One of the fundamental stances which the Protestant reformers maintained is captured in the Latin phrase sola scriptura: Scripture alone. The Scriptures alone provide the authority for Christians’ belief and practice.
This belief is certainly not universal among those who call themselves Christians. There are many who look to their reason for authority, while others look to tradition. Still others look to those who have certain academic degrees or ecclesiastical authority to tell them what to believe and how to live.
Only Scripture, though, is the valid authority for the believer, for only Scripture is not contaminated with man’s interpretation, amplification, and evaluation. Church tradition removes the believer at least one step away from Scripture. His guide becomes what the Church says Scripture means, not what Scripture itself says. Reason subjectively subjugates Scripture to an inferior position. Scripture becomes judged by man, instead of being man’s judge (J. I. Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God, 49-50).
Because the Bible is inspired by God, it alone is the authority for the Christian. What it teaches is binding upon the conscience of man. Bush and Nettles explain, “Wherever the Bible speaks, it is binding. Areas where it is silent must be considered areas of freedom. While creeds, councils, and tradition may serve as enlightening factors in the process of interpretation, in the last analysis the only authority is Scripture itself. Binding and authoritative doctrinal truth is either expressly stated or necessarily contained in Scripture” (Russ Bush and Tom Nettles, Baptists and the Bible, 402).
Christ accepted the position of biblical authority. He did not come “to abolish the Law or the Prophets, . . . but to fulfill” (Matt 5:17). He proclaimed, “Until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt 5:18). For Christ, when Scripture spoke the matter was settled: “Have you not read . . .?” (see Matt 19:4-6). He questioned the self-assured Sadducees, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?” (Mark 12:24).
Christ himself submitted to that which the Old Testament taught. Packer elaborates, “He kept the law; when his opponents accused him or his disciples of breaking it, he always replied, not that he or they were exempted from it, but that they were in fact keeping it, and their critics had misunderstood its meaning. His whole ministry, as recorded in the Gospels, may justly be described as a prolonged and many-sided affirmation of the authority of the Old Testament. For he drew his conception of the Messianic office entirely from the strands of Old Testament prophecy concerning the One that should come – the Son of David who was the Son of God, the Son of man who should take the kingdom, the Servant who should preach mercy and suffer for the people’s sins” (Packer, 56-57).
The apostles understood that not only the Old Testament was authoritative, but also the words of Christ and those of the apostles wrought by the Holy Spirit were authoritative. Paul reminded the Ephesian elders, “Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:35). Of their own writings Paul stated, “And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit” (1 Cor 2:13). Jesus had taught his apostles that after he had gone away the Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth (John 16:13).
Because Scripture is authoritative, every believer and every church must submit to its teachings. No church can be Christ’s church if it attempts to make Scripture submit to its tradition and reason. Scripture must be central to the direction and the activity of the church. Packer instructs, “Because the Church on earth consists of imperfectly sanctified sinners, there are always two defects in the lives of its members, both corporately and individually. These are ignorance and error, which cause omissions and mistakes in belief and behaviour. The Church, therefore, has two constant needs; instruction in the truths by which it must live, and correction of the shortcomings by which its life is marred. Scripture is designed to meet this twofold need; it is ‘profitable for teaching . . . and for training in righteousness’ on the one hand, and for ‘reproof’ and ‘correction’ on the other” (Packer, 68-69).