“No Creed but the Bible” & Sola Scriptura

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Bible 5One of the foundational theological convictions of my life and ministry is the principle of Sola Scriptura, the biblical doctrine that Scripture is the only infallible authority of Christian faith and practice.  Directly related to this conviction is my belief in the sufficiency of Scripture: the truth that in the Scriptures, we have every divine word needed to live a life that honors God.  As Paul puts it so memorably in a letter to his student, Timothy: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17, italics mine).

Briefly in this post I want to address what I believe to be a common misunderstanding and errant application of the principles of Sola Scriptura and the sufficiency of Scripture, specifically as these principles relate to the role of human teachers in the life of the church.

Over the years I’ve encountered a number of well-meaning Christians who believe in the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, but who apply these truths in an unbiblical way.  These Christians make it seem like they believe teachers of the Bible are somehow not necessary to a Christian’s spiritual maturity.  They often don’t like to read Christian books and are not really interested in what others say about the Bible or about what a passage in the Bible means.  Many of them don’t like to attend groups and studies that are focused around a book written by another man, because they believe that only studies that study the Bible directly are worth their time.  They are of the “no creed but the Bible” crowd.

Again, many of these Christians have honorable intentions.  They acknowledge the authority of the Bible and want for it to have its rightful place as the final and ultimate authority of their faith.  And in this desire, I am right there with them.  But, I think their resistance against human teachers is actually an illogical and unbiblical position.

It is an illogical position, because “no creed but the Bible” is itself a creed.  Carl Trueman explains:

“Christians are not divided between those who have creeds and confessions and those who do not; rather, they are divided between those who have public creeds and confessions which are written down and exist as public documents, subject to public scrutiny, evaluation, and critique; and those who have private creeds and confessions which are often improvised, unwritten, and thus not open to public scrutiny, not susceptible to evaluation and, crucially and ironically, not subject to testing by scripture to see whether they are true or not.” (Carl Trueman, The Creedal Imperative)

And ironically, not even the Bible advocates such a position.  For instance,in the words of the Apostle Paul, when Jesus ascended to his Father, he gave gifts to the Church; gifts like “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastor-teachers”; people who are given to the church to “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,” which they do (at least in great part) by explaining the Word of God to the people (Ephesians 4:11-13).

Consider also the urgency with which Paul exhorts Timothy to “preach the word” in 2 Timothy 4:1-5.  You get the sense in that passage that Timothy’s faithfulness in preaching is absolutely essential to the health of the church there in Ephesus.

And then there is the praise Paul gives to the church at Rome, rejoicing that they are “filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another” (Romans 15:14).  Notice how being filled with all personal knowledge [of God] is in no way opposed to giving and receiving instruction to one another in the church.  The two go hand in hand. 

Certainly there are a myriad of other passages that we could consider, but hopefully my point here is clear.  The Scriptures in no way demean the role of human teachers in the spiritual growth of the church, but in fact honor that role.

The “no creed but the Bible” position is actually a mistreatment of the biblical doctrine of Sola Scriptura.  Some have put a label on this position, calling it the principle of “Solo Scriptura,” the idea that the Bible is not merely the only infallible authority of our faith and practice, but is the only authority, period.  The problem is, as Keith Mathison has pointed out, that “if a proponent of solo scriptura is honest, he recognizes that it is not the infallible Scripture to which he ultimately appeals. His appeal is always to his own fallible interpretation of that Scripture.”

The result of this is an extremely individualistic reading of Scripture that gives far too much weight to personal and private interpretations of the Bible.  And when this happens, people begin listening not to the true voice of God in the Bible, but themselves.

Which means, not only is the position not logically possible, it is not biblical at all, and ironically elevates the opinions of men to a level of ultimate spiritual authority – the very problem that Sola Scriptura is meant to protect us from.  The simple fact is that “no creed but the Bible” is actually a creed in and of itself that goes against the direct teaching of the Bible.

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Zach Putthoff

About Zach Putthoff

Originally from Tonganoxie, KS, Zach, serves as pastor for preaching at Shepherd’s Community Church, in Lafayette, CO. He received his B.A. in Biblical Studies at the Moody Bible Institute and put in a few years of graduate level study in biblical counseling at The Master’s University. Zach is happily married to his best friend Noelle, and has three awesome kids.

  • Great article, Zach; such a vital issue. Now, how would you apply the very same principle(s) historically? That is, in relationship to the teachers with which God has gifted the Church through the ages and the deposit of their instruction in historic confessions? In the context of their arguments, that would be both Trueman’s and Mathison’s contention.

    Showing my cards, this is the very argument that led me from the “Bible church” (for lack of a better term) to pastor a confessional church (1689LBC). In conversations on that, I usually begin with this issue and say confessional subscription is biblical.

    Not trying to set you up, but sincerely curious – how do you reflect on these same truths through the ages of the Church? Thanks, again, brother. Glad you wrote on this, here.

    • Jason

      I’m a little fuzzy on this point. You’re not the only one I’ve seen make this change. Is 1 John 1:1-5 a key text in considering the classic historical creeds as important (or authoritative? if I can use this word?)? I’m honestly seeking clarification on this point?

