What is Sola Scriptura vs. Tota Scriptura?


What is Sola Scriptura vs. Tota Scriptura?


Tota Scriptura is related to Sola Scriptura. What is Sola Scriptura? It is a Latin phrase meaning Scripture Alone.

Many in the early church - Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement, Barnabus, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory of Nyssa - defended Christianity against heresies using this fundamental principle of truth. Centuries later during the Council of Trent (1545-1563) the Roman Catholic Church declared that the revelation of God was not contained solely in the Scriptures alone. It declared what is referred to as the dual-source view of special revelation; (1) the Holy Scripture, including the Apocrypha (see below) and (2) the traditions of the church; including the "unwritten traditions." In other words, the Scriptures alone were not materially sufficient!

During the Protestant Reformation the principle truth of Sola Scriptura was in essence re-discovered and re-emphasized. When Martin Luther was summoned to the Diet of Worms in 1521 and told to recant his teaching, he responded by saying:

Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason, my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience would be neither right nor safe. God help me. Here I stand, I can do no other. [1]

Sola Scriptura emphasizes that the sufficiency of Scripture is our supreme authority in all spiritual matters. All truth necessary for our salvation and spiritual life is taught either explicitly or implicitly in Scripture (1 Cor 10:11; see WCF 1.6). The Bible declares itself to be God-breathed, inerrant, sufficient, and authoritative (2 Tim 3:15-17). Scripture is the highest and supreme authority on any matter on which it speaks (2 Pet 1:19; cf. Col 2:6-8).

However, the Reformation emphasized another phrase as well; that of Tota Scriptura, meaning "all of scripture" or "scripture in totality." It refers to embracing the whole counsel of God as it is revealed in the entirety of sacred Scripture - all sixty-six books (Acts 20:27; cf. Deut 4:2). As Jesus stated, ""It is written, "'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God'"" (Matt 4:4; cf. 1 Tim 4:13; 2 Tim 4:2).

People have a tendency to emphasize one part of Scripture over another. Some assert that the "Red Letters" in their Bibles alone are more scriptural than the remainder of Scripture. Others make New Testament only arguments, merely treating the Old Testament as a footnote in redemptive history (i.e. consider some New Testament only arguments on baptism which don't include Old Testament exegesis [Exod 19:10-11; 29:4; 30:18-21; Lev 1:9; 15:5-8; Num 19:7-8; 31:23-24; 1 Kings 18:33-35; 2 Kings 5:10-14; 1 Cor 10:1-2; 1 Pet 3:20-22; Heb 6:2; 9:8-10,18-21, etc.] or a discussion of Old Covenant similarities [Acts 2:38-39; Rom 4:11; Col 2:11-12]). However, the entire canon - every word of the sixty-six books of the Bible - is equally relevant. In a matter of speaking, if one maintains that Sola Scriptura is the truth that one cannot add anything to the Word of God, than Tota Scriptura is the truth that one cannot take away anything from the Word of God.

Paul wrote in Acts 20:27 "for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God." D.A. Carson comments saying:

When Paul attests that this is what he proclaimed to the believers in Ephesus, the Ephesian elders to whom he makes this bold assertion know full well that he had managed this remarkable feat in only two and a half years.

In other words, whatever else Paul did, he certainly did not manage to go through every verse of the Old Testament, line by line, with full-bore explanation. He simply did not have time.

What he must mean is that he taught the burden of the whole of God's revelation, the balance of things, leaving nothing out that was of primary importance, never ducking the hard bits, helping believers to grasp the whole counsel of God that they themselves would become better equipped to read their Bibles intelligently, comprehensively. [2]

So, Tota Scriptura is a fundamental truth in Christianity.

Though the Law was fulfilled in Christ, it is still applicable today, though our fulfillment of it has 'changed signficantly due to the coming of Christ and changes in other historical circumstances' (Matt 5:17-20). See "Laws in Effect Today" below. This said, one should not physically or functionally remove anything from the whole counsel of God. It is not to be taken away from, any more than it is to be added to (Deut 4:2). It is not to be merely partially followed (Deut 5:32-33), or some of it placed upon a shelf (Deut 8:11), but rather Christians are to do all that which is right and good in the sight of the Lord (Deut 6:18). So, God's whole counsel is not to be neglected (Deut 8:3), trivialized (Deut 32:47), or denied (Deut 27:26). We are to hearken to the whole of God's counsel (Deut 4:1); too observe it (Deut 12:32), keep It (Deut 4:6), fear it (Deut. 5:29), store up in our hearts (Deut 11:18), and teach it all to our families and future generations (Deut 6:7-9).

May we as followers of "the Way" (Acts 24:14; cf. 9:1-2; John 14:6) live according to Sola Scriptura and Tota Scriptura; only Scripture and all of Scripture.


[1] For a history of Luther's stand for truth, please read, Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Mentor Books, 1955.
[2] Carson, D.A. "Challenges for the Twenty-first-century Pulpit," in Preach the Word: Essays on Expository Preaching: In Honor of R. Kent Hughes, ed. Leland Ryken and Todd Wilson [Crossway, 2007], pp. 177-178.

Related Topics:

Apocrypha Accounts?
Why Obey God's Law?
Laws in Effect Today

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).