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Guilty of Bibliolatry?

Holy Bible



Recently an inquirer, interested in Orthodoxy, wrote to express his frustrations about a conversation he had with Protestants:

The problem that I kept encountering while discussing Orthodoxy with these fundamentalist Protestants is that the center of their faith is a book and not the Incarnate God-man, Jesus Christ. For example, one said: “It’s funny how he keeps trying to point to Christ and talk about how Christ is more important than Scripture. But without Scripture we don’t know Christ. He’s putting the cart before the horse. You can’t have Christ if you don’t go to God’s infallible Scripture to find Him. There is no Christ, no Christianity, no Christology, no soteriology and no other theological field of study apart from God’s infallible Word. God chose to reveal His Son through Scripture.” What is being said is only partly true, yet it is also deceptively heterodox, particularly the first sentence in red, which is what I’m calling out as iconoclastic bibliolatry! In essence, I perceive a sincere belief in the Incarnation of God the Word, yet they are saying that it is the written word that makes the Incarnation of God a reality, instead of the Incarnate Word and His theanthropic organism, the Church, that prove the veracity of Scripture; things are completely backwards and upside down, an inside out anti-Sacramental, iconoclastic bibliolatry. Please correct me if I’m wrong!



Extreme Protestantism

What one sees in the excerpt above is an extreme form of Protestantism.  The original Protestant Reformers, while they asserted sola scriptura, were also receptive to other sources of knowledge.  They formulated their arguments using Scripture, philosophy, natural science, and common sense.  They amply quoted the Church Fathers, especially when they supported the Reformers’ positions.  Luther in his famous Here I Stand speech appealed to both Scripture and reason:

Martin Luther “Here I Stand!”

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason-for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves-I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.  (Emphasis added.)  [Source]

Calvin’s Institutes is filled with citations from the early Church Fathers.  So while the Reformers appealed to Scripture, their understanding of sola scriptura allowed for other sources of knowledge.  What one finds in the Fundamentalists mentioned above is something different, a version of sola scriptura that excludes all other forms of knowledge.  This is a radical departure from historic Protestantism and results in cultic Protestantism.  They are not Protestants in the historic or normal sense of the word.

While the approach taken by the Magisterial Reformers is superior to Evangelicalism, problems remain. Under the Reformers’ seeming willingness to hear and even submit to the Fathers and the Ecumenical Councils is an acknowledgment that there is wisdom greater than our own reading of Scripture. Sadly, this is not what we find happening in practice.  The history of Protestantism reveals the gradual unraveling of sola scripturaKeith Mathison’s in The Shape of Sola Scriptura notes the divergence between the classic sola scriptura of the Reformers and the later solo scriptura favored by Evangelicals.  The later version eschewed all other external sources, positing instead the individual Christian interpreting the Bible for himself.


Cultic Protestantism

Sola scriptura places a heavy burden on the Christian.  In rejecting the papacy, Protestantism imposes on the individual Christian the responsibility for understanding Scripture.  This gives rise to an independent spirit: “Nobody tells me what the Bible means!”  It also paradoxically gives rise to a spirit of dependency in which one comes to rely on the pastor, favorite radio preachers, or denomination for understanding Scripture.  It is the latter that gives rise to cultic Protestantism.

The term “cult” has often been used pejoratively to refer to a religious group one does not like.  For this article, I define “cult” in terms of sociological traits: (1) authoritarian in structure, (2) personalistic – centered on the group’s leader, (3) lacking accountability to an independent tradition or authority, (4) suppression of critical thinking, (5) little or no tolerance for internal diversity – group think, (6) an embattled, hostile perception of the outside world, and (7) anger and hostility directed against those who have left the group.

