The term sola scriptura is one of the five “solas” referenced in the Protestant Reformation. “Sola” is a Latin term that means “alone” so the movement was focusing on five things that alone stand for Christian doctrine.
Martin Luther emphasized this idea of Scripture alone being our authority when he led the Reformation. Standing firm on that principle he said, “Unless therefore I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture, or by the clearest reasoning, —my conscience is and will remain bound by the Word of God, I cannot and I will not retract.” His intent was to remove extra-Biblical and un-Biblical ideas of man from the doctrine of Christianity which is exactly what God called him, and calls us, to do. We are not to add to scripture or the Christian doctrine any ideas from man. However, some people have now taken this concept one step further and stretched it out of bounds from what it really means. They use it to say that nothing aside from Scripture should be used in our faith. Or rather, that the Bible stands alone and needs no proof or external validation. It is erroneously used to say that providing a defense of the Bible is unnecessary because Scripture stands alone. However, even Martin Luther included the “clearest reasoning” in his defense of sola scriptura.
While I agree that man’s ideas should not be added to the Scripture, I don’t think it means that God’s ideas shouldn’t be added to Scripture. Sola scriptura is to remove man-made tradition and ideals from the Christian doctrine and faith, but it doesn’t mean to forego everything that is outside of Scripture. As I heard a wise man once say, “Everything in the Bible is true, but not everything that is true is in the Bible.” Yes, the Bible is complete and true but God’s truth permeates even outside of the Scriptures. God’s truth is revealed in the world around us, through nature, which is the whole point Paul makes in Romans 1:20: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.” God’s truth is so evident in the world that we are without excuse for not knowing Him. Therefore, there are truths about God that exist outside of Scripture. For example, the DNA double-stranded helix is a truth in the world that shows the amazing mind, intelligence, and design of our Creator, yet it is not specifically detailed in the Bible. God’s attribute of being our Designer can be found in studying DNA, a truth of God outside of Scripture.
Therefore, many people who cannot start with the foundation of the scripture as truth need to start with the foundation of the truth of God as evidenced in the world around us. That is where the revelation of God begins for many. Many former atheists only began to consider looking at scripture because they found the evidence of God’s existence so compelling in the physical world around them. This is why it is so important to be able to show God in all things – because He is present in all aspects of this world. After all, He is the one who made it. So God will be evident in chemistry, biology, geology, and cosmology. We should be willing to look for Him and His glorious majesty in those places too. I mean we even have a book in the Bible dedicated to the praise of God based on the glories of Himself revealed in the Heavens and on the earth. We see it in verses like Psalm 19:1 “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands.”
God also granted us the ability to reason, as Martin Luther mentioned in his quote. God imparts in us the ability to understand His word and His truth. We cannot neglect that aspect to our understanding of the Scripture in the first place. When we read Scripture, it is the logic that God gives to us that enables us to understand it. In fact, Scripture tells us that apart from God we can’t understand the things of the Spirit and the things of His Word.
We also need an understanding of how the world works in order to understand the Scripture. It is that knowledge that tells us when miracles have occurred. It’s because we know dead people do not walk out of tombs, water cannot chemically morph into wine, and lame people do not get up and leap around that tells us that God was at work. And because we understand how mathematics works, we know five loaves and two fish do not feed thousands of people. It is that knowledge of reality around us that confirms those things were from God.
It is also how we can understand many of the parables of Jesus. For His parable about the soils, we must understand something about how seeds respond to different soil conditions for it to make sense. Likewise, we must know what new wine does to old wineskins, how fig trees grow, and how leaven works. And He brings out the working knowledge of certain professions, like farming, winedressing, sewing, fishing, business, lending, and shepherding. He makes analogies to those professions so that the truths within them will speak to the hearts of those who do those things. Because they understand how those professions work in the world, they can understand what Jesus is revealing to them about the heart of man. He spoke into the common understanding of things so that people could understand spiritual truths.
He not only relates stories about their professions but about their relationships. Jesus taps into our own basic understanding of how people operate so that He can bring into the light those things we like to hide in the dark. He shows us our pride, our bitterness, our unforgiving spirit, by relating stories that are familiar to us because we see ourselves in them. We know how we relate to others so we can identify with a particular character from the parable of the Good Samaritan. We can see ourselves somewhere in the story about the Prodigal Son. He calls to our attention where our priorities are in the account of the wise and foolish virgins and whether we are faithfully working for God in the parable of the talents. Jesus describes the human heart in ways that no psychology textbook even comes close.
But even further, the real irony in the misconception that we don’t have to defend or prove the Bible is that the early church founders found it necessary to defend the Bible. So why do we think we don’t have to? Think about the time when the New Testament was written. All of the New Testament gospel accounts were written between AD 50 and 75, some even say as early as AD 40. However Peter preached his first sermon at Pentecost only 50 days after Jesus had resurrected – that would be AD 33 at the latest. There were no Gospel accounts or Pauline epistles to reference. So what did Peter use? Evidence. He called to their mind the evidence of the things they had witnessed. Those people standing in the portico of the temple had not only witnessed those events but had participated in them. He says, “Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know.” So first Peter points out that it was the works done by God through Jesus that they saw firsthand that confirmed Jesus as the Son of God. Because they knew those were not natural things, they could believe they were from God. He didn’t point them to a verse out of the book of Ephesians, he pointed them to their own knowledge of how the world works and contrasted that with the works that Jesus performed.
And Peter continues, “Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it…This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses.” Again, Peter is appealing to the evidence of the things they have done and witnessed. He appeals to their actions, their memories, their deeds. He is using the evidence of the things that have happened to prove the fulfillment of the Old Testament scriptures.
Look at other references like this throughout the New Testament. Peter says in 2 Peter 1:16 “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty.” Peter is giving the solid evidence for what he’s saying as an eyewitness. John says in his epistle 1 John 1:3 “That which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.” He is appealing to the senses with which he experienced Jesus – by sight, sound, and touch, physical evidence of the life of God lived here on earth. He says the same in his gospel in John 19:35 “And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you may believe.” He is giving his testimony as the evidence to confirm for others that this is true. He is defending his words, what would become known as Scripture, as truth because he was an eyewitness. Luke does the same when he penned his gospel by telling us in Luke 1:1–3 “With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus.” He wanted to find the evidence of the accounts of Jesus and use those evidences to form his gospel account. These things were written AS the early church was being formed. The early church did not form BECAUSE of the New Testament. The early church was formed because of the proof of what was documented in the New Testament. So the foundation of Christianity is not the collection of writings that make up the Bible. The foundation of Christianity is the existence of God found in the world all around us and the historical event of Him coming down to live as man in Jesus Christ and the death and resurrection of Him. It is the validity of the historical events and reality of the life of Jesus that give Christianity its firm foundation. If you were to take all of the Scriptures away, you would not lose Christianity because it is not on that where we have our faith. It is on the existence of God and the reality of what He did for us.
Therefore, for us far removed in time and space from these accounts, there is nothing wrong with wanting to understand the validity of those accounts. It is especially critical that we do as a way to impart that important evidence on to those who do not believe the scriptures are inspired by God. Yes, there comes a point where as a believer we can trust the Scriptures alone because they were given by God. But many people don’t have that as their starting point. But if we show them the validity of the Scriptures and that it documents the evidence of the historical life, death, and resurrection of Christ, then maybe they’ll be willing to actually read it.
So we don’t bring man’s ideas, man’s values, or man’s tradition to Scripture (sola scriptura) but we do bring the truth of God’s world to the truth of God’s Word to understand the truth of man’s heart.