The Appeal of Sola Scriptura

Decorated initial FSola Scriptura, by all rights, should be true.

It’s almost a travesty that it isn’t. Bear with me as I meander a bit, after being inspired by Presbyterian pastor Jason Stellman’s post critiquing Christian Smith’s book against biblicism.

History, Briefly

Recall that the Protestant Reformers wanted to go back to the beginning–ad fontes–to recover pure Christianity from the Romanist corruptions. And certainly there was much moral corruption in the Church of their day.

Sola Scriptura became their rallying cry. “Let’s go back to the pure written word of God and shed the encrusted traditions of the Church, the man-made accretions that have polluted God’s truth.” And the nascent Protestant Christians tried to do just that, in varying ways as according to the particular movement they subscribed to.

But everyone interpreted the  Bible differently, the problem that Smith laments in his book. So instead of Protestantism becoming a unified movement that spoke as one voice, it was a cacophony of discordant noises clamoring to be heard.

This disharmony has continued to our day and is evidence against the claim that the Bible is clear enough to be correctly understood by reasonably intelligent and faithful people.

If the Bible Isn’t Enough, What Is?

But if God’s inspired, inerrant word is not by itself enough for us, then what is? If our human minds are so darkened that we cannot even correctly ascertain God’s meaning when He is trying to send us a letter, what else could do any better?

The teaching office of Christ’s Church could be better, and is better. Knowing that our intellects were darkened, God established His Church with a Magisterium, and protected that teaching authority from error in her teachings on what God’s truth is. It continually clarifies for us the meaning of divine revelation and deepens the world’s understanding of it.

God could have intended sola Scriptura to be true, in spite of the inevitable rise of conflicting interpretations that had no way of being resolved. As a Protestant, I believed that to be true and wanted it to be true. The idea that any Joe (including me, right after becoming a Christian) could read the Bible and understand it, even gaining unique insights into it that no one had ever had before, was appealing.

I might have remained a Protestant forever, had I not come face-to-face with the canon question. For sola Scriptura to be true, we had to know what books made up the Scriptures with certainty. Which meant God must have guided someone into discerning the canon. Yet we Protestants didn’t trust that the Church which discerned the canon was guided by God–no, she had become corrupted early in her teachings. So we could not articulate a canon with conscience-binding certainty, and the legs were swept out from under sola Scriptura.

The path I sketched out here is just one road to Rome, but it is one that thousands of Protestants are traveling down as we speak. As good as sola Scriptura sounds, it ultimately is not enough. Instead, God has guided us in His Word: Scripture, Tradition, and the teaching office of the Magisterium.

 

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11 Responses to The Appeal of Sola Scriptura

  1. Anil Wang says:

    Well Sola Scriptura couldn’t possibly be true for the simple reason that no document is so straight forward that it can’t be misinterpreted. Take the U.S. constitution as an example. There have been so many contradictory interpretations on what it says, and even on whether what it says was meant to be adaptable with the times that it can be made to say almost anything.

    Daily experience also tells us this. Simple instructions which we think are clear are regularly misinterpreted. Whole fields of study on “active listening” and “active communication” and “communication across cultures” exist.

    When you get to something as complex as the Bible, it’s amazing that Protestants are actually not as far apart as one would expect based on daily experience and the U.S. Constitution. IMO, the only reason that there is such a similarity is because they still hold onto “unscriptural” Catholic Truth, but as time moves on, that influence will disappear (as it has been for the last few hundred years) until Protestantism is diverse as Hinduism.

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  3. Anil,

    I sympathize with your concern. Most Protestants I know don’t really live out Sola Scriptura. Instead, they think they are being “sola,” when really all the while they are establishing their own evangelical Tradition as best they can (including the doctrine of Sola Scriptura).

    However, I am curious about your comment: “No document is so straight forward that it can’t be misinterpreted.” Would you be willing to grant the same with respect to non-documents (actions or spoken words or oral tradition)? If not, doesn’t your statement also apply to the Vatican II documents which are part of how God’s truth is supposed to be “made clear” for Catholics? Does your comment imply also that all other written documents produced by the authority of the Catholic Church are also “not enough” because they too can be misinterpreted?

    Bradley

  4. Brent says:

    Devin,

    You said:

    God could have intended sola Scriptura to be true, in spite of the
    inevitable rise of conflicting interpretations that had no way of
    being resolved.

    This is an interesting claim. It seems to run something like:

    God can do anything, therefore he, per possible, could have founded
    His Church on Scripture alone.

    However, I think this is an error and sets up a false problem.

