Peter Leithart on “sola scriptura”

Peter Leithart wrote a nice defense of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura (Latin for “Scripture alone”), which is part of the 5 solas of the Protestant Reformation. Sola gratia (“grace alone”), sola fide (“faith alone”), solus Christus (“Christ alone”), and soli Deo gloria (“for the glory of God alone”). He put it in the context of God’s relationship with the church and showed how it applies to his preaching as well. Here are some key excerpts:

Sola scriptura is a theological claim.  It is Christological: It says that Jesus is Husband of His Bride, and still speaks to her.  As Barth understood, sola scriptura is about the Lordship of the Lord of the church.  All Christology is also ecclesiology, and so is sola scriptura: It says that because Christ is Head of the Body, He directs the Body, as and by Word.  It is also, as my colleague Toby Sumpter pointed out recently to me, pneumatology: It means that the Spirit speaks to the church not merely through her.

It means that tradition is not the church talking to herself, but God talking to the church and the church talking back.  To affirm sola scriptura is to acknowledge that tradition is prayer.  To affirm sola scriptura is to say that tradition is liturgy.  To affirm sola scriptura is to affirm the primacy of dialog over monologue.

Sola scriptura, despite the apparent import of the word “sola,” doesn’t claim that Scripture is the only authority.   Scripture itself affirms the validity and real authority of other authorities: Obey your leaders (Hebrews 13), and the brother who refuses to listen to the church is treated as a tax collector (Matthew 18).  But the Reformers followed the example of Jesus, who challenged Jewish tradition with an appeal to the written text (Matthew 15:1-6; Mark 7:1-13).  Jesus argued that the Pharisaical tradition (or some thread of that tradition) taught that it was legitimate for children to give money to God rather than caring for aging parents.  Jesus refuted them by saying that their tradition nullifies Scripture.  Scripture is Jesus’ trump card.  He doesn’t point to alternative threads of Pharisaical tradition (though he doubtless could have).  One might say, for Jesus Scripture has final authority to judge the legitimacy of tradition.  One might say, sola Scriptura.

Paul taught the same in 2 Timothy 3:14-17.   Paul reminds Timothy of the people who taught him Scripture.  But Paul speaks of Scripture as a “God-breathed” text, which, one might assume, makes it quite different from other texts.  In the final clause of the passage, Paul tells Timothy that the Scripture is useful to equip the man of God “for every good work.”   Is there a good work that Scripture fails to equip us for?  Paul says No.  Is there a good work that is not in some fashion an application of Scripture?  Paul says No.  That’s the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture in a nutshell.  That’s sola scriptura….

Of course, of course, of course: When we talk about Scripture correcting the church, we are talking about people reading and studying Scripture and coming to the conclusion that a traditional belief or practice violates Scripture.  Of course, that process is subject to all the dilemmas and pitfalls of any interpretation.  But then the question again becomes a question of theology proper, not simply of Scriptural authority.  Suppose God wants to correct a corruption in His church.  Is He able to speak to it?  Can God’s voice break through to rebuke and correct and train in righteousness?  Can our traditions muzzle the Lord of the church?  Can He by His Spirit speak independently of, and against, the tradition?  Is tradition a conversation, a liturgy of antiphon and response, or is it the church’s monologue?  Is Jesus Lord of His church?  Or has the Head been absorbed into the body?

See his whole post for, among other things, his appreciation of the Roman Catholic tradition and the reforms that have taken place within it.

I think that in part Leithart’s post was part of the on-going conversation about the resignation from the Presbyterian Church of America of Jason Stellman (who unsuccessfully prosecuted Leithart in a PCA presbytery for deviating from the Westminster Confession). You can see Stellman’s letter here. Stellman lost confidence in sola fide and sola Scriptura. Here’s what he said about sola fide:

Regarding Sola Fide, I have become convinced that the teaching that sinners are justified by a once-for-all declaration of acquittal on God’s part, based upon the imputation of Christ’s righteousness received by faith alone, is not reflective of the teaching of the New Testament as a whole. I have come to believe that a much more biblical paradigm for understanding the gospel—and one that has much greater explanatory value for understanding Jesus, Paul, Peter, James, and John—is one that sets forth the New Covenant work of the Spirit, procured through the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ, as internally inscribing God’s law and enabling believers to exhibit love of God and neighbor, thereby fulfilling the law in order to gain their eternal inheritance (Rom. 8:1-4). While this is all accomplished entirely by God’s grace through the merits of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, it is at the same time not something that occurs through the imputation of an external and alien righteousness received through faith alone. Rather, as Paul says, God’s people are justified by a faith that works through love—itself the fruit of the Spirit—and with God’s law inscribed on our hearts and minds we sow to the Spirit and reap everlasting life (Gal. 5:4-6, 14, 16, 22; 6:8).

