After declaring some hard teachings about God’s sovereignty in salvation, which provoked many of his followers to abandon him, Jesus in John 6 asked his closest disciples if they would also leave. Peter responded, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68–69).
It is noteworthy that Peter did not deny that Jesus’ teachings had been difficult, nor did he claim that he totally understood Jesus’ doctrines, nor did he say he was entirely on board with everything Jesus had said. Instead, Peter affirmed that Jesus was the only source to which he could turn for the words of eternal life, and by faith he had accepted that he must follow Christ no matter how difficult his teaching might be. The point is that Peter simply submitted to Christ and his word as the sole source of saving truth. While Reformation Protestants have never abandoned the doctrinal emphasis on Scripture’s authority, it is worth exploring afresh, as this article seeks to do, how Scripture’s authority intersects other aspects of the practical Christian life and what is at stake for the church in these matters theologically, biblically, and historically.
Peter’s response that he cannot go anywhere else than Christ for words of eternal life reveals that Christ’s words require submission, which is an aspect of sanctification. Although it may not be the most positive way of describing it, sanctification is in part a process of learning more and more to submit to Christ’s words. It may even be that the language of submission in connection to sanctification has more to do with lingering aspects of our old man than with the actual burden of the law of Christ. After all, Christ promised that his yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matt. 11:30). Still, Peter’s implicit acknowledgment in John 6 that Christ’s teaching can be difficult indicates that there are times when we have to grow in our ability to submit to Christ and love what he commands. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism 35 helpfully explains, in sanctification God enables us “more and more to die unto sin and live unto righteousness.” Sanctification is an increasing endeavor to live out God’s prescribed will, and that requires our submission, which will include growth in our understanding of what Christ has said and in our love of those truths. We see an example of that posture in Peter, but that posture more pointedly indicates the exclusive authority that Christ’s words carry. Since there is nowhere else that we might turn to find the words of eternal life, we must exclusively return over and over again to what Christ says so that we might have communion with the true God.
The obvious difference between Peter and us, however, is that Peter had direct access on earth to Christ in the flesh, whereas Jesus now stands in heaven to intercede for us. This difference means that we have to know how we might access Christ’s words, which bear that exclusive authority, which is the point that has caused various disagreements throughout church history. We can, in one sense, assess debates about the relationships between Scripture, tradition, and modes of revelation in terms of the church’s ongoing struggle to locate the exclusively authoritative words of Christ and to submit to them. In order to understand this ongoing struggle that the church has had and how we might position ourselves in the right view, we need to explore how this struggle has played out across history and what options are left to us. In situating ourselves within the spectrum of views about the nature of Scripture’s authority, we get a better understanding of how we should think about where we now can find the words of Christ, which have exclusive authority and demand our submission as the church and as individuals.
The first issue to address is to categorize the various approaches to Scripture’s authority and describe some of the fundamental concerns involved. Reformation Christians hold to “Scripture alone” as the mantra that states the sole source in which to find those authoritative words of Christ that guide Christians. That Protestant position, however, does not mean that we disparage tradition, but simply that we do not see it as another source of God’s revelation in addition to Scripture, which is presently the sole source of special revelation. Christian tradition holds an immensely valuable and informative, yet still fallible, place in guiding the church in its reading of and interpretation of the Scriptures for the good of God’s people. Tradition becomes a useful guide for thinking about Scripture and for addressing the needs of the church, but it does not provide an additional stream of revelation. This Reformation Protestant outlook differs in premise from all the other doctrinal options.
Roman Catholicism, in contrast, though distinguishing Scripture and tradition as two separate things, views both as sources of revelation. Whereas Reformation Protestantism posits Scripture alone as the abiding channel of God’s special revelation, and tradition as functioning to reflect upon Scripture and preserve its right interpretation, Rome holds that God also inspires the tradition to reveal truth that may or may not be independent from what is revealed in Scripture. In Rome’s paradigm, tradition must work in some way as Christ’s exclusively authoritative words because God reveals through it. That tradition, according to Rome, is still ongoing and still revelatory, which means that Christ’s exclusively authoritative words have not yet been definitively, entirely, and exhaustively delivered to the church.
