The term sola scriptura is from the Latin language meaning "only Scripture" or "Scripture alone." It consists of the words sola, meaning "only," and scriptura, referring to the Bible.
What does sola scriptura mean?
Sola scriptura became popular during the Protestant Reformation as a reaction against some of the practices of the Roman Catholic Church. It was the Reformers' way of saying that the Bible contains everything one needs for salvation and godly living (see 2 Peter 1:3). In addition to the authority of the Bible, the Roman Catholic Church increasingly relied on traditions that had in many ways taken the place of the Bible's teachings. Some of these traditions included prayer to saints or to Mary the mother of Jesus, belief in the Immaculate Conception (the belief that Mary was born without the stain of original sin), indulgences (including required payments to the Church), and the divine authority of the pope.
Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, publicly spoke against the Catholic Church for its aberrant teachings in the early 1500s. As a result, Roman Catholic leaders threatened Martin Luther, who had been a German monk, with excommunication and even death if he did not end his resistance. Martin Luther's replied that he would never recant unless he was "convinced by the testimony of Scripture."
The traditional Catholic response against sola scriptura is that the Bible does not explicitly teach the concept. While this is technically true, the principle remains essential to our understanding of the Christian faith. If the Bible is the Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16-17), then its teachings are perfect and would have no need to change. Traditions that contradict or supersede what the Bible has clearly communicated would therefore be both unnecessary and unbiblical.
Another frequent objection to the concept of sola scriptura is the fact that the canon of the Bible (the list of books accepted as inspired) was not officially agreed upon until some time after the church was founded. Further, the Scriptures were not available to much of the public until over 1,500 years after the church was founded. How, then, were early Christians to use sola scriptura, when they did not even have the full Scriptures? How were Christians who lived before the printing press supposed to base their faith and practice on Scripture alone if they did not have a copy of the Scriptures? This issue is further compounded by the very high rates of illiteracy throughout history. How do those who believe in sola scriptura handle this issue?
The problem with this argument is that it essentially says Scripture's authority is based on its availability. The issue is not whether it is available, but whether it is authoritative. Because the Bible is God's Word, it is His authority. The fact that Scripture was not readily available or people could not read it does not change this fact.
Sola scriptura is not a belief that stands against all tradition, only those traditions that promote teachings that oppose or attempt to replace biblical teachings. The Bible's readers are not called to reinvent the Bible; they are called to embrace it. Scripture is clear regarding its essential teachings. Tradition must take a lesser role.
The Bible is the one and only authority for the Christian faith. Traditions that contradict its teachings are to be rejected. Sola scriptura was the movement of early Protestants to remove anti-biblical traditions from the Church. It ultimately resulted in new churches based on biblical principles apart from Catholic traditions and leadership.
On a personal level, sola scriptura is an important concept for Christians today. If a tradition or practice in our lives contradicts the clear teachings of the Bible, our goal must be to change the tradition to match the Bible's teachings rather than the other way around. As the apostle Paul wrote, "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15).
Sola scriptura points us back to what God has revealed to us in His Word. Traditions can be helpful, but practices that contradict Scripture must be rejected. Sola scriptura ultimately points us back to the God who always speaks the truth, never contradicts Himself, and always proves Himself faithful.
Is the Bible really the Word of God?
How is the Bible inspired? What does it mean for the Bible to be inspired?
Are there errors in the Bible?
What is the canon of the Bible and how did we get it?
Why should we study the Bible?
Truth about the Bible