‘At the Reformation the Church of England became protestant in order to become more truly and perfectly Catholic.’ These words of William van Mildert, Bishop of Durham 1826–36, are a true judgement of the English Reformation, and indeed of the entire Protestant Reformation. How well each of the classical Protestant churches succeeded is another question, but this was the end for them all: to become ‘more truly and perfectly Catholic’. This end, of being reformed to greater catholicity, contrasts with both the Anabaptist churches and the Roman. The Anabaptists would have no part with the historic Catholic church at all, since they wished to create the Church anew; the Romanists, for their part, thought their church perfectly catholic already, needing more zeal and better regulations but not a reformation of doctrine and political structure.
The Protestants held up, as the supreme standard of judgement, holy Scripture, the word of God, the most catholic thing of all. That this supreme standard might not in practice be subordinated or at least bound to the mind and will of a sinner, even the Bishop of Rome, they rejected the authority of any to give an infallible interpretation. Any interpretations of holy Scripture would need to be defensible according to the natural laws of hermeneutics, and therefore nothing could be imposed by human fiat as needing to be believed. All necessary dogmata, then, could be proved by most certain warrants of holy Scripture; all other doctrine was, depending how well it comported with what was certain in the Scriptures, either defensible private opinion or vain superstition. Sola Scriptura, then, was the formal principle of the Protestant Reformation, expressed by the judicious Richard Hooker with nuance in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (5.8.2):
Be it in matter of the one kind [doctrine] or of the other [comeliness, order and decency], what Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the Church succeedeth. That which the Church by her ecclesiastical authority shall probably think and define to be true or good, must in congruity of reason overrule all other inferior judgments whatsoever.
For the holy Scriptures cannot err, yet neither is truth in conflict with truth, nor grace in conflict with nature. Instead, once Scripture is acknowledged to be God’s special revelation, erring no more about the will of God than the decrees themselves that wrote the universe into being, and no more about nature than the laws of nature themselves, then what is most to be believed is what Scripture plainly delivers. In answer to Satan’s first deception, we believe and obey first the plain teaching of Scripture, saying, ‘Yea, God hath said.’ In the second place is whatever any man’s ability concludes as a logical necessity of the things that Scripture has plainly declared. Third is the voice of the Church by her ecclesiastical authority, saying what she, under Scripture and natural law, thinks true and good. As the Rev. Dr Christopher Brown says, ‘Since we are not the first to strive to understand the Word of God, but stand within a theological tradition, we inevitably draw upon the reflections of those who have gone before us.’
It is upon this understanding of sola Scriptura that councils and synods of the Church, though fallible, have authority; that, subordinate to these, a preacher’s sermons have authority; that, under these, a pastor’s grave advice has authority. For this is the truly catholic doctrine of authority, where the Roman doctrine is not catholic, and where the Anabaptist doctrines are not catholic; here, on the matter of authority, the Protestant Reformation has reaffirmed the supremacy of of the catholic Scriptures without neglecting the subordinate authorities that mediate the truth of these Scriptures.