A cult takes certain elements of a healthy church and distorts them in very unhealthy ways.  In terms of architectural design, both a house and a prison have walls and doors; but where a house is designed to allow easy access and exit while protecting the residents from inclement weather, a prison is designed to prevent inmates from leaving (escaping) and is designed to maximize control over their movements.  Institutions like an army encampment or a monastery can bear a strong resemblance to a prison or an internment camp, but with the former the element of free will and consent are preserved.  People trapped in a cult or abusive relationships are enclosed psychologically by threats of punishment or external danger.  Oftentimes, all one’s close relationships are within the cult which means that leaving will result in social abandonment – life alone bereft of meaning and direction.  When engaging in theological discussions it is wise to discern whether one is talking with someone who belongs to the historic mainstream or to a cultic form of Protestantism.

Cults rely on techniques of manipulation: seduction, isolation, indoctrination, and domination.  This is similar to an abusive relationship in which the man dates a woman, and then gradually and subtly compels her to sever ties with friends and family.  These comprise the initial stages of seduction and isolation.  The stated rationale is his love and concern for her.  The woman learns to see the world the same way as the man; this is the indoctrination stage.  She is discouraged from thinking independently, becoming reliant on the man for news of the outside world; this is the group think stage.  In time the relationship takes a downward spiral into spiritual darkness and violence; this is the domination stage.  The relationship has become a prison that is very difficult to leave.  Exit is not presented as an option.

I know a man who was torn between Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism.  He told me that one night he was walking by a park and saw a group singing and having a good time.  It turned out to be a church group that met at the park and in people’s homes.  He got into a discussion with the pastor (group leader) who would frequently ask him: “Where does it say that in the Bible?”  This innocent question resembles the initial stages of seduction and isolation.  A person who is spiritually hungry and seeking the truth is led down a one-way street in which the conversation is confined to what one sees in the Bible.  Other sources of knowledge are subtly excluded.  Here the rules of the game are subtly rigged without the other player knowing it.  The seeker then has to contend with the pastor’s interpretation of the Bible.  If one is ignorant of church history or has not had much education in critical thinking, one becomes vulnerable to the pastor’s “superior” insights into the Bible.  I don’t know if this group was a cult or not.  However, intellectual honesty calls for the inquirer to be made aware of the methods and sources being employed.  Fairness requires that the players be made aware of the rules of the game.  Healthy spirituality calls for a balance between the rational intellect and emotional/intuitive discernment, between individual freedom and collective authority.

So when I read the quote in the reader’s e-mail I was struck by the subtle psychological manipulations taking place.  Rather than take seriously the inquirer’s attempt to take a Christ-centered approach to Christianity, his interlocutors belittled his theological method and attempted to steer him towards an extreme version of sola scriptura.

It’s funny how he keeps trying to point to Christ and talk about how Christ is more important than Scripture. But without Scripture we don’t know Christ. He’s putting the cart before the horse. You can’t have Christ if you don’t go to God’s infallible Scripture to find Him. There is no Christ, no Christianity, no Christology, no soteriology and no other theological field of study apart from God’s infallible Word. God chose to reveal His Son through Scripture.

What we see here is a full-fledged theological system with an implicit theological method: the Bible as the exclusive source for theology.  What is not mentioned is the method by which Scripture will be interpreted.  The exclusion of creeds, church history, theologians, and church fathers prevents one from being able to entertain alternative points of views.  This leaves people not familiar with church history and with scant knowledge of the Bible at a disadvantage when discussing the Bible.  In cultic Protestantism the “correct” interpretation of Scripture lies with the group leader.  Rival interpretations are suppressed, sometimes through peer pressure or subtle sermonizing directed at the critic, other times through more open and coercive means like direct reprimand or even expulsion.

Orthodoxy offers a quite different approach to the interpretation of Scripture.  I wrote several articles that deal with this.  One article shows that what the Bible teaches is not the Bible alone, but the Bible in the context of Apostolic Tradition.      And how the Holy Spirit has been guiding the Church through the centuries in its reading of Scripture.


The Bible Alone?

Probably the best way to counter extreme Protestants is to ask them: “Where does the Bible say ‘the Bible alone’?”  They will likely respond with bible verses about the Bible being divinely inspired, infallible, and authoritative, but none of these verses will say that we are rely only on the Bible to the exclusion of other sources.  A careful reading of the Bible will show that God allowed people to utilize human reason and other sources aside from Scripture.


