There are two basic doctrines that separate Catholic Christians from most Protestant Christians. Those two being: Sola Scriptura - which means Scripture Alone; and Sola Fide - which means Faith Alone. There are other doctrines that separate us as well, but these are the two most fundamental ones. These two are, essentially, the pillars of Protestantism. While I have come across Protestants who do not believe in the doctrine of Sola Fide, I have yet to come across any who do not believe in the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. That’s not to say there aren’t any, I’m just saying that I haven’t run into any.
So, near as I can tell, this doctrine of Sola Scriptura is the one doctrine that all, or almost all, Protestants believe in.
First, let me define the term "Sola Scriptura", as I understand it, so that you know exactly what I mean when I use the term. It is simply this: The Bible is the sole authority that one needs when it comes to deciding what is and is not authentic Christian teaching and practice. That is not to say that one cannot learn things from sources other than the Bible, but these other sources are not infallible, as is the Bible, and do not carry the binding authority that the Bible does.
In other words, the Bible is the sole rule of faith for the Christian. If it’s not in the Bible, then I, as a Christian, am not bound to believe it. This definition of Sola Scriptura is not something of my own making, but is based on what I have been told by the many Protestants I have discussed this particular doctrine with.
Using that definition as a basis for this chapter, I wish to examine this doctrine from several different angles, ask some questions about it, and contrast it with Catholic teaching. And speaking of Catholic teaching, I want to say at the outset that Catholics hold the Bible in the highest possible regard. We believe it is the Holy Spirit-inspired, inerrant Word of God. The Scriptures are central to Catholic Christian belief and practice.
Having said that, however, we do not believe in the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura - the doctrine that Scripture "alone" is the sole rule of faith for the Christian; we believe rather in Sola Dei Verbum - the Word of God alone. For Catholics, the Word of God consists in not just Sacred Scripture, but in Sacred Tradition as well. Which is exactly what the Bible tells us, as I will show later in this chapter.
I will examine this doctrine of Sola Scriptura from three different perspectives - logical, historical, and scriptural - and show that it fails the test in all three of these areas. What you may occasionally run into, as I have in the past, is that there are those who immediately dismiss the first two perspectives, since they believe Scripture alone is sufficient to decide the issue. In that instance, I simply remind them that God gave us our minds and He told us that we must love Him with all of our mind, as well as our heart (Matt 22:37). In addition, we see from 1 Cor 12, that wisdom and knowledge are gifts of the Spirit, and in Isaiah 1:18, the Lord says, "Come, let us reason together." Logic, sound logic, is of God.
Also, God is the Lord of history. What happened in history, particularly in Christian history, is very important for us to know. The early Christians are important witnesses as to what Christianity was in their time, and thus to what it ought to be in our time. So to simply dismiss logic and history out-of-hand as not being important perspectives to consider when it comes to Christian teaching and practice, is to dismiss the God Who gave us our brains and told us to use them in loving Him, and to dismiss the testimony of those who gave their lives to defend and pass on the Faith that we hold so dear. So I will start with logic and history, then move on to Scripture.
The Perspective Provided by Logic:
All Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike, consider the Bible to be the inspired, inerrant Word of God. The question that needs to be asked, however, is: Why? Why do we believe the Bible to be the inspired, inerrant, Word of God? What authority do we rely upon for our belief that the Bible is what we believe it to be? Where did the Bible come from? Most people never consider these questions. They merely take it for granted that the Bible is what they believe it to be. But the fact is, everyone who believes the Bible to be the inspired, inerrant Word of God, relies on some authority for their beliefs about the Bible.
So what authority do they rely upon? Is it the Bible? Well, for those who believe that the Bible is the sole binding authority for the Christian - those who believe in Sola Scriptura - it must be the authority of the Bible that Christians rely on for their belief that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God. After all, the Bible is the sole authority for them in matters of Christian belief and practice.
