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.