What is the material principle and formal principle of the Reformation?

Reformation material and formal principle

by Matt Slick

The material principle of the Reformation dealt with the essential doctrine of the Christian faith of justification by faith alone through faith alone in Christ alone.  The formal principle is that the Scriptures are the final authority of the Christian faith.

Material Principle

The Reformation was begun by Martin Luther when he nailed the 95 theses on the Wittenberg door in Germany on October 31, 1517.  What followed was a time of doctrinal Reformation with a return to the supremacy of Scripture. As a result, the doctrine of justification by faith alone was emphasized and is called the Material Principle. It was a proper representation of doctrine of justificaiton found in Scripture and was in stark opposition to the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church which promoted works and ceremonies to obtain salvation.

The Roman Catholic church considered the Bible to be insufficient and that oral tradition, as found in the Catholic magisterium, was necessary to properly achieve the full revelation of God. Such oral tradition, upon recognition of the magisterium, would be considered equal with Scripture and inspired.  Of course, this led to a great many abuses in both doctrine and practice

Formal Principle

The formal principle is the position of the Scriptures are completely sufficient for all we need in both belief and practice in the Christian faith. It would align with the doctrine of Sola Scriptura which is the position that the Scriptures contained in the old and New Testament (excluding the Apocrypha), are the final authority in all things that they address. Sola Scriptura does not mean that Christians denies past church councils or tradition. Rather, they are subject to the word of God.  This further meant that at the time of the Reformation the Pope was not equal in authority to Scripture was subordinate to it. This challenged the authority structure of the Roman Catholic Church and further brought division between the Protestant Reformation and Catholicism. 

  • Material Principle
    • "The doctrine of justification was the great material principle of the Reformation."1
    • "That which is regarded as the church’s central doctrine. The 16th-century Lutheran Reformers considered justification by faith to be the material principle of the Christian faith and the Scriptures to be the formal principle.2
  • Formal Principle
    • "The source of authority or criterion to which a church appeals as the basis for its beliefs and teachings. The 16th-century Protestant Reformers considered the Bible the formal principle for Christian beliefs.3




  • 1. Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology (Kindle Locations 10474-10475). Kindle Edition.
  • 2. McKim, Donald K.. The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, Second Edition: Revised and Expanded (Kindle Locations 8610-8612). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
  • 3.
    McKim, Donald K.. The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, Second Edition: Revised and Expanded (Kindle Locations 5579-5582). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.