Sola Scriptura and Conservatism II: Sola Scriptura and Epistemology

In the previous article several principles of Conservatism were explicated. These principles are as follows: (1) Custom, as such, is a good, (2) reverence for authority, as such, is a good, and (3) reformation is preferable to revolution (it is generally easier to incrementally change as opposed to “progressively” destroy). There are more principles of Conservatism but these suffice to demonstrate the broad thesis of this series: Empirical Conservatism and Sola Scriptura are unified in several of their most basic working principles, because both are derived from the revelation of God who is one. This second installment, as part of the broader argument toward this thesis, explicates the doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) as it relates to the doctrine of the knowledge of God (how do we come to know God?). This is necessary in order to place Scripture within a broader Reformed epistemology (doctrine of knowledge) which organizes the respective place of creeds and confessions, church leadership, and human reason. The importance of this doctrine is not only in order to prove the thesis of this series, but it is also immediately practical as Christians answer the ever pertinent question, “Who should I trust and listen to?”

Sola Scriptura Considered Narrowly

God Inspired Scripture (Efficient and Formal Causality)

Narrowly considered, Sola Scriptura is simply the latin phrase of the Reformers which means “Scripture alone.” Utilized in order to contradict the dogma of Roman Catholics, Sola Scriptura posits that Scripture is the only infallible authority regarding the most essential matters of faith and life. Infallibility, here, refers to the impossibility to err. Infallibility is distinguished from inerrancy in that the former means “impossible to err” and refers to the character of the Scripture having its source in God, whereas inerrancy refers to the actual, consequent perfection of Scripture (Infallibility refers to the character of the one inspiring, inerrancy refers to the consequent status of the document having been inspired). The “God-breathed” nature of Scripture is referred to as “inspiration.” The Scriptural doctrine is that God apprehends human instruments (prophets and apostles) in their writing of Scripture in such a way so as not to violently suppress their faculties in the creation of Scripture (mechanical inspiration), nor simply to arouse them to a good work apart from superintending His own perfections (dynamic inspiration), rather God inspires the Scripture in such a way as to “carry along” (1 Peter 1:19-21) the writers such that it is really a work relative their own preferences and style, yet is simultaneously the very Word of God (Organic inspiration, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, 1). Being breathed out by God, the Scripture is consequently authoritative. As God is supremely authoritative, due to His station and power, so too is His Word to us in the Bible (2).

Sola Scriptura (Teleology, Perspecuity)

Teleology refers to the study of the “ends of things.” End here simply refers to a purpose or goal. The purpose of a cup is to facilitate the human operation of drinking. That is it’s intent, that is it’s teleology. The purpose of Scripture is the upbuilding of the Christian church; as such, it is utilized for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). Being a God-breathed text for the church, God accommodates His Word to it’s intended audience; just as a father explains concepts in a manner in which his child can understand, so too does God accommodate the Scriptures in a manner in which the church can understand. Following upon this divine/human operative, this relation between the nature of God and the nature of the audience God is intending in His writings, another attribute of Scripture is deduced: perspicuity (3). Perspicuity refers to the clarity of Scripture; Scripture was not written to leave men in the dark regarding their salvation, rather the Scripture was written in order to be a “light” unto the path of the Christian (Psalm 119:105). Indeed, the perfect Scripture was not written to the most wise and enlightened of all the earth but to the unlearned and unesteemed (1 Corinthians 1:27). As such, in addition to inspiring the educated Paul and the educated Moses, the Scripture is also written by the uneducated Peter and John. As such, it bears, in addition to its inestimable depth, a manifold perspicuity. In a word, though aspects of Scripture are difficult to understand (2 Peter 3:16), it’s basic system of salvation (how men are saved) and of ethics (how Christians are called to live) is clear (Luke 18:13).

Sola Scriptura (Materiality, Sufficiency)

