Luther’s spiritual breakthrough from the darkness of legalism to the glory of the gospel came because he sought spiritual light in the Scriptures. The doctrine of Scripture Alone was implicit in his search for assurance. But as we trace the development of Luther’s thought, we see how his conviction of Scripture Alone enabled him to depart from the early church fathers when they didn’t agree with Scripture. In Luther’s life, then, we see a vivid illustration of what he meant by the expression “Scripture Alone.” Take Luther’s engagement with Augustine over the doctrine of justification, for example.
Augustine’s doctrine of justification was muddled by his dependence on the Greek concept of divinization (the notion that man can partake in the essence of God) and the related notion that sin is primarily a sickness that needs healing; a healing that comes by way of infused grace. For Augustine, justification was a process occurring over one’s life rather than a point-in-time declaration upon initial faith in Christ. Timothy George explains,
For Augustine…the infusion of grace through the sacramental-penitential system of the church continued the process of justification begun in baptism. In this life, the Christian is always a viator, a wayfarer, who stands suspended between God’s grace, revealed in Christ and mediated through the sacraments, and God’s judgment hanging over one’s head like an eschatological Damocle’s sword ever calling into question one’s present spiritual condition. (Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, 65).
One can see Augustine’s influence on Luther as the Reformer developed his theology in the years leading up to and just after the nailing of his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church at the University of Wittenberg. But as he gave himself to Scripture, Luther was able to discern where Augustine went astray and resign his dependence upon him at the very point where Augustine had misunderstood the Bible’s teaching. Later in his life Luther would write,
Augustine got nearer to the meaning of Paul than all the Schoolmen, but he did not reach Paul. In the beginning I devoured Augustine, but when the door of Paul swung open, and I knew what justification by faith really was, then it was out with him. (George, 69)
Luther (as well as Zwingli and Calvin) didn’t view the teaching of men or the tradition of the church as worthless in and of themselves. They each appealed to the church fathers to argue that their theological positions were not new. Nevertheless, because these men had come to the conviction of Scripture Alone, they were able to read the teachers of the past with discernment and, thus, with profit. Whenever human teachers departed from the Scripture, the Reformers were free to set them aside at that point. To set Augustine aside at one point, however, does not mean that Luther set Augustine aside on all points. But it was Scripture that enabled Luther to navigate safely through the writings of the fathers and develop a biblical doctrine of justification.
This is what we mean by Scripture Alone. We do not reject tradition or the writings of others out of hand; but we test that tradition and those writings against Scripture, yielding to the latter when it conflicts with the former. Indeed, it is the doctrine of Scripture Alone that enables us to truly profit from other writings. Without a sure standard, we have no way of testing what we read and hear, and we will be ever tossed to and fro by every wind and wave of doctrine (Eph 4:14). In other words, without Scripture Alone, we can never grow in real knowledge (Prov 1:7; 2:1-5; 14:6-7). For the sake of our growth in grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:16), let us embrace afresh the doctrine of Scripture Alone.