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Sola scriptura (Latin ablative, "by scripture alone") is the doctrine that the Bible is the only infallible or inerrant authority for Christian faith, and that it contains all knowledge necessary for salvation and holiness. Consequently, Sola Scriptura demands that only those doctrines are to be admitted or confessed that are found directly within or indirectly by using valid logical deduction or valid deductive reasoning from Scripture. However, Sola Scriptura is not a denial of other authorities governing Christian life and devotion. Rather, it simply demands that all other authorities are subordinate to, and are to be corrected by, the written word of God. Sola scriptura was a foundational doctrinal principle of the Protestant Reformation held by the Reformers and is a formal principle of Protestantism today (see Five solas).

During the Reformation, authentication of Scripture was governed by the discernible excellence of the text as well as the personal witness of the Holy Spirit to the heart of each man. Furthermore, per Sola Scriptura, the relationship of Scriptural authority to pastoral care was well exampled by the Westminster Confession of Faith which stated:
VII. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.Here the phrase "due use of the ordinary means" includes appeals to pastors and teachers(Ephesians 4:11-14). As such, Sola Scriptura reflects a careful tension between the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture necessary for its role as final authority, and the occasional need for its meaning to be revealed by exposition (Hebrews 5:12).

Beyond the Reformation, as in some Evangelical and Baptist denominations, Sola Scriptura is stated even more strongly: it is self-authenticating, clear (perspicuous) to the rational reader, its own interpreter ("Scripture interprets Scripture"), and sufficient of itself to be the final authority of Christian doctrine.

By contrast, the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox Churches teach that the Scriptures are not the only infallible source of Christian doctrine. For them Scripture is but one of three equal authorities; the other two being Sacred Tradition and the episcopacy. These bodies also believe that the Church has authority to establish or restrict interpretation of Scriptures because, in part, it implicitly selected which books were to be in the biblical canon through its traditions, whereas Protestants believe the Church passively recognized and received the books that were already widely considered canonical.


Sola scriptura is one of the five solas, considered by some Protestant groups to be the theological pillars of the Reformation. The key implication of the principle is that interpretations and applications of the Scriptures do not have the same authority as the Scriptures themselves; hence, the ecclesiastical authority is viewed as subject to correction by the Scriptures, even by an individual member of the Church.

Luther said, "a simple layman armed with Scripture is greater than the mightiest pope without it". The intention of the Reformation was to correct the perceived errors of the Catholic Church by appeal to the uniqueness of the Bible's authority and to reject what Catholics considered to be Apostolic Tradition as a source of original authority alongside of the Bible, wherever Tradition did not have biblical support or where it supposedly contradicted Scripture.

Sola scriptura, however, does not ignore Christian history and tradition when seeking to understand the Bible. Rather, it sees the Bible as the only final authority in matters of faith and practice. As Martin Luther said, "The true rule is this: God's Word shall establish articles of faith, and no one else, not even an angel can do so."

The term heretical is commonly used by Protestants who denounce teachings and institutions that they accordingly view as deviating from Scripture.

Characteristics in Lutheranism

Lutherans believe that the holy Bible of the Old and New Testaments is the only divinely inspired book and the only source of divinely revealed knowledge. Scripture alone is the formal principle of the faith, the final authority for all matters of faith and morals because of its inspiration, authority, clarity, efficacy, and sufficiency.


The Bible does not merely contain the Word of God, but every word of it is, because of verbal inspiration, the direct, immediate word of God. As Lutherans confess in the Nicene Creed, the Holy Spirit "spoke through the prophets". The Apology of the Augsburg Confession identifies Holy Scripture with the Word of God and calls the Holy Spirit the author of the Bible. Because of this, Lutherans confess in the Formula of Concord, "we receive and embrace with our whole heart the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the pure, clear fountain of Israel." The apocryphal books were not written by the prophets, by inspiration; they contain errors were never included in the Palestinian Canon that Jesus used, and therefore are not a part of Holy Scripture. The prophetic and apostolic Scriptures are authentic as written by the prophets and apostles. A correct translation of their writings is God's Word because it has the same meaning as the original Hebrew and Greek. A mistranslation is not God's word, and no human authority can invest it with divine authority.

Divine authority

Holy Scripture, the Word of God, carries the full authority of God. Every single statement of the Bible calls for instant and unqualified acceptance. Every doctrine of the Bible is the teaching of God and therefore requires full agreement. Every promise of the Bible calls for unshakable trust in its fulfillment. Every command of the Bible is the directive of God himself and therefore demands willing observance.