Matter refers to that which composes a substance. If I ask what is the “matter” with my frustrated wife, I am asking what is causing her sad mood. If I ask what is the “matter” which composes this table, I am asking whether it’s made of wood or bronze. Similarly, when I ask about the “matter” of Sola Scriptura, I am asking what the Scriptures themselves have to say about their own authority and finality with regard to this broader doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Simply put, I’m positing that the Scriptures testify to their own sufficiency. Sufficiency refers to the scope of the Scriptures, in that they are absolutely sufficient pertaining to men’s salvation (how men “get saved”), their Christian ethic (how they can live pleasing lives to God having been saved), and the general and transcendent principles regarding how the church is to conduct it’s worship and order church discipline. As such, the sufficiency of Scripture pertains to the soteriological (salvific), ethical (morality), and doxological/ecclesiological (pertaining to the function of the church). Scripture itself testifies that it is able to furnish a man ready for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17). In addition to this, now following the “times of the Apostles,” Scripture is the only infallible authority left to the church having been promised by God. Rome and the Continuationists speak of their own infallibility but none of them perform the miracles of God-inspired Apostles and thus neither group should be believed (Numbers 21:9, 2 Corinthians 12:2, 4). Where are they indisputably raising men from the dead or curing diseases in order to demonstrate their authority? Nowhere. The Scriptures, on the other hand, are sufficient in the most necessary matters. Yet, the sufficiency of Scripture is not to be misconstrued as though the Bible is a systemic textbook regarding science, politics, or psychology; we are not Biblicists. Scripture is sufficient for it’s intent: the infallible Word for the Spirit indwelt church, living as a militant vesel of His grace in the world. It is sufficient for salvation and living, not exhaustive as to the particular details of each and every circumstance (if it was, why did God institute government, church authority, and ext?).

Sola Scriptura Broadly Considered

It is impossible to consider the narrow doctrine of Scripture without also applying the doctrine of Scripture to broader epistemological concerns regarding the relative status of Scripture vis-a-vis historic doctrinal formulations (creeds and confessions), submission to church leadership, and human reason. Thus, I offer a somewhat idiosyncratic view of the doctrine in form (not in substance). Sola Scriptura is both broad and narrow. As to it’s narrowness, Sola Scriptura is the epistemological postulation that Scripture alone is the only infallible authority of God regarding the most essential matters of faith and practice for the Christian church today. As such, it rejects all forms of autonomous human reason in matters of essential faith and practice (Atheism, Deism, Agnosticism, and ext.), it also rejects the Dogmatic positions of Roman Catholics and Continuationists which posit that alongside the Scriptures God speaks through other instruments. Finally, it rejects all other purported authorities regarding God-inspired revelation such as Mormonism, Islam, and ext. Positively, it affirms that Scripture is the vox dei (the voice of God), that what Scripture says God says, and that Scripture is the Word of God for the church of God, fully sufficient for its intended purpose as the royal Word to the church on earth.

Broadly considered though, Sola Scriptura refers to an entire epistemological system which answers to the broad question of epistemic authority — “What is the relative epistemological/practical status of Scripture in relation to creedal statements, church authority, and human reason?” It’s basic tenet is that Scripture alone is the only norm of norms without norms. It is the only infallible source of God’s revelation on earth today; in times past God spoke through prophets and Apostles infallibly, but in these last days He has given us His Son (Hebrews 1:1-2); and His Son promised to speak through Apostles, the last of which have died (Ephesians 2:20). Yet their writings, which through providence remain, were inspired and, as a collection received by us, are our only infallible rule in faith and life (John 10:27-28, WCF 1.1). And yet as the norm of norm without norms, God through Scripture has also, graciously, placed the various other practical authorities in life. As to the individual, he has affirmed his reason – not as an infallible rule, but as an instrument for Christian living (Isaiah 1:18). As to the church, God has established her as the buttress of truth and has provided her a tradition which she is given to explicate, though not infallibly (1 Timothy 3:15, 2 Timothy 1:14). We will therefore look at the relative place of historic doctrinal formulations, church leadership, and human reason in turn.

Sphere Sovereignty and Sola Scriptura

Before turning to confessions, church leadership, and human reason, the doctrine of Sphere Sovereignty must be explicated and shown to be a logical deduction from the doctrine of Scripture above. Sphere sovereignty is three-fold: (1) There are differing spheres in human experience; the family differs from the individual, the individual differs from the state, and ext. (2) Christ Jesus is the Lord over each and every one of these spheres. (3) He exercises His lordship in each sphere by annexing to those spheres certain rights and duties which are relative to the purpose of that sphere; each sphere working to exercise it’s own relative duty righteously (5). Thus, in Scripture, the family not the State is given the rod of discipline as an instrument of power for the maturation of it’s own children (Deuteronomy 6). Further, it is the State not the renegade individual who is given the power to kill humans who have forfeited their right to live by murdering other humans (Genesis 9:6, Romans 13:1-7). Similarly, it is not the State which has been given the “keys to the kingdom” exercising those keys in the churches formal worship, the formulation of creedal statements, and the administration of the Sacraments, it is the church (Matthew 16:18, Matthew 18:17, Hebrews 13:17). Sphere sovereignty is a deduction from the sufficiency of Scripture; Scripture is sufficient in the most necessary matters pertaining to human experience in it’s provision of general principles (keys, sword, and rod). Yet, Scripture is not intended to provide a total empirical science of politics nor of family nor any other sphere save Divinity. It is sufficient, but not exhaustive in it’s scope. Yet because Scripture is final, authoritative, and sufficient and because it clearly annexes the rights and duties of each sphere, those spheres are bound to their own limited arena of power as clearly revealed in the Word of God. They dare not exceed their power without incurring the discipline or judgment of God.

