Matthew Barrett has written an article describing what “Sola Scriptura” is and what it is not. This is an article that I would highly recommend.
‘Sola Scriptura’ Radicalized and Abandoned
Reformation Day reminds us of Luther’s monumental decision to post his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. Luther’s theses would strike into motion an irreversible set of confrontations with Rome, eventually leading to the genesis of Protestantism.
While these 95 theses are important, Luther’s stance on the authority of Scripture over against Rome was not expressed in all of its maturity in 1517. The formal principle of the Reformation would become more and more conspicuous with every passing debate between these two nemeses.
In 1519 at the Leipzig debate with the Catholic debater Johann Eck, whom Luther called “that little glory-hungry beast,” Eck brought the real issue to the table: who had final authority, God’s Word or the pope? For Eck, Scripture received its authority from the pope. Luther strongly disagreed, arguing instead that Scripture has authority over popes, church fathers, and church councils, all of which have erred.
Luther was quickly classified with the forerunning heretics, John Wycliffe and Jan Hus. At first Luther denied such an association, but during a break in his debate Luther realized that Hus had taught exactly what he believed. Eck returned to Rome and reported his findings to the pope, and Luther left the debate only to become further convinced that Scripture, not the pope, is the sole and final infallible authority.
Luther’s sola scriptura principle would be most famously articulated in 1521 at Worms. On April 17, 1521, Luther was told he must recant. After thinking it through for a day, Luther returned and declared:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they often err and contradict themselves, I am bound to the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand. May God help me. Amen.
Luther’s speech is firm and straightforward: Scripture is the norma normans (determining norm), rather than the norma normata (determined norm). As he would explain in future writings, Scripture has priority over the church, for the church is the baby born out of the womb of Scripture, not vice versa. “For who begets his own parent? Who first brings forth his own maker” (LW 36:107; WA 6:561)? Luther rejected the two-source theory that viewed oral tradition as a second, extrabiblical, and infallible source of divine revelation passed down from the apostles to the magisterium. Instead, he argued that Scripture alone is our infallible source of divine revelation.