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Scripture Alone: The Formal Cause of the Reformation

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
March 16, 2023 12:01 am

Scripture Alone: The Formal Cause of the Reformation

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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March 16, 2023 12:01 am

The Word of God has absolute authority because only God Himself can bind our consciences absolutely. Today, R.C. Sproul articulates the formal principle of the Protestant Reformation, sola Scriptura.

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We can learn from the councils, we can learn from the tradition, but they can't bind the conscience, and nor can they create new doctrine that's not found in sacred Scripture. So that a peasant, armed with one verse of Scripture, has more authority than a pope or a church council who does not have Scripture to back up what they're saying. In the book of Acts, we're told that the Bereans were more noble than others. Why?

Because they examine the Scriptures to see if what they were being taught was accurate. Hi, I'm Nathan W. Bingham, and thank you for joining us for Renewing Your Mind. This week, Dr. R.C. Sproul has been taking us through five essential Gospel truths that we must not compromise on if we are going to be faithful to the historic Christian faith. Well, today R.C. Sproul is going to help us understand where do we turn if we want to know what God has said, and the answer is the same as it was for the Bereans in Acts as it was for Martin Luther in the sixteenth century.

Here's Dr. Sproul. We're going to continue our study now on the solas of the Reformation. We've already looked at sola fide, sola gratia, and solus Christus.

And so today we're going to begin with the sola called sola scriptura. And if you will recall when we started this, we looked at the doctrine of justification by faith alone, and I mentioned then that church historians often distinguish between the material cause of the Reformation and the formal cause of the Reformation, the material cause being that which was front and center. It was the basic stuff or matter about which the dispute was carried on.

But underlying that surface issue was another very serious matter, which had to do with the question of authority. And so the principle of sola scriptura became the formal principle of the Reformation, and it means in simple terms that the final authority by which the conscience of the Christian is bound is Scripture and Scripture alone. Let me just read a statement from the 17th century Protestant confessional to Westminster Confession of Faith, which reads as follows, the supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined and all decrees of counsels, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men and private spirits are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.

There we find in the Westminster Confession a succinct affirmation of this principle of sola scriptura. Well, let me just in this session give a brief historical overview of how this doctrine of sola scriptura emerged and developed in the early days of the Protestant Reformation. It was in 1517 that Luther posted his 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg, and we recall that what he was asking for was a technical theological discussion among the faculty members of the school there at Wittenberg regarding issues that arose in conjunction with the sale of indulgences. And unbeknownst to Luther and without his permission, students translated the theses from Latin into German, took advantage of the recent invention of the printing press, duplicated copies of the theses, and we are told that within two weeks these theses appeared in every village and hamlet in the nation of Germany. And so what Luther never intended, of course, raced now out of control. Again, when he posted the theses, the church door at Wittenberg was the standard bulletin board, and when he was asking for a discussion, he wanted to hear the opinions of the other scholars of the faculties.

And again, the fact that they were written in Latin demonstrates that he was looking for an academic discussion internally and wasn't trying to start some kind of rebellious protest movement or any of that sort. Well, as a direct result of the theses, this firestorm emerged in the sixteenth century. The principal opponent of Luther at this time was the legate from Rome, Tetzel, who was the one who was in charge of selling these indulgences around the countryside, and he was infuriated by Luther's theses, and he appealed to the bishops in Germany and also to the pope in Rome to stop Luther's intervention and intrusion into this whole task of raising funds for St. Peter.

And so here's where one of these things that nobody intended for it to be a major dispute suddenly took off with unbridled fury. Now, in the Ninety-Five Theses, Luther not only raised questions about the sale of indulgences, but he raised questions about the whole theological system that supported the sale of indulgence, not the least of which was a question about the treasury of merit, which was the fount from which indulgences were drawn. Again, the review for you when we looked at justification, the treasury of merit is that treasury that possesses all of the all of the merits acquired by Christ and by the holy family and by the saints of the church. There are some saints historically whose lives were so virtuous and so righteous that they achieved works of superarrogation.

Which works of superarrogation are defined as works above and beyond the call of duty, and people like St. Francis, for example, and St. Thomas had more merit in their column, as it were, in their lives than was necessary for them to enter into heaven. So, any excess merit was then deposited into the treasury, which the church could then apply to those in need who were deficient in merit, who were in purgatory. And the pope could then use the power of the keys to transfer merits from the treasury of merit into those who were needy. You know, I talked about this in another context on this program, and I received a letter from a Roman Catholic who was irate that I had misrepresented the Roman Catholic Church because he said that the Roman Catholic Church doesn't use indulgences anymore, and they no longer hold to this concept of the treasury of merit. But, of course, he hasn't been to Rome, and he hasn't been to the Lateran Church where indulgences are still dispensed for people who make pilgrimage to the Lateran Church and go up the sacred stairs there. I was there two summers ago and watched the pilgrims as they sought to gain their indulgences, and a year or so ago we had the year of Jubilee where all of those pilgrims by the hundreds of thousands came to Rome to receive indulgences from the pope, and the most recent Catholic Catechism explains anew and continues to affirm the doctrine of the treasury of merit. So that has not been repudiated by the Roman Catholic Church contrary to this man's opinion and others.