Even though Reformation Protestants and Roman Catholics disagree about the role that tradition plays as a source of revelation, there is still a basic agreement that Scripture and tradition are distinct from each other, which is not the case in Eastern Orthodoxy. In the Eastern Orthodox paradigm, tradition is the source of special revelation and Scripture is just one part of the tradition.1 Scripture may be the highest form of special revelation within the tradition, but that revelatory tradition also includes the creed, ecumenical councils, patristics writings, liturgy, canons, icons, service books, and polity.2 There is a sense in which this view makes the church more fundamental than the Scripture because Scripture takes its authority from the church. Further, this view clearly entails a broader understanding of inspiration and interpretation. The ecumenical councils are infallible and part of that revealing tradition. Conciliar decisions must be interpreted within the canon of the church fathers, which are a further standard of orthodoxy. This take on tradition as a broader mode of special revelation that includes Scripture significantly differs from the Reformation Protestant position, particularly by viewing the progress of church history as further revelation rather than as helpful and even subordinately authoritative reflection upon and interpretation of the supremely authoritative Scripture. The notable feature, however, is that in contrast to the Reformation Protestant view that Scripture alone contains the source of present special revelation, the Eastern Orthodox paradigm shares with Roman Catholicism a mechanism that provides for ongoing special revelation that excludes the notion that Scripture definitively and exhaustively delivers the exclusively authoritative words of Christ to which we must increasingly learn to submit ourselves for sanctification.
Finally, besides Reformation Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox views, what we might call for lack of better terminology is non-Reformation Protestantism or “enthusiast” Protestantism. This category includes those who, for want of further classification, must be counted as Protestants, since they are not Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox, but who also hold that God continues to provide new and authoritative special revelation through spiritual gifts, religious experience, or various other means.3 The noteworthy point is how Reformation Protestants stand out as the only group that holds that Scripture alone is the exhaustive source of Christ’s exclusively authoritative words of special revelation that remains accessible today.4 All of the other positions leave open some notion of ongoing special revelation, which in some form or another means that Scripture is not decisively and exclusively authoritative. With these categories in mind, we can turn to consider how these issues played out in specific ways across church history, before concluding with some reflection about why we should hold to the Reformation Protestant view.
The obvious place to begin is with the ancient church, which did not set Scripture against tradition but did wrestle with the relationship between them. In line with Peter’s own confession in John 6, patristic scholar J. N. D. Kelly pointed out that Christianity from the beginning was “a religion of revelation” and early church theologians centered that revelation in the “person, words and works of Jesus Christ in the context of revelation of which He was the climax.”5 The apostolic teaching tradition was still very much a literal living memory for the earliest Christian theologians. This complicates the relationship between Scripture and tradition in that context, since the teaching tradition there would have belonged to the authors of the New Testament, but Scripture was still regarded as the concrete form of that tradition. In other words, although the terminology of “tradition” as distinct from Scripture soon developed, the earliest believers regarded tradition as the authoritative delivery of Christian doctrine, which was written in the Scripture.6 It is noteworthy that the earliest church was fundamentally dependent on exegesis of the Old Testament as reread in light of the Christ event; but alongside this exegesis, the proclamation of the apostles became doctrinally normative.7
In the post-apostolic era, the distinction between Scripture and tradition became clarified, and second-century theologians such as Tertullian (AD c. 155) and Irenaeus (c. 130–200) appealed to the “rule of faith”—a summary of Scripture’s teachings from the earliest Christian thinkers—as the tradition of understanding biblical texts a certain way as an authoritative weapon against gnostic heresies, which were claiming to have knowledge of a secret apostolic tradition.8 It is worth noting in these instances, however, that although unwritten tradition was becoming an important point of appeal, the appeal was to a tradition of interpreting Scripture in a specific—namely, an orthodox Christian—way, which indicates that tradition was not a separate authority, but one that took its lead from Scripture. The fourth-century bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius (c. 296–383), for example, wrote a letter to the bishops of Egypt and Libya in order to warn them about a document that was being circulated that leaned toward Arianism in theology. In a section refuting Marcion and the Manicheans, he asserted the primacy of Scripture’s teaching, culminating with the statement,
But since holy Scripture is of all things most sufficient for us, therefore recommending to those who desire to know more of these matters to read the divine word, I now hasten to set before you that which most claims attention, and for the sake of which principally I have written these things.9
Since this letter was written in AD 356, Athanasius could have easily appealed to the tradition established at the first Council of Nicaea (325), but he firmly directed his opponents to read the Scriptures. Despite the developing distinction between Scripture and tradition in the ancient church, early theologians consistently pointed to Scripture and used tradition to support the proper interpretation of Scripture. Tradition having some authority as a guide to proper biblical interpretation is not itself problematic, and the ancient church did not seem to promote tradition as a separate source of revelation.10 Patristic theologians, therefore, appealed to tradition not as an alternative revelatory source to Jesus’ exclusively authoritative words, but as a guide to further submission to them.
