Theology in the Reformation Era: Matthew Barrett on Scripture

Historical Theology for the Church is a new book from B&H Academic that treats the entire 2000 year history of Christianity with a focus on doctrinal development through major figures, events, and written works. By steering this work “for the church” this textbook shows the development of doctrine in history through congregations as well as provide a resource for contemporary congregations. The following is an excerpt from one of the contributing authors’ chapters.

Matthew Barrett serves associate professor of Christian theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and serves as founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine.


The sixteenth-century Reformation was a soteriological movement at its core. Martin Luther’s (1483–1546) conflict with the Catholic Church over the indulgence system can be traced back to the existential crisis within his own soul. Young Martin, haunted by the sinfulness of sin, could not escape God as judge. Faithful as he was to follow the penance system, Martin found no relief. Grace seemed an impossibility when one’s works, even works driven by faith, fell short. As a result, his conscience was plagued by the incessant insecurity of his salvation, incapable of achieving a peace that guaranteed God would acquit him on the last day.

In time, young Martin’s eyes were also opened to what kind of gratuitous righteousness God extended to the ungodly. It is none other than the perfect righteousness of Christ Jesus, imputed to all who believe. No longer did Martin see Christ as his implacable judge, but as his sacrificial lamb, laying down his own life out of love for the ungodly.

Although soteriology might have been the spark that started the fire, authority was the gas that fueled that spark into a blazing flame. For when Luther was told to recant, he was faced with the ultimate decision: who should be obeyed, Scripture or Rome’s popes and councils?

Historical Overview with Case Studies

This question, Who has final authority to decide this debate? Uprooted Germany and all of Europe as well when the Reformers answered with as much clarity as they did bravado: Scripture alone. Church councils and popes are to be followed and obeyed where they align with Scripture, but where they depart from Scripture, they can no longer be followed. For Scripture alone is inspired by God, and on that basis Scripture alone is impeccable, sufficient, and the church’s final authority. The Reformers had a high place for tradition—many of them were experts in patristic and medieval exegesis and theology. They also held ecclesiastical authority in high esteem, as their own polity revealed in due time. Nevertheless, only Scripture is revelatory, breathed out by God himself. For that reason only, Scripture is the church’s ultimate court of appeal, a court that can sit in judgment of the church itself when necessary

1. Sola Scriptura and the Reformation’s Claim to Catholicity

2. Tradition versus Tradition

3. The Rise of Curialism

4. Captive to the Word: Luther versus Prierias, Cajetan, and Eck

5. A New View of Scripture and Tradition: Radical Reformers

6. The Formal Principle in the Reformed Churches

For the Church

At the start of the Reformation, Rome predicted sola scriptura would result in chaos, in which every man was his own interpreter, and, for that reason, the Reformation would be short-lived. In some cases, this prediction proved true, but sometimes it was not sola scriptura that caused dissemination, but nuda scriptura, due to the latter’s elevation of individual experience, the Spirit, or reason above the Scriptures. Historians have been slow to recognize that sola scriptura was not an Enlightenment call to the autonomous individual, a sixteenth-century precursor to Immanuel Kant or René Descartes. Such a reading falls prey to a Roman Catholic hermeneutic of the Reformation along with its aggressive propaganda, calling the match before it can begin. By contrast, the Reformers submitted themselves to the Scriptures, exercising a hermeneutic of humility. If they were subversive, it was not because they desired to divide the church—an interpretation as misguided as it is common. The Reformation’s subversive nature was due to the gospel Rome found offensive, and to the divinely authorized book that gave birth to that gospel. The Reformers elevated this book above all else, a maneuver Rome said was insubordinate to their infallible magisterium.

Century after century, sola scriptura has been the idée fixe of the Protestant mind, its foundational premise on which all its doctrines are built and established. Where it has not, Protestants have misaligned themselves with their own heritage, their own tradition. Where it has, the gospel can be heard with clarity and authority, with sufficiency and life-giving power.

Historical Theology for the Church
Jason G. Duesing & Nathan A. Finn, editors
B&H Academic, 2021

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