But this presents a little bit of a problem. There is a logical inconsistency here. We cannot believe that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God, based solely on the authority of the Bible. Why not? Three reasons:
1) The Bible cannot bear witness to itself. There are a number of writings that claim inspiration from God, but we don’t accept them as the inspired, inerrant Word of God, just because they claim to be. The Koran being one very obvious example of this. If we should believe something is what it says it is, simply because it says it, then we should accept the Koran as the word of God. But, we don’t, do we?
If I had written in the Foreword that this book is inspired of God, does that mean it is simply because it was written down in this book? Of course not! Just so, we cannot accept the Bible as the Word of God based solely upon the witness of the Bible. As Jesus Himself said, "If I bear witness to Myself, My testimony is not true," (John 5:31).
2) The Bible never claims that it is the sole, infallible, authoritative source for all matters pertaining to Christian belief and practice, as I will explore show in the following pages when discussing the perspective from Scripture.
3) We can’t even be sure of what the Bible is if we rely on the authority of Scripture "alone" in matters of Christian belief and practice.
Let me explain why I say that. You see, the Bible wasn’t put together as we have it today for more than 300 years after the death of Christ. One of the problems in putting the Bible together was that there was a lot of disagreement, among Christians, over what should and should not be considered inspired Scripture. There were a lot of books back then that people were saying were inspired; yet, these books did not end up in the Bible as we have it today. Books such as the Letter of Clement to the Corinthians, the Letter of Barnabas, the Acts of Paul, the Acts of Peter, the Apocalypse of Peter, and several more.
There were also several books that did end up in our Bible that a lot of Christians were saying were not inspired and should not be considered as part of Scripture - books such as Revelation, 2 and 3 John, 2 Peter, Hebrews, and others.
In other words, there was a fair amount of dispute among Christians, over just what was and what was not inspired Scripture. So, how did they settle the disputes? Well, according to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, you just look in the Bible to find the authoritative answer to any question regarding the Christian faith. So, did they consult the Bible to find out what books should be in the Bible? Obviously not - they couldn’t! There was no Bible to consult because the content of the Bible was what the disputes were over.
So the question is: How does someone who believes in Sola Scriptura go about deciding a dispute as to which books should and should not be considered Scripture? You cannot consult the Bible for an answer, because the Bible is what the dispute is over. And, even if you consulted the non-disputed books of the Bible, that still wouldn’t help you because there is no list in any book of the Bible that tells us which books should be in the Bible.
Which means in order to decide one of the most fundamental issues of Christianity - which books should and should not be in the Bible - which books are and are not inspired Scripture - some authority outside of the Bible had to be relied upon.
Again, a big problem for those who believe that the Bible is the sole binding authority in matters of faith and morals is that the Bible doesn’t tell us which books should be in the Bible! There is no list - in the Bible - of which books should be - in the Bible. Some person, or group of persons, had to decide which books were, and which books were not, inspired Scripture. Think about it, folks. In order to know which books should and should not be inside the Bible, we have to rely on some authority outside of the Bible to tell us. Yet, the belief in Sola Scriptura states that the Bible is the sole authority in matters of Christian belief and practice.
Which presents a logical dilemma. The question of where the Bible came from presents the same kind of problem to those who believe in Sola Scriptura, as the question of where matter came from presents to those who believe in evolution, yet do not believe in God.
If you believe in evolution, you have to believe the matter used in evolution came from somewhere. But, if there is no God, then where did matter come from? Big problem. If you believe in Sola Scriptura, you have to believe that an authoritative decision was made as to which books did and did not belong in the Bible - as to which books were and were not the inspired, inerrant Word of God. But, if there is no binding authority outside of the Bible, then where did this authoritative decision come from? Big problem.
In other words, if you believe in Sola Scriptura, you believe in something that is logically inconsistent. You believe the Bible is the sole authority in deciding Christian belief and practice; yet, you believe in a binding authority - whether you realize it or not - outside of the Bible which gave us the Bible in the first place. Therefore, the Bible cannot be the sole authority in matters of faith and morals. There is some authority outside of the Bible that we have to have in order to have the Bible in the first place!
