Luther’s Sola Scriptura Part 3: Sufficiency

Throughout Luther’s attacks on Roman doctrine, he makes his primary appeals to Scripture, enlisting the Father’s support only to show his ideas were not novel. In stark contrast, as exemplified by the Papal Bulls, his opponents considered the Fathers and Councils to be additional sources for doctrine alongside the authoritative Scriptures. Of the errors condemned in Exsurge (the Papal Bull of 1520), the condemnation of the 5th error allows for the particularities of the practice of penance to be established by appeal to “the ancient sacred Christian doctors” apart from Scripture, and the condemnation of the 27th error affirms the doctrinal authority of tradition:

5.That there are three parts to penance: contrition, confession, and satisfaction, has no foundation in Sacred Scripture nor in the ancient sacred Christian doctors.…

27. It is certain that it is not in the power of the Church or the pope to decide upon the articles of faith, and much less concerning the laws for morals or for good works.


In response to this two-source view of revelation and tradition, which holds there is binding truth necessary for Christian belief and practice outside of Scripture (cf. Vanhoozer, 118–20), Luther not only argued that Scripture was self-interpreting  but also that it contained explicitly or implicitly everything the Christian needed to know and follow God. Luther does not argue that Scripture contains all truth (e.g., Luther 1997, 1:332), but that Scripture is true in everything it teaches and this is all God has seen fit to provide His children: it is in no need of supplementation (Thompson, 281; Luther 1960a, 132; 1997, 1:335). In Luther’s own words,

it will not do to frame articles of faith from the works or words of the holy Fathers; otherwise their kind of fare, of garments, of house, etc., would have to become an article of faith, as was done with relics. [We have, however, another rule, namely] The rule is: The Word of God shall establish articles of faith, and no one else, not even an angel. (Luther 1921, II.2)

Negatively, Luther denies the Fathers any intrinsic authority: tradition is valuable in as much as it accurately communicates the teaching of Scripture; it can offer no universally binding proclamation that is not already taught in Scripture (Luther 1997, 1:328; 1997a, 85). Even a council cannot legislate for the universal church anything in addition to Scripture, though they may offer an application of God’s word binding for their time. Appealing to Acts 15, Luther argues that the council here affirms the timeless truth of the Gospel and offers a contemporary application that no one feels necessary to follow—to abstain from blood (Wood, 127; Robinson, 80–81).


In addition to the example of Acts 15, Luther argues for the sufficiency of Scripture from an appeal to the claims and intentions of the councils and fathers and from a variety of Scriptures. Drawing support from the Fathers and the councils, he first argues that no one could cull all Christian doctrine from them; to this he adds,

If the Holy Scriptures had not made and preserved the Church, it would not have remained long because of the councils and fathers. As evidence let me ask, “Whence do the fathers and councils get what they teach and discuss? Think you that they were first discovered in their time or that the Holy Ghost was always giving them something new? How did the Church exist before these councils and fathers? Or were there no Christians before the rise of the councils and fathers?” (Kerr 1966, 14–15)

In this way he argues that tradition is insufficient for Christian doctrine and only sought to apply Scripture to contemporary crises. Of the Father’s exegetical works he makes a similar observation: “The work of the fathers was not to give light to the Scriptures with their comments, but rather to set forth the clear Scriptures and thus interpret Scripture by Scripture only without any additions of their own” (Luther 1997, 1:330–31).

To argue for sufficiency, Luther turns first to Deuteronomy 4:2. Here, Moses commands that nothing be taken away or removed from his words. Replying to the objection that Moses speaks here only of part of Bible because more was added afterward, Luther argues that the rest of the Bible teaches nothing in addition to the law. For Luther, the books of Moses are the Scripture’s “basic source”: the Bible is only continued application and exposition of the Pentateuch (Luther 1960a, 132). Second, Luther says of Isaiah 8:9-20, “This is certainly a clear passage that urges and compels us to seek in God’s law and testimony all that we want to know” (Luther 1997, 1:335). Third, Luther argues from Matthew 17:5 that “We must listen to what Christ says. Him alone did the Father make to be our teacher… [God] did not say, ‘Listen to Bernard, Gregory,’ etc., but, listen to him, him, him, my beloved Son” (Luther 1960a, 135). Thus, Scripture for Luther is the only sufficient source of Christian teaching, the light “from which all teachers receive their light (Luther 1997b, 256).


Works Cited

“Exsurge Domine.” 1520. Papal Encyclicals. June 15.

Kerr, Hugh T., ed. 1966. A Compend of Luther’s Theology. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

Luther, Martin. 1921. “Smalcald Articles.” In Triglot Concordia: They Symbolic Books of the Ev. Lutheran Church, translated by F. Bente and Dau, 453–529. St. Louis: Concordia.

———. 1960a. “Avoiding the Doctrines of Men and a Reply to the Texts Cited in Defense of the Doctrine of Men, 1522.” In Word and Sacrament, edited by E. Theodore Bachmann, American ed. Vol. 1. Luther’s Works 35. Concordia; Fortress Press.

———. 1997. Sermons by Martin Luther: Volume 1; Sermons on Gospel Texts for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. Edited by John Nicholas Lenker. Vol. 1. AGES Bible Software.

———. 1997a. “An Argument in Defense of All Articles.” In Works of Martin Luther. Vol. 3. AGES Bible Software.

———. 1997b. “Dr. Martin Luther’s Answer to the Superchristian, Superspiritual, Superlearned Book of Goat Emser of Leipzig.” In ibid.

Robinson, Paul W. 2017. “History and Freedom in Luther’s On the Councils and the Church.” Concordia Journal 43 (1–2): 75–87.

Thompson, Mark. 2004. A Sure Ground on Which to Stand. Carlisle; Paternoster.

Vanhoozer, Kevin J. 2016. Biblical Authority after Babel. Brazos.

Wood, A. Skevington. 1969. Captive to the Word. Paternoster.

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