What does sola scriptura mean? Keith A. Mathison, in The Shape of Sola Scriptura, examines how the doctrine of “Scripture alone” has been applied rightly and wrongly throughout history. This concept remains a relevant issue in evangelical Christianity today because of misinterpretation and/or misapplication of this key term by the church.
In the opening chapter, we see that the early church’s commitment to sola scriptura was accompanied by a proper understanding of the Bible. By the 4th century some of the church fathers' writings show cracks that later led to church tradition rising to a position of being revelatory. Thus, by the late Middle Ages traditions began to be viewed on the same level as Scripture itself.
The Reformation era called for a return to Scripture alone as our rule of faith and practice. This was a harkening back to the standards of the early church. The author devotes a chapter to Luther and Calvin and their work to rid the church of its elevation of tradition as a source of revelation. Their faithful work was countered in the Council of Trent’s ultimately establishing the importance of revelation in tradition in the Roman Catholic Church.
There arose within the 16th century those who wanted to throw out all tradition, not seeing its usefulness as the vehicle by which the fallible church provided its understanding of Scriptural teaching. Instead, these radical reformers believed that nothing more was needed than a Bible and the individual who read it. Mathison does an excellent job in communicating how this view traveled to America and has become a part of evangelical Christianity. The rise of the Enlightenment aided this view’s acceptability. Mathison uses the apt phrase “solo scriptura” to delineate those who believe they are competent to interpret Scripture without any outside help. He dissects this position and shows that it is an errant view of sola scriptura. He points out that solo scriptura is often misunderstood as the Reformer’s doctrine of sola scriptura. He provides a number of Catholic criticisms of sola scriptura, which upon close examination are actually critiques of solo scriptura.
In several chapters, Mathison critiques church tradition in light of revelation. Tradition as revelation does not stand when the light of Scripture is shined upon it, nor does it stand before the testimony of early church history. Mathison answers major objections of those who are critical of the doctrine of sola scriptura.
The solution to the current emphasis on one’s private interpretation of Scripture is not to flee evangelicalism for the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Instead, readers are challenged to recover a proper understanding of sola scriptura that is shaped by Scripture and supported by the early church.
This is a call that the evangelical church must heed. This is a book for Protestants and Catholics alike. The author shows the errors of radical reformers as well as the errors of Catholicism.
Readers can expect to have a greater appreciation for Scriptural authority and for the development of church creeds and confessional statements based on that authority. It also points to the importance of covenant communities — the organized church — and away from an individualized interpretation of Scripture. This individualism has led to church splits and unnecessary schisms within evangelicalism. Mathison realizes that this disarray will not be corrected overnight or even in our lifetime. He writes in the hope that his efforts will be used by God to recapture a Biblical understanding and practice of sola scriptura.