I would like to add that as a Catholic I believe - and historical documentation backs up my belief - it was the Catholic Church that put the Bible together as we have it today. There are many Protestants who disagree with me on that, but whether you agree that it was the Catholic Church that put the Bible together or not, you have to agree that someone did. Someone with binding authority on Christians decided the disputes about which books should and should not be in what we now call the Bible. The Bible was not consulted in order to determine the question of which books should and should not be in the Bible.
In other words, the doctrine of Sola Scriptura fails the test of logic.
When I’ve used this line of reasoning with Sola Scriptura believers in the past, I have received several different responses. One such response is: "God put the Bible together - He gave it to us." Yes, He did. Catholics believe that God is the primary Author of Scripture. The question remains, however, as to exactly how God put the Bible together. Did He do it all by Himself and then the Bible just dropped down out of Heaven one day and all the people on the Earth heard a voice that said, "Here it is - read it for yourselves?"
Or, did He first use human beings, inspired by the Holy Spirit, to write the Scriptures, and then He used human beings, guided by the Holy Spirit, to authoritatively decide the disputes as to which books were and were not written by Him? All Christians agree that He used human beings to write the Scriptures, so it’s logical to assume that He also used human beings to authoritatively decide the disputes regarding Scriptures. The question is, which human beings did He use to decide these disputes? Sola Scriptura believers ultimately have no answer for this question.
Another response I have received when using this line of reasoning is this: "We rely on the witness of the early Christians for our knowledge of what books should and should not be in the Bible." Do you know what we Catholics call the "witness of the early Christians?" Tradition. That’s a word that Protestants will not use, however, when discussing their religious beliefs. All of their beliefs, they claim, come straight from the Bible and only from the Bible. Yet, when discussing where their beliefs about the Bible came from, they inevitably have to conclude that they came from tradition - whether they use the actual word, "tradition," or not.
Also, if they respond that they rely on the witness of the early Christians for their knowledge of what is and is not Scripture, then one needs to ask how they know what the witness of the early Christians was. Is the witness of the early Christians on this matter written in the Bible? No. In other words, their knowledge of the witness of the early Christians comes from extra-biblical sources, also known as - tradition. They cannot get away from that word - tradition - no matter how hard they try.
Questions to Ask:
1) Where did the Bible come from?
2) What authority do we rely on for our belief that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, Word of God?
3) Is there a list of books in the Bible, which tells us which books should be in the Bible?
4) What authority decided the disputes among Christians as to which books should and should not be considered inspired Scripture?
5) What authority prevents me from disagreeing with the canon of Scripture as we currently have it and putting my own Bible together?
Strategy: By asking these questions you are using the "How to be Offensive (Aw-fensive) Without Being Offensive (Uh-fensive) strategy, which is all about asking questions. Ask these questions and keep asking them over and over until you actually get answers to the questions. And, if the answer you get involves "tradition," whether they use that particular word or not, make sure you point that out.
The Perspective Provided by History:
What does the perspective of history tell us in regards to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura...the belief in the Bible as the sole rule of faith for Christians?
Well, the main thing the perspective of history tells us is that the early Christians did not believe in this doctrine. We know that because there was no Bible, as we have it now, for them to consult as their authoritative guide in questions of Christian teaching and practice. As previously mentioned, the Bible did not come together as the document that we now call "the Bible" for more than three hundred years after the death of Christ. Plus, the first book of the New Testament was not written for at least ten years or more after the death of Christ. So, for at least ten years, Christians were having to decide questions of doctrine and practice without a single book of the New Testament to consult.
Furthermore, the last book of the New Testament wasn’t written for at least forty, and probably more likely sixty years or more, after the death of Christ. Also, because of the state of transportation and communication in the world of the 1st century, it could take a while before a particular Christian community received a copy of this or that book of the New Testament - which were all written as individual books and letters at different times, in different places, and addressed to different people. In other words, the early Christians went many decades without even the possibility of being able to use the Bible as the sole source of authority in matters of Christian teaching and practice. Which means they could not, and did not, believe in the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.
