Reasons to Believe

The Distinctives of Protestant Christianity Part 3

What distinctive doctrinal views characterize the beliefs of Protestant Christians?

Early Protestants held three doctrinal positions that have come to be known as the defining characteristics of Protestant Christianity. Here are those uniting points enumerated:

  1. Justification by faith alone (sola fide)
  2. Scripture as the supreme authority in faith and practice (sola Scriptura)
  3. Priesthood of all believers

In part two of this series I discussed the Reformation cry of “Justification by faith alone.” In this article I will briefly explore the principle known as the watchword of the Reformation: sola Scriptura.

Scripture as the Supreme Authority in Faith and Practice

The theological principle of sola Scriptura means that Scripture is the absolute standard of doctrine and the final court of appeals in all matters of faith and practice for the church and individual Christians. Considered the underlying issue of the Reformation, the Reformers were completely united in their acceptance of Scripture as the supreme authority in matters of belief and life. While the magisterial Reformers (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli) retained a high regard for church tradition, it was always considered subordinate in authority to the written Word of God (the Bible).

The Belgic Confession (a popular Reformed statement of faith written in 1561), article 7, affirms:

“We believe that this Holy Scripture contains the will of God completely and that everything one must believe to be saved is sufficiently taught in it.”

The Formula of Concord (a popular Lutheran statement of faith written in 1577), article 1, states:

“We believe, teach, and confess that the sole rule and standard according to which all dogmas together with [all] teachers should be estimated and judged are the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures of the Old and of the New Testament alone.”

The authority, sufficiency, and clarity of Scripture are important theological implications of sola Scriptura.

Scripture is authoritative in that it serves as the final court of appeals concerning all matters of faith (doctrine) and practice (living).

Scripture is sufficient in that it contains all that is needed in terms of doctrine and practice for a person to experience a saving relationship with God and to live a God-honoring life.

Scripture is clear in conveying all that is necessary for knowing God, experiencing salvation (the gospel message), and living the Christian life.

It is important to note two qualifications concerning sola Scriptura. This theological perspective does not deny that other subordinate authorities can be recognized by the church (such as creeds, tradition, and human reason). Also, sola Scriptura does not mean that all truth is found in the Bible or can only be found there.

The original Reformation churches (Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, etc.) proclaimed that when Scripture speaks, it speaks with the truth and authority of God himself.

In the final installment of this series I will address the distinctive known as the “priesthood of all believers.”

For an essay that explains and defends the principle of sola Scriptura, see chapter 7 of my book A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test.

To read about the Protestant Reformation, I suggest beginning with two works by the Yale historian Roland H. Bainton Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther and The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Subjects: Historical Theology

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that “all truth is God’s truth.” As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity’s truth-claims. Read more about Kenneth Samples.