    There are many things God cannot do. For example, he cannot do what is
    contrary to His nature. He cannot do evil, he cannot create a rock
    that is too big for him to lift, etc. and so on. This does not do
    damage to his omnipotence, since to do those things would be contrary
    to his omnipotence.

    Christ revealed God to us as a person. He is personal. The
    distinction that Anil is making is the difference between an
    impersonal text and a personal Church. God’s word is sufficient in and
    of itself. However, it is not sufficient in relationship to us.
    Throughout the O.T., God accompanied His word with His agents (Adam,
    Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, the judges, prophets, and so on). In the
    N.T. his Word is Incarnate, and yet he still demonstrates his desire
    to establish a people. In the O.T., this people was a remnant. In the
    N.T., the religion of the remnant has been opened up to the world
    (Catholic).

    What is sufficient is Christ. He is God. Thus, all his
    teachings (Tradition and Scripture), and His Church is what we need.
    While we can think the idea that sola scriptura is possible, it
    is against our very existence. Thus it is repugnant to being and
    therefore is impossible. Catholicism is not just a better or best
    theory, but in fact corresponds to the teleology of nature. It is both
    fitting in relationship to the O.T. types and in relationship to that
    which has “dwelt among us (and we saw his glory, the glory as it were
    of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth” (John
    1:14).

    The Bible is “impossible” (to borrow a phrase) without the Church.
    However, I find the Bible to be quite a bit easier as a Catholic. To
    Bradley’s question, The Church saying “there are 7 Sacraments” is
    obviously more perspicuous than the results of a Christian mining the
    Bible to figure out how many Sacraments there are. Some documents
    aren’t as obvious, and the Bible (like the Constitution) is one of
    them. However, the Scriptures were given to us in such a way
    that assumed “A People”. Whether Moses, Solomon, The Judges, Israel
    or His Church, the Word of God was never meant to be taken out of its
    proper context and thus can never truly “work” outside of that
    setting. Nonetheless, the Christian “tabernacle” will always be different than the O.T. Tabernacle: one is filled with Torah the other with The Word.

    Where I have erred, let the Church correct me.

  5. R.C. says:

    I think that Sola Scriptura would have been true…

    1. If the Holy Spirit had been promised in a Magisterium-like way (full-fledged charism of infallibility with respect to faith and morals) to all believers, rather than only to the stewards of the kingdom in union with the chief steward.

    2. If the apostles had, in their lifetimes, intentionally compiled a book or several books into a catechism; that is, if the Scriptures had been intended by the sacred authors to contain all the important doctrines, spelled out clearly and plainly in a manner intended to sufficiently educate even those who had no access to a human teacher.

    3. If the apostles (perhaps the last living apostle, John, shortly before his death) had capped of the canon of Scripture with one final book; namely, a book listing the canon of Scripture, which was done in a public and highly-documented way so as to put it beyond doubt who authored it and when and where and why, along with an apostolic assertion of authority stating that this canon was infallible and inerrant, and defining those two terms beyond ambiguity.

    Alternatively, #3 could be a set of firm unambiguous principles for determining the canonicity or non-canonicity of any particular book, instead of a particular list, provided that the charism indicated in #1 included a gift allowing each believer to inerrantly apply those principles.

    These three items, taken together, would be sufficient to allow Sola Scriptura to be true: It would make the Bible perspicuous (by the help of the Holy Spirit in each person) and it would make the Bible sufficient to know all the doctrines of the faith (by including a catechism in which they were all spelled out plainly).

    But just articulating these requirements makes it clear why Sola Scriptura is false.

    For of course we don’t have a catechism anywhere in the Bible. Several passages in fact indicate that, in writing to Christians, the sacred author assumes they already know the fundamentals of the faith, and for the sake of time are NOT going to bother writing them.

    Which means there is every likelihood that some vital doctrines are not mentioned anywhere in Scripture. They may be obliquely referred to, of course; but “oblique” is another word for “guaranteed to be understood in five mutually-incompatible ways whenever four Christians are gathered together to discuss them.”

    Indeed, when Catholic theologians sometimes offer opinions about whether Scripture is “formally sufficient” or “materially sufficient,” the very idea of Scripture’s being plausibly sufficient (formally or materially) seems to hinge on whether passages in Scripture are sufficient to help one identify Christ’s true Church, so that one can then lean on the Church in order to properly understand all those oblique references and thereby come to sufficient understanding of the other doctrines.

    So we don’t have an apostolic-era catechism. The Bible is many things, but it isn’t that.

