“The Baptist Version of Sola Scriptura” Revisited

A few months ago, I blogged on “The Baptist Version of Sola Scriptura,” in which I tried to show that the Baptist tradition in general seems to embrace an anti-tradition, individualistic version of the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura. I called it “The Baptist Version,” back then, because at that time I had forgotten that there was already an established nickname for the tendency, of which Baptists are among the more more moderate practitioners. To call it “The Baptist Version of Sola Scriptura” definitely overstates the matter, for those who truly embrace the full-fledged doctrine of “Solo Scriptura,” I believe, had a subtle, yet very identifiable influence on the development of the Baptist tradition. The Anabaptists were the home of full-fledged “Solo Scriptura,” in my view, and I think Mathison demonstrates this well in his article, “Sola Scriptura/Solo Scriptura: The Difference a Vowel Makes”, in the March/April 2007 issue of Modern Reformation Magazine.

Following are a few excerpts which will give you an idea of Mathison’s treatment of the subject of Solo Scriptura:

“The twentieth century could, with some accuracy, be called a century of theological anarchy. Liberals and sectarians have long rejected outright many of the fundmanetal tenets of Christian orthodoxy. But more recently professing evangelical scholars have advocated revisionary versions of numerous doctrines. A revisionary doctrine of God has been advocated by proponents of “openness theology.” A revisionary doctrine of eschatology has been advocated by proponents of full-preterism. Revisionary doctrines of justification sola fide have been advocated by proponents of various “new perspectives” on Paul. Often the revisionists will claim to be restating a more classical view. Critics, however, have usually been quick to point out that the revisions are actually distortions.

Ironically, a similarly revisionist doctrine of sola Scriptura has arisen within Protestantism, but unlike the revisionist doctrine of sola fide, the revisionist doctrine of sola Scriptura has caused very little controversy among the heirs of the Reformation. One of the reasons there has been much less controversy over the revisionist doctrine of sola Scriptura is that this doctrine has been gradually supplanting the Reformation doctrine for centuries. In fact, in many segments of the evangelical world, the revisionist doctrine is by far the predominant view now. Many claim that this revisionist doctrine is the Reformation doctrine. However, like the revisionist doctrines of sola fide, the revisionist doctrine of sola Scriptura is actually a distortion of the Reformation doctrine.”

“Part of the difficulty in understanding the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura is due to the fact that the historical debate is often framed simplistically in terms of “Scripture versus tradition.” Protestants are said to teach “Scripture alone,” while Roman Catholics are said to teach “Scripture plus tradition.” This, however, is not an accurate picture of the historical reality. The debate should actually be understood in terms of competing concepts of the relationship between Scripture and tradition, and there are more than two such concepts in the history of the church. In order to understand the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura we must understand the historical context more accurately.”

Here Mathison begins to summarize three views on the relationship between Scripture and tradition, borrowing clever labels from Heiko Oberman:

Tradition 1: “In the first three to four centuries of the church, the church fathers had taught a fairly consistent view of authority. The sole source of divine revelation and the authoritative doctrinal norm was understood to be the Old Testmanet together with the Apostolic doctrine, which itself had been put into writing in the New Testament. The Scripture was to be interpreted in and by the church within the context of the regula fidei (“rule of faith”), yet neighter the church nor the regula fidei were considered second supplementary sources of revelation. The church was the interpreter of the divine revelation in Scripture, and the regula fidei was the hermeneutical context, but only Scripture was the Word of God.”

Tradition 2: “The first hints of a two-source concept of tradition, a concept in which tradition is understood to be a second source of revelation that supplements biblical revelation, appeared in the fourth century in the writings of Basil and Augustine. . . It is not absolutely certain that either Basil or Augustine actually taught the two-source view, but the fact that it is hinted at in their writings ensured that it would eventually find a foothold in the Middle Ages. This would take time, however, for throughout most of the Middle Ages, the dominant view was Tradition1, the position of the early church. The beginnings of a strong movement toward Tradition 2 did not begin in earnest until the twelfth century.” Willaim of Ockham was one of the first medieval theologians to officially adopt this two-source view of revelation in the fourteenth century.

Mathison shows how the Reformation, in part, was a move back to “Tradition 1,” the view that Scripture was the sole source of divine revelation, to be interpreted by the church within the context of the regula fidei, the hermeneutical tradition, if you will.