Creeds and Confessions

Furnished with a doctrine of Sola Scriptura and Sphere sovereignty, we are equipped to investigate the relative place of creeds and confessions within church life. In the first, it is important to note that the 5th commandment of the moral law given to Israel, as a reflection of the law which God implanted in the heart of man at creation, is to give honor to parents (Exodus 20, Romans 2:14-15). The Westminster Divines rightly noted that the essence of this commandment refers not only to filial relationships but also to all persons relative their respective relations as to station (WLC Q and A’s 123-133, Ephesians 5-6). Thus the confession speaks of the relationships between employer and employee (slave and master), elders and layman, government and citizen. In each sphere, respect for Jesus’s own sovereign sphere institution is required. Therefore Christians are to clothe themselves in humility to elders, work well for employers, and submit to their governing authorities. All of this is contained within the logic of the fifth commandment. In addition to this, there is a Conservatism of sorts contained within the fifth commandment. One of the biblical reasons for a general deference to “age” is because wisdom grows with experience which is marked by age (Proverbs 16:31). One can hardly read the Old Testament corpus without noting a deference to those who’ve gone before; indeed, it is reaffirmed in the New Testament (1 Peter 5:5). This deference is not a definite rule, but plays into the manner in which we should view the church’s creeds and confessions as they’ve gone before us. We should not take sinful delight in pointing out our father’s flaws, but rather should seek to learn from them as we would our own fathers. In the case that they are mistaken we rightly depart from them, though not without pain.

More than this general deference to the wisdom of the past, the Scriptures speak specifically of the church as that institution inhabited by the Spirit. As such, she is regarded in the Scriptures as the pillar and buttress of truth (1 Timothy 3:15). Further, the Spirit resides in her as of one body; some are given for teaching, others for different gifts (with gifts differing, let us use them; Romans 12:6-11). The Scriptures alone are inspired by God and infallible; yet God has willed that the Spirit be given to the church of God. And those whose minds are renewed by Christ are the best apt to discern spiritual things (1 2:16). Yet, they do not discern them infallibly but as humans indwelled by the Spirit (Simil Justus et Peccator, At one time justified and a sinner). Entire denominations have fallen astray; entire institutions likewise. The individual Christian is given the Spirit in order to “test the spirits” to see if they are from God (1 John 4:1). Yet the Spirit was poured out, not only on us as individuals, but on us as a united body, a people; the people of God. And so though church tradition, creeds, and confessions are not infallible as to their creation, they are relatively indispensable as to the health and vitality of the church. They are not necessary for the salvation of individuals (as are the Scriptures), but they are thoroughly helpful in discerning the divine mysteries. As such, they bind the conscience not as an absolute authority which we are to bow knee to implicitly; rather, the tradition is a guide as to the correct interpretation of Scripture that our fathers have bestowed upon us according to the Spirit given to them. We should view them, generally, as wiser than ourselves (in the extent of their knowledge, not as to the form of their reason). As such, it has rightly been stated that the Scripture is the only infallible and highest authority and that tradition is a subordinate but real authority. Scripture is the norm, tradition guides interpretation. Scripture is the source, tradition is the aid (6).

