Updated: Jun 1
By Luke Lancaster
"Sola Scriptura" is the Latin way of saying, "Scripture alone." It was one of the rallying cries of the Reformation in the 1500's, where the Protestants wanted to distance themselves from the Catholic doctrines of Tradition and Papacy. They wanted to have their own personal interpretation of Scripture to be over and above all else. Scripture - therefore - was the only infallible authority. They did not need to consult the Pope, the bishops, the Church Councils, or the great Tradition of the Church over every matter of doctrine, for those things were fallible. God revealed Himself to mankind through a book, and that was all that was necessary.
If I wanted to open up my own church today, all I would need is a Bible. If my reading of Scripture said that my service should be on Saturdays, rather than Sundays, then I could do that (Seventh Day Adventists teach this). If my reading of Scripture said that baptism should only be celebrated by my church and that all other baptisms were invalid, then I could teach that (Church of Christ teaches this). Scripture was, according to the Reformers, a formally sufficient resource for finding doctrine. It was a self-interpreting book. Unfortunately, most Christians in the United States hold to this view of Sola Scriptura.
This teaching of Sola Scriptura was condemned by the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent in the 1500's. The Council said,
"our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, first promulgated with His own mouth, and then commanded to be preached by His Apostles to every creature, as the fountain of all, both saving truth, and moral discipline; and seeing clearly that this truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand" (Session 4).
Both Scripture (the Written Word of God) and Tradition (the Unwritten Word of God) were affirmed by the Catholic bishops. Tradition guides our interpretation of Scripture, for Scripture is not a self-interpreting book. The doctrines handed down verbally from the mouths of the apostles (such as the Eucharist or Mary's perpetual virginity) gives us the background and framework for interpreting the Biblical text. Without Tradition, every doctrine can be rejected or changed, and there will be no visible unity of teaching in the Church.