“To summarize the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura, or the Reformation doctrine of the relation between Scripture and tradition, we may say that Scripture is to be understood as the sole source of divine revelation; it is the only inspired, infallible, final and authoritative norm of faith and practice. It is to be interpreted in and by the church; and it is to be interpreted within the hermeneutical context of the rule of faith.”

I, myself, wrote on the Reformation of Tradition 2 once.

Now here’s where the trouble starts in relation to misunderstanding the idea of Sola Scriptura:

Tradition 0?: “At the same time the magisterial reformers were advocating a return to Tradition 1 (sola Scriptura), several radical reformers were calling for the rejection of both Tradition 1 and Tradition 2 and the adoption of a completely new understanding of Scripture and tradition. They argued that Scripture was not merely the only infallible authority but that it was the only authority altogether. The true but subordinate authority of the church and the regula fidei were rejected altogether. According to this view, there is no real sense in which tradition has any authority. Instead, the individual believer requires nothing more than the Holy Spirit and the Bible.”

Is this beginning to sound familiar? I thought so.

Now, back to my own opinion, and application of these historical matters. It was the 1644 edition of the London Baptist Confession of Faith that complains that their movement is “commonly (though falsely) called Anabaptists.” Having adopted fully Reformed theology, including the doctrine of paedobaptism, when I compare how the Baptist tradition from its very inception, so completely embraced Reformed theology with the full scope of understanding of these doctrines in accord with “Tradition 1,” the ancient view that Scripture alone is divine revelation, to be interpreted within the traditional hermeneutic of the regula fidei. But then, when one examines the teaching of these otherwise Reformed Christians on baptism, hints of tendency toward “Tradition 0,” the Anabaptist view of the relationship between Scripture and tradition, begin to emerge.

This is what I meant by “The Baptist Version of Sola Scriptura.” I don’t “falsely” claim that Baptists are Anabaptists, I just think they took baby steps away from Reformation and toward Anabaptism on baptism (and maybe congregationalism?). That’s all. But rank and file Baptists, like many otherwise evangelical paedobaptists, have moved with the spirit of the age to embrace the modern revisionist tendency toward “Solo Scriptura.” And I think that’s a problem. Work must be, and is being, done to correct this problem here and there. That’s why I like to publicize the Cambridge Declaration of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.


8 responses

  1. John

    yes and amen.

    One exhortation though, quoting from Rudy Kiplings poem “IF”


    I read one estimate of the “levels of intelligence” today in America is that more than 60 percent of our educated class cannot read or read and comprehend what they read!

    These “tradition” distinctions are good. I am edified by reading them hereon.

    My comfort with the “TRADITIONS” of men among men in and out comes from this verse:

    Rev 7:9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands,
    Rev 7:10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

    I “know the privileges” I have been given over the years having traveled to thirty countries and walked with both kings and presidents, of the U.S. as well as other countries.

    One thing I have found uppermost in the minds with these “HIGH” rulers of their own countrymen and that is the “state” of their country and the onerous fact that THE POOR YOU HAVE WITH YOU ALWAYS!

    But souls such as I am, am comforted and have a place among them here:::>

    1Co 1:20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
    1Co 1:21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.
    1Co 1:22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom,
    1Co 1:23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,
    1Co 1:24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
    1Co 1:25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
    1Co 1:26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.
    1Co 1:27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;
    1Co 1:28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are,
    1Co 1:29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
    1Co 1:30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.
    1Co 1:31 Therefore, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

  2. Fundamentally Reformed | Reply

    Great post, John. Thanks so much for sharing that. It really is eye-opening in terms of what Sola Scriptura really is.

    Blessings in Christ,

    Bob Hayton

  3. John D. Chitty | Reply


    Wow! Like that bright, neon, “Jesus Saves” cross! It’s, like, totally ’80’s! (Don’t take it personally–it’s early down here!)

    Yes, eye-opening and challenging. As compelling, for example, as the Baptist case for credobaptism is on a Scriptural level, when it does so in a vacuum without regard to the historical arguments that help it to correspond to reality, the argument leaves me unsatisfied. Then, when the paedobaptist comes along and does show that, not only does his case find strong Scriptural support, but it fits in well with the historical context, and thus corresponds to reality, it just makes it an even more compelling argument.