The Bible often points to the beauty of creation as evidence of there being a Creator God (Psalms 8:3-5, 19:14).  Paul likewise referred to Creation’s witness to God in Romans 1:20.  While Creation’s witness to God is incomplete, it is a sign of wisdom for one to learn from God’s creation.  God’s gift to the Jews was the divine wisdom found in the Torah (Psalm 19:7-10).  When the Jews turned away from God, God used Creation as a witness against them (Isaiah 1:2-3).


The Prophet Isaiah made this appeal: “’Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord” (Isaiah 1:18).  This was not blind obedience but an appeal for the inhabitants of Jerusalem and Judah to think about their present circumstances and future outcomes.  A careful reading of Apostle Paul’s letters shows his familiarity with the techniques of argumentation used by philosophers and religious scribes of his time.  Nowhere in his letters did Paul urge on his readers blind faith.


In his speech before the philosophers in Athens Apostle Paul quoted two Greek philosophers: Epimenides and Aratus (Acts 17:28).  Paul cites Epimenides in Titus 1:12 and Menander in 1 Corinthians 15:33.  The ease with which Paul could quote the pagan Greek philosophers and poets shows his familiarity with pagan Greek culture.  The Apostle Paul was a bi-cultural Jew; he grew up in the world of Hellenism and received his rabbinical training in Jerusalem under Gamaliel (Acts 22:3).  Paul was by no means a narrow minded Fundamentalist!


We find in the Bible theological arguments based on historical narratives.  Stephen in Acts 7 traced the history of the Jews from Abraham to Solomon.  Paul in Acts 14:16-23 traced the history of the Jews from the Exodus event to King David.  In his speech before the Areopagus (Acts 17), Paul traced human history from Genesis 1 to 11.  In Acts 26, we find Paul presenting his personal history to King Agrippa as a way of presenting and defending the Gospel.

There is nothing in the Bible that says we cannot learn from history after the book of Acts.  As a matter of fact we would expect to see evidence of God’s sovereignty in the history of Christianity.  We would expect to see the fulfillment of Christ’s promise of the Holy Spirit guiding the Church into all truth (John 16:13).  The argument that the Orthodox Church has kept Apostolic Tradition throughout church history is congruent with the way the Bible uses history.  Extreme Protestants are loathe to argue from church history preferring to cherry pick bible passages and constructing an elaborate theological system based on the inner meaning of the Bible that they alone are privy to.

Visions and Dreams

If the extreme Protestants are right, then all it would take for Saul of Tarsus to become a Christian would be reading the Old Testament.  Instead, God walloped Paul with a blinding vision on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-5).  Apostle Peter in his Pentecost sermon quoted the passage by Joel about young men seeing visions and old men having dreams (Acts 2:17).  In Acts 10, we read how it took a vision from God to convince Peter it was kosher to visit the house of the Roman centurion Cornelius.  Miraculous events like these, while not typical, show that knowledge of God can take place outside Scripture.  What matters is that these miraculous events were consistent with Scripture’s witness to Jesus Christ.


When Philip asked the Ethiopian eunuch if he understood the passage in Isaiah, the eunuch answered: “How can I unless someone explains it to me.” The Orthodox understanding is that Christ is the master Teacher who taught the Apostles the meaning of the Old Testament (Luke 24:44-49).  Philip as an ordained deacon had the authority to give the Christian interpretation of Isaiah 53:7-8 to the eunuch Acts 6:5-6).  In 2 Thessalonians 2:15 Paul exhorted the Christians to stand firm on Apostolic Tradition in both the written and oral forms.  Extreme Protestants, on the other hand, will turn a blind eye on oral tradition.  If pressed, they will insist that we don’t know what this “oral tradition” is and that it has been lost early on when the Christian Church fell into spiritual darkness.  This is the Apostasy or Blink-On/Blink-Off theory of church history.