Church Leadership

The Scripture is also clear that we are to “obey” church leaders and “submit” to them (13:17). Positively stated, God loves the church and has given her ministers, elders, and deacons in order that she might fully thrive. The men filling these offices, if righteously called, are gentle, loving, not lording their power over your faith but serving you in righteousness (1 Peter 5:3). Yet the devil is cunning and has sent his share of wolves into the power positions of the church (Matthew 7:15, 1 Corinthians 11:19). And though the Reformed doctrine of Sola Scriptura and the Kuyperian doctrine of Sphere Sovereignty clearly demarcate the limited role and rule of the pastor, Satan haunts us still. Too often, the pastorate and the elderate are filled by men set on their own gain, manifesting works of the flesh not the works of God (the book of Galatians, 2 Corinthians 11:5, Colossians 2:6-23). Even godly ministers and elders are tempted to power (Galatians 2:11). Therefore, God has clearly demarcated the sphere of submission which they have power over: the keys to the kingdom. The Roman error is to relegate a “magisterial” authority to these keys. The “Church,” in this blasphemous view, literally takes upon itself the throne of God to delegate who receives and doesn’t receive grace. The Reformed view of this is quite the opposite; leadership is granted a “ministerial” authority grounded in the authority of God revealed in the Scriptures. They exercises their authority, in other words, according to Christ’s royal word in Scripture. The minister sanctifies the Sacrament and feeds the sheep by the Word. The elders discipline wayward sons by the Word. The elder admonishes the sheep by the Word. Their authority is limited to the explicit Word and those matters which the Word has annexed to their sphere of authority (circumstances of worship, orderliness in discipline, and declaration of official church dogma). Church authority, in other words, is not primarily epistemic and absolute but practical and ministerial. Church authority deals with the practical circumstances of worship (which are relative to time and place in particulars; the most important and general principles are set forth in the Bible, John 4:24). Church authority deals with the practical instantiation of disciplining the impenitent (Matthew 18:17). And church authority deals with the refutation of false teaching and the promulgation of true teaching through formal declarations (Acts 15:1-19). It is of particular importance to emphasize that in any measure whether explicitly or implicitly, that the church adds one iota of ethical requirement to the church of God which is not hers to add, she is acting like the Pharisee and violating the most blessed liberty of the children of God (WCF Ch. 20). This can be done either explicitly as by public legalism or privately, as by manipulative control. If church leadership results in the consequent bondage of persons beyond the clear instruction of the Word of God and their given sphere of authority, it is evil. No matter how “good” the purported goal, such control is evil.

Human Reason

There are two things most clear to human reason: (1) It ought not be doubted in matters clearly perceived and understood and (2) it is absolutely finite. As to the first, it is necessary to affirm the rationality of the common man against the detractors of rationality who, in every way cause the common man to doubt his own reason. As to the second, it is necessary to emphasize the finitude of man in order to reject the false religions. The heathens act as though they know more than they do. In the second place, it is necessary in order to emphasize both our rationality and our finitude in order to secure humanities’ utter mental-guilt before God and in order to undergird humanities’ utter mental-need of special revelation before God. As to the first, we note that Romans 1 states that all men “know” God by nature. They know that God exists “deep down” even if they aren’t able to readily explicate the grounds for that belief. Yet, even after the fall there must at-least exist in the mind of man enough rationality in order to understand that which reckons him absolutely guilty in the sense of Romans 1. The more grace one is given, the more guilty they are in not improving upon that grace. Therefore, though some men are definitely given over to a debased mind, we should not reckon the majority of mankind, even fallen mankind, as definitively irrational. They are able to apprehend truth intuitively (by perception) and also to understand through reason (deducing truth from something known to something unknown). In the second place, it is important to emphasize the finitude of man in order to highlight his need for special revelation (i.e. Scripture). God has seen fit to create mankind with a lack that He might fill, in order to demonstrate His own sovereign perfection and infinitude before them.

And the Scriptures were given not principally to the mind of the unregenerate man but to the mind of the regenerate man, as written for the church. Yet, if man is to be regenerated “according to the Word of God” and the Spirit works “through the preaching of the Gospel” such that man might apprehend Christ therein, and also that fallen man might magnified in his guilt if he rejects that Christ, the Scriptures must be intelligible, in principle, to an extent, to the unregenerate mind. Yet, it is only through regeneration that the Scriptures, and the Christ contained therein, are truly apprehendable in the sense intended by God (as by His revealed will). The error of some is to so relegate the effects of the fall on the mind of man so as to make him lack further guilt in addition to the guilt which he inherited from Adam. Such is not wise, nor evidentially veracious. As a general rule, man is rational as to his perceptions and irrational as to what he does with those perceptions. The common-man in Romans 1 perceives the existence of God, but suppresses and then distorts that revelation. In other words he fails to improve on the revelation of God. Rather he works against it. This is the same with the doctrine of Christ revealed in the Bible to the reprobate as a general rule (exceptions are always possible). The unregenerate perceives Christ, his need of Christ, and the goodness of the Bible; yet, due to his fundamental heart commitment against Christ he chooses indifference, distortion, or denial. The regenerate are not like so but most certainly improves upon the Gospel; first in justification and later and continually in Sanctification. The instrument of reason is, therefore, just that – an instrument. It is not the Lord of the faith or of the truth (that is the Word of God). Nor is it the cause of illumination (that is the Spirit of God); rather it is the indispensable instrument through which the Scriptures are understood, ordered, and applied. Human reason is not the Lord of the Scriptures; rather, right reason bows knee to the logic of God contained therein. Having bowed, right reason explicates the doctrine of God as the fallible interpreter of God inspired Scripture. Man should neither suppress nor deny his God-given aid in reason; the light of the mind which God has given him by grace (Romans 9:16, 7, 8).  