    That’s not putting history on an inspired, authoritative par with history, but it helps verify that one’s interpretation of Scripture is accurate because it demonstrates that the Scriptural argument is not made in a vacuum, but holds water when you expose it to the light of day (is that a mixed metaphor, or what?). Did you ever read anything by the KJV Onlyist, Bill Grady? One of the two lines from that book that I actually find helpful says, that J. Frank Norris once said, “A working knowledge of history is second only to knowledge of the Bible.”

    That’s my point. There must be some Baptists out there that have compelling historical arguments. I’d like to hear them. If you know any of them, please comment with them here. Perhaps I need to find the right book on the subject. I haven’t read anything on it by a non-IFB. Maybe that would help. Any recommendations, Bob?

  4. John D. Chitty | Reply

    Oh, yeah, Bill Grady’s book was called, Final Authority: The Christian’s Guide to the King James Bible. Just in case you didn’t know. No, I don’t recommend it.

  5. Baptist Crusader | Reply

    Hey John,

    I finally got around to reading this post. So…if I understand you right, you’re saying Tradition 1 (sola scriptura interpreted by regla fidei) is the way to go?

    But to say that sola scriptura interpreted by espiritu santu (Holy Spirit)is not the way to go?

    Help me out here.

    I totally agree we need to have a tried and true rule of hermeneutics to rightly interpret scripture. Is this what regla fidei is? Maybe you could explain more of what regla fidei is all about.

    This is interesting, because yesterday over lunch, I was having a discussion with my mother in law about this subject….sorta. I was explaining how my Bible college education was so poor especially when it came to homeletcis and hermeneutics. In fact, in four years of college, there was no class on hermeneutics? Can you believe that???

    Anyway, she responded: Well, the Holy Spirit will help you understand and interpret it.

    That’s when I couldn’t really answer (respectfully that is..) “well, He hasn’t helped any of them with Bible interpretation yet….there must be a hermeneutic!”

  6. John D. Chitty | Reply

    You understand me correctly.

    What the fundamentalist and evangelical movements forgot as they moved further and further away from their reformed, orthodox, confessional roots, is, that when the Holy Spirit illuminates his Word to us, he uses means. Apostles, prophets, pastor/teachers are among those means, and it is by the work of these men who faithfully took what they received from the previous generations and passed it down to us. This comes to us today in the form of orthodox creeds, confessions, catechisms, etc. Creeds, confessions and catechisms have real authority, but only an authority that is derived from the Word of God itself, as they correctly explain the proper interpretation of the Word.

    The regula fidei is basically the Apostle’s Creed. The “rule of faith” that one, in the ancient church, had to confess at his baptism (should he be old enough to confess anything on his own, I presume; otherwise, it was probably confessed for him by his believing parents, whose faith “covenantally” sanctifies him according to 1 Corinthians 7–but that’s a whole ‘nother blog! 🙂 )

    In other words, the church, recognizing the inspiration and authority of the Word, set ground rules for understanding it. Yes, this became abused, as do all of God’s good gifts, but a good gift, nonetheless, it remains. Even your fundamental Baptist movement has breached the “regula fidei” in terms of refusing to confess a biblical faith in the “one holy catholic (universal) church.” See how relevant creeds remain today?

    It boils down on a practical, congregational level, to doing what I’ve seen you do. I’ve seen you on your blog teaching through at least parts of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, if I recall correctly. Pastors ought to be doing that. Taking orthodox creeds and confessions and catechisms and showing how that the doctrine contained in them properly reflects the doctrine of the Word of God and provides the best hedge of protection around the truth. The church is the pillar and ground of the truth and retaining creeds, confessions and catechisms and keeping their content visibly before the people on a regular basis is how the church will best preserve, contend for, and live the truth of God’s Word, regardless of the stereotypes fundamentalists may have about “dead orthodoxy.” The words on the page are God’s means to which the end is found in our putting it to work in reliance upon the sanctifying power of God in the Word.

  7. John D. Chitty | Reply


    PS–If you Google “regula fidei” you will find a link to Christian Classics Ethereal Library which gives a good introduction to the idea of “regula fidei.”

    Thanks for the great comment.

  8. Baptist Crusader | Reply


    That’s a great observation; one i have never really made before. Thanks for that post. Speaking of universal catholic church…I wrote abou that one time on my blog a while back:


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