The Formal Principle according to Luther and Arminius

While the idea of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone to the glory of God alone is merely assumed Reformed doctrine, the formal principle of the Reformation is not unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, perseverance of the saints or even the sovereignty of God, as deterministically defined by Calvinists: those theories do not a Reformed Christian make. Luther even rejected the novel theories of limited atonement and irresistible grace, thus further verifying that "Reformed" and "Calvinist" are not historic synonyms.

What renders a believer Reformed proper is adherence to Luther's formal principle of the Reformation, sola scriptura, the notion that any born again believer, being indwelt and guided by the indwelling Holy Spirit, can interpret the Bible for him- or herself, without the aid of the bishops or the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church; and that Scripture alone is the God-approved source for determining absolute truth, sound doctrine, informing one for sound living, reforming one for personal salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, to the glory of the triune God and God alone.

Martin Luther (1483-1546), at thirty-four years old, having been ordained to the priesthood only ten years, challenges the established Church's authority in theological, soteriological, and ecclesiological matters by posting his 95 Theses against the promotion and selling of indulgences, which are sold by Johann Tetzel from village to village in order to raise funds for the construction of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. These indulgences carry a guarantee of personal salvation for a loved one or even someone who is bound in Purgatory.

Luther first sends his Theses in letter-form to his bishop, Albert of Mainz, the tone remaining more so of questioning the practice of indulgences than outright opposition. He challenges Tetzel's selling line: "When the coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs." Luther has read the New Testament for himself, and understands that, "Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God." (Rom. 5:1, 2) Hence a soul from purgatory does not spring from any coin ringing in any coffer.

On 31 October 1517 Luther nails his 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg, a common practice during that era of those who want to post public announcements. This act changes the course of the Western Church forever. Luther wants the common people to read and learn Scripture for themselves (as do many in England before him, William Tyndale chief among them). But this is a dangerous idea.

Just because most of Scripture is understandable by theologically-untrained laypeople is not an inevitable indication that everyone will conclude with orthodox interpretations (so conveniently imagine the theologians of the Church and the Pope). Diverse interpretations of Scripture will not, however, bring unity but confusion: every man and woman can become their own bishop, without the authority of mother Church -- the Church which governs the State subservient -- and without her Pope guiding the spiritual lives of believers, so many insist. No other challenge so threatens the stability, union, and authority of the Church than the notion that the Bible can be read, understood, and interpreted by any Christ-follower.

In the Anglican tradition, the question of revelation and authority is assumed by a three-fold formulation: Scripture, tradition, and reason. Samuel Wells explains:
The crucial point to grasp about this understanding of revelation is that in the customary formulation of Scripture, tradition, and reason, all three are regarded as forms of revelation [or divine illumination inspired by the guiding and indwelling Holy Spirit]. It is not that Scripture comprises revelation, tradition describes implementation, and reason amasses all the questions or new information that are in tension with Scripture and tradition. It is that Scripture, tradition, and reason are complementary and overlapping sources of revelation. They are not inherently in tension with one another; rather, these are three dimensions of the way the church discovers and rediscovers who God is, what God's purpose for creation is, and what is made possible by God's redemption in Christ.1
Wells notes that placing Scripture first in the formulary is "a significant gesture to the Protestant side of this Reformation debate."2 Yet, by placing tradition directly after Scripture, Anglicans "make a similar nod in a Catholic direction."3 Certainly, Scripture should be read and interpreted in light of an overall tradition of Church consensus, so reason suggests. Reason, in the formulation, challenges the authority of tradition, while acknowledging the hermeneutics of the interpretation of Scripture, noting also that "reason never exists in the abstract."4 We in the Anglican tradition suggest that this three-fold formulation is proper and logical -- even biblical.

