By: Rick Serina
Lutherans can trace the principle of Sola Scriptura back to a fateful debate in the summer of 1519 between Martin Luther and the Ingolstadt theologian, John Eck (as well as Luther’s colleague at Wittenberg, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt). The controversy over the Ninety-Five Theses had decreased considerably due to larger political concerns in the Holy Roman Empire, chiefly the selection of a new emperor. Luther had stopped publishing on the more hotly-contested aspects of his theology, but when he stepped to the podium on July 4, 1519, to debate Eck on the questions of indulgences, penance, purgatory, and the papacy, a new fissure in the Reformation opened: the priority of Scripture over all other sources of authority, whether that was pope, council, canon law, medieval doctor, or early church father.
The debate over the papacy at Leipzig had to do with whether the bishop of Rome had primacy over the other Christian bishops by human right (de iure humano) or divine right (de iure divino), that is, by practical convention or by Scriptural mandate. Luther argued that it was by human right, and thus as a human the pope had no prerogative to condemn those who denied papal authority, like the Greek Church or the Bohemian Church associated with the fifteenth-century reformer Jan Hus of Prague. Hus had been condemned and executed at the Council of Constance in 1415, and Luther argued that this was a mistake because Hus said many things that were “most Christian and evangelical.” John Eck accused Luther of opposing the authority of councils, which Luther had no intention of doing. Luther nonetheless defended his position by saying that councils, like popes, were human authorities and therefore could err. A council was merely a “creature of the Word” and was subject to Scripture. Only Scripture itself is infallible.
Luther’s claim left a mark. John Eck called him “a heathen and a publican” who did not deserve to continue the debate. Duke George of Saxony, the patron of the Leipzig Debate, cried out, “the pest [“the plague”] take the man!” After reports of the debate circulated, many new advocates came to Luther’s side, while others withdrew their support. Philipp Melanchthon defended Luther’s position after Leipzig and formulated the first explicit thesis regarding Sola Scriptura in September 1519. The case against Luther resumed in Rome and, spearhead by none other than Eck himself, led to the bull (Exsurge Domine) declaring Luther a heretic.
What made Luther’s stand at Leipzig so divisive? Many had questioned popes, councils, canon law, medieval doctors, and early church fathers before him. But Luther’s statement that Scripture alone is infallible and thus the only proper judge of, and authority for, doctrine became a turning point in the Reformation that separated Protestants from Roman Catholics, and has continued to challenge Lutherans as we seek to make decisions about doctrine and practice. Sixty years after Leipzig, the Formula of Concord followed Luther in clearly stipulating that Scripture is the sole source and norm (the norma normans, or “norm that norms”) of all doctrine. But it has also raised as many questions as it has given answers.
For instance, what does it imply if the confessions—a source of fallible human authority—declare that Scripture is authoritative? Why would the sixteenth-century Lutherans need to formulate something so self-evident to us? If Scripture is the sole infallible authority, does that mean we are permitted to disagree with or ignore the confessions? Does the authority of Scripture mean all other human authorities (say synodical resolutions, traditional teachings of the Missouri Synod, the creeds and confession of the church) are subject to our interpretation of Scripture? Or is it more accurate to say that Sola Scriptura—in the ablative, mind you, not the nominative—means we don’t simply believe in Scripture alone, but rather judge doctrine by Scripture? Might it even be better to describe Scriptural authority as Scriptura Prima—that is, Scripture “first”—than Scripture alone? These are the questions opened up by the Leipzig Debate, these are the questions Lutherans have been wrestling with for five centuries now, and these are the questions we must face as we charitably discuss and debate the faith within our corner of the Lutheran world.