Sola Scriptura, two words that so easily roll oﬀ the tongue but is a concept that was radically unheard of in the early days of the Protestant Reformation. Yet, this became the foundational principle to this movement and can only truly be understood in a reformation context. If Sola Scriptura dies, the Protestant Reformation dies with it.
The Bible sets the stage for the need for this declaration of the reformers as it foretold an apostasy from the apostolic church. Passages, like Daniel 7, 8 and 9, point to a religious power that would make changes to the biblical times and laws. Paul speaks of a falling away that was to come and that a man of sin would be revealed (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12). And John coined the name antichrist in speaking of these same developments. (1 John 2:18, 19 and 4:1-3)
These passages and others were foretelling of a world that the reformers would find themselves living in. This quotation from the pen of Ellen White captures this.
"The voice of Luther, that echoed in mountains and valleys, that shook Europe as with an earthquake, summoned forth an army of noble apostles of Jesus, and the truth they advocated could not be silenced by fagots, by tortures, by dungeons, by death; and still the voices of the noble army of martyrs are telling us that the Roman power is the predicted apostasy of the last days, the mystery of iniquity which Paul saw beginning to work even in his day." (Signs of the Times; Feb 19, 1894)
Consider the early apostolic church, starting with Jesus in AD 27 and continuing on with the apostles after His death and resurrection. With the gift of the Holy Spirit, 3000 were added to the church in a day followed by another 4000 soon after. The work of a handful of men gifted with the Spirit of God was said to "have turned the world upside down" (Acts 17:6).
Christianity spread to much of their world over the next few hundred years. The church, however, did not form without opposition. There was great persecution of the early church as well as problems with false teachers and doctrinal assaults.
While "turning the world upside down" had a major impact, it is estimated that the Pre- Constantinian Roman Empire was at best 5% Christian and more realistically around 2%. This would be about the same density of Christianity in India or China today. In other words, it was not the popular movement that "turning the world upside down" might suggest. While the church made great strides it by far was not a majority phenomena.
In the Post-Constantinian world the church went from being the persecuted faithful minority to becoming an accepted popular majority. It is estimated that up to 70% of the Roman world population became Christian. What changed? First persecution vanished, next Christianity became the state sponsored religion and finally the church's teachings accommodated pagan ideas which many of the citizens of the Roman Empire held. Some have described the church of this age as filled with "half converted pagans."
This transition didn't take place overnight. Church formation primarily occurring from the time of Jesus through the few centuries following with gradual and incremental moves away from the apostolic church as the years passed. At the conversion of Constantine in AD 321 the church then switched to primarily a deformation phase. The deformation then proceeded like a downward spiral until we can see the Roman church reaching an all-time low becoming so unlike the apostolic church that honest individuals within the church started speaking up and protesting with greater and greater clarity. Of that time, when the reformation started to emerge, the following could be said of the religion of the day.
"Popery is the religion of human nature, and the mass of humanity love a doctrine that permits them to commit sin, and yet frees them from its consequences. People must have some form of religion, and this religion, formed by human device, and yet claiming divine authority, suits the carnal mind." (Signs of the Times; Feb 19, 1894)
The Waldenses and their forerunners were present all along trying to hold to the Bible's teachings. Then standing up for a return to scripture was John Wycliﬀe (1320's-1384), the Morningstar of the reformation. He was a forerunner of Sola Scriptura. Wycliﬀe had come to regard the scriptures as the only reliable guide to the truth about God, and maintained that all Christians should rely on the Bible rather than on the teachings of popes and clerics. He went on to translate the entire Bible into the common language of the people.
From Wycliﬀe to Huss and then to Luther an awakening to scripture continued to emerge. Sola Scriptura came to the forefront of the reformation and marked the foundational principle of the movement. "When enemies appealed to custom and tradition, or to the assertions and authority of the pope, Luther met them with the Bible and the Bible only. Here were arguments which they could not answer;" (GC 132). This guiding principle would take the church from the depth of the deformation through the gradual incremental process of reformation and ultimately to restoration and the return of Christ.
Ellen White was firmly established in the protestant preserving principle of Sola Scriptura as illustrated by the following statement:
"But God will have a people upon the earth to maintain the Bible, and the Bible only, as the standard of all doctrines, and the basis of all reforms. The opinions of learned men, the deductions of science, the creeds or decisions of ecclesiastical councils, as numerous and discordant as are the churches which they represent, the voice of the majority, — not one or all of these should be regarded as evidence for or against any point of religious faith. Before accepting any doctrine or precept, we should demand a plain "Thus saith the Lord" in its support.