As for Jacob Arminius, he maintains Luther's formal Reformed principle sola scriptura, as well as the corollaries justification by faith in Christ and the priesthood of the believer. Arminius insists that the authority of Scripture is
nothing else but . . . the worthiness according to which it merits (1.) . . . CREDENCE, as being true in words and true in significations, whether it simply declares any thing, or also promises and threatens; and (2.) as a superior, it merits OBEDIENCE through the credence given to it, when it either commands or prohibits any thing.5 (emphases original)
For Arminius, since God cannot err, and since He is the Author of Scripture, then the authority of the Bible rests solely on its Author, and is not in error.6 Since the Author of Scripture is divine then the words in Scripture are "of divine verity" and the "rule of truth."7 But the holy words of Scripture are also sufficient, since they "perfectly comprehend all things that have been, are now, or ever will be necessary for the salvation of the Church,"8 rendering the "necessity and frequent occurrence of new revelations" unwarranted.9 Authority, for Arminius, rests solely in Scripture:
When this authority is once known, it binds the consciences of all those to whom the discourse or the writing is addressed or directed, to accept of it in a becoming manner. But whoever they be that receive it as if delivered by God, that approve of it, publish, preach, interpret and expound it, that also distinguish and discriminate it from words or writings which are supposititious [not genuine] or adulterated; these persons add not a tittle of authority to the sayings or writings, because their entire authority, whether contemplated separately or conjointly, is only that of mortal men; and things Divine neither need confirmation, nor indeed can receive it, from those which are human.10
Scripture cannot be granted authority by human beings but only by God Himself. All humans can do with regard to the authority of Scripture is to recognize its authority as being derived from God and obey that Word as one is obeying God. We must recognize Scripture as holding final authority over our lives and not any interpretation from man or woman: opinions are like noses -- everybody has one.

Proper theology derives from a proper interpretation of Scripture, which seeks interpretive methods that corroborate with the history of Church consensus, Spirit-enabled reason, and sound hermeneutical principles always at work. Even so, we do not all agree on every matter. I suppose, then, that the Reformation gives us permission to disagree with each other as well as with the Magisterium. This alleged permission to disagree is, without doubt, the most dangerous idea of the Reformation.


1 Samuel Wells, What Episcopalians Believe: An Introduction (Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 2011), 30-31.

2 Ibid., 34. Christopher Webber adds: "Richard Hooker, at the end of the sixteenth century, noted that some Christians claimed that the Scripture alone was not enough and other authority was needed, while others claimed that with the Scripture no other guidance was needed. The first opinion he rejected out of hand, but the second moved him to caution that we should be careful not to claim so much for Scripture that we make its valid claims unbelievable as well. The Anglican position, stated clearly in the service of ordination and elsewhere, is that we should require no beliefs except what we are persuaded can be solidly based on the Scriptures, but we are free to adopt beliefs and customs that seem consistent with the scriptural witness even though they may not be directly stated." See Christoher L. Webber, Welcome to the Episcopal Church: An Introduction to Its History, Faith, and Worship (Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 1999), 47-48.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Jacob Arminius, "Twenty-Five Public Disputations: Disputation I. On the Authority and Certainty of the Sacred Scriptures," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:80.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., 2:82, 84, 91.

8 Ibid., 2:92. He adds: "We conclude, then, that all things which have been, are now, or to the final consummation will be necessary for the salvation of the church, have been of old perfectly inspired, declared and written; and that no other revelation or tradition, than those which have been inspired, declared and contained in the Scriptures, is necessary to the salvation of the church. . . . Indeed, we assert, that whatsoever relates to the doctrine of truth is so perfectly comprehended in the Scriptures, that all those things which are brought either directly or indirectly against this truth are capable of being refuted, in a manner the clearest and most satisfactory, from the Scriptures themselves alone. This asseveration [to declare seriously or positively; affirmation] we make with such solemnity and yet assurance of mind, that as soon as any thing has been proved not to be contained in the Scriptures, from this very circumstance we infer that thing not to be necessary to salvation; and whenever it is evident, that any sentiment cannot be refuted by the Scriptures, we judge from this that it is not heretical." (2:102-03)

9 Ibid., 2:93, 97.

10 Ibid., 2:81. He adds: "But this whole employment of approving, preaching, explaining and discriminating, even when it is discharged by the Church Universal, is only an attestation by which she declares that she holds and acknowledges these words or writings, and these alone, as Divine."


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.