Now, obviously it's not in the forefront of our nation's awareness as it was in the 16th century, but it's still there. But in any case, to look at the historical issue, Luther raised questions about this treasury of merit and said the real treasure of the church is the gospel of Jesus Christ and the merits of Christ alone. Now that aspect of the theses became also controversial, and there was this hue and cry against Luther and calls coming from officials in the church both in Germany and from Rome for him to repudiate his views.

Now this is as early as 1517, four years before the monumental critical moment of the Diet of Worms that took place in 1521. But in the meantime, Luther's views were being disputed, and Gordon Rupp, who is a Reformation scholar who wrote the book Luther's Progress to the Diet of Worms, says that the only thing that preserved Luther in these early years was his close relationship to Frederick Elector of Saxony, who was Luther's protector. And to be an Elector means that you were one of those persons, I believe there were nine of them or so, who became that group that chose the Holy Roman Emperor.

And so, whoever was an Elector was in an extremely powerful position politically, and the Emperors did not want to offend the Electors, and neither did the Pope. And so, here the one who is the patron of the university at Wittenberg and the church there is Frederick Elector of Saxony, and he's the one who's taking care of his prized teacher, Martin Luther. It's been said that if Luther had done this in any other country without the benefit of an Elector, he would have been quickly silenced and there would have been no Protestant Reformation. In fact, when Rupp muses about this situation in the sixteenth century, he describes the monument that it stands today in the center of the city at Worms where the final Diet was held. And if you've ever been to Worms, you will see this huge, tall statue of Martin Luther in the middle of the city, and then all around him are statues of lesser but important figures of the Reformation, people like Philip Melanchthon and others, but also included in that array of people who are honored is Frederick Elector of Saxony, but his statue, of course, is much, much, much smaller than Luther's, and Rupp indicates that really if you want to know what was going on, then you should have made the statue to Frederick a little bit higher because he was absolutely crucial to what was going on.

Now, I mention that for this reason. At first, the disputes were such that Luther was asking, according to canon law, for an opportunity to defend his views in a theological ecclesiastical disputation. That was common among the theologians and the scholars of the church in that time, that if something that you were teaching became a question, you could ask for a hearing where you would have the opportunity to defend your thesis publicly, and then the church could take it under advisement and declare in the final analysis whether you were in conformity to the teaching of the church or not. And the church in Rome did not want to give Luther that kind of a hearing. And finally, through much of the machinations of Frederick and others, Luther was able to have one of these disputations, not in Rome, but on German soil at Augsburg where Luther agreed to visit Augsburg for the hopes of having a disputation against the most learned and able theologian of the whole Roman Catholic Church of the sixteenth century, whose name was Cardinal Cajetan.

And so this meeting took place. However, when Luther got there, he was absolutely alone. None of his friends were able to be with him at the time, and the scuttlebutt in the air was that he was going to be arrested and taken off and executed and that he was powerless against the prince of the church at this point.

And somebody said, what if Frederick doesn't protect you? Where will you go? And Luther's response was, sub coelae, under the sky, under heaven.

I'll become a wilderness wanderer and seek to be faithful to God. Well, as it turned out, he was given a safe conduct by the cardinal, but he was not allowed to enter into a defense of his positions. The cardinal said, you are here to answer my questions, and I will not be satisfied until you say, revoco.

I recant. And Luther was upset by that because he wanted to be able to debate the thing. And so the issue initially focused on this point because Cajetan quoted from a fourteenth century papal encyclical in which he said that the church had declared that there was such a thing as a treasury of merit, that Christ gives a treasury of merit. And Luther somewhat foolishly interrupted Cajetan and informed him that he had misquoted the encyclical because the encyclical said that Christ had acquired a treasure for the church. And this did not do much to calm things down in this dispute. It infuriated Cajetan because even though Luther was technically correct in his recitation of what that papal encyclical had said, the essence of it was correctly communicated by Cajetan, and Luther was here involved in theological quibbling.

There's no question about that. But what was significant about this was that Cajetan maneuvered Luther to such a point as to demonstrate that Luther had questions about the final authority of papal encyclicals. He was challenging the supreme authority of the pope. Now remember that papal infallibility was not defined by Rome until the nineteenth century, until as late as 1870 at Vatican Council I under Pius IX.