The Orthodox Church insists that it has faithfully preserved both oral and written Tradition from the time of the Apostles.  What many Protestants overlook is the role of the Church in preserving the written Word of God before the invention of the printing press.  We owe a great debt to the early Christians who faithfully copied the Bible and who protected the Bible against unbelievers who sought to destroy it.  Moreover, we owe a debt to the early Church Fathers, who defined the biblical canon, ensuring that inspired Scriptures were made part of the Bible and spurious works excluded.  We also owe a debt to the Church Fathers who guarded the Bible against heretics who distorted the meaning of the Bible.

To sum up, what we find in the Bible is a rich array of methods people used for discerning God’s will.  We do not find the proof texting method much preferred by extreme Protestants.  So, if one enters into a conversation or discussion and is asked: “Where does it say that in the Bible?”; the best reply is: “Where does it say in the Bible, ‘the Bible alone?’  And since the Bible does not teach that, this means we have the freedom to use our rational intellect to work through the evidence available to us like reason, church history, and the Church Fathers.”

Extreme Protestants have fallen into the same error as the Pharisees.  In John’s Gospel we find Jesus explaining the role and purpose of the Bible.  Jesus told the Pharisees:

You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. (John 5:39; RSV)

The Bible is like a street sign that points to the desired destination; it is not the destination.  The scribes and Pharisees devoted so much energy studying Scripture that when the promised Messiah arrived they failed to recognize him.  Similarly, extreme Protestants have become so fixated on reading the Bible in their own way that they fail to take into account Jesus’ promise to establish his Church (Matthew 16:18), protect the Church against the powers of Hell (Matthew 16:18), guide the Church by the Holy Spirit (John 16:13), and make the Church “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).  They overlook the Old Testament promises of the Eucharistic sacrifice (Isaiah 56:6-7), a new priesthood for the Messianic Age (Isaiah 66:20-21), and the worldwide offering of incense in the Messianic Age (Malachi 1:11).  The priesthood, incense, and the Eucharist can be found in Orthodoxy today, but are nowhere to be found in extreme Protestantism.  They can claim that they have the Bible but so too do cults like the Jehovah Witnesses, the Mormons, and the Seventh Day Adventists (all which originated in the 1800s).  Many extreme Protestant groups have sprung up only recently.  The earnest seeker of God’s truth need to ask: “Where is the Church that Christ promised?  Where is the right worship of God promised in the Old Testament prophecies?


Orthodox Altar

Guilty of Bibliolatry?

Tim Challies, a Reformed pastor, noted that conservative Protestants, that is, those who affirm the inerrancy or infallibility of Scripture, have often been accused of bibliolatry by theological liberals.  Then he presented what he considered to be genuine bibliolatry:

In brief, I can affirm that it is entirely possible for a person to idolize the Bible. If I were to place a Bible upon an altar, light some candles around it, and bow down before the Bible, I would be worshipping a collection of paper, ink and leather (or “pleather”). I would be idolizing a created object rather than worshipping God. This would be no better than worshipping the image of a man or animal carved from wood or stone. But this is not what is most often meant when a person accuses another of idolizing the Bible. [Source]

When I read Pastor Challies’ definition of bibliolatry, I was struck with a strong sense of irony.  In every Orthodox Church on the altar is the Gospel book surrounded by candles!  During the Liturgy, the priest will cense the Bible, and he will bow towards the Bible showing his reverence for the Word of God.  On Sunday morning, just before entering the sanctuary, I bow before the icon of Christ and kiss the Gospel book.  There is a certain irony in the fact that Protestants have accused Orthodox Christians of Mariolatry but not of bibliolatry!  Here Orthodoxy goes beyond Protestantism in its outward bodily reverence for Scripture.  Yet these acts of reverence do not betray any sort of “idolatrous worship” of Mary or of Holy Scripture!

