Putting the Bible in Its Place

2012-08-08 by . 1 comments

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Sola Scriptura and the Anglican Via Media

One of the hallmarks of the Protestant Reformation is the doctrine of sola scriptura. The Latin term for “by scripture alone”, sola scriptura means that all the truth needed for salvation and holiness can be found in the Bible. It’s a simple concept in theory. In practice, it is far from simple.

Though the Reformers all agreed on the importance of this doctrine, they did not agree on its meaning. As Martin Luther saw it, anything not forbidden by Scripture was permissible. To John Calvin, anything not clearly taught in Scripture was forbidden.

The Anglican Church—the denomination in which John Wesley was ordained, and where he remained a member in good standing his entire life—took a middle-road approach. To the Anglicans, the doctrine of sola scriptura was simply a statement about what is contained in Scripture, and not about things that cannot be found in it.

The Articles of Religion of the Church of England, written in the 1500s, states it this way:

Article V—Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation

The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.

To put it in more modern language, Scripture was written to teach us about salvation, and anything that is not taught by Scripture is not necessary for salvation. Teachings not explicitly found in Scripture should not be demanded of all Christians.

Theology and the Quadrilateral

Sola scriptura is one guiding principle, but it does not stand alone. It’s one thing to acknowledge that Scripture can teach us everything we need to know about salvation; it’s quite another to internalize those teachings and apply them to our everyday lives. This process of making it personal is theology.

¶ 104 of the United Methodist Book of Discipline states:

Theology is our effort to reflect upon God’s gracious action in our lives. In response to the love of Christ, we desire to be drawn into a deeper relationship with the “author and perfecter of our faith.” Our theological explorations seek to give expression to the mysterious reality of God’s presence, peace, and power in the world. By so doing, we attempt to articulate more clearly our understanding of the divine-human encounter and are thereby more fully prepared to participate in God’s work in the world.

This theological reflection does not take place in a vacuum. As a faithful Anglican, John Wesley was familiar with the so-called “three-legged stool” of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, three sources by which we can learn truths about God.


The primary source is Scripture, both the Old and New Testaments. Through Scripture, we encounter a God who created the world and everything in it, created humans in his own image, remained faithful even when those humans turned away, and sent his son to redeem us when we couldn’t do it ourselves.


Tradition builds upon Scripture, providing a way for us to connect with others who have encountered the same God throughout history. Tradition attests to the truths we see in Scripture, affirming that previous generations have learned these same truths. In the words of G.K. Chesterton:

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.

Among the traditions John Wesley found most helpful were the Patristic writings, about which he said:

Can any who spend several years in those seats of learning, be excused if they do not add to that reading of the Fathers the most authentic commentators on Scripture, as being both nearest the fountain, eminently endued with that Spirit by whom all Scripture was given. It will be easily perceived, I speak chiefly of those who wrote before the council of Nicea. But who could not likewise desire to have some acquaintance with those that followed them with St. Chrysostom, Basil, Augustine, and above all, the man of a broken heart, Ephraim Syrus.

Wesley was also influenced by his contemporaries, German Moravians, whom he first met on a voyage across the Atlantic:

At seven I went to the Germans. I had long before observed the great seriousness of their behaviour. Of their humility they had given a continual proof, by performing those servile offices for the other passengers, which none of the English would undertake; for which they desired, and would receive no pay, saying, “it was good for their proud hearts,” and “their loving Saviour had done more for them.”…There was now an opportunity of trying whether they were delivered from the Spirit of fear, as well as from that of pride, anger, and revenge. In the midst of the psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the main-sail in pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sung on. I asked one of them afterwards, “Was you not afraid?” He answered, “I thank God, no.”


Reason, properly applied, can help us make sense of what we read in Scripture and what is handed down to us through tradition. It can also help us test those traditions or our understanding of Scripture. Reason enables us to navigate the complex relationship between the book of Scripture and the book of nature, between science and faith.


An experience at a Moravian Bible study led Wesley to acknowledge a fourth source:

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while the leader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

Wesley realized that what he had previously understood with his head, he now understood also with his heart. His experience confirmed the truth he had been taught.

In the words of the Book of Discipline, ¶ 104:

On the personal level, experience is to the individual as tradition is to the church: It is the personal appropriation of God’s forgiving and empowering grace. Experience authenticates in our own lives the truths revealed in Scripture and illumined in tradition, enabling us to claim the Christian witness as our own.

As we experience life in Christ, our encounters can bring home the truths we have been taught, and can transform head-knowledge into heart-knowledge.

Together, these four sources have become known as the Wesleyan quadrilateral and together they guide us as we build a relationship with God and seek to follow God’s will for our lives.

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  • bobthechef says:

    I don’t think your understanding of tradition is quite right. G. K. Chesterton, given that he was a Catholic, would argue that sola scriptura is bit like having a book written in Chinese without knowing Chinese. It’s not a matter of how these teaching apply to one’s life, or a matter of what is permitted or not permitted (the Bible is not above all a handbook of divine commandment or divine prohibition but above all a source of revealed truth, after all). It’s a matter of how to interpret and understand what the text means, what God had intended for us to know through those authors who were inspired by Him. It didn’t fall from the sky, you know. Without tradition, you can read a great deal into a very complex text written in a wide range of style. Tradition is one of scholarship stemming from the days of Peter, 2,000 years of painstaking research into the languages of the original texts, the historical periods they were written in, who wrote them, what style they wrote them in, and so on.

    The main criticism of Protestantism is that there are over 40,000 denominations, all rooted in disagreements about interpretation. Now, it doesn’t mean certain passages are not debated in the Catholic Church, but for the most part, there is a great deal of stability in the overall interpretation of biblical text. It should also be mentioned that the Catholic Church compiled the Bible in the first place, so it’s a bit bizarre to shrug off the very tradition that produced the biblical canon we see today, the Bible Protestants try to approach without the aid of tradition. Without tradition, we do not interpret scripture as it is, but as we are. The sheer number of denominations is proof of that.

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