The term sola is an adjective in Latin for: “only, single, alone, or unique.” Of these meanings I would like to suggest that “unique” captures best the thrust of Luther and Calvin’s use of the term. Scripture is a unique authority for Christians, holding the primary though not exclusive place in the life of faith. Many of the traditions passed down from the early church (e.g., the ecumenical creeds) were of enduring value for Luther and Calvin, who were attentive to the Christological and Trinitarian language of Nicaea and Chalcedon. With this in mind, Luther and Calvin were able to maintain some sense of continuity with the ancient churches while at the same time critique other historical developments in the traditions of the western church. If this element of continuity is not taken into account then the critiques remain of figures like Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621) and Matthias Scheeben (1835–1888) that Protestant biblical interpretation is susceptible to arbitrary and infinitely individualistic judgments. After all, if scripture alone as interpreted by each Christian (apart from any historical awareness of what the church has taught and lived out over time) is to result in the fullness of understanding of God’s revelation for humanity then how can one account for the multiplicity of interpretations of what the biblical texts mean? It seems to me that one needs to admit that the consensus reached by the majority of Christians throughout church history is relevant to one’s reading of scripture. This is to say nothing of the Spirit’s work in guiding the church throughout history.
To return to my initial question: how much is sola really sola in relation to scriptura? I am inclined to say that it is sola up to the point of implying uniqueness and primacy. The scripture is a sure and reliable source for Christians. It holds an irreplaceable place of authority in the Christian community. It cannot be read in a vacuum however by hermeneutically neutral interpreters, therefore awareness of the ancient ecumenical heritage of the churches as well as reliance on the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit are necessary means to transcends the limits of individualism and sectarianism.
Posted by Jacob, who regularly blogs at Inter Christianos.