One of the items that often comes to the fore in any discussion on the authority of Scripture alone (sola scriptura) is the relationship between the Bible and preaching. If the Bible alone is authoritative, what relationship does it have with the traditions of the Church, preaching from the pulpit, or the confessional documents to which we subscribe? The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions are both notable in that they have an authoritative place for tradition as an inspired reception and development of the teachings of Scripture. Respectively, they take the office of the pope and the collected body of the Church’s traditions as the two ways in which the Holy Spirit continues to lead and guide the Church authoritatively.
The Reformation’s solas, however, champion a return to Scripture alone as the true source and sole norm of all Christian doctrine. As the Formula of Concord says, we receive “the Prophetic and Apostolic Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the pure, clear, fountain of Israel, which is the only true standard by which all teachers and doctrines are to be judged” (FC SD SRN 1). So how does this connect with preaching? Luther and his second generation of students who wrote the Formula of Concord would rightly point out that all preaching is to be judged solely according to the Scriptures. All preaching is the for-you (pro te) application of what Scripture already teaches. Preaching is simply the verbal bestowal of what Scripture has already given us in written form––this is why preaching is on the biblical text, not on extra-canonical material.
Preaching is simply the verbal bestowal of what Scripture has already given us in written form.
Yet the reformers would also add that God is always working through tangible means. Holy Scripture is one of those means, and indeed takes pride of place since it is an inspired collection of documents that has unconditional authority to convey and judge doctrine. This is not something that can be said for the traditions of the Church––its liturgy, the teaching office of the ministry, or even the ecumenical councils. As Luther says, councils, even ecumenical ones, can err. This is because they are the gathering of sinners redeemed by Christ to discern scriptural truth, but they are not infallible. Councils are not a source of divine revelation, but can only recognize and confess what God has authoritatively stated in His word.
Likewise, Reformation Christians will often speak of subscribing to confessional documents. Reformed Christians hold to the Three Forms of Unity or the Westminster Standards, and Lutherans hold to the Book of Concord. Such subscription is often understood to be unconditional: we subscribe to the Lutheran Confessions, for example, because (quia) they accurately confess what the Bible teaches, not merely insofar as (quatenus) they teach Scripture. Lutherans, in particular, have noted that subscription only extends to the doctrinal contents of the Confessions, not to the biblical citations or other incidental matters the writers happen to treat. Even so, those who subscribe to the Confessions can refer to them as secondary norms of teaching and doctrine, but only because they are taken as conforming to what Scripture authoritatively teaches. The Confessions and other venerable traditions of the Church can only be taken as previously “normed norms.”
Even so, preaching retains a singular place in the Reformation tradition. Luther remarked that the Scriptures were only written down because of human frailty and sin. Ideally, the apostles would have simply passed on their proclamation in purely oral form since Luther holds that humans are creatures defined most crucially by their capacity for language. The original creation itself came about because of the event of God’s own speech, making the world out of nothing by merely announcing it. God’s linguistic address to the creature and through the creature was the way humans possess the divine image. Redemption also comes about through speaking: through the words of promise declared, in accordance with Scripture’s own language; the waters of Baptism, which are applied with the name of the Holy Trinity; and the words of Christ at the Lord’s Supper, which accompany the bread and wine, received for the forgiveness of sins.
Redemption also comes about through speaking.
The key to understanding the connection between preaching and the sacraments with sola scriptura is that God uses tangible means to communicate with us. He always does so in such a way that we remain passive recipients of His gifts. The Scriptures never become the property of a teaching office in the Church or an ecclesiastical magisterium, and the sacraments are not the possession of the priest or pastor who dispenses them either. Clergy are simply vessels set apart by God for the distribution of His mercy in Christ. Likewise, preaching is an event that remains external to us, even with regard to the preacher. God’s words of promise enter our ears and then take possession of our hearts. It’s not the other way around. God’s speech to us in word and sacrament is unavoidably tangible, and that’s the comfort in it. God’s promises are sure and certain because they are given in particular and graspable ways. But they never become our own. They’re always addressed to us from the outside.
Sola scriptura is, therefore, one of the Reformation’s most important teachings. It preserves the external, for-you character of the Gospel. Just like grace alone (sola gratia), faith alone (sola fide), and Christ alone (solus Christus) keep us from taking wrongful possession of the forgiveness of sins and the new obedience which follows, so also sola scriptura keeps us from making preaching and the traditions of the Church something we can take credit for. The Church as the Body of Christ is not a mechanism of divine revelation, but the sinful assembly (ecclesia peccatrix) which gathers around the crucified and risen one who is proclaimed in words, water, bread, and wine. Scripture alone means that God is the one who reveals Himself totally apart from us and our tendency to take the credit for it. Scripture alone means that the Church must always engage in the study of God’s word to test our teaching and preaching (2 Tim. 3:16–17). God will surely correct us where we are in error and strengthen us in our confession of the truth. He has promised to preserve the Church by means of His word, written and preached in its purity.