Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the question of authority was the chief issue between Rome and the Reformers. A. Skevington Wood is right when he says:

The tissue at stake was whether the authority (of Scripture) stood on its own feet, or was derived from or needed to be supplemented by that of the Roman Church. This more than anything else was what the Reformation was all about.1

The question of authority had been developed over the centuries of the Middle Ages by the Romish Church, but was codified and made confessional in the Decrees of the Council of Trent. While Trent began its sessions in February of 1546, nothing new was said concerning this matter of authority which had not already been said by the church in past centuries.

Alongside of Scripture, Rome first of all made tradition authoritative. This body of tradition, handed down from Christ and the apostles, but not contained in Scripture, was given an authority equal with Scripture itself. 2 This tradition included what was called the consensus patrorum, the unanimous teachings of the church fathers, 3 and the decrees and decisions of various councils. This was affirmed in “Profession of the Tridentine Faith,” Article 3.

To this authority of tradition was added the authority of the church, by which was meant, the authority of the pope. This was expressly stated in the “Dogmatic Decrees of the Vatican Council,” which Council was held in 1870. Chapter IV was entitled, “Concerning the Infallible Teaching of the Roman Pontiff,” and reads:

. . . The Roman Pontiff. . . is possessed of infallibility. . . . Definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves, and no f from the consent of the Church.4

This final authority of the pope was not only an authority alongside of Scripture; it was an authority superior to Scripture. Rome believed that the Bible itself could not be understood apart from the interpretation of the church. The Scriptures received their authority therefore from the church and the church alone possessed authority to interpret it. For this reason it was considered unnecessary and even dangerous for the people of God to possess the Scriptures.

Pope Innocent III was of the opinion that the Scriptures were too deep for the common people, as they surpassed even the understanding of the wise and learned. Several synods in Gaul, during the thirteenth century, prohibited the reading of the Romanic translation, and ordered the copies to be burnt. Archbishop Bethold, of Mainz, in an edict of January 4th, 1486, threatened with excommunication all who ventured to translate and to circulate translations of sacred books, especially the Bible, without his permission. The Council of Constance (1415), which burnt John Hus and Jerome of Prague, condemned also the writings and the bones of Wiclif, the first translator of the whole Bible into the English tongue, to the flames. 5

The Reformers were unanimous in rejecting this concept of authority, but the ground work was done by Luther.

The issue arose early in Luther’s life. Although early in his development, even before the writing of the 95 theses, Luther had been moving in the direction of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), the issue was made explicit in the summer of 1518 (less than a year after Luther posted his theses) when Prierias prepared a case against the 95 theses for adjudication in Rome. “The linchpin in Prierias’s argument was that the pope was equally as infallible as the church as a whole.” 6 But the crisis came at the Leipzig Debate in July of 1519. Luther was debating with the able scholar, John Eck. Eck accused Luther of resurrecting the old doctrines of John Hus which had been condemned by the Council of Constance one hundred years earlier. Luther strenuously denied that he was defending Hus, but took the break for lunch as an opportunity to read the records of the Council; In the afternoon session he surprised his opponent and the audience by saying, “Ja, ich bin ein Hussite.” From that point on he was committed to the principle of Sola Scriptura; and it became his motto when he ringingly affirmed at the Diet of Worms in 1521 that his conscience was captive to the Word of God: “Here I stand. I can do naught else. So help me God.”

In his “Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” he stated the doctrine clearly: “What is asserted without the Scriptures or proven revelation may be held as an opinion, but need not be believed.”

In this all the Reformers concurred.

What was the teaching of the Reformers on this question?

The Reformers held to the principle of Sola Scriptura, i.e., the principle that Scripture alone is our authority for all of faith and life. This truth has been incorporated into many of the Confessions of the Reformed and Presbyterian churches. The Belgic Confession, e.g., under the heading, ‘The Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures, to be the only Rule of Faith,” speaks of this in the stirring language of Article VII.

The principle of the Reformers that Scripture alone is authoritative meant for them that they did not reject out of hand all that the fathers had written, all that the Councils of the ancient church had decided, and all that the church had taught. They did insist that all these were subject to the final authority of Scripture and could be believed by the church only when they met the standard of Scripture. The Reformers insisted that to accept any other authority was to interpose between the absolute authority of God’s Word and the believer the opinions of men; and the believer is required to bow in submission before God, not man.

Sola Scriptura meant for the Reformers that Scripture alone possesses authority because it alone is the Word of God. God is supremely God and before Him alone must men bow. Because Scripture is God’s Word, it alone can govern and regulate our life in all its parts, for through the Word God rules over us. He demands obedience, and before Him we must render account. Whatever men may say, no matter how noble and good, remains the words of men, and before men we need not and may not bow.