Finally, Sola Scriptura considered as a full epistemological doctrine is not a Biblicism. It doesn’t affirm that the Bible only is necessary for the mind and for Christian practice. Rather it confesses that Scripture is the royal Word of king Jesus; as such, it bears all the marks of divine authorship to the church of God. It is inspired, authoritative, intelligible, sufficient, and final. Broadly considered, Scripture stands alone above all other forms of mental/practical authority. The creeds and confessions, though drawing our hearts, are bound to the Scriptures. Church leadership, grounded and rooted in the Word of Christ, is bound to His Word in Scripture. Human reason, though an indispensable instrument in the reception of the Word of God, is the instrument of order not the Lord of faith. The doctrine of Sola Scriptura, therefore, does not nullify subordinate authorities; rather, the doctrine of Sola Scriptura places subordinate authorities in their rightful place, under God according to His Lordship. Having affirmed the relative place of the individual mind, tradition, and church leadership vis-a-vis this broad doctrine of Scripture, the next article will demonstrate the analogy between this epistemological/practical doctrine of Sola Scriptura and socio-political Conservatism.

As I close, it must be reiterated that this doctrine is immediately practical insofar as it answers the question, “Who should the Christian individual trust? Who should he defer to?” And, in what manner should he defer?  In rightly placing man’s mind, church tradition, and ecclesiastical authority vis-a-vis the Word of God man is equipped to submit to his elders in gracious love, not slavish implicit obedience, relative their sphere. In this regard he submits not necessarily epistemically (without mental warrant), but practically (regarding how he goes about the worship service). He is, through the reiteration of the legitimacy of his reason able to submit according to right reason and subvert when the Word of God is profaned. As such, he can legitimately, and rationally, receive the inheritance of the great Reformed and catholic tradition, without falling into an irrational and sectarian dogmatism. In short, he is furnished to serve the Lord without rebelliousness nor stupidity. He is affirmed as a rational man, and a beloved son with a long line of faithful fathers.


(1). J.I. Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI. 1958.

Frankly, I’m unaware what book I derived the distinctions between the various types of inspiration yet I know it was around the time I was reading this book. The distinction was also laid out in a class I took with Duncan Rankin in 2013.

(2). B.B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible. P&R Publishing, Philipsburg, NJ. 1948. This entire book helped to confirm my faith in the Scriptures.

(3) Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology Vol 1. Trans. James T. Dennison Jr.  P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, New Jersey. 1992.

The section on the perspicuity of Scripture, 143-146.

(4) B.B. Warfield, Counterfeit Miracles. Banner of Truth Trust. Carlisle, P.A., 1918.

This book outlines some of the problems with Continuationist Theology; admittedly, it is not an exhaustive treatment.

(5) Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism. Eerdmans. Grand Rapids, M.I., 1931.  

If my doctrine of sphere sovereignty is a bit idiosyncratic and different than Kuyper’s, surely read him to know the origins.

(6) Keith Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura. Canon Press. Moscard, ID., 2001.

Dr. Mathison’s book is an extremely clear and helpful volume arguing against Roman Dogmatism on one side and the ignorance of Biblicism on the other.

(7) Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology Vol 1. Hendrickson Publishers. Peabody Massachusetts, 2013.

Particularly the introduction section, pgs. 1-187 wherein he places Scripture vis-a-vis human reason and shows the indispensable concurrency between the two. Though Hodge may seem a bit “rationalistic” according to the good humanists among us, Hodge’s work served to reiterate the emphasis on rationality within at-least his old-princetonian wing of the Reformed community. I heartily recommend his prolegomena.

(8)  Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology Vol 1. Trans. James T. Dennison Jr.  P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, New Jersey. 1992. His prolegomena wherein he relates faith and reason, philosophy and theology, 18-48.

As a foil to Hodge (not a contradiction, rather a difference in style and emphasis), I include the great Reformed Scholastic Francis Turretin. There is no greater Theologian I have come accross in terms of clarity and intellectual depth.

Picture Credit:  Photo by Stephen Radford on Unsplash

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