Luther on sola scriptura


Quick question about Luther… Do we have any quotes from him that describe why he decided that scripture holds authority over the Church? Obviously corrupt clergy played a part, but what were his theological reasons?



A search of the English translation of Luther’s Works finds no use of term sola scriptura or its English equivalent “scripture alone.”

However, Luther’s final statement at the Diet of Worms, in answer to the demand that he recant the writings that were held to be heretical by the Church, included the following:

Luther then replied: Your Imperial Majesty and Your Lordships demand a simple answer. Here it is, plain and unvarnished. Unless I am convicted [convinced] of error by the testimony of Scripture or (since I put no trust in the unsupported authority of Pope or councils, since it is plain that they have often erred and often contradicted themselves) by manifest reasoning, I stand convicted [convinced] by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God’s word, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us.

This shows that he considered Holy Scripture to be the ultimate authority, trumping even the Pope or the councils. This, of course, ran headlong into the Church’s teaching that the Pope and the councils were the ultimate authorities in the interpretation of Holy Scripture.


Thanks for the response. What I’m curious about is how he came to that conclusion.


He believed that Scripture holds authority over the Church because this is what the Church taught him (and still teaches–see Dei Verbum 2.10). More specifically, he claimed that his views on the supreme authority of Scripture were taught by his theology professor at Erfurt (Trutvetter, I think). I believe that Catholics do themselves a serious disservice when they treat “sola scriptura” as something the Reformers just came up with (as sola fide was, in many ways). What the Reformers were doing was taking scholastic ideas about Scripture as the ultimate authority (for scholastics authority was primarily vested in texts–quite contrary to many folks on this board who define “authority” in such a way that a text can’t have authority!), and setting them over against the authority of the Church (whereas medieval scholastics assumed that the tradition of the Church was an authoritative guide to the right interpretation of Scripture). This ran smack into a more aggressive view of the authority of the Church held by papal canon lawyers. In my opinion this latter view was destructive and if possible even less traditional than the Reformers’ view, and the clash between these two extremes obscured the truly orthodox view for centuries. When you object to the idea that Scripture has authority over the Church, you are setting yourself against most of pre-Reformation Christianity.




Thanks Edwin. It’s such a complicated issue. Could it be summed up this way? The Church (both east and west) before the reformation treated itself as the supreme authority to spread Christ’s message, but had no power to contradict scripture. Scripture itself was also authoritative, as the Word of God, but could not contradict the Church’s teachings. Much like today, the Church saw scripture and tradition as one in the same.

Luther then saw what he believed to be the Church teaching contrary to scripture so he decided that scripture was all Christians had left for an “untainted” authority. Therefore Christ’s purest teaching could come only from scripture and the Church has no teaching authority.

But then that still doesn’t completely seem right to me, because I don’t think Luther believed that Church doctrine was developed by people just picking up the Bible and reading it. He surely would have understood that the Bible was composed over hundreds of years, preserved and canonized by the Church. Even if the Church went astray, God would have used it to bring us the Bible in the past. So then the Church would have to hold some authority, wouldn’t it?

Sorry, not sure where that was going… I’m not trying to debate Church authority or sola scriptura; I’m still just trying to understand Luther’s frame of mind at the time.


Well, Catholics certainly didn’t come up with that concept.

I think I understand though that there is a distinction between the idea of “Scripture alone” and “Scripture holds authority over the Church”. I think a more accurate view from the Catholic perspective would be “Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition passed down through the Apostolic Fathers holds authority over the Church”. But in no way did the Catholic Church believe or ever teach the concept of “Scripture alone”.


I shouldn’t have used “sola scriptura,” since in fact that wasn’t the term the Reformers used. My point is that the things they said about Scripture (such as that all necessary doctrine should be able to be proven from Scripture) were commonplaces in both the Fathers and the medieval scholastics. Using Scripture as the main source of theology and as a litmus test against which theological arguments were checked was perfectly traditional. The problem was that they set this against tradition, and I agree that this was un-traditional. But from their perspective, since the tradition had taught them that Scripture was the supreme authority, it was self-evident that if tradition went against Scripture something was wrong with it. (And yes, I agree that they were tragically mistaken in their confidence in their own interpretation of Scripture.)

I think I understand though that there is a distinction between the idea of “Scripture alone” and “Scripture holds authority over the Church”. I think a more accurate view from the Catholic perspective would be “Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition passed down through the Apostolic Fathers holds authority over the Church”. .

Agreed. However, in the Middle Ages this hadn’t been thought through as clearly as it has now–for that matter, the Council of Trent left a lot of things ambiguous (what exactly are these unwritten traditions? where do you find them? clearly they aren’t identical with everything said anywhere in the patristic corpus, or anything that has been done for a while. . . ) Yves Congar in the 20th century made huge contributions, which were enshrined in Dei Verbum and now in the Catechism. I think we finally have a basis for some serious dialogue on this subject. Unfortunately, lots of people on both sides just want to repeat the slogans of the confessional era (I would say the Reformation, but sola scriptura is actually a post-Reformation slogan).



Revelation 22:19 “if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.”

Martin Luther proposed to adopt the canon used by rabbinic Judaism. Martin Luther subtracted seven books to better promote his own opinions. Why would you use the Old Testament used by the Jews who rejected Christ, to Septuagint the translations the apostles and other New Testament writers of the early Church did?


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