According to historic Christianity, the Bible is the inspired and inerrant Word of God. The apostle Paul declares: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17).

The branch of Christendom known as Protestantism goes further, affirming Scripture as the ultimate authority as opposed to conjoining the Bible with church tradition as does Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Thus, the watchword of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century became sola Scriptura, a Latin phrase meaning Scripture is the absolute standard of doctrine and the final court of appeals in all matters of faith and practice for the church and the individual Christian.1 

However, an unfortunate and fairly common misunderstanding of sola Scriptura (literally “Scripture alone”) is that the Bible’s inspiration and authority which is directly supervised by the Holy Spirit serves to effectively devalue the theological writings of uninspired authors. This sentiment, entertained especially among some evangelical laymen, in practice becomes a type of “Bible onlyism.” It’s a position that says, “I only read or consider inspired theological authors. I don’t care what uninspired theologians wrote in creeds, confessions, or even great books of literature.”

I’m not aware of any particular evangelical scholar or denomination that officially teaches this view as doctrine, but I encounter “Bible onlyism” fairly frequently among evangelical Christians who come from noncreedal, nonconfessional, nonliturgical church backgrounds (for example, contemporary non-denominational churches).

Though no doubt well-intentioned, this “Bible onlyism” is a misunderstanding of and a departure from the Reformation view that Scripture, as God’s unique inspired Word, is the final court of appeals in all matters of faith and practice. Secondary or derived sources in theology can have great value, and they can even help us better understand Scripture itself.

Two Examples of “Bible Onlyism”
In one social media exchange, a person told me he would never recite historic Christian creeds such as the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed because these were words of mere men and not the words of inspired Scripture. I informed the man that biblical scholars believe there were a number of creeds, both Jewish and Christian, that were first recited by God’s people in worship but then later included in the Bible (see Deuteronomy 6:4Romans 10:91 Corinthians 15:3–8, among others).

I also explained that these two creeds were considered by historic Christendom to faithfully convey the basic message of the Bible. In fact, Christian historian Mark Noll has written that “the ancient creeds became authoritative in the early centuries because they were thoroughly, profoundly, comprehensively, and passionately rooted in Scripture.”2 If understood this way, the ecumenical creeds of Christendom do a great job of summarizing the essential teaching of Scripture even though they are not inspired and carry only derivative authority.

In another theological exchange online, a person told me that he would not read the list of great theological books that I had recommended (Augustine’s Confessions, Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, John Calvin’s The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Blaise Pascal’s Pensées, etc.) because these books were uninspired texts that offered mere theological opinion. I assured the man that these great Christian authors truly revered and frequently quoted Scripture, and had humbly offered their reasoned understanding of biblical truth. In other words, some of these works helped formulate and shape Christian orthodoxy by skillfully drawing out the doctrinal meaning of Scripture.

The Greatest of the Great Books
I think in a sense all three major branches of historic Christendom (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant) would affirm that sacred Scripture has no peer.3 Yet tradition as a secondary norm in theology carries great value in understanding and applying biblical texts. So, the good news is that you can view Scripture as the greatest (uniquely inspired and inerrant) of the great books but still read and benefit from other books, theological and otherwise. After all, all truth is God’s truth whether it comes from the literal book of Scripture (the Bible) or the figurative book of nature (the world); that is, truth discovered and revealed in various academic and scientific disciplines.In fact, many of these great books were influenced by Scripture, and some may even increase a person’s understanding of the Bible and the Christian worldview overall.

So, I invite you to become a lifelong student of the Bible, but I also encourage you to consider reading some of history’s great Christian creeds and books. I think you’ll find that they will, in one way or another, point you back to God’s unique and inspired written Word.

Resources

Reflections: Your Turn

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Endnotes

  1. For a detailed discussion of the meaning of the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura, see Kenneth Richard Samples, “God’s Written Word—Scripture,” chap. 7 in A World of Difference (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007).
  2. Mark A. Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 2.
  3. Scripture has no peer in the sense that church tradition is interpretive rather than inspirationally creative.
  4. For a discussion of the “two books” principle within Christian theology, see Kenneth Richard Samples, Christianity Cross-Examined (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2021), 49–52.

About The Author

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that "all truth is God’s truth." That historic affirmation means that when we discover and grasp truth in the world and in life we move closer to its divine Author. This approach relies on the Christian idea of God’s two revelatory books - the metaphorical book of nature and the literal book of Scripture. As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. My writings and lectures at RTB focus on showing how the great doctrinal truths of the faith (the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, creation ex nihilo, salvation by grace, etc.) are uniquely compatible with reason. This approach reflects the historic Christian apologetics statement - "faith seeking understanding." I work to help myself and others fulfill Peter's words in 2 Peter 3:18: "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen." As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. • Biography • Resources • Upcoming Events • Promotional Items Kenneth Richard Samples began voraciously studying Christian philosophy and theology when his thirst for purpose found relief in the Bible. He earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy and social science from Concordia University and his MA in theological studies from Talbot School of Theology. For seven years, Kenneth worked as Senior Research Consultant and Correspondence Editor at the Christian Research Institute (CRI) and regularly cohosted the popular call-in radio program, The Bible Answer Man, with Dr. Walter Martin. As a youth, Kenneth wrestled with "unsettling feelings of meaninglessness and boredom," driving him to seek answers to life's big questions. An encounter with Christian philosophy in Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis led Kenneth to examine the New Testament and "finally believe that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God, the Lord and Savior of the world." From then on, he pursued an intellectually satisfying faith. Today, as senior research scholar at Reasons to Believe (RTB), Kenneth uses what he's learned to help others find the answers to life's questions. He encourages believers to develop a logically defensible faith and challenges skeptics to engage Christianity at a philosophical level. He is the author of Without a Doubt and A World of Difference, and has contributed to numerous other books, including: Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men, The Cult of the Virgin, and Prophets of the Apocalypse. He has written articles for Christianity Today and The Christian Research Journal, and regularly participates in RTB's podcasts, including Straight Thinking, a podcast dedicated to encouraging Christians to utilize sound reasoning in their apologetics. He also writes for the ministry's daily blog, Today’s New Reason to Believe. An avid speaker and debater, Kenneth has appeared on numerous radio programs such as Voice America Radio, Newsmakers, The Frank Pastore Show, Stand to Reason, White Horse Inn, Talk New York, and Issues Etc., as well as participated in debates and dialogues on topics relating to Christian doctrine and apologetics. He currently lectures for the Master of Arts program in Christian Apologetics at Biola University. Kenneth also teaches adult classes at Christ Reformed Church in Southern California. Over the years Kenneth has held memberships in the American Philosophical Association, the Evangelical Philosophical Society, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the Evangelical Press Association. The son of a decorated World War II veteran, Kenneth is an enthusiastic student of American history, particularly the Civil War and WWII. His favorite Christian thinkers include Athanasius, Augustine, Pascal, and C. S. Lewis. He greatly enjoys the music of the Beatles and is a die-hard Los Angeles Lakers fan. Kenneth lives in Southern California with his wife, Joan, and their three children.



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