In the sixteenth century there was a great deal of variety in theology, more than ever before, with the emergence of humanism and fundamentally due to the Reformation. The cause of the Reformation was the prevailing situation in the Roman Catholic Church, which had been developing during the previous centuries and consisted of discontent with the accumulating wealth and abuses of the hierarchy. The peasants, the majority, were inarticulately anti-clerical and anti-papal, whilst the minority of educated were the Christian Humanists who initiated their own reforms.
Many scholars believe Luther not to be the cause of the Reformation, agreeing that this would have occurred sooner or later without him, although many regard him as the 'catalyst' of the Reformation. However, Young contradicts this by identifying Luther as "the father of the European Reformation"1. Regardless, Luther's importance is indubitable when studying scholarly writings regarding him and this is due to the great significance of his theology, such as the principle of sola scriptura.
Prior to this the Catholic hierarchy believed itself to have exclusive understanding and knowledge of the Bible thus giving it an infallible status as an essential part of one's search for salvation. Contrastingly, Luther taught, "Scripture alone is the true Lord and master of all writings and doctrine on earth"2. This is Luther's theological principle of sola scriptura, by the Bible alone, making it the sole authority of Christian doctrine and practice.
Through this principle Luther "sought to free it from arbitrary interpretation through fixed morns"3 in teaching that the individual could reach an understanding of the Bible not through the aid of the Church but through inspiration from the Holy Spirit when reading the Bible. Whilst this theological principle of sola scriptura may appear simple such a sweeping statement would be incorrect due to the principle's vast consequences. From analysis of these direct and indirect consequences it will be concluded that Luther's principle was of the utmost theological importance.
I will also strive to demonstrate sola scriptura's wider importance in that it had far reaching effects, both theologically and in other respects, such as politically. Luther reached his teaching of sola scriptura gradually. It was in 1518 when he met Cardinal Cajetan in Augsburg that Luther made his first statements regarding the principle by placing the Bible above the Pope. However, he diminished the gravity of such an assertion by admitting the authority of the Council as equal to that of Scripture in the hope this would sway a decision in his favour.
The following year Luther expressed his position more strongly by declaring at the Leipzig Debate that the Ecumenical Councils had been mistaken in matters of faith and practice and that they were subordinate to Scripture. By 1521 Luther's popularity had grown so much that he could be seen to protected by it thus able to passionately declare to Von Eck that: "I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the word of G-d. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience"4
Catholic scholars argue that Luther's own feelings were not strong enough cause to justify such a drastic denouncement of tradition, as there was no objective way of determining the true interpretation of the Bible5. Thus, the above is indeed a firm declaration of sola scriptura, by the Bible Alone, consequently an affirmation against the Catholic Church. However, this can also lead to questioning of the principle itself as Catholics could argue that Luther was simply adjusting teachings to suit his own means, just as he argued the Church was doing.
The fact that Luther provided ordinary worshippers with what McGrath describes as a "filter"6, catechisms which he wrote such as the Luther' Lesser Catechism (1529), in order to guide them in their interpretation of the Scripture supports this argument. On the other hand, Luther himself would point out that this was merely a response to those who took sola scriptura to understand that they could interpret the Bible in any way thus leading to it being used as a means of justifying certain actions, such as violence.
For Luther sola scriptura rose out of his belief that the Bible "by itself is most certain, most easy to understand, most clear, its own interpreter, testing, judging and illuminating everything by everything"7. In declaring that the Bible is its own interpreter Luther contradicts the Catholic teaching that the Bible takes its authority from the Church, thus negates the essential role of the Church as the only mediator between man and G-d.
Luther proclaims the Bible is clear due to his belief, as discussed by both Althaus8 and Lohse9, that every believer has the right and capacity to interpret Scripture through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, subsequently giving it a spiritual significance and authority. The theological importance of sola scriptura primarily rests on its differentiation from the Catholic Church in two ways. Firstly, the departure from the traditional use of the Bible bestows on it a higher status to that of the Catholic Church because the opinions of the hierarchy were, according to Luther's principle of sola scriptura, subordinate to the word of G-d.
This contradicts the Catholic teaching that the Bible should not be used on its own but in conjunction with and according to the interpretation of the hierarchy. Luther taught that the Bible alone, sola scriptura, was sufficient and so looked to its original language and then turned this into the German vernacular so that the people could read the text for themselves, rather than the Vulgate which the vast majority could not understand the Latin of. He felt this to be important because, based on the writings of Augustine and St. Paul Luther, he concluded that salvation depends upon faith, accordingly the knowledge of the Scripture by which faith is gained should be available to everyone.
Although, it is argued that the main focus of his sola scriptura was opposing the councils who promoted their own unbiblical traditions that were contrary to the word of G-d. This leads to the second differentiation, which is seen not only in the interpretation of the Bible but also in how it was defined. Having looked to the original language of the Bible, Luther reduced the number of books in the Old Testament, based on the Septuagint, in accordance with Jewish Tradition.