But even though the church defined papal infallibility in the nineteenth century, the doctrine reaches way back in church history where it was believed and taught and assumed by faithful Roman Catholics. And so as early as the sixteenth century for a priest or a monk to deny the infallibility of the pope was serious, serious business. But in denying papal infallibility with respect to the treasury, Luther is here caught up in a big dispute about authority because Cajetan was citing a papal encyclical to correct Luther's view of the treasury of merits, and in the final analysis Luther had to admit that it didn't matter to him what the papal encyclical had said.

The treasury of merit concept is still in his judgment unbiblical and not a part of the Christian faith. Well, that issue then spilled over into a debate that came – this debate, by the way, with Cajetan took place in 1518, and then in 1519 there was a second dispute, which took place at Leipzig in Germany, and this time Luther was debating with John Eck, who was the leading Germany, who incidentally had been friends with Luther as late as 1517 but had turned against Luther and was said that this man had a prodigious memory, that he was extremely gifted in public debate and disputation, and also he was the one who was the leader of the church, and also he was hot-tempered, heavy drinking, and had a voice like a bullhorn. But anyway, it was an equal match for Luther because now in the discussion with Eck at Leipzig, what happened there was that Eck brought up principles that were condemned at the Council of Constance when the church condemned John Huss, the Czech reformer, and he was burned at the stake. And Eck was able to show that there were parallels and points of agreement between some of the things that Luther was teaching and some of those things that Eck had been teaching. Now, Luther did point out that some of the statements of Eck were condemned at the Council of Constance were direct quotes from Saint Augustine, who was not condemned by the church.

But in any case, Luther now finds himself identified with somebody who had already been executed as a heretic. And in the discussion here, Eck maneuvers Luther where Luther is forced to admit that he questioned not only papal miracles, but also decisions of church councils, which in one sense was even higher in the people's minds than a statement initially by the Roman Catholic Church's Pope. And of course, Luther also did his historical work and said that before Constantine, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Rome was not in charge of the whole church of Christianity and that he did not reign supreme over the other churches. But in any case, these disputes came down to a question and a statement by Luther that I want to use a historical reference to call attention to. While they were debating this business of church councils, Luther said, let me talk German, because they were talking in Latin.

He said, because I'm being misunderstood by the people. I assert that a council has sometimes erred and may sometimes err, nor has a council authority to establish new articles of faith. A council cannot make divine right out of that which by nature is not divine right.

Councils have contradicted each other. For the recent Lateran Council reversed the claims of the councils of Constance and Basil and that a council is above a pope. A simple layman armed with Scripture, listen to what he says, simple layman armed with Scripture is to be believed above a pope or a council without it. As for the pope's decreedle and indulgences, I say that neither the church nor the pope can establish articles of faith. These must come from Scripture. For the sake of Scripture, we should reject pope and councils. Here you have the seminal assumptions of the principle of sola scriptura. Luther said we can learn from the councils, we can learn from the tradition, we can learn from the pope's encyclicals, but they can't bind the conscience, and nor can they create new doctrine that's not found in sacred Scripture. So that a peasant armed with one verse of Scripture has more authority than a pope or a church council who does not have Scripture to back up what they're saying.

Now this, of course, reached its climax in 1521 at the supreme diet of warmth that was called by Charles V, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and Charles presided over this diet that was held in the city of Worms, or Worms, where Luther was summoned, again with a safe conduct, to the diet where he was standing before the emperor and the legates from Rome, all the princes of the church. His books were placed on a table, and he was called upon once more to say, revoko, I recant. And Luther, when he was called upon to recant, gave his famous response there, unless I am convinced by sacred Scripture or by evident reason, I cannot recant because my conscience is held captive by the Word of God, and to act against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. God help me.

I can do no other. Luther was saying here, which became the principle of sola scripturum, only God can bind the conscience absolutely. It doesn't mean that churches don't have synods and councils and make decisions, or in my own church we have a confession of faith that we are called to subscribe, but those are only binding upon us insofar as they accurately represent the truth of Scripture. They are seen as summaries of what the Bible says, and so our creeds are not what binds our consciences.

Rather, it is the Word of God and the Word of God alone. Now, we'll see how that plays out theologically a little later in the 16th century in our next session together. Well, may Martin Luther be an example to us all.

That was R.C. Sproul bringing church history alive, helping us see how important it is for Christians today to stand upon the Word of God and not to compromise. This is such an important topic for us to understand, and Dr. Sproul goes into greater depths in the series God Alone. There's actually 10 messages in the complete series, and we're pleased to make that available to you today for a donation of any amount. You can give your gift today at, or by calling us at 800-435-4343.

The package that we'll send you is 10 messages on three DVDs, and we'll give you digital access as well, so you can stream it on the go. So give your donation today at The apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians says, whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. So what is the glory of God? How do we glorify God? Tomorrow R.C. Sproul is going to answer those very questions here on Renewing Your Mind.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-03-16 03:31:04 / 2023-03-16 03:39:23 / 8

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