What does the phrase Sola Scriptura mean?

There is a fundamental disagreement between the Catholic Church and most Protestants in how one should read the Bible.  For Protestants, the Bible is the only source of spiritual truth and the only place for authority in regards to understanding God, salvation, saints, eternity, sin, man, the practice of the church and the future.  During the Protestant Reformation “Sola Scriptura” meaning “Only Scripture” was one of the mantras in the quest to reform what were perceived as abuses by the official church.

2 Timothy 3:16 teaches this idea of the “Sola Scriptura”

2 Timothy 3:16-17 (16)  All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  (17)  that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

The Westminster Confession of Faith states:

    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 teaching from pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4:11-14). Sola scriptura maintains a balance between the clarity of Scripture and the need for it to be studied in context and expounded (Hebrews 5:12).

However, the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox Churches all hold that the Bible alone is not the only trustworthy source of Christian teaching.  To these groups the Holy Bible is only one of three sources of spiritual knowledge: first is the Scripture; second is Sacred Tradition; and the third is the Episcopacy – or Papal authority.  In fact, the Roman Catholic Church has affirmed that since the Pope is inspired by the Holy Spirit, it is impossible for him to speak error when speaking about official matters of doctrine in the church, making his pronouncements equally authoritative as any chapter in the Bible written by a prophet or apostle.

Holding to such sources of authority, the Church sees itself as the only authenticated body to apply and interpret the Scriptures because, in part, it implicitly selected which books were to be in the biblical canon through its traditions.  Protestants believe the Church merely recognized and received the books that were already widely considered to be inspired and therefore part of the canon of scripture.

It is not surprising to find then, that beliefs taught in the Catholic Church sometimes have no basis in Scripture.  Purgatory, indulgences, sainthood, sacraments, confession to priests, and the office of the Pope himself are all based on church tradition rather than the Bible.  This difference of belief about the Bible lies at the root of the differences between Catholics and Protestants.

One of the most notable complaints from the reformers was the idea of the Church selling Indulgences.  These were payments for sins in the form of money.  While both Protestants and Catholics look in vain in the Bible to find such a practice, the Catholic Church sees no difficulty in this since the church itself has the authority to create doctrine not supported by Scripture.

Shad Sluiter