On October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the church door in Wittenberg. These were dark, dark days; the gospel had been shackled by the superstitions and idolatries of the Roman Catholic Church and consigned to her dungeon where its light was hidden from the world. But Luther’s action that day would initiate its emancipation by sparking the Protestant Reformation. The Reformers rescued the gospel from Rome’s dungeon and brought it to the hilltops from where its light could again emanate as a beacon of salvation for all to see. To remember this day in the history of Christ’s church, brothers from various Reformed denominations (OPC, URCNA, RCUS, RCNZ, RPCNA) have contributed articles on each of the five solas of the Reformation: sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria. Together they form the five-fold light of the gospel that overcomes the darkness.
– Daniel Ragusa
We Are All Epistemologists
The question couldn’t be more straightforward. But despite the disarming nature of its apparent simplicity, it has proven to be one of the most challenging questions human beings have ever endeavored to answer. The answers put forward, by philosophers and poets alike, couldn’t be more varied, more contradictory, more labyrinthine in complexity.
How do you know what you think you know?
On what basis do we have any confidence that the knowledge we claim as unassailably true has any point of contact with reality? We human beings have no problem with the “unassailably true” part. That observation is as empirically verifiable as you could possibly desire. Scroll through Facebook for thirty seconds on any given day and come to the conclusion that people don’t simply take for granted the inviolable veracity of their predications! Take a walk down the street, talk to a random sampling of people about the world, about themselves, about humanity, about God. Invariably, they will repeatedly appeal to a body of knowledge, the truthfulness of which they will take utterly for granted. We all do it.
But there’s a rub, isn’t there? The knowledge that we so blithely assume to be unassailably true—how do we know that it has real, vital contact with reality? It is that question, that conundrum, that has, in equal parts, both fascinated and infuriated thinking men and women from time immemorial. And for all the attempts of modern philosophy to argue to the contrary, it is a matter of deeply intuitive settledness in the human heart that truth has a universal character, i.e. that truth for me must also be truth for you, that truth is not ultimately a purely subjective construct de mente singulorum.
But where does this truth come from? What validates our truth claims as possessing a vital point of contact with reality? By what standard do we then discriminate between truth and error, knowledge and falsity?
These are all questions that have been taken up by philosophers under the discipline of epistemology, the study of (logos) knowledge (episteme). And appealing to our observations thus far, we can say with ease that we are all epistemologists. There is not a living, breathing man or woman (Or child! My children—five, four, and two—all readily prove this on a daily basis) for whom the definition, nature, and limits of knowledge are not of intimate concern. And more often than not, we simply bypass these questions by assuming epistemological certainty concerning the knowledge we believe we possess. But do we actually have grounds for epistemological certainty? Is epistemological certainty possible? From where does it come?! As we contemplate the most important questions of life concerning ourselves, the universe—concerning God—how do we lay our heads on our pillows at night at peace that we have real knowledge concerning reality as it really is.
A Revelational Epistemology
The doctrine of sola scriptura (“Scripture alone”) is theological shorthand for what might otherwise be called (and has been called) a revelational epistemology. For all of the discussion that the doctrine of sola scriptura will deservedly receive Reformation Day 2016, the goal of this brief meditation is to focus on the Scriptures as the sole ground of the believer’s epistemological certainty. And, therefore, the fulfillment of the epistemological ideal after which all humanity strives and yearns.
The doctrine of sola scriptura presents the nature of our epistemic conundrum with a beautiful, but perilous, clarity (depending on how one reacts to its implications). Human beings ultimately have two choices and two choices only. We either receive the self-authenticating revelation of God as contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the one and only key to human knowledge that comports with reality—or we remain enslaved to epistemological darkness.
To illustrate, imagine a labyrinth. What is the implicit invitation of the labyrinth if not to discover the path leading to final escape? But this labyrinth is different. It promises that which it does not possess and cannot yield. So it is with every pursuit of ultimate knowledge and meaning that is not grounded in Scripture alone. All unbelieving epistemologies bid us escape a labyrinth that is, by definition, inescapable. It is inescapable because it is the finite mind trapped within itself, with no transcendent vantage point from which to even evaluate, let alone correct, its own deficiencies.
But does this stop us from trying? No! For in the heart of man there is an equally inescapable notion that the possibility of escape exists. Problem being, of course, that we invariably seek this escape presupposing that our reason—fallen and finite—will lead us to freedom. And just like the old myth, every would-be philosopher believes himself to possess Ariadne’s thread and so fancies himself the long-awaited guide to lead us out of the perilous labyrinth of our epistemological conundrum. But again, with no recourse except to human reason—as fallen as it is finite—every postulated escape proves a delusion, just as the Minotaur rounds the corner and we find ourselves hemmed in on every side with our backs against the wall.