Historically, Scripture was understood as a sacred deposit to be safeguarded by the Church.  Before the printing press very few people had their own personal copy of the Bible.  One had to go to church on Sunday morning to hear the Gospel and other books in the Bible read out loud.  With the advent of the printing press in the 1400s people began to have their own personal Bibles.  This was good in that many could now read the Bible and become intimately acquainted with the Bible.  However, the downside of this is that many began to treat the Bible as their own personal possession independent of the Church.  This gave rise to an independent spirit in which one became confident one could understand the meaning of the Bible independent of the Church.  In Orthodoxy, the right understanding of Scripture is maintained through Tradition, e.g., the Nicene Creed which is recited every Sunday, the Divine Liturgy, the Ecumenical Councils and the early Church Fathers.  In Orthodoxy, Holy Tradition frames Scripture and for that reason Scripture cannot be understood on its own but in the Church.

Holy Tradition prevents Orthodoxy from becoming a cult: (1) every priest and parish are accountable to a bishop the recipient of Apostolic Tradition; (2) every bishop is accountable to Holy Tradition and their respective synod of bishops; (3) lengthy catechism classes ensure one understands Holy Tradition; and (4) an open door policy in which those who disagree with the teachings of the Church are allowed to leave rather than be coerced into conformity.  Added to this is Orthodoxy’s reluctance to make definitive statements on specific individual’s eternal destiny.

The Church Fathers give us insight into how Christians can have the Faith apart from sola scriptura.  Irenaeus of Lyons, a second century Church Father, wrote about illiterate barbarians who, despite the absence of written Scripture, have received the true Faith through oral tradition (AH 3.4.2).



So, are these Protestants guilty of bibliolatry as my inquirer friend asked?  My response is: (1) it all depends on what one means by “bibliolatry” and (2) in light of its negative connotations the term “bibliolatry” does not contribute to edifying dialogue.  The term’s utility is further diminished by the elasticity of its meaning.  Conservative Protestants have been accused of bibliolatry by liberal Protestants, and by Pastor Challies’ definition even Orthodox Christians can be accused of bibliolatry.

A more useful approach is to ask whether or not Christians may avail themselves of other sources of knowledge besides the Bible.  If one takes the position that Christians are to rely solely on the Bible to the exclusion of other sources of knowledge, then one has adopted an extreme form of Protestantism.  This opens the door to cultic Protestantism and to spiritual abuse.  Healthy spirituality, while open to the outside world, also has boundaries.  Orthodoxy has relied on Holy Tradition for the delineating of this boundary.  Protestantism has long struggled with defining its boundaries, and as a consequence has suffered numerous splits over where the line is to be drawn between orthodoxy and heresy.  Liberal Protestantism has extended its boundaries to the point where radical Enlightenment skepticism undermined basic Christian tenets.  Extreme Protestantism, in contrast, constricted its boundaries so narrowly that it creates totalitarian cults.  Popular Evangelicalism has eagerly and uncritically embraced aspects of popular culture into its worship and the way it articulates its beliefs.

We can be thankful that fundamentalist bibliolatry has not often plagued the more educated descendants of the Magisterial Reformation, e.g., Lutherans and Reformed Protestants. Yet the difficult question must be asked: “Who is more at fault for this willful high-handedness? Those familiar with the Church Fathers, the Ecumenical Councils, Holy Tradition, and who know the difference between sola and solo scriptura.  Or, the provincial and less historically informed Fundamentalists?” This is not unlike asking who is more culpable of criminally abusing a 14-year old sexually curious girl?  Her 17-year old boyfriend who loves her, or her 40-year old gym teacher?  To whom much is given, much is required.


Redeeming the Time

One needs to exercise caution when entering into theological debates.  Debates have a very different quality from a dialogue or conversation.  In a debate one side wins and the other side loses.  One wins by outwitting the opponent with an irrefutable argument or by presenting a fact that the other side does not know about.  The weakness of debates is that they rarely result in people changing their minds.  It takes more than one single argument for people to change their religious beliefs and affiliation.  Formal debates are useful in that they present audiences different points of view for them to consider.  Personal conversations are a much better way for inquirers interested in Orthodoxy.  I often engage in lengthy theological discussions with inquirers at the local Orthodox parish.  I do this to help people who are sincerely interested in becoming Orthodox, but have reservations.  With sincere inquirers I don’t hesitate to enter into detailed bible discussions.  If they are not at seriously interested in becoming Orthodox, I will seek to avoid debates.

