Beware “Bible Onlyism”: A Case for the Value of Other Books

According to historic Christianity, the Bible is the inspired and inerrant Word of God. The apostle Paul declares: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17).

The branch of Christendom known as Protestantism goes further, affirming Scripture as the ultimate authority as opposed to conjoining the Bible with church tradition as does Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Thus, the watchword of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century became sola Scriptura, a Latin phrase meaning Scripture is the absolute standard of doctrine and the final court of appeals in all matters of faith and practice for the church and the individual Christian.1 

However, an unfortunate and fairly common misunderstanding of sola Scriptura (literally “Scripture alone”) is that the Bible’s inspiration and authority which is directly supervised by the Holy Spirit serves to effectively devalue the theological writings of uninspired authors. This sentiment, entertained especially among some evangelical laymen, in practice becomes a type of “Bible onlyism.” It’s a position that says, “I only read or consider inspired theological authors. I don’t care what uninspired theologians wrote in creeds, confessions, or even great books of literature.”

I’m not aware of any particular evangelical scholar or denomination that officially teaches this view as doctrine, but I encounter “Bible onlyism” fairly frequently among evangelical Christians who come from noncreedal, nonconfessional, nonliturgical church backgrounds (for example, contemporary non-denominational churches).

Though no doubt well-intentioned, this “Bible onlyism” is a misunderstanding of and a departure from the Reformation view that Scripture, as God’s unique inspired Word, is the final court of appeals in all matters of faith and practice. Secondary or derived sources in theology can have great value, and they can even help us better understand Scripture itself.

Two Examples of “Bible Onlyism”
In one social media exchange, a person told me he would never recite historic Christian creeds such as the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed because these were words of mere men and not the words of inspired Scripture. I informed the man that biblical scholars believe there were a number of creeds, both Jewish and Christian, that were first recited by God’s people in worship but then later included in the Bible (see Deuteronomy 6:4Romans 10:91 Corinthians 15:3–8, among others). 

I also explained that these two creeds were considered by historic Christendom to faithfully convey the basic message of the Bible. In fact, Christian historian Mark Noll has written that “the ancient creeds became authoritative in the early centuries because they were thoroughly, profoundly, comprehensively, and passionately rooted in Scripture.”2 If understood this way, the ecumenical creeds of Christendom do a great job of summarizing the essential teaching of Scripture even though they are not inspired and carry only derivative authority.

In another theological exchange online, a person told me that he would not read the list of great theological books that I had recommended (Augustine’s Confessions, Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, John Calvin’s The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Blaise Pascal’s Pensées, etc.) because these books were uninspired texts that offered mere theological opinion. I assured the man that these great Christian authors truly revered and frequently quoted Scripture, and had humbly offered their reasoned understanding of biblical truth. In other words, some of these works helped formulate and shape Christian orthodoxy by skillfully drawing out the doctrinal meaning of Scripture.

The Greatest of the Great Books
I think in a sense all three major branches of historic Christendom (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant) would affirm that sacred Scripture has no peer.3 Yet tradition as a secondary norm in theology carries great value in understanding and applying biblical texts. So, the good news is that you can view Scripture as the greatest (uniquely inspired and inerrant) of the great books but still read and benefit from other books, theological and otherwise. After all, all truth is God’s truth whether it comes from the literal book of Scripture (the Bible) or the figurative book of nature (the world); that is, truth discovered and revealed in various academic and scientific disciplines.In fact, many of these great books were influenced by Scripture, and some may even increase a person’s understanding of the Bible and the Christian worldview overall.

So, I invite you to become a lifelong student of the Bible, but I also encourage you to consider reading some of history’s great Christian creeds and books. I think you’ll find that they will, in one way or another, point you back to God’s unique and inspired written Word.

Resources

Reflections: Your Turn

As a Christian, have you ever thought your commitment to Scripture prohibited you from reading great classic books? How so?

Endnotes

  1. For a detailed discussion of the meaning of the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura, see Kenneth Richard Samples, “God’s Written Word—Scripture,” chap. 7 in A World of Difference (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007).
  2. Mark A. Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 2.
  3. Scripture has no peer in the sense that church tradition is interpretive rather than inspirationally creative.
  4. For a discussion of the “two books” principle within Christian theology, see Kenneth Richard Samples, Christianity Cross-Examined (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2021), 49–52.

  One thought on “Beware “Bible Onlyism”: A Case for the Value of Other Books

  1. Bob Hendricks
    August 17, 2021 at 6:49 pm

    Following this “Bible-onlyism” to its logical conclusion, we must never discuss scripture between one another, only quote it verbatim. And there can be no place for sermons in the assembly either, only scripture reading.

    • August 17, 2021 at 7:09 pm

      Bob:

      The people I have interacted with who hold this view probably don’t see the logical extension of their perspective.

      Again most of the folks I have discussed this with are layman and from non-liturgical churches.

      Ken Samples

  2. Nate Brantly
    September 2, 2021 at 6:44 pm

    Thank you for this article, Ken. What would you estimate is the prevalence of this “Bible Onlyism” view? What is its origin?

    • September 2, 2021 at 6:49 pm

      Hello, Nate.

      I think Bible Onlyism is unfortunately rather common among evangelical laity.

      I think it is a misunderstanding of the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura.

      Ken Samples

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