What, then, is the Christian’s escape? When the darkness of our noetic condition seems to extinguish all light, what hope could there ever be? The Son of God bears testimony to the blessed way of escape. “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’” (Jn. 8:32). What is this truth about which Jesus speaks?! He further describes and defines it as the passage unfolds. Verse 37—My word. Verse 38—that which I have seen from My Father. Verse 40—the truth that I heard from My Father. Verse 43, again—My word. Verses 45 and 46, again—the truth. Verse 47—the words of God. And all this comes to a climactic pitch in John 17 when Jesus prays thus for His people—“‘Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth’” (Jn. 17:17).
The Word of God is our escape. The Word of God is truth. And the Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, is the One who rescues us from our epistemological darkness. “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (Jn. 10:27). That is why Jesus’ voice is so precious to those who trust in Him! Because the alternative is utter darkness. The Spirit of God has illumined the eyes of our hearts to embrace the Word of God (Eph. 1:17–19). And by that same Word, the Spirit has deeply impressed upon our hearts that to follow the voice of strangers (Jn. 10:5) is to walk the path of destruction. Clinging to Christ by faith, we have that same Spirit-wrought instinct that we see exhibited by Peter—“So Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God’” (Jn. 6:67–69).
All other voices will betray us. All other paths inexorably proceed only from darkness to darkness. Such is the end of every epistemological pursuit that appeals to human reason as its ultimate point of reference. In whatever language it is clothed, with whatever degree of sophistication it presents itself—it is a maze with no solution, a labyrinth of constant flux and the infinite regress of endless obfuscation, where every supposed solution plays out to yet another dead end. Either the Lord Jesus leads us out by Word and Spirit, or we remain in darkness—for it is only in His light that we see light (Ps. 36:9). Sola scriptura is the Spirit-wrought cry of the redeemed heart—“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
From the Mouth of God
Recall the striking language that Christ used in spiritual combat against the devil, “‘It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’” (Matt. 4:4). Our Savior here is speaking about the Scriptures by quoting the Scriptures speaking about the Scriptures! The quote comes, of course, from Deuteronomy chapter 8, verse 3, “… man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord.”
Should this not make us tremble? The inscripturated Word of God constitutes the very mouth of God by which He speaks His word and reveals His will. As the Apostle Paul likewise testifies, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Tim. 3:16). And the word here translated as “inspiration” is, of course, that profound and evocative Paulinism—θεόπνευστος, God-breathed. What a striking anthropomorphism! That the Bible is Almighty God Himself—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—opening His mouth and breathing out a divine revelation perfectly accommodated to our redeemed, finite capacities.
One beautiful implication of this is that we ought never to separate the doctrines of inspiration and authority. They are two sides of the same coin. Why are the Scriptures authoritative? Because they proceed from the mouth of God! And what else can we call that which proceeds from the mouth of God but authoritative—and that in the most ultimate, comprehensive, and exhaustive of senses!
A simple, but shattering truth. If man would know God, God must reveal Himself. And He has done so. God has opened His mouth and spoken. And this Word bears all the intrinsic authority of the divine being. Consider this quote from William Whitaker,
Scripture has for its author God Himself; from whom it first proceeded and came forth. Therefore the authority of Scripture may be proved from the Author Himself, since the authority of God Himself shines forth in it. 2 Tim. 3:16, the whole Scripture is called theopneustos.
And following Whitaker, the beautiful creedal formulation of this truth from the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 1
The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.
Sola Scriptura, Spiritual Warfare, and the Voice of a Stranger
Should it surprise us that again and again throughout church history the doctrine of sola scriptura has proved a spiritual battleground? No, it shouldn’t. Point in fact, the doctrine of sola scriptura has been a spiritual battleground from the beginning. “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden?’” From the beginning (Gen. 3:1–7; Jn. 8:44), Satan has been most eager to cast doubt upon the Word of God and thus cast doubt upon the very character of God. His is the original “voice of the stranger” (Jn. 10:5). And as Genesis chapter 3 unfolds the anatomy of temptation, what we find is that at the base of all the evil one’s temptations there is this basic goal and desire—to cause us to waver and weaken concerning the authority and the sufficiency of God’s Word. And when Adam chose to interpret reality according to the word of the serpent, over the Word of God, so fell all of humanity—descending from Adam by natural generation (Rom. 5:12–18; 1 Cor. 15:21–22)—into epistemological slavery and darkness (Jn. 8:37–47; Rom. 1:18–23; 1 Cor. 1:18–25).
But when Satan comes to attack the Second Adam (Matt. 4:1–11), what happens?! When Satan seeks to tempt Christ away from the Word of God, when Satan seeks to impugn the character of God by misusing and twisting His Word—how does our Savior respond? Does He capitulate? Praise be to God—no! He stands firm. He wields the sword of the Spirit to hew down the blasphemous insinuations of the enemy. And at the very point at which Adam fell—Christ prevailed. At the very point at which we all fall, inheriting from Adam the same corruption of nature—Christ prevailed. “It is written—it is written—it is written.”
It is with great pastoral wisdom, then, that the Westminster Divines speak to us about “the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world.” Satan’s tactics haven’t changed. He still comes to us, appealing to the flesh and appealing to the rebellious streak that yet remains in our hearts—“Has God actually said?!” Let us be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might (Eph. 6:10). And following our Savior, being conformed to His image from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18), let us pick up the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God (Eph. 6:17)—and let us wield it to His glory.