    And we also don’t have a list of the canon anywhere in the Bible, or even a list of the canon known with surety to have been written by an apostle. Quite the contrary; the first written canon-list that matches any modern-use canon was that from Athanasius in 370 or thereabouts…and Athanasius was a Catholic, and his canon list matches the modern Catholic canon. No apostle ever listed the canon at all.

    Nor did any apostolic-era writing ever include a set of principles by which one could, without recourse to church authority, determine on one’s own which books were canonical. Either one depends on church authority — which means depending on the doctrinal authority of a bunch of guys who believed in sacramental theology, in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, in confession to priests, in apostolic succession, and in the primacy of the bishop of Rome — or one is stuck with no infallible canon-list. One ends up with “a fallible collection of (hopefully) infallible books.”

    And I think it’s perfectly clear that we don’t have a charism of infallible interpretation in the hearts of every believer.

    If we did, there’d be exactly one Protestant denomination, and every time someone in that denomination began to get a little off the reservation, all you’d have to do would be to sit him down in front of the relevant Bible passage and give him five minutes’ study time, and he’d emerge from his room saying, “Oh, okay, sorry, you’re right. We’re all in agreement again, now.”

    If that was the way the Holy Spirit intended to operate, we’d have no disagreement at all among Christians about sacraments, about baptismal modes and effects and timing, about the meaning of the eucharist, and who could partake, and who could consecrate, about ordination, about divorce and remarriage, about contraception, about abortion, about fornication and homosexual acts, about justification, about eschatology, about social justice….

    That’s how things would look, if Sola Scriptura were true.

    But they don’t look that way, at all, at all.

    So it isn’t true.

  6. A good piece Devin! Good comments in this thread too.

    Bradley, if I might throw my $.02 into your question for Anil, yes — all words written or said can be interpreted many ways. That includes Vatican II documents. If this were not true, we would be effectively placing those documents above the Holy Bible itself.

    The problem is that natural language is never so crisp and clear that it communicates ideas to all receivers without the possibility of corruption. Lawyers make a fortune on this.

    Consider the creed. It is not very long, yet the Catechism takes 238 pages to explain it. Much more could be said and some that is said will need clarification. Similarly, it takes 121 pages to cover the 10 Commandments and that really only scratches the surface.

    Interpretation always occurs and even among those of good will who seek to know the true intent of the writers, differences are inevitable. That is the nature of static words. We color all that we read and hear by our experiences and biases. What is needed is a final, supreme authority to turn to (whenever necessary) and for us that is the Holy Spirit working through the Magisterium.

    We need the Church and Jesus knew we would. Protestants in trying to separate themselves from the Church, must rely on their nonsense invention of sola scriptura.

  7. Arthur Martin says:

    I tend toward the simplest answer. God founded one Church and that Church wrote and canonized the New Testament Books of the Bible. It is by the Church via the divine charism of the infallibility of the Pope that the Bible is defined as being the infallible word of God… not the other way around. The writers were inspired by the Holy Spirit but the Pope was lead by that same Holy Spirit to determine which books were inspired and which books were not necessarily inspired.

    Protestantism did not rear its ugly head for 1,500 years after Jesus taught the Apostles, established the New Covenant and founded His Church. Protestants do not have any succession of Apostolic Authority nor do they have Sacred Tradition from which the writings of Scripture were recorded.

    My problem is with the wolves in sheep’s clothing TODAY.

  8. Mrk says:

    Looks like the same arguments for sola ecclesia again. The Bible begins with Genesis and ends with Revelation. Can anyone tell me where Sacred Tradition begins and ends? Can I fully understand it? Than how is your problem with SS any different? I think there is more unity(on the Gospel message) on the Protestant side than Catholics give credit for, and more disunity withing the RC church.

  9. Alle says:

    Where is the unity in the gospel message among protestants? The message of the gospel varies by 180 degrees just going from one baptist church to another. They can’t agree with what the gospel even is. Where is the disunity in the gospel message in the Catholic faith? The gospel as understood by the Catholic Church is the exact same gospel throughout the world as preached by the apostles. Open up the catechism and there it is. Go into any Catholic Church in THE WORLD and you will find the same gospel. But go into a Christian bookstore and you will find one hundred different books on the gospel and what it means and how to believe, and what it entails to be saved, and each book has a differing message of “divine” truth. There is only one way to be saved in the Catholic faith and it has not changed to conform with the changing mores of society. There is only one interpretation for the gospel in the Catholic faith, not 2000.

  10. shawna b says:

    if you admit the Catholic Church was corrupt, why couldn’t it have been in teaching it’s tradition?

    and yes im going through all your posts. haha oh man.
    twice.