Thursday, February 23, 2012

Random Thoughts of Sola Scriptura, Part VI

As we stated in Part V, many Protestants who embrace the “Bible Alone” doctrine insist that they do not need a Church to “spoon feed” them doctrine. According to Sola Scriptura, each individual Christian can read and interpret Scripture for himself.

As we have already seen, there are many problems with this idea, not least of which is that, for the vast majority of Christians throughout history, illiteracy was a problem - you cannot read and interpret Scripture on your own if you cannot read in the first place. Most Christians for most of history were unable to read. Also there are language barriers to overcome. Supposing someone can read and write then he must also have a Bible that is translated into his native language. This means that he must rely on those who do the translating to get the text right. Otherwise he must learn the ancient languages in which the Bible was originally written – quite a challenging undertaking. So too we must consider that until the invention of the printing press, hand-written manuscripts of the Scriptures would have been impossible for the average Christian to afford.

So for most of Christianity, the illiterate, uneducated, poor Christians (which is pretty much all of them) were unable to follow what Protestants claim to be authentic Christianity - using Sola Scriptura as their guide. Apparently there were no “authentic” Christians until the Reformation 1500 years after Christ.

What makes the Protestant notion of Sola Scriptura even more puzzling is that the earliest Christians (even the wealthy, literate, well educated ones who could afford to have manuscripts and be able to read them) did not have a “Bible” as we know it today. The books of the Bible were not sorted and compiled together into one Book for at least three to four hundred years after Christ.

Put simply: The Bible did not drop down from Heaven, bound in leather, trimmed in gold, and translated into every Christian’s native tongue. The writings that we call Scripture did not compile themselves into one volume, nor did God’s hand miraculously reach down from on high to shuffle the manuscripts into their proper order, excluding the false books and including only those that contain His Word. Truth be told, the formation of the Bible into one book (or canon) was a lengthy and laborious process. For at least the first few centuries A.D. Christians had no defined canon of Scripture. Some early Christians recognized more books than we have today. Others had fewer. Some wished to exclude the Old Testament entirely. Some included not only the Old Testament but also multiple false “Gospels” as well as other Christian writings of questionable origins. Some had nearly exactly the canon we hold today, while others lacked only a few books. It was not at all a settled matter.

So if the Protestant notion of Sola Scriptura had been applied in early Christianity, the question would then be: “Which Scripture are we to follow?” And there was no definite answer to that question. For the first few centuries of Christianity there was no “Bible” (at least not as we know it today).

So where did the Bible come from?

The history of the Biblical canon is long and complex. For our purposes here (being only a brief reflection on Sola Scriptura) it will suffice to point out one fact: The absence of a Biblical canon in the first few centuries, and the eventual formation of a canon at a later date, tells us that some other locus of authority (i.e. not Sola Scriptura) was necessary during that period for the purpose of teaching doctrine. There had to be a mechanism in place which possessed the proper authority to collect the writings of the Prophets, Apostles and holy men, and to sort out which books would be “in” and which books would be “out.” And this center of authority had to have the power to determine authentic doctrine, to refute heresy, and to preserve orthodox Christian teaching, so that when the Bible canon was finally produced through this authority, we can be sure that it is the true Word of God and not a false book.

From what we have said in previous reflections, I think we all know that this authority was found in the Church. It was the Church which gave us the Bible, and it is the Church’s authority that assures us that the books we call Scripture are indeed God’s Word. Without the Church we would have no Bible.

So the irony of Protestant Sola Scriptura is that there would be no Bible without the Church. When Protestant Christians question the authority of the Church, when they claim that the Church is fallible that it teaches error and that they do not trust the Church to teach sound doctrine, they are questioning the very authority which ensures the soundness of Scripture itself. Sola Scriptura destroys the very foundation of Scripture itself.


  1. I know you know this, but it might be helpful for some to see what Holy Scripture has to say about itself:

    2 Peter 1:20-21 (NRSV):
    "First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophecy every came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God." (continue into Chapter 2 for interesting discussion about false teachers, many of which we see today)

    2 Peter 3:15-16 (NRSV):
    ".... So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures." (to which you alluded before)

    John 21:25 (NRSV):
    "But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written." (hard to learn everything there is to know about Jesus from the Bible when it couldn't possibly contain everything he did, according to itself)

    If Sola Scriptura were true, one would think the Bible itself would prove it. One would think that the Bible itself would say that it alone is the pillar of truth. However, the Bible itself tells us:

    1 Timothy 3:15 (NRSV):
    "... which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth."

    Strange, that the Bible says the Church is the pillar of truth, not itself. One might also think that, since he was such a prolific writer, his writings making up quite a large portion of the New Testament, that Paul would exhort his followers to cling to his writings alone. Instead, he does more:

    2 Thessalonians 2:15 (NRSV):
    "So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter."

    Wow. "by WORD OF MOUTH or by OUR LETTER". Sounds like Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture to me. Maybe the poor Roman Catholics know something after all!



  2. Excellent quotes! I've used these exact passages in other posts concerning Sola Scriptura, and will certainly use them again.

    The reason I've limited the Biblical quotes in this series of "random thoughts" is primarily because I wrote these pieces originally as comments on a Facebook discussion in a quick back-and-forth exchange with some Protestant friends. We all agreed that our Biblical interpretation of such passages would be at odds with one another. When I quote a passage about "Tradition" I see it differently than they do. Likewise, when they cite a passage about "Scripture" I interpret it in a different light. What seems obvious to a Catholic is less so to a Protestant. So we all avoided quoting Scripture as much as possible.

    So my main objective during this exchange on Facebook was to look at the plain historical realities. I did use a few quotes here and there. And I also fleshed out some of the ideas from Facebook to make a whole post here on the blog. But the main thrust of our discussion on Facebook was less Biblical and more practical/common sense.

    But thank you for posting these quotes. I think they are extremely helpful.

  3. So, you had protestants, who believe Sola Scriptura, arguing with you WITHOUT using the Bible? Doesn't that sort of automatically disprove the premise of "Scripture alone"?


  4. That's a great point!

    To explain a little more... The Protestants I talked with consider themselves to be "sacramental," "liturgical," and "catholic" (small 'c')- so they have a slightly modified view of Sola Scriptura. They recognize some of the mistakes that Protestantism has made because of its narrow focus and rejection of certain elements of historic Christianity. But they are trapped where John Newman was when he was seeking the via media. They want to be "catholic" and Protestant at the same time. They are trying to retain the Protestant identity while at the same time adopting a more Catholic outlook.

    The conversation we were having had to do with a quote from a Protestant author who said that Scripture should be read in light of the "church's faith" - He said that this is the real intention of Sola Scriptura. I replied by saying that the "church's faith" is a broad term and I wondered what that would include, and I also wondered whether the term "sola" ought to be dropped altogether since it is obvious that Scripture is never "alone." In short, I asked whether Protestantism is based on false presumptions.

    In essence they all admitted that Sola Scriptura is flawed if it means that Tradition is entirely ignored. But they stopped short of admitting the fallacy of the entire Protestant experiment. It took some verbal gymnastics, but they talked their way around the issue.

    These guys are pretty knowledgeable about both sides of the debate. They are ministers in their churches or at least seminary students. So they didn't fall back on the old "Bible thumping," verse-quoting rant that you get from your average Protestant. I think they honestly are searching for answers. (One of them even cited 'The Journey Home' during the conversation.)

    The funny thing is that with all of their schooling they never really were able to answer my questions. I think they know the weakness of their position and so they just avoid a direct answer.