A particular issue from the patristic period that informs Scripture’s authority is the development of the canon, which addresses what books are Scripture. It has been suggested that early Christians preferred oral tradition over written tradition (Scripture), but the best scholarship of the second century demonstrated that Christianity has always been a text-oriented faith.11 In the ancient period, there were discussions surrounding the exact canon, both for the Old and New Testaments, but Christians fundamentally recognized and received the Old Testament canon from Judaism, and received and recognized the New Testament writings as Scripture on the basis of apostolicity, catholicity, orthodoxy, and traditional usage.12 The writings they received as Scripture were the canon, that authoritative written rule of faith and practice.13 It is notable, then, that while Christianity was textually rather than orally driven, Scripture did become the normative authority for the church and oral tradition became a regulative summary and interpretation of the written authority. In other words, the canon issue shows that tradition was not considered to be a separate authority or source of revelation beside Scripture, but an authority dependent upon Scripture.
In the medieval period, perhaps the most suspect era of church history for many American Protestants, it may be surprising to some that Scripture remained the fundamental source of theological formulation for most of the period. Significant developments, however, began that would eventually undermine this commitment in the last two centuries of the medieval period prior to the Reformation.14 For one, the doctrine of papal infallibility began to arise in the late thirteenth century, which claimed that the pope’s official teaching was inspired and unquestionable. There were certainly nuances and complexities in the development of this doctrine, which was not actually confirmed as official Roman dogma until 1870 at Vatican I, but the initiation of this view introduced the notion of another ultimate source of special revelation.15 This position that God might still grant infallible truth through his earthly ministers was the premise of the view that tradition was another source by which God would make known issues of faith and practice, which entails the collapse of Scripture having sole definitive and exhaustive authority as special revelation.
The Reformation questioned the growing medieval view of tradition and reasserted Scripture as solely the infallible source of God’s special revelation.16 Reformation theologians refreshed their commitment to exegeting Scripture with increasingly sophisticated linguistic and historical skills, which drove the efforts at clarifying and codifying doctrine according to Scripture alone. Although the mainstream Reformation was driven by a commitment to the Scripture as the ultimate authority of God’s special revelation, there were exceptions of those who claimed to receive new revelation directly.
The Anabaptist movement, which was sub-Protestant and radical, did not share the same theological commitments as the major Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, nor did they share a devotion to Scripture alone. These Anabaptists, among other radical views, claimed that they received ecstatic experiences of God’s revelation. Whereas those who sided with the Reformation opposed the Roman view that Scripture could have any competitor as special revelation from God, the Anabaptists democratized the distribution of unwritten tradition that paralleled Scripture from limited to the pope and “tradition” to any and every individual who claimed an experience of God’s presence.
As these debates crystallized between the Roman, Protestant, and Anabaptist views, it established most of the very issues that remain with us today about the relationships between Scripture, tradition, and experience.
In some ways, the church has had a winding road of corporate sanctification in wrestling to submit to Jesus’ exclusively authoritative words, and modern debates about Scripture’s authority revolve around a few—explicit or implicit—moving points that definitely correspond to, but are not as stable as, the historical issues already covered. In some ways also, modern debates can be generalized under the tendency to disregard Scripture in favor of human reason or human experience. This trend goes back to the Enlightenment principles of subsuming everything that can be known under what we can understand by scientific investigation.17
In some respects, the new atheism movement is the modern fruition of the Enlightenment’s disregard for revelation in favor of pure reason, in that the atheistic leaders presume that everything that can and should be known can be discovered by investigating the natural realm without the guidelines of an inspired authority such as Scripture. The problem here is that although science legitimately has the authority to investigate the natural realm, it is supposed to limit its truth-claims to what concerns nature. Instead, it has pontificated that since scientists have not experimented their way to a discovery of God, then he must not exist. This is a logical fallacy because the object of scientific inquiry is limited to nature. God is supernatural, however, and in that respect, we are dependent upon revelation to know who God is and how to relate to him. Christians should push back against the claims that reason alone can discover everything there is to know, since we understand that although reason can discover and clarify some things about the objects it can scrutinize, we are entirely dependent upon God to reveal himself if we are to know that which is supernatural.
Science does not have the right to pronounce about the supernatural, because its realm of investigation is nature. Scripture does not intend to outline every truth but to reveal the truths we cannot know without God telling us. It therefore maintains the sole authority to describe who God is, what he has done for us, and how we are to commune with him.18 It is more than clear how this atheistic outlook undermines Scripture’s authority.
The other modern threat to Scripture’s authority is more “religious” than the preference for reason, in that it still affirms God’s (or some god’s) existence but still disregards Scripture in this instance in deference to experience. There are many versions of this disregard for Scripture, ranging from more to less Christian.
