Neoplatonic Origins of the Denial of Sola Scriptura.


    “Gnosticism” by Edward Moore (St. Elias School of Orthodox Theology) from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says,

    “Indeed, while the receptive hermeneutical method implies that we have something to learn from a text, the method employed by the Gnostics, which we may call the “revelatory” method, was founded upon the idea that they (the Gnostics) had received a supra-cosmic revelation, either in the form of a “call,” or a vision, or even, perhaps, through the exercise of philosophical dialectic. This “revelation” was the knowledge (gnôsis) that humankind is alien to this realm, and possesses a “home on high” within the plêrôma, the “Fullness,” where all the rational desires of the human mind come to full and perfect fruition…On this belief, all knowledge belonged to these Gnostics, and any interpretation of the biblical text would be for the purpose of explaining the true nature of things by elucidating the errors and distortions of the Demiurge.”

    The Gnostic Magisterium was a vital aspect of their epistemology. They claimed to be the only authority to teach and interpret the scriptures. Sound familiar? Lossky admits that Clement, Origen , and Dionysius were Neoplatonists that claimed Neoplatonism for their own.

    • robertar

      Dear Drake,

      I’m not sure how this comment relates to the posting about the historical origins of sola scriptura. Perhaps you can be more explicit about this?

      It’s nice that you cited a faculty member of the St. Elias School of Orthodox Theology. This is the first time I’ve heard of this school. I’m not all that impressed that it claims to be “Orthodox.” Can you provide me the name of the bishop supervising this school? I’d be quite interested in knowing if the other canonical Orthodox patriarchates recognize the supervising bishop.


      • Jamey Bennett

        St. Elias school is not affiliated with canonical Orthodoxy. I was a student there under Dr. Moore. The bishop overseeing the school when I was a student became a Buddhist. And Dr. Moore was critical of things I said against abortion. As my old priest said, “They are not Orthodox in any way I would recognize.”

        That said, Dr. Moore (no longer affiliated with St. Elias) has written some serious scholarly material.

  12. Rick

    Excellent post Robert! I have read quite a number of posts on your blog and have found the information very helpful in gaining an understanding of the Orthodox faith. The historical elements discussed in this post are truly “new light” to me. Having been born into a Protestant home, and early in my own spiritual pilgrimage, embracing the Reformed views, I have come to realize how little I knew of Church history. This blog, and a number of books on Orthodoxy: Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism (currently reading), Journeys of Faith, The Seven Ecumenical Councils, and Becoming Orthodox, have made me feel somewhat like Neo after he was plucked from the Matrix. I’ve a lot to learn yet, but with the help of our gracious God I’m encouraged to keep moving forward. Please know how deeply appreciated your work here is. And thanks for allowing the supportive and opposing comments. They really help fill in many gaps.

    • Robert Arakaki

      Thank you Rick for your encouraging words. This is why I started this blog. I had many questions like yours but there were not many resources out there back in the 1990s. Thank God, today there are many resources out there for Protestant inquirers.

      The books you are reading are excellent. I would also recommend Frederica Mathewes-Green’s Facing East and Markides Kyriacos’ Mountain of Silence.

      Praying for you,


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