James Payton Jr. has a mission.
He thinks that Protestants have gotten the Reformation and its teachings wrongs, and has set about in his latest book to correct the errors. The result is a careful treatment of the origins, history, distinctives, and legacy of a particularly complex season of Western history.
While Getting the Reformation Wrong offers a substantive treatment of a broad range of questions, my particular interest was in the one sola that has (in my opinion) been most widely misunderstood and misrepresented: sola scriptura. Thankfully, Payton was at his strongest on this issue.
Payton offers a multi-pronged analysis, which I won’t repeat in full here. But I will mention some of the highlights.
1) Luther was a doctor of theology and laid down hermeneutic rules for the proper interpretation of Scripture. He wasn’t advocating an unrestrained subjectivism–he was fulfilling his responsibility as a licensed theologian.
2) Luther on the church fathers: “We Gentiles must not value the writings of our fathers as highly as Holy Scripture, but as worth a little less.” “Little” is, of course, an ambiguous concept–but it’s not “a lot.”
3) Melanchthon on the councils: “But the authority of councils is so dependent upon Scripture that it is not permissible to decree anything contrary to them.” Note that those pesky councils have authority.
The case, as I said, is much more extensive than this. I leave the summary to Payton:
“What this boils down to is that for the Protestant Reformers sola scriptura did not mean that the written Word of God is the only religious authority; rather, it is the only unquestioned religious authority. Scripture stands at the summit of religious authority with no rivals. Any other supposed or alleged religious authority is judged by it; most fail to measure up. The only ones that pass muster in this regard, and so the only ones in which a subordinate religious authority inheres, are the church fathers, the ancient creeds and the doctrinal decrees of the ecumenical councils. They are indeed subordinate to Scripture as religious authorities; but they are nevertheless authoritative.”
This notion of sola scriptura may be wrong (that is, incoherent, unbiblical, etc.). There are other members of the Mere-O team disagree with it, and we’re still friends. Our goal here is not to present a specifically Protestant perspective, even though it seeps through in my writing more often than not.
My point is not to defend sola scriptura, except in this regard: Payton’s argument that this is the doctrine of sola scriptura as presented by the Reformers is compelling, and it is important in evaluating it that we articulate it properly.
Payton’s book isn’t perfect. For a distillation of academic research (as it says in the introduction), it’s surprisingly light on footnotes for nerds like me who might like to chase resources.
But as a corrective to some of the misconceptions about what happened in the Reformation, it’s a valuable resource, and one that I would happily recommend to anyone curious to know more about the time period and Protestant theology.
Disclosure: I received a free copy from the good folks at IVP.