The less and non-Christian versions utterly sideline Scripture in favor of a mystical outlook that enables them to feel their way to who God is and how he must be. People who hold this position tend to begin with their own preferences and desires as the baseline of what has to be the truth, and they reason their way to God’s character from what lies within themselves. This is an entire rejection of God’s external revelation in the Scripture and a total dependence on what the sinful human heart might conceive.
The more Christian versions of this demotion of Scripture do affirm Scripture as God’s revelation that must be obeyed, and oftentimes still affirm crucial doctrines of the Christian faith such as the doctrine of the Trinity. Yet the issue remains that those within this non-Reformation Protestant camp believe that God still specially reveals himself apart from Scripture.
Less orthodox versions of this view claim to have experiences of God’s revelation and often entirely ignore the Christian tradition, thereby relying totally on their supposed personal encounters with the Holy Spirit. We might think here of “prosperity gospel” Pentecostals who teach sub-Christian doctrines of God, ignore salvation by faith alone, and prioritize worldliness over holiness. On the other hand, there are those who would be traditional Christians in many doctrinal respects but still claim to receive new and direct revelations from God. Oftentimes, these people will have very high views of Scripture and be committed to it as the ultimate authority. Still, even with the various qualifications and nuances that have been added in recent decades, these “charismatic” theologians do claim that God speaks directly to them, which by its very nature must be authoritative. This non-Reformation Protestant position undermines Scripture’s role as the sole abiding access to Jesus’ exclusively authoritative words by suggesting other parallel ways of encountering God and coming to know the truths of special revelation. With these considerations about modern issues regarding Scripture’s authority, we can reflect on some final considerations about why we should hold to the Reformation Protestant view.
The question that remains is not whether Scripture has any authority, since all traditions that hold that God inspired Scripture believe that his inspiration endows Scripture with his authority, but whether Scripture has sole authority as the only source of special revelation that remains for us.19 We should affirm with Peter that we cannot go anywhere besides Christ for the words of eternal life, and where we find his words, we must grow in submitting to those words. Scripture itself indicates that it is now our sole and sufficient access to Christ’s words. Hebrews 1:1–2 says, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” This explains that God’s revelation has shifted from being revealed to his people by diverse means to being concentrated in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, however, builds his church “on the foundation of the prophets and apostles” (Eph. 2:20), and the apostolic deposit, as the ancient and Reformation church in particular emphasized, is contained in Scripture. To be faithful to Christ, therefore, we should remain faithful only to Scripture—properly interpreted but still as the sole source of knowing God’s special revelation about how we might know and be in communion with him.
Harrison Perkins (PhD, Queen’s University Belfast) is the assistant minister at London City Presbyterian Church (Free Church of Scotland), a lecturer in Christian doctrine at Cornhill Belfast, a visiting lecturer in systematic theology at Edinburgh Theological Seminary, and the author of Catholicity and the Covenant of Works: James Ussher and the Reformed Tradition (Oxford University Press, September 2020).
- Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1964), 203–15.
- Ware, The Orthodox Church, 204–5.
- Alec Ryrie, Protestants: The Radicals Who Made the Modern World (London: William Collins, 2017), 35–39, 71–72, 155–82, 425–54; G. Sujin Pak, The Reformation of Prophecy: Early Modern Interpretations of the Prophet and Old Testament Prophecy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 35–213; Crawford Gribben, God’s Irishmen: Theological Debates in Cromwellian Ireland (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 129–50.
- This category does raise difficulties, because there is a very wide spectrum of views that fall within my broad generalization, and these views vary on how much authority they give to these new revelations—meaning that they may or may not argue that these revelations are infallible, which poses unique problems in explaining what a fallible revelation from God might be—and vary on how articulate they are in arguing for their position from biblical and theological premises. These difficulties are further complicated by the fact that there were inconsistencies on this issue within early Reformation Protestantism, perhaps most notably the Scottish Reformer John Knox.
- J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines , 4th ed. (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1968), 29.
- Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 30.
- Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 32–33.
- Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 32–41.
- Athanasius, “To the Bishops of Egypt,” 1.4, in Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd ser., vol. 4 (New York: The Christian Literature Company, 1892), 225.
- Keith A. Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2001), 19–48.
- Michael J. Kruger, Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church (London: SPCK, 2017), 167–201.
- Iain Provan, The Reformation and the Right Reading of Scripture (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2017), 55–80.
- Kruger, Christianity at the Crossroads , 202–26.
- Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura , 72–80.
- Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura, 58–61; John W. O’Malley, Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2018).
- Matthew Barrett, God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 33–75.
- Provan, The Reformation and the Right Reading of Scripture, 347–414.
- Provan, The Reformation and the Right Reading of Scripture, 313–45.
- Barrett, God’s Word Alone, 223–63.