I learned this lesson when I got into a debate with several members of Calvary Chapel.  After a while, I came to the conclusion I was wasting my time and theirs.  It can be fun, swapping bible verses and arguing what the verses mean, but for the most part very little serious learning was happening.  It was more like a theological tennis match than a serious quest for God’s truth.  The quest for God’s truth must take place in an atmosphere of holy reverence and prayer.  I recently came across a quote on a FaceBook page that read: “Every hour that has passed is gone forever, and we must give an account of each minute of that hour.”  This is similar to Apostle Paul’s admonition in Ephesians 5:16: “Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.”  In light of the Final Judgment, we must beware of wasting our time in trivial activities like tossing bible verses back and forth for the fun of it.  Jesus warned:

I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matthew 12:36-37; RSV)

A good example of people worshiping the Bible in place of Christ can be found in the Christmas story in Matthew’s Gospel.  Wise men from the East guided by the star came to Jerusalem in search of the Jewish Messiah.  The chief priests and the scribes quoted to them Micah’s prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.  Then guided by natural revelation (the star) and Scripture (Micah) the wise men found the Christ Child and worshiped him (Matthew 2:1-12).  It is dumbfounding that those who knew Scripture so well did not seek out Christ.  The sin of bibliolatry here was knowing Scripture but failing to do God’s will.  For Protestants the danger is that of revering Scripture over the Church, “the pillar of truth” founded by Christ.  Cyprian of Carthage wrote:

He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother. (ANF Vol. V p. 423)

The Bible and the Orthodox Church go together.  The Orthodox Church has been reading Scripture and proclaiming the Gospel in its worship services from Day One.  It has preserved and passed on Scripture for the past two thousand years.  It reads the Bible within the framework of the Church Fathers, the successors to the Apostles.  This preserves the inner meaning of Scripture.  For the spiritually hungry seeker the Orthodox Church provides a safe haven for knowing Scripture.

Robert Arakaki


Tim Challies.  2006.  “Feedback Files – Bibliolatry.www.challies.com  (5 July)

S.M. Baugh.  2008.  “Is Bibliolatry Possible?” Resource Center – Westminster Seminary California.

Naomi Epps.  N.D.  “8 Signs Your Friend’s In An Abusive Relationship.”  BlackLoveADvice dot Com

—-  N.D.  “9 Ways Groups Become Cults.”  Criminal Justice Degrees Guide dot Com


Do Your Homework?

A Response to Pastor Toby Sumpter


So much to read!


In “A Plea & A Sketch of an Argument on Icons” Pastor Toby Sumpter exhorts Protestants interested in icons and Orthodoxy to do their homework before making any move to Orthodoxy.  Reading through his admirably comprehensive list of references my first reaction was: “How many people have the time to do all this reading?!”  Second reaction was: “OMG!  This is way more than a typical seminary syllabus reading list! Is he expecting people to write a doctoral dissertation before converting to Orthodox?”

Here is what he wrote:

First the plea: do some serious study of the actual issues and arguments from both sides. This will take some time to do well. But if you are currently a Protestant considering taking the plunge, do yourself, your family, your current church family, and the catholic tradition the honor of really studying this topic. Can you summarize John of Damascus’ defense of icons? Can you explain where his defense is flawed (according to the Orthodox)? Can you summarize the iconoclastic argument of Constantine V? And what was flawed about his argument? Now sketch the contributions of Nicephorus the Patriarch of Constantinople and Theodore the Studite (abbot of the monastery at Studium). What did the Second Council of Nicaea actually decide? Be specific and trace the conclusion from Nicaea, Chalcedon, through John of Damascus, Nicephorus and Theodore. Now, are you familiar with the Western Carolingian response to the Second Council of Nicaea? Evaluate the claims in light of what you’ve already considered. Do your Protestant heritage the honor of reading the original Reformers on images. Summarize the views of Luther, Melanchthon, Oecolampadius, Bucer, and Calvin on the making and veneration of images. Finally, do some reading on the history of iconography itself. How widespread were [sic] the use of icons in the first three centuries? Does that matter? When the icon “triumphed” after Second Nicaea what stylistic changes did the icon undergo between then and the modern day? What does that mean?