Here’s how Doug Wilson responded to Stellman on this issue:

With regard to sola fide, he is quite right to see the very narrow position he was nurtured in as contrary to the teaching of the New Testament. The righteousness of Jesus Christ is imputed to sinners, and the instrument of a God-given faith is what receives that gracious gift. But the gift received is that of living faith, breathing faith, loving faith, the only kind of faith the living God bestows. It is sola fide, not nuda fide. Stellman was wrong to identify his previous narrow view of sola fide as the doctrine of sola fide itself.

You can see Leithart’s more direct response to the matter here.



  1. When I read pieces like this by Leithart, I despair that Evangelicals like him will ever understand alternate views of theology, or that he might even want to. Many of his misunderstandings and abuses of logic seem so basic that it makes me wonder what it is about his place in life that makes him so blind? It is terribly disheartening. It reminds me of a Protestant that insisted the Church had gone off the rails at Constantine and that Protestantism was a return to the true religion of the uncorrupted early church. When I finally was able to get him to read some early church writings, his response was that he didn’t think those early bishops really understood grace (whereas 1900 years later, he is able to decipher the meaning of scripture far better than the immediate successors of the apostles). It makes me think there is nothing anyone could say or do that would change Leitharts’ or my friend’s mind about the accuracy of the Scriptural/historical views.

  2. Doug, where do you think that Leithart goes wrong in his post, specifically?

    It’s ironic that Leithart has been accused by some in the Reformed circles of being too “Catholic” in his theology. Perhaps he should have you set his critics straight! (By the way, I’m pointing out the irony with a smile, not criticizing your point of view). I guess that I think that the stuff I’ve read from Leithart seems appreciative of the Catholic perspective, but that’s easier for me to say as a Protestant when I don’t know as many of the nuances.

    By the way, your friend’s opinion about the church going off the rails after Constantine strikes me as very bad too, and dismissing the early church writers as not understanding grace is problematic. What were his specific objections?

  3. Scott,

    There are so many ways Leithart goes off base, it would take hours to expound on them. I’ll try to briefly point out two or three. The very first paragraph states that the doctrine of Sola Scriptura is the only way to ensure that God speaks to his Church and not merely through her. I find that entire concept entirely befuddling. He seems to be saying that the doctrine that God can speak to the Church authoritatively through means other than the Bible (2 Thess. 2:15) means God can’t speak to her but only through her. He seems to be saying that the pattern the apostles set up at the first council of Jerusalem and followed thereafter in the Catholic Church was all wrong. He seems to be saying that if God speaks authoritatively through the Church leadership like he did in Acts 15, then it means he can’t speak “to” the Church. I find this very suggestion preposterous and antithetical to the prime example of what happened in Scripture when people had very deeply held beliefs that were at loggerheads with each other and threatened to split the Church. His claims about sola Scriptura are so lacking both in the stories and examples of post-Resurrection Scripture and he does nothing to address the nuances of Jesus own teachings on how to respond to the teachings of hypocritical, headed-to-hell pharisees (Mt. 23:1-4).

    I find Leithart’s paragraph interpreting 2 Timothy 3:14-17 to be simplistic to the point of being laughable. To say that Scripture is useful does not mean that it is sufficient: a fact he glosses over earlier. Sometimes we need binding Sacred Tradition. Even the apostles acknowledged that. He never once addresses any of the hard verses in the New Testament that where Christians are exhorted to slavishly obey oral tradition. Tradition and Scripture are a both/and proposition in historical Christian theology.

    The way Leithart says that continued arguments over nuances of Nicea and Chalcedon means they don’t really solve the problem misses the picture entirely. Even if he thinks they don’t constrain his own views of Christology/Trinitarian theology in any meaningful way, is he really suggesting they weren’t useful and authoritative in directing the Church’s theology? It’s like he wants it both ways. He wants to say that the councils didn’t really direct the Church’s theology because people still argue over parts of them, yet Tradition evilly constrains theology to the point that God is unable to speak to His Bride the Church. He never once gives a clear example of how Tradition constrains theology or doesn’t. I recognize he had space limitations, but his work is so much the opposite of even the intro to Newman’s Essay on the Development of Doctrine in examples and clarity, one gets the feeling that he hasn’t the slightest idea how Sacred Tradition actually affects the life of the Church.

    This is most clear when Leithart makes no distinction between Sacred Tradition and tradition. His sole “example” of when God did speak to his Church to correct abuses and bad traditions is so broad and dismissively presented as an example of Sola Scriptura as to be practically useless. It’s as if he doesn’t know about any or doesn’t care to acknowledge clear counterfactuals to his main argument.

    I hope that helps. Maybe I’ll write about my friends ideas on the early church later, but Eucharist, the authority of bishops and the attitude of Ignatius toward martyrdom were all areas that he thought showed they fundamentally didn’t understand grace or Jesus “real” teaching.


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