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While the concept may have existed far prior, a recent discussion has left me wondering - What is the earliest documented usage of the term "Sola Scriptura" in Christian writings. I am not interested in articulation of the concept, but instead of the first documented usage of this specific and actual phrase in reference to the doctrine (not just coincidental usage) - so please be sure to include a quote in your answer.

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    May 17, 2020 at 2:42

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In 1520 Luther wrote the following in his defense against the bull of Pope Leo X:

Nolo omnium doctior iactari, sed solam scripturam regnare, nec eam meo spiritu aut ullorum hominum interpretari, sed per seipsam et suo spiritu intelligi volo. (WA 7:98.40–99.2)

Mark D. Thompson gives this translation:

I do not want to throw out all those more learned [than I], but Scripture alone to reign, and not to interpret it by my own spirit or the spirit of any man, but I want to understand it by itself and its spirit.


I've also found this section in Luther's introduction to his Defense and Explanation of All the Articles (1521) (From Luther's Works, vol. 32: Career of the Reformer II, pp. 11, 12.) (OCRed text, some typos fixed)

This is my answer to those also who accuse me of rejecting all the holy teachers of the church. I do not reject them. But everyone, indeed, knows that at times they have erred, as men will; therefore, I am ready to trust them only when they give me evidence for their opinions from Scripture, which has never erred. This St. Paul bids me to do in 1 Thess. 5:21, where he says, "Test everything; hold fast what is good." St. Augustine writes to St. Jerome to the same effect, "I have learned to do only those books that are called the holy Scriptures the honor of believing firmly that none of their writers has ever erred. All others I so read as not to hold what they say to be the truth unless they prove it to me by holy Scripture or clear reason."

Holy Scripture must necessarily be clearer, simpler, and more reliable than any other writings. Especially since all teachers verify their own statements through the Scriptures as clearer and more reliable writings, and desire their own writings to be confirmed and explained by them. But nobody can ever substantiate an obscure saying by one that is more obscure; therefore, necessity forces us to run to the Bible with the writings of all teachers, and to obtain there a verdict and judgment upon them. Scripture alone is the true lord and master of all writings and doctrine on earth. If that is not granted, what is Scripture good for? The more we reject it, the more we become satisfied with men's books and human teachers.

Luther here discusses several related doctrines, which today we might discuss more distinctly: the clarity of scripture, the principle of scripture interpreting scripture, and the inerrancy of scripture. But I've highlighted in bold what I think expresses the modern Protestant understanding of sola scriptura: the supreme spiritual authority of scripture, the only judge of all doctrines and writings of men.

The translation here says "scripture alone", but I have not yet confirmed whether the Latin would be basically the same as sola scriptura or whether it's something else.

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    I'd love to see it in more context, but all the English translations I've found seem to be for another version of this document (he wrote a few replies to the bull.)
    – curiousdannii
    May 17, 2020 at 1:22
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    Patience, my friend, it's coming as Vol 70-71: Early Works (1509-ca.1521), see 1.38. These planned volumes continue the 55 volumes already published. May 19, 2020 at 21:59
  • @curiousdannii Very good quotes. Always enlightening to see so much more detail and enlightenment in the original authors of an idea than in many subsequent repetitions. Definitely a solid set of sources. Excited to see more of the translations become available.
    – pygosceles
    Jan 26 at 2:45
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The first documented usage of the specific and actual phrase ''Sola Scriptura'' in reference to the doctrine was as late as the 20th century.

The solas were not systematically articulated together until the 20th century. But sola gratia and sola fide were used in conjunction by the Reformers themselves. For example, in 1554 Melanchthon wrote, "sola gratia justificamus et sola fide justificamur" ("only by grace do you justify and only by faith are we justified"). All of the solas show up in various writings by the Protestant Reformers, but they are not catalogued together by any.

In 1916, Lutheran scholar Theodore Engelder published an article titled "The Three Principles of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fides", ("only scripture, only grace, only faith"). In 1934, theologian Emil Brunner substituted Soli Deo gloriam for Sola Scriptura.In 1958, historian Geoffrey Elton, summarizing the work of John Calvin, wrote that Calvin had "joined together" the "great watchwords." Elton listed sola fide with sola gratia as one term, followed by sola scriptura and soli Deo gloria. (source).

According to Protestants,

These “five solas” were developed in response to specific perversions of the truth that were taught by the corrupt Roman Catholic Church. (source).

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    The sufficiency of scripture is very much a distinct doctrine from sola scriptura. But I think your Gregory of Nyssa quote is talking about sola scriptura proper.
    – curiousdannii
    May 16, 2020 at 14:49
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    The Westminster Confession 1.10 is a good concise definition (for how I've always heard it defined, there may be people who define it differently): "The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture."
    – curiousdannii
    May 16, 2020 at 14:56
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    Frankly, I am uninterested in Protestantism vs. Catholicism. The quote needn't be from a protestant source. That being said, the most common origin of this are the five solas of the reformation. These are attributed to Martin Luther. While I have no doubt these ideas were ones that he championed, I do not believe he used that terminology. Nor do I think the person who first articulated the five solas was the coiner of sola scriptura - I'm guessing these were culled together from multiple sources. May 16, 2020 at 15:04
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    @RadzMatthewC.Brown It's more that it stands beside sola scriptura. It's very possible to say that the Bible contains all the knowledge we need for salvation while also believing that tradition, reason, or experience have equal authority or even higher authority than the scriptures. I think most Catholics would probably affirm that the Bible contains all the knowledge required to come to faith in God, but of course they deny sola scriptura. Both are important doctrines, but they're distinct ones.
    – curiousdannii
    May 16, 2020 at 15:08
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    @RadzMatthewC.Brown Sola is Latin for alone (the sole source) as in no other form of tradition can be an infallible source of Christian doctrine, whereas sufficiency can mean either materially sufficient (Scripture is clear enough in what it says to convey or imply strongly enough what unwritten/lived tradition says for sure) or formal sufficiency (the Protestant doctrine that all Christian doctrine is formally given in Scripture and nothing else is strictly binding). Sola Scriptura doesn't mean 'prima Scripture' (Scripture comes first) as Protestants suggest. At least in practice. May 16, 2020 at 15:12

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