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.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

0 Comments

  1. It definitely seems like an argument that Protestants are losing nowadays. I hope to have time to squeeze this in at some point. Thanks for the review.

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  2. Interesting. Without the church fathers, creeds, confessions, etc., and only a full reliance on Scripture alone as authoritative, it proves difficult (yet not impossible) to be the church. I know this all too well as one with Baptist heritage. When you discount or degrade or ignore the earliest interpreters, you rob yourself of much of the historical memory that is vital for truthful speech, reflection, and action in the world as the people of God. This isn’t to say that Scripture does not remain as chief among sources for theological reflection. But other early sources are vital for our life together.

    Thanks, Matt, as always for stoking the embers of thought.

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  3. Have Protestants gotten the Reformation wrong? http://bit.ly/cIdQF3 #fb

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

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  4. Hi Matt, This sounds like an interesting book. I know your point here is not to defend sola scriptura, so feel free to ignore this comment.

    Payton writes:
    “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.”

    Practically speaking, what is the purpose of the “subordinate” religious authority for an evangelical Protestant? Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems like subordinate authority would only come into play when it comes to areas that scripture does not clearly teach upon. For example, if an evangelical thinks scripture says “X,” but the subordinate authorities say “Y,” an evangelical would have to believe “X,” it would seem. So, subordinate authority would only be useful insofar as it’s not 100% clear to the evangelical that scripture says X, right?

    If this is true, are there any areas in which evangelicals think scripture is unclear, but because of the subordinate authority of, say, the church fathers, they believe Y because it’s not clearly spelled out in scripture but rather an interpretation of it? Some examples come quickly to mind, of things that scripture is not 100% crystal clear on, and on which the early fathers were unanimous: baptismal regeneration, prayers for the dead, and the immorality of contraception are practically unanimous teachings of the early fathers that don’t obviously contradict scripture but yet are not believed by very many Protestants.

    Do the trinitarian or christological dogmas of the early ecumenical councils fall in this category for the evangelical? For Calvin, I thought, these early councils were only teaching scripture. If this is the case, are they teaching things from scripture that aren’t clear to the individual? If it’s not clear to the individual, how does he know that the councils are teaching scripture? Let’s say the councils are teaching scripture and that this is a useful thing and that Protestants should generally trust their authority. Are they any more authoritative than, say, a wise Protestant teacher working today like Horton, Piper, Keller, etc?

    And, of course, saying that the church councils have “some” authority sort of begs the question of which church councils have some authority and why they have authority. How would an evangelical draw the line between the first four, or the first seven, and later councils without depending on his own subjective judgment of the correct interpretation of scripture or the judgment of a community of believers that he has subjectively submitted himself to by his own consent?

    Regarding the creeds, why would an evangelical be bound to them but yet free to interpret parts of them in ways that would be foreign to the fathers who formulated them? (“one baptism for the forgiveness of sins,” “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” “the communion of saints,” “descended into hell,” etc.)

    I hope that at least some of my questions make sense.

    Peace,

    Kevin

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  5. Is Payton eastern orthodox or does he just write about them?

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  6. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Lindsay Marshall, Matthew Anderson. Matthew Anderson said: Have Protestants gotten the Reformation wrong? http://bit.ly/cIdQF3 #fb […]

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  7. I find it interesting that believing in church authority in tradition is really a long spectrum.

    The spectrum might go like this, with the first groups REALLY subscribing primarily to church authority and the latter groups not ascribing anything to church tradition authority:
    Orthodox–Catholics–Anglicans–Confessional Protestants in Reformed and Lutheran camps–Baptistic denominations–Non-denominational–Emergent.

    Emergents have a view of Scripture and epistemology that makes ONLY the Scripture in current community as authoritative. The loophole is curious: how old do community interpretations have to be until they need to revised? A day? If only a day, how authoritative can anything really be? A week? A year? You see the difficulties in the Emergent view. Surely some views are eternal and need no revision. But the Emergents allow even the Trinity to be open for debate and community interpretation.

    But can church authority be everything? Surely the Protestant Reformation, while originating a new movement, did also help the RC church reform itself as well. Church authority must be corrected in view of Scripture, no doubt.

    Can you tell I’m a Presbyterian?

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  8. Great questions, all, and thanks for the feedback. Lots here to think about.

    Also, just to reiterate, I have no interest in having the Prot/Catholic debate here at Mere-O. If you wish to talk more about that, I’d be happy to discuss it over email…in a few months, when I’m done with my manuscript. : )

    Best,

    matt

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