The Bible presents all doctrines and commands of the Christian faith clearly. God's Word is freely accessible to every reader or hearer of ordinary intelligence, without requiring any special education. Of course, one must understand the language God's Word is presented in, and not be so preoccupied by contrary thoughts so as to prevent understanding. As a result of this, no one needs to wait for any clergy, and pope, scholar, or ecumenical council to explain the real meaning of any part of the Bible.


Scripture is united with the power of the Holy Spirit and with it, not only demands, but also creates the acceptance of its teaching. This teaching produces faith and obedience. Holy Scripture is not a dead letter, but rather, the power of the Holy Spirit is inherent in it. Scripture does not compel a mere intellectual assent to its doctrine, resting on logical argumentation, but rather it creates the living agreement of faith. As the Smalcald Articles affirm, "in those things which concern the spoken, outward Word, we must firmly hold that God grants His Spirit or grace to no one, except through or with the preceding outward Word."


The Bible contains everything that one needs to know in order to obtain salvation and to live a Christian life. There are no deficiencies in Scripture that need to be filled with by tradition, pronouncements of the Pope, new revelations, or present-day development of doctrine.

Prima scriptura

Sola scriptura may be contrasted with prima scriptura, which holds that, besides canonical scripture, there are other guides for what a believer should believe, and how he or she should live. Examples of this include the general revelation in creation, traditions, charismatic gifts, mystical insight, angelic visitations, conscience, common sense, the views of experts, the spirit of the times or something else. Prima scriptura suggests that ways of knowing or understanding God and his will, that do not originate from canonized scripture, are in a second place, perhaps helpful in interpreting that scripture, but testable by the canon and correctable by it, if they seem to contradict the scriptures.

Sola scriptura rejects any original infallible authority, other than the Bible. In this view, all secondary authority is derived from the authority of the Scriptures and is therefore subject to reform when compared to the teaching of the Bible. Church councils, preachers, biblical commentators, private revelation, or even a message allegedly from an angel or an apostle are not an original authority alongside the Bible in the sola scriptura approach. Even though most protestants look at scripture alone and no other authority, some theologians [Who?] say that the Bible itself teaches against sola scriptura. They believe that if a person believes in the whole Bible then that person cannot not believe in sola scriptura. These theologians believe that those following the concepts of sola scriptura have personally perverted the meaning of either the Bible or sola scriptura. They point to passages in Kings, Chronicles, and Jude which directly refer to writings that are not part of the Bible.

Singular authority of Scripture

The idea of the singular authority of Scripture is the motivation behind much of the Protestant effort to translate the Bible into vernacular languages and distribute it widely. Protestants generally believe each Christian should read the Bible for themselves and evaluate what they have been taught on the basis of it. Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, motivated by their belief that authoritative doctrine can also come from tradition, have been more active in translating them as well as the Bible into the vernacular languages, though this has not always been the case. Traditions of these non-Protestant churches include the Bible, patristic, conciliar, and liturgical texts. Even prior to the Protestant movement, hundreds of vernacular translations of the Bible and liturgical materials were translated throughout the preceding sixteen centuries. Some Bible translations such as the Geneva Bible included annotations and commentary that were anti-Roman Catholic. Before the Protestant Reformation, Latin was almost exclusively utilized but it was understood by only the most literate.

According to sola scriptura, the Church does not speak infallibly in its traditions, but only in Scripture. As John Wesley stated in the 18th century, "In all cases, the Church is to be judged by the Scripture, not the Scripture by the Church." For this reason, sola scriptura is called the formal cause or principle of the Reformation.

Protestants argue that the Scriptures are guaranteed to remain true to their divine source; and, thus, only insofar as the Church retains scriptural faith is it assured of God's favor. Following such an argument, if the Church were to fall away from faith through Scripture (a possibility which Roman Catholics deny but Protestants affirm), its authority would be negated. Therefore, the early Protestants targeted for elimination traditions and doctrines they believed were based on distortions of Scripture, or were contrary to the Bible, but which the Roman Catholic Church considered scripturally-based aspects of the Christian faith, such as transubstantiation (John 6:51), the doctrine of purgatory (1 Cor 3:15), the veneration of images or icons (Numbers 21:8), and especially the doctrine that the Pope in Rome is the head of the Church on earth (Papal supremacy) (John 21:17).

