Sola Scriptura was the reformers’ rejection of the infallibility of the Roman Catholic Church. The Church believed that its interpretation of the Word of God was infallible (or without error), and that it was the Church’s role alone to read and interpret the Scriptures. The reformers, however, believed that it was the duty of the Christian to read the Scriptures for himself and to make interpretations based on this first-hand reading, rather than taking the Church’s word for it. This notion of private interpretation was utterly scandalous to the Roman Catholic Church, and those who endorsed it were deemed by the Church as heretics.
The doctrine of Sola Scriptura goes even further, though. The reformers also wanted to make it clear that the 66 books of the Bible contained all that was necessary for salvation—it was the sole infallible rule of faith, and that no other revelation was needed for the Church. This dismissed all “other” forms of revelation (i.e. private revelations from God, angels, etc.) as unnecessary and subordinate to the Holy Scriptures.
Because the Bible contained all that is necessary for salvation, the reformers felt that whatever the Pope or the Roman Catholic Church in general taught and said had to be compared to what the Bible taught. In order to keep a check on the Church, the common people (or laymen) had to have the Scriptures translated in their own, common tongue. This, again, was scandalous to the Church, and those who were caught translating the Scriptures were imprisoned, burned at the stake, or punished in other horrible ways.
The traditions of the Church (no matter how customary or ingrained in the Church’s past they may be) also had to be checked with the Scriptures. Many of the Church’s traditions were declared unbiblical by the reformers, and hence the reformers arguably overcompensated by doing away with all traditions and symbols of traditions found in church worship.
It is important, also, to point out what Sola Scriptura isn’t. Namely, the doctrine does not claim that the Bible contains all knowledge. It is not a science textbook. It does not contain instructions on how to plant and grow daisies. The doctrine does not claim that all traditions are bad—only those whose roots cannot be found in the Scriptures. It does not deny the Church’s authority to teach God’s truth—only that the Church’s authority comes from and is subordinate to God’s Word.
Martin Luther sums up the doctrine with these words, spoken in his own defense at the Diet of Worms:
“Unless I am convicted by Scripture or by right reason (for I trust neither in popes nor in councils, since they have often erred and contradicted themselves)—unless I am thus convinced, I am bound by the texts of the Bible, my conscience is captive to the Word of God, I neither can nor will recant anything, since it is neither right nor safe to act against conscience. God help me. Amen.”