So much for my plea. And related to all of this, spend time as you read and study comparing your notes with trusted counselors and friends, not just people who will smile and nod, but the kind of people who challenge you to think critically and carefully.

Running the obstacle course

Running the obstacle course

Toby Sumpter’s reading list is a lot like a military obstacle course that tests the strength and endurance of the strong and weeds out the weak.  This high level of expectations for Protestant inquirers is not realistic.  And more to the point they are unfair.  It makes me wonder if Pastor Sumpter is engaging in intellectual intimidation of Protestants interested in icons.


Missing Links?

Serious readers might be disappointed Toby Sumpter did not provide links to his references.  Serious inquirers would benefit from links that help them get started in doing research on such a complex issue like icons and Protestantism.  Since he expects his readers to invest time and energy doing the reading, the least he could do would be to help them get started.

Below are links to a few sources mentioned by Pastor Sumpter and other articles that I consider important for getting a good grounding on the issue of icons, the Reformed objection to icons, and the Orthodox response to these objections.

Secondary Sources

Philip Schaff – History of the Christian Church Vol. IV “Medieval Christianity” pp. 447-470, § 100 to § 104 (19th century Protestant church historian) [Note: the link takes you to a PDF file that has a differentiation page numbering.  Reader is advised to search by section numbering, e.g., “§ 100.”]

Jaroslav Pelikan – Imago Dei (20th century church historian, Lutheran scholar, convert to Orthodoxy)

Robert Letham – Through Western Eyes: Eastern Orthodoxy – A Reformed Perspective (Reformed)

Steven BighamEarly Christian Attitudes toward Images (Orthodox)

Primary Sources – Church Fathers

John of Damascus – On the Divine Images

Theodore the Studite – On the Holy Icons

Primary Sources – Reformers

John Calvin – Institutes: Book I Chapter XI

Martin Luther – Larger Catechism: First Commandment

Primary Sources – Early Church Councils

Synod of 754 (Iconoclastic)  — NPNF Vol. XIV pp. 543-548

Council of 787 (Pro-Icons) – NPNF Vol. XIV pp. 549-577; Caroline Books pp. 578-583

A Caveat – A good bibliography does not assure good understanding of the issue. It is of little value if one reads the text in a superficial manner, i.e., “scanning-with-a-bias/ax to grind.”  There is a tendency among some Protestant apologists to quickly scan early church texts and quote passages out of context to make the point they want to make.  Protestant readers who read the early church fathers need to guard against imposing their theological biases on the early Church.  The early Church was neither Protestant, nor was it Roman Catholic.  Many Protestant readers of the Church Fathers are like American tourists who, when visiting a foreign country, judge the local culture by their own  American standards, rather than appreciating the distinctive character of that foreign culture. This calls for careful and attentive reading of the early church fathers and the early church councils by Protestant readers.


tbp361Running the Gauntlet

Notice the unfairness hidden behind the benign pastoral counsel to “compare your notes with trusted counselors and friends.”  These Reformed friends and counselors are not going to be objective about icons.  Protestant inquirers need to be aware of the fact that icons are, for the most part, a highly charged topic between Reformed and Orthodox Christians today.  Among certain Reformed churches a display of interest in icons and Orthodoxy can lead to censure and other forms of church discipline. Strangely, this is true even in one liturgical-sacramental Reformed group willing to read and cherry-pick (borrow) much from Orthodoxy!  Protestant inquirers, especially those in the Reformed tradition, need to approach the issue of icons and Orthodoxy with eyes wide open.  My advice to those who find themselves between a rock and a hard place is to take the Nicodemus approach.  That is, to study the matter in private and make contact with Orthodox Christians discreetly, like the way Nicodemus came to Jesus at night (John 3:1-2).