We need never be intimidated by the boasting of the world in their epistemological poverty. This divine deposit (the 66 books inspired books of the New Covenant canon) constitutes God’s sufficient and final revelation—God’s last days speech-in-Son (Heb. 1:1–2). And praise be to the Lord—it contains everything that we need to know Him, to believe in Him, to be reconciled to Him, to know His will, to please Him, and to proclaim Him to the world.
The Crux of the Matter
We cannot arrive at the crux of the matter in words more clear, perceptive, and earthy than those of Cornelius Van Til,
We cannot choose epistemologies as we choose hats. Such would be the case if it had been once for all established that the whole thing is but a matter of taste. But that exactly what has not been established. That is exactly the point in dispute.
The question is not whether or not we have an epistemology. The question is what kind of epistemology do we have and whether that epistemology leads us to the green pastures and still waters of God’s self-authenticating Word, or to yet another dead end in the serpentine labyrinth of unbelief. The doctrine of sola scriptura is the clarion call of the divine revelation that the Scriptures alone constitute the only ground by which humanity might come to a true knowledge of itself, of the universe, and of our God.
We cannot do without the Scriptures; having them we need no other guide. We need this light to light our pathway; having it we may well dispense with any other. Are we making it the light to lighten our feet? Are we following it whithersoever it leads? Are we prepared to test all religious truth by it, while it is tested by none? Are we prepared to stand by it in all things on the principle that it is God’s Word and God will be true though every man be a liar?
From Soli Deo Gloria to Sola Scriptura and Back Again
The series of articles on the five solas began with the end and now ends with the beginning. If the omega point of Reformed theology is soli Deo gloria, then the alpha point is sola scriptura. And as we bring this series to an end, let’s connect the dots and work now from the alpha back to the omega. After all, where does the Bible ultimately lead us? Does this God-breathed Book have a central message? Yes, it does. As the Son of God testifies, “‘You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.’”
The Scriptures are not themselves eternal life, as though black-and-white on a page could magically confer the grace of God. In the power of the Spirit, the Word of Christ leads us to the Word Christ. As Geerhardus Vos wrote concerning the relationship between the Bible’s historical record and the Bible’s exalted Redeemer, “The Person is immanent in the facts, and the facts are the revelation of the Person.” The Bible is a redemptive book, the product of God’s desire to save. The epistemological and the soteriological are bound together in the warm embrace of God’s redemptive purposes for humanity in and through Jesus Christ. And that warm Christological embrace cannot but propel the church toward the doxological.
When, in the power of the Spirit, we embrace by faith (sola fide) the testimony of the Scriptures (sola scriptura)—we are forever united to the Lord (solus Christos). And in Him what do we find but grace upon grace (sola gratia)? And beholding Him with unveiled face (2 Cor. 3:18) what do we see? His Glory. And as we delight and rejoice in the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6)—what is our cry?
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!
‘For who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has become His counselor?’
‘Or who has first given to Him
And it shall be repaid to him?’
For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever.
Soli Deo Gloria.
For Further Study
- Listen to our discussion with Glen Clary on Zwingli, Sola Scriptura, and the Reformation of Christian Worship. You may also find his article “Ulrich Zwingli and the Swiss Anabaptists: Sola Scriptura and the Reformation of Christian Worship” in volume 6 of the Confessional Presbyterian Journal. Camden Bucey has also written on Zwingli’s view.
- See John Murray, “Reformation” and “The Crux of the Reformation” in volume 1 of Collected Writings of John Murray. In the first address he proposes and develops that “the Reformation was the reassertion of the whole counsel of God, to the refutation of error and display of the truth. Sola gratia and sola scriptura were its fundamental principles.”
- Cornelis Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology and his chapter on Scripture in An Introduction to Systematic Theology.
- Sinclair Ferguson, From the Mouth of God.
- Thy Word is Still Truth: Essential Writings on the Doctrine of Scripture from the Reformation to Today.
- There are many helpful essays in the recent volume edited by D. A. Carson, The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures.
- Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2: Holy Scripture.
 Cf. 1 Cor. 2:6–16. The Trinitarian foundations of sola scriptura (though space does not permit us to follow that thread) are radiant—Father, Son, and Spirit each intimately involved in the divine revelation (Opera Trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa). Cf. also the penetrating article by Dr. Richard B. Gaffin, “Epistemological Reflections on 1 Cor. 2:6–16.”
 William Whitaker (1548–1595), Disputations, 3.3. Again, theopneustos is Greek for “God-breathed.”
 WCF I.4.
 WCF I.1.
 Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, xiv.
 Consider the following epistemological insight from Edward Calamy, “There are two great Gifts that God hath given to His people: The Word Christ and the Word of Christ. Both are unspeakably great; but the first will do us no good without the second” (The Godly Man’s Ark, 7th ed. , 55).
 Geerhardus Vos, “Christian Faith and the Truthfulness of Bible History,” The Princeton Theological Review  4:289–305.