      • Perhaps, and this is a longer conversation of course. (Read Trueman – also, Allen & Swain, Reformed Catholicity). But I think it can be as simple as just taking the argument that Zach’s presented – really that of Trueman and Mathison and most Christians until the 19th century 🙂 – to its logical extension, historically. Often, I begin with Eph 4 and the historic assumption behind it and like texts (e.g., Matt 16:18ff) – that is, Christ has gifted us with apostles and prophets (once for all) and His historic, progressive gifting [building on the foundation, Eph 2:20] has continued with evangelists, pastors, and teachers (3 roles, “pastor-teacher” is an exegetical mistake) throughout the ages.

        So, I suggest asking ourselves, what does this require of us? The fact that the faith wasn’t invented last Tuesday or when our particular congregation began or when our favorite celebrity pastor / author began writing and that Christ has been gifting His Church for centuries? Or, does the argument presented here only mean that Christians ought to submit to the teaching office of their present local church – but not that of the Church down through the ages? Of course that tradition is not absolute or inerrant, hence the point of sola Scriptura – it must be tradition that’s “chastened” and sifted by the authority of the Bible. But can we really jettison the past without being guilty of the very same sins which the independent-minded Christians of whom Zach wrote are guilty? Or at least guilty of “chronological snobbery”?

        In this year of remembering the Reformation, it’s good to remember that this was the Reformers’ argument. Not the Bible only, absolutely, but returning the Bible to its ruling authority to chasten truth from error in the Church. My favorite statement to this effect is in Calvin’s prefatory letter in Institutes:

        The good things that these [church] fathers have written they either do not notice, or misrepresent or pervert. You might say that their only care is to gather dung amid gold. Then, with a frightful to-do, they overwhelm us as despisers and adversaries of the fathers! But we do not despise them; infact, if it were to our present purpose, I could with no trouble at all prove that the greater part of what we are saying today meets their approval. Yet we are so versed in their writings as to remember always that all things are ours [1 Cor. 3:21–22], to serve us, not to lord it over us [Luke 22:24–25], and that we all belong to the one Christ [1 Cor. 3:23], whom we must obey in all things without exception [cf. Col. 3:20]. He who does not observe this distinction will have nothing certain in religion, inasmuch as these holy men were ignorant of many things, often disagreed among themselves, and sometimes even contradicted themselves.

        So, Calvin charged that Roman Catholicism grabbed the poop out of the
        gold in church history. Great stuff. 🙂 But, I’d suggest that much (most?) of American evangelicalism throws out the gold, too. And notice how careful Calvin is to say that we must obey Christ in all things – not any tradition – which is how we navigate the ignorance and disagreement of the Fathers (and, for that matter, Calvin, too). As Zach points out, that’s what sola scriptura really means.

        The classic distinction between “ministerial” and “magisterial” authority is helpful – only the Bible has magisterial authority, but what the church has confessed, defended and articulated from the Bible throughout the ages does have a ministerial authority, today. This is especially important for us who are in the preaching / teaching office. We should pause before we use the argument here only to say to Christians that they have to submit to our interpretive, ministerial authority – but to whose are
        we under? Are we submissive to the teaching Christ has given His Church down the ages?

        Practically, this began to stir in my mind as a pastor within the “Bible church” as I realized how often we were “reinventing the wheel” – or just taking the pragmatic approach of X worked for this church pastored by this celebrity. And I asked myself in exasperation – has Christ so insufficiently prepared the Church that we have to answer the same questions every generation? It was then that I saw some blinders in my own thinking on it. And begun to realize that some of the answers I had were out of step with historic Christian biblical interpretation. Since then I’ve discovered the riches of historic Reformed Baptist thinking and writing, especially on polity – and am doing my best with our internship to infect as many younger men with it as possible!

        Anyway, this is a longer conversation – but these are some thoughts from the top of the dome. Will you be at ShepCon this year? Lord willing, I’ll be there. Perhaps we can connect and catch-up. Hope all is well, brother. Press on.

        • Jason

          Thanks!! I’m planning on being in the area one or two days. If you’re up for hanging out some in Pasadena let me know. Not sure I’ll be on campus this year.

    • Zach

      Hi Steve, thanks for reading and for the thoughtful question. I’m out of town this week and am not sure when I’ll be able to reply, but will do so as soon as I’m able. You ask a great question. Thanks again.

    • Zach

      Steve, very sorry for such a slow reply – and what will probably be a rather underwhelming answer. To answer your original question, I believe the principles laid out in my post (borrowed from Scripture and the reasoning of men like Trueman & Mathison) should lead Christians & churches to approach faithful creeds & confessions with respect, humility, and teach-ability.

      I do not believe that my post necessarily leads to a strict historic confessionalism, or that Scripture demands that every Christian & church formally subscribe to a specific historic confession or set of confessions. Yet, if one is persuaded that a particular confession adequately and accurately summarizes the teaching of Scripture in all the major areas of theology, it seems to me to be a proper application of Scripture (and the principles laid out in the post) to formally subscribe to that confession.

      That said, I do believe that every church should subscribe to some kind of formal, written, public, and detailed statement of faith that summarizes the faith in faithful, biblical, historically informed theological language. Whether that be a historic creed or a modern, church-specific statement is a matter for each church to decide, in my view.

      Hope that makes sense. Thanks again for reading and engaging.