Sola Scriptura versus Sola Experientia

Written by: Kelly R. Randolph

I’ve been reading about Luther lately in preparation for some biographical sketches I’m presenting on Sunday evenings. One of the things that highlights Luther’s deep commitment to Scripture was his disagreement with Thomas Muntzer. Muntzer believed in a direct experience of revelation from the Spirit apart from the written Word. Muntzer commented, “The man who has not received the living witness of God really knows nothing about God though he may have swallowed 100,000 Bibles.” He also said in a letter to Phillip Melancthon, “Man does not live by bread alone but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God; note that it proceeds from the mouth of God and not from books”

In response to this kind of thinking, Luther stated that he wouldn’t believe Muntzer “if he swallowed the Holy Ghost feathers and all.” Luther had no tolerance for a theology of revelation that minimized Scripture. In 1545 Luther said, “Let the man who would hear God speak read Holy Scripture.” Roland Bainton writes in Here I Stand,

The Scriptures assumed for Luther an overwhelming importance, not primarily as a source book for antipapal polemic, but as the one ground of certainty. He had rejected the authority of popes and councils and could not make a beginning from within as did the prophets of the inward word. The core of his quarrel with them was that in moments of despondency he could find nothing within but utter blackness. He was completely lost unless he could find something without on which to lay hold. And this he found in the Scriptures.

The formal principle of the Reformation was sola scriptura. Contemporary evangelicals would do well to remember this heritage. It is the objective word of Scripture which defines doctrine and guides behavior. It is the objective word of Scripture which protects the body of Christ from drifting into error. Examples abound in recent history of the doctrinal deviance and moral scandals of groups which have replaced the sure word of Scripture with experience. Can anyone forget the Todd Bentley episode in Florida?

It is also the Word of God which equips the church for every good work (2 Timothy 3:15-17). It is the instrument, by the power of the Spirit, which both saves and sanctifies the people of God. Without the Word, the life of the church becomes a free-for-all. The church becomes vulnerable to the latest fads or the next person who “has a word from the Lord.” Scripture nourishes, guides, reproves, inspires, and instructs the people of God. From Luther’s perspective, “The Word of God is the greatest, most necessary, and most important thing in Christendom.”

Amen, Brother Martin, Amen.

Watch also: What is sola experiencia and why is it so dangerous? Watch this 2-minute answer by Rosaria Butterfield.