Satan is constantly endeavoring to attract attention to man in the place of God. He leads the people to look to bishops, to pastors, to professors of theology, as their guides, instead of searching the Scriptures to learn their duty for themselves. Then, by controlling the minds of these leaders, he can influence the multitudes according to his will." (RH, June 7, 1906)
By the time the Advent Movement emerges all of the Protestant Churches still claimed Sola Scriptura. Yet, there were many churches with varying teachings. How can they all believe in Sola Scriptura yet drastically diﬀer doctrinally? The answer is, while claiming to be under the banner of Sola Scriptura, they had in eﬀect departed from it. The moment this happens the reformation stops for them and whereever along the reformation continuum they are at the time there they stay. For some were Lutheran, for others Calvinists, for others Methodist, and so forth.
Ellen White comments on a reason for the doctrinal divide:
"The truths most plainly revealed in the Bible have been involved in doubt and darkness by learned men, who, with a pretense of great wisdom, teach that the Scriptures have a mystical, a secret, spiritual meaning not apparent in the language employed. These men are false teachers. It was to such a class that Jesus declared: "Ye know not the Scriptures, neither the power of God." Mark 12:24. The language of the Bible should be explained according to its obvious meaning, unless a symbol or figure is employed. Christ has given the promise: "If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine." John 7:17. If men would but take the Bible as it reads, if there were no false teachers to mislead and confuse their minds, a work would be accomplished that would make angels glad and that would bring into the fold of Christ thousands upon thousands who are now wandering in error." (GC 598)
A.T. Jones put it this way:
"The Bible comes to us as the Word of God…...And whosoever will receive it as the Word of God, will find it to be that…
When the Bible is taken this way and treated thus, no one will have any diﬃculty whatever in understanding it. And for any man not to take it this way, and not to treat it thus: that is for any man to say that the Bible does not mean what it says, and that it is left for the man himself to say what it means—this is only to claim that he knows better than God just how it ought to have been said, and just what should have been meant. In other words, he puts himself in the place of God.
When the Bible is taken just as it says, and is allowed to mean exactly what it says because the Author of it knew well enough what he wanted to say to be able to say just what he meant, it is all plain enough." (AMS May 6, 1897)
Waggoner approached scripture this way as illustrated in the following:
"The will of God is our sanctification. 1 Thessalonians 4:3. He willeth that all men should be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth. 1 Timothy 2:4. And He "worketh all things after the counsel of His own will." Ephesians 1:11. "What! do you mean to teach universal salvation?" We mean to teach just what the Word of God teaches, — that "the grace of God hath appeared, bringing salvation to all men." Titus 2:11, R.V. God has wrought out salvation for every man, and has given it to him; but the majority spurn it, and throw it away." (The Glad Tidings, p 13,14)
When the church stays faithful comparing scripture with scripture and takes the word of God just as it reads, approaches it with a heart willing to do as it teaches, the reformation will continue for us and will bring restoration to completion for the church. We all would do well to approach scripture this way and take it as the living Word letting it speak for itself rather than try to fit scripture into preconceived theological models.
Now, as we bring this to a close, it bears to mention the relationship of Sola Scriptura and the Spirit of Prophecy. Sometimes the idea of Sola Scriptura is used as an argument by some against using Spirit of Prophecy. I have found that many times when the Sola Scriptura argument is used this way it is because the individual does not agree with Spirit of Prophecy and uses the "Bible only" banner to silence the prophet of God.
Never did Luther or any reformer use the idea of Sola Scriptura to exclude inspiration. History shows clearly that sola scriptura was to lift up the inspired writings over tradition and the teachings of men. It was never a cry against the writings of an inspired prophet of God. But men today who want to hold to traditions or man-made views of scripture and the gospel, wrongly use a Sola Scriptura banner to quiet the inspired voice of the prophet.
Remember that the scripture of the New Testament authors referred to was the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms (Old Testament). This means that until there was a Cannon of scripture, all of the New Testament authors would have been extra-scriptural (outside of scripture) inspiration. We would never say of the early church that they should not have read Paul, quoted Paul, or based their doctrine on Paul. Paul was authoritative and he was an extra-biblical inspired source in their day. Likewise, a contemporary prophet of God is not and will never be in the cannon of scripture. They will always be extra-scriptural inspiration in our day as Paul was in his.
Given this though, it is absolutely true that Ellen White referred to herself as the lesser light and referred the church back to scripture over and over again. This reminds me of what Jesus did to Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus and again to the disciples as a group after that. He taught them from the scriptures. He wanted them to see what was written and help them see the narrative that they were missing in scripture. In the same manner we need to know the Bible for ourselves and teach others from the scriptures. Let it be said of us, that beginning from Genesis through Revelation, we expounded on all things concerning Him.
In this age of ecumenicalism and many competing voices that surround us may we not let the Protestant Reformation die with us. May we hold to scripture alone and find within the pages of this book Christ alone Who is not socially distant from us but has drawn closer than a brother. Who by His sacrifice for the world, He has justified all by His grace alone and stands ready to fully cloth us with His righteousness by His faith alone. And thereby allowing Him to lighten the world with His glory alone.