In close connection with this, the Reformers believed that Scripture possesses authority because it is infallibly inspired. While this was not a crucial issue in the days of the Reformation, mainly because Rome itself did not challenge this central doctrine, the Reformers held firmly to the principle that Scripture’s authority rested upon and was rooted in Scripture’s infallible inspiration.

In keeping with this principle of the sole authority of Scripture, the Reformers taught too that Scripture is perspicuous, an open book, easily understood by the child of God. Rome had insisted that the Scriptures were difficult to understand and that the church needed the authoritative teaching of the church in order to understand what God was saying. In this way the Romish Church set up the church itself as authoritative. But the Reformers insisted on the principle of the priesthood of all believers. Nothing may stand between the believer and his God. Scripture is given to God’s people in a way that the lowliest and least educated can hear and understand it. Thus Scripture’s authority is supreme in the lives of the saints.

From this followed various other truths.

In the first place, the Bible had to be in the hands of all God’s people, and in their native tongue. Hence the Reformation spawned a great deal of Bible translation.

In the second place, only the believer could really understand God’s Word, for the Spirit of Christ, the same Spirit Who had inspired the Scriptures, opened the eyes of the elect so that Christ spoke to them in the Word of God.

In the third place, this was important for the defense of the Reformation because Rome charged the Reformers with splintering the church. Rome insisted that if every man was his own interpreter, every man could also make Scripture teach what he wanted it to teach, and every man would have his own opinion of what Scripture taught. The church was necessary to keep uniformity of doctrine. And when the churches of the Reformation did in fact split into a multitude of different churches and denominations, Rome with glee castigated the Reformers for destroying the unity of the church with their denial of the church’s authority.

The answer to this charge was exactly that not only could those who possessed the Spirit understand the Scriptures because the Spirit was the only Interpreter of Scripture, but those who did not possess the Spirit could make anything they pleased of God’s Word. That is, the Spirit Who dwelt in the hearts of God’s people also brought the church into the unity of one faith based upon the Word of God.

The question of authority in the minds of the Reformers was not an abstract doctrine. It was a matter of the soul’s salvation. To believe the fathers or the church or the pope meant nothing. To believe anything else but what Scripture taught because Scripture taught it meant hell and eternal desolation. To believe in humble submission to Christ what Scripture did teach was to believe in Christ Himself; and this was salvation—the only way of salvation given unto men.

The battle over Scripture’s authority goes on. It is a never ending battle, for wickedness and unbelief are of such a kind that men will not bow before God and His Word. Only the work of sovereign grace enables man to come to Scripture as a little child.

The battle goes on with Rome, for Rome has not changed her position on authority in even the least bit. It is a position which has been sharply reaffirmed by Vatican II under the leadership of Pope John XXIII. But not only with Rome does the battle go on; it continues with all those who deny Scripture’s supreme authority.

It goes on with those who today too, even in Reformed circles, deny Scripture’s infallibility. The battle, after all, is not in the final analysis a battle over the nature of inspiration and whether or not inspiration is infallible and inerrant. That is something like a smoke screen. The battle is basically over Scripture’s authority. Will one bow before Scripture? Unbelief says, No. Faith says, Yes.

If one accepts evolutionistic theories of creation, one denies Scripture’s authority. If one permits homosexuality in the church, one denies Scripture’s authority. If one permits women to hold office in the church, one denies Scripture’s authority. And in denying Scripture’s authority, men set up their own minds and rational powers over the Scriptures. Men determine what in Scripture must be believed and what must be rejected. Perhaps Rome’s position of the supreme authority of the church or of the pope is not taught in modem Protestantism; but the “pope” of man’s mind is a far more tyrannical pope than the bishop of Rome can ever be. Before that pope too we may not bow.

We have a precious heritage from the Reformers. To that heritage we must be faithful. And that means not only some sort of confession concerning the truth of Sola Scriptura, but it means too that we in fact live in such a way that Scripture controls and determines the whole of our life—what we believe and how we live. That is faithfulness to those who gave their lives for the great truth of Scripture’s supreme authority.


1. A. Skevington Wood, Captive to the Word, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., (Grand Rapids, MI: 1969), p. 119. 

2. Cf. The Creeds of Christendom. ed. by Philip Schaff, Baker Book House (Grand Rapids: 1983) Vol. II, p. 80. 

3. Schaff, p. 83. 

4. Schaff, pp. 267-271. 

5. Philip Schaff, The History of the Christian Church. Vol. VII: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (Grand Rapids: 1950) p. l8. 

6. James M. Kittelson, Luther the Reformer, Augsburg Publishing House (Minneapolis: 1986) p. 117.