Consequently, Luther would deem doctrine contained in the Apocrypha, books Luther did not include in his version of the Bible, unscriptural whilst the Catholic Church would not. This too adds to the previously mentioned Catholic argument that Luther's chose doctrine to suit his own means. For example, Luther denounced prayers for the dead as relying upon the unscriptural doctrine of purgatory and encouraging superstition. However, Catholics argued the practice to be scriptural as it was mentioned in Maccabees, an apocryphal book.
Thus Luther could be seen to have based his theology on the Scripture, once having removed books that contradicted it10. Prayers for the dead is one of a number of doctrines, such as indulgences, pilgrimages and celibacy of the clergy, which Luther rejected following sola scriptura for these were no longer justifiable as they were unscriptural. However, Luther contradicted himself in allowing 'things indifferent' which were practices that were not contained in the Bible but which he retained, as he believed them to be beneficial to the congregation.
These included, wearing of vestments, kneeling at communion and hymns. Not only did Luther reject doctrines due to sola scriptura, some also arose from it. This is especially the case because, as Green states, "for Luther the Word of G-d was the start and the finish of his faith"11 and as Luther believed the Bible to be word of G-d subsequently it is natural for his doctrines to derive from it. He had four key doctrines: Justification by Faith Alone, The Bible as the final authority, Priesthood of All Believers and lastly Simplified Services.
These all have great theological importance as they became the starting point for all of the Protestant Reformers systems of theology. Luther was raised a Catholic thus learnt that to please G-d he must have faith, participate in the sacraments and perform good works and that this would earn his grace. G-d was portrayed as a stern judge to Luther whom he always felt to be a sinner in the presence of, and this intensely frightened Luther. His fear was so much that he was overwhelmed and didn't know how to reconcile his desire for salvation with this fear.
It was in studying the Scriptures that Luther came to question the means of salvation sanctioned by the Catholic Church and came to assert that in actual fact salvation is by grace only. He came to this conclusion whilst reading 'The Epistle to the Romans' written by St. Paul as it occurred to him that the wrong interpretation of the Latin verb justificare was used as this not only meant 'to judge' but also 'to put in a right relationship'. Thus when reading: "the righteous shall live by faith" (Romans 1:17) Luther realised man could be justified not by man's actions, his good works, but by faith that is a gift from G-d.
And so Luther arrived at sola fide, Justification by Faith Alone. Luther taught that good works were not necessary also because Jesus' death had pardoned mankind's sins, Sefton calls this "penal substitution"12 and this is G-d's grace. The removal of the status of the Church as an interpreter making every believer a priest before G-d, together with Luther's doctrine of Predestination which saw everyone equal for the true church, those predestined, and only known by G-d, led to Luther's teaching that there should be no distinction between laity and the clergy: the doctrine of Priesthood of All Believers.
Thus the congregation could choose a Minister to preach and administer the sacraments. This had great theological importance as it denounced the spiritual powers and authority of priests which Catholics believed them to have during, for example, the Eucharist. Luther's sola scriptura has great theological importance due to his own doctrines that arose out it but also because like any book the Bible was open to many interpretations. Thus, sola scriptura led to many theological developments and a great diversity of opinions and beliefs.
For example, McGrath13 discusses a disagreement between Luther and Zwingli, a Protestant reformer in Zurich, regarding the interpretation of est corpus meum meaning "this is my body" (Matthew 26:26). Its interpretation is central to the doctrine of the Eucharist and affected the two reformer's doctrine regarding this. Opposing Luther, Zwingli taught that this is not meant literally and so bread signifies the body of Christ and this led to his doctrine of Symbolism. Consequently, sola scriptura not only led to a breaking away from the Catholic Church but also a division within the Magisterial Reformation.
Sola scriptura's theological importance is also seen in that it is responsible for the Radical Reformation for this was the only group to apply the principle consistently. It led to greater individualism and in some cases chaos as some people, such as Thomas Mi?? ntzer, interpreted the Bible as they saw fit in order to justify their own, sometimes negative, actions. The principle of sola scriptura was important theologically and politically because in dethroning the Pope and enthroning Scripture14, the advantages of the Church such as the maintaining conformity of belief and practice were lost.
This strengthened the argument for the alliance between Church and State, as the State could, as the Church once did, enforce continuity of teachings. This helped lead to the Religious Peace of Augsburg in 1522 where it was decided: cuius region eius religio "of whom the rule, of him the religion" and this gave the magistrates more independence in choosing their own religion and this was a great step towards the religious toleration we know today. In conclusion, sola scriptura is Luther's principle that the Bible is the final authority and that the Church is not required as interpreter.
It is one teaching of a man who is responsible for changing the face of religious history and thus its theological importance is unquestionable. The principle itself can be seen as responsible for a number of changes, such as the rejection of indulgences and infant baptism, together with indirect consequences for instance other doctrines, for example, sola fide. Smart perhaps puts it best by describing Luther as letting "the cork out of the bottle"15 as sola scriptura led to a great diversity of beliefs such as Zwingli's Symbolism.
However, it can also be seen to have negative connotations in that it led to radicalism. Although it should be noted that Luther tried to separate himself from this by writing catechisms in order to curve people's extreme interpretations. Luther's work, including sola scriptura, forced the Catholic church to reform itself and the Council of Trent formally redefined doctrine thus again demonstrating the great, all encompassing theological importance of sola scriptura.