However, the Reformers believed some tradition to be very seriously in conflict with the Scriptures: especially, with regard to teaching about the Church itself, but also touching on basic principles of the Gospel. They believed that no matter how venerable the traditional source, traditional authority is always open to question by comparison to what the Scriptures say. The individual may be forced to rely on his understanding of Scripture even if the whole tradition were to speak against him. This, they said, had always been implicitly recognized in the Church, and remains a fail-safe against the corruption of the Church by human error and deceit. Corruptions had crept in, the Reformers said, which seriously undermined the legitimate authority of the Church, and Tradition had been perverted by wicked men.

Sola scriptura is a doctrine that is not, in the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6 "expressly set down in scripture". However, it is claimed that it passes the second test of being part of "the whole counsel of God" because it is "deduced from scripture" "by good and necessary consequence", citing passages such as Isaiah 8:20: "To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.". Jesus is also typically understood by Protestants as expressly nullifying unscriptural traditions in the (Jewish) church, when he says, for example in Mark 7:13: "thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do."

Scripture and Tradition

The Catholic Church against which the Reformers directed these arguments did not see Scripture and the Sacred Tradition of the faith as different sources of authority, but that Scripture was handed down as part of Sacred Tradition (see 2 The 2:15, 2 Tim 2:2). Accepted Traditions were also perceived by the Church as cohesive in nature. The proper interpretation of the Scriptures was seen as part of the faith of the Church, and seen indeed as the manner in which Biblical authority was upheld (see Acts 15:28-29). The meaning of Scripture was seen as proven from the Faith universally held in the churches (see Phil 2:1, Acts 4:32), and the correctness of that universal Faith was seen as proven from the Scriptures and apostolic Sacred Tradition (see 2 The 2:15, 2 The 3:6, 1 Cor 11:2). The Biblical canon itself was thus viewed by the Church as part of the Church's Tradition, as defined by its leadership and acknowledged by its laity.

However, this view of scripture and tradition was not universally accepted. Throughout the history of the Church, movements have arisen within the Church or alongside of it which have disputed the official interpretation of the Scriptures. The leaders of these movements were often labeled heretics and their doctrines were rejected. According to Irenaeus, the Judaistic Ebionites charged less than one hundred years after the Apostles that the Christians overruled the authority of Scripture by failing to keep the Mosaic Law, see also Biblical law in Christianity. Later, Arius (250-336), once he had been made a presbyter in Alexandriamarker, began arguing that the teaching concerning the deity of Christ was an invention of men not found in Scripture and not believed by the Early Christians. The Church held that when disagreements over Scripture arise, the correct interpretation of the Bible will be consistent with how the Church authorities have believed in the past (see 2 Tim 2:2, 2 The 2:15, 1 Cor 11:2) , as revealed by the Ecumenical Councils, the writings of the Apostles of Jesus and Fathers of the Church, the decisions of the Bishops of Rome and similar sources of Tradition.

This system served the Church well as is illustrated by the dispute between Arius and Athanasius. Both of whom were Bishops of the Catholic Church. Both of whom used Scripture to defend their positions. And both of whom claimed the Holy Spirit was guiding them to their understanding of the Scriptures.

The judgement as to which of the two was teaching orthodox truth came before the Church in accordance with Matthew 18:17. The Church decided in favor of Athanasius because his teachings were supported by Scripture, Tradition AND the prior teaching of the Church (i.e. the Magisterium).Arius was promptly condemned a heretic.


Sola scriptura continues to be a doctrinal commitment of conservative branches and offshoots of the Lutheran churches, Reformed churches, and Baptist churches as well as other Protestants, especially where they describe themselves by the slogan "Bible-believing" (See Fundamentalism).


  1. Martin Luther, Smalcald Articles II, 15.
  2. For the traditional Lutheran view of the Bible, see . For an overview of the doctrine of verbal inspiration in Lutheranism, see Inspiration, Doctrine of in the Christian Cyclopedia.
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  5. "God's Word, or Holy Scripture" from the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article II, of Original Sin
  6. "the Scripture of the Holy Ghost." Apology to the Augsburg Confession, Preface, 9
  7. The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, "Rule and Norm", 3.
  8. (Tobit 6, 71; 2 Macc. 12, 43 f.; 14, 411),
  9. See Bible, Canon in the Christian Cyclopedia
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  19. Smalcald Articles, part 8, "Of Confession"
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  22. Popery Calmly Considered (1779) in The works of the Rev. John Wesley, vol. XV, p. 180, London (1812), digitized by Google Books

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