A Proposal: Reformed-Orthodox Forums

Screen-shot-2015-05-01-at-9.37.40-AMFor several years I was blessed to have been part of a local group of Christians in Hawaii that met on a monthly basis.  It was a diverse group of people coming from Evangelical, Charismatic, Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox churches.  The diversity of perspectives was enriched by the fact there were former Protestants who had converted to Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and thus were able to see more than one side of a theological issue.  From time to time, we would have debates over important issues like sola scriptura and the veneration of saints. Pastor John Armstrong organized a similar forum between Evangelicals and Orthodox in 2008 (see Vimeo podcast).

I propose that interested readers organize similar forums in their own areas.  It would be responsibility of presenters to do the “heavy lifting” (reading the sources recommended by Pastor Sumpter).  Those who don’t have the wherewithal to do the reading prescribed by Pastor Sumpter could benefit by listening to the presenters present their findings.  These face-to-face encounters are likely to be more fruitful than just posting comments on the Internet.


How Much is Enough?

One hidden danger in Toby Sumpter’s reading list is the assumption that head knowledge is enough.  Reading books about icons is not enough.  Protestant inquirers should make the effort to visit an Orthodox Sunday worship service (Liturgy).  While in the service they will find that icons play an important but supportive role in Orthodox worship.  The two major focal points of Orthodox worship are: (1) the Gospel reading in which the congregation hears the words of Christ, and (2) the Eucharist in which Christ offers his body and blood for the life of the world.  After the Sunday service the inquirer should talk with Orthodox church members about what icons mean to them and why they venerate icons.  It would be a good idea to talk to both converts and cradle Orthodox.  And of course, inquirers should meet one on one with the local priest.

Where Toby Sumpter’s approach is rational and doctrinal, the approach I am sketching here is similar to the way anthropologists approach the culture and practices of a “foreign” culture sympathetically in order to better understand it.  Orthodoxy at its core is not a system of abstract doctrines but a faith lived out in community and in worship.


The Key Question

Greek New Testament

Greek New Testament

For those whose time and life situation is constrained I would say that the key issue is: Are icons biblical?  This is the bottom-line question.  More specifically, Is Orthodoxy’s veneration of icons in violation of the Second Commandment?  The Reformed position is: Yes.  The Orthodox position, on the other hand, is that the Second Commandment applies to the pagan idolatry of Egypt, the land the Israelites had just left.  The Orthodox note that later in the book of Exodus and other books of the Old Testament God gave instructions for the making of images in the Tabernacle and the Temple, i.e., in the place of worship central to the Jewish life.  I wrote an article “The Biblical Basis for Icons” that dealt with this question.  I am confident that the majority of Protestant readers will be able to compare the two ways of reading the Old Testament texts and make up their minds.


Strategic Study

For Protestant inquirers who have more time on their hands I would advise them to approach Toby Sumpter’s massive reading list strategically.  You don’t have to read everything to find the truth of the matter.  If you are a Reformed Christian, read the leading theologian of the Reformed tradition, John Calvin, and his key work, Institutes of the Christian Religion.  Then read the two church fathers regarded by the Orthodox as the leading apologists for icons: John of Damascus and Theodore the Studite.  In addition to the doctrinal approach, inquirers should examine church history.  Which position reflected the general view of the early Church?  Was the early Church iconoclastic from the start?  Or was there early evidence for images in Christian and Jewish worship?  Which church council came to represent the historic Christian position on icon?  Then consider the issue from the standpoint of church unity.  Have the Orthodox across the various jurisdictions been united in the acceptance of icons?  Have the Protestants likewise been united in their opposition to icons? That Lutherans and Anglicans have been open to icons while Reformed Christians have not should make one pause and reconsider.  The absence of consensus and historical continuity in iconoclasm are indications that it is not part of historic Christianity.


Closing Thoughts

Don’t let Pastor Sumpter’s long reading list intimidate you.  One does not have to become an expert theologian.  It is possible for busy lay people to discern the truth about icons and Christianity.  Growing numbers of Protestants, lay and clergy, have come to the conclusion that icons are indeed biblical and part of the historic Christian Faith.  In accepting icons they encountered the rich heritage of the ancient Church.

Robert K. Arakaki


Additional Readings







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.

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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.

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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.

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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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