The question is, though, without a Bible as their sole authoritative source for their beliefs, to what, or whom, did the early Christians turn for authoritative decisions on matters of faith...on matters of doctrine? Who decided doctrinal disputes when they arose between Christians if there was no Bible to consult? Who? Well, as I’ll show in a moment, from the Bible, it was the leaders of the Church who made binding decisions in matters of doctrinal disputes. So, again, we see a binding authority, outside of Scripture, that was relied upon by the early Christians.
Another part of the historical perspective is this: When Martin Luther broke from the Catholic Church, and started teaching the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, it was around the year 1520. By the year 1600, it is said there were more than two hundred Protestant denominations. By the year 1900, it is estimated the number of denominations was almost a thousand. And, now, in the year 2009, there are estimated to be more than thirty thousand or more Protestant denominations! Each denomination claims to be based on the Bible alone, and most claim to be guided by the Holy Spirit; yet, none of them have the exact same body of doctrine, and many, many of them have doctrines that absolutely contradict one another.
How can that be? Can the Holy Spirit - which is supposed to lead us unto all truth – can this same Holy Spirit lead different people into different doctrines – doctrines that contradict each other? No. In other words, the historical perspective shows that the doctrine of Sola Scriptura tends towards division within the Body of Christ. The lesson of history teaches us that the doctrine of Sola Scriptura has done nothing but divide the Body of Christ.
The doctrine of Sola Scriptura fails the test of history.
There are generally two arguments that I’ve heard in response to this historical perspective. The first goes something like this: "Of course, the early Christians did not believe in Sola Scriptura before the New Testament was written. Sola Scriptura was not ‘operational’ during periods of enscripturation - in other words, during the period when new revelation was being given. But, after revelation was complete, then the principle of Sola Scriptura became operational."
There are several problems with this response, however. First, how did the early Christians know the period of "enscripturation" was over? Who told them? What authority said to the early Christians, "The period of enscripturation is now over; therefore, the era of Sola Scriptura has started?" When exactly was the period of enscripturation over, and how do we know? Does the Bible tell us, or would that be something that Sola Scriptura believers know from...tradition?
Furthermore, where in the Bible does it tell us that the doctrine of Sola Scriptura will become "operational" after the period of enscripturation is over? Or is that also something Sola Scriptura believers know from...tradition? When exactly did the authority that the leaders of the early Church had, which is clearly displayed in the pages of Scripture, give way to the authority of each individual reading the Bible on their own to decide between true and false doctrine? And who told everyone that they no longer had to listen to their Church leaders in regard to doctrinal disputes, that they only had to pick up their Bible and read it for themselves?
In other words, this argument about Sola Scriptura not being "operational" during periods of "enscripturation" is an argument not found in the Bible - which makes it a tradition - and it is an argument that simply cannot hold up under any level of scrutiny.
The other argument I hear to counter the historical perspective is this: "There are as many divisions within the Catholic Church as there are within Protestantism." The point being that one cannot, therefore, pin the blame for the divisions within Protestantism on the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, seeing as how there are just as many divisions within Catholicism, and Catholics do not believe in Sola Scriptura.
This argument does not hold, however, because there is a fundamental difference between the divisions within Protestantism and the division within the Catholic Church. Each division within Protestantism has its own particular "official" set of beliefs and practices. These differing sets of beliefs and practices from one denomination to another are generally viewed within Protestantism as being acceptable. If a Baptist disagrees with a Methodist who disagrees with a Presbyterian who disagrees with an Episcopalian on doctrinal matters...well, that’s all okay. There are thousands of sets of beliefs, all of which are generally accepted as legitimate within Protestantism itself.
Not so in the Catholic Church. In the Catholic Church, there is one, and only one, set of beliefs that is recognized as "official" Church teaching, and everyone knows it. There actually is just one division within the Church - between those who accept Church teaching in its entirety, and those who do not.
The historical argument that links Sola Scriptura to the divisions within Protestantism is valid, therefore, because the thousands of different belief sets - from which the divisions stem - are a result of each individual reading Scripture on their own to decide what is true doctrine and what is false doctrine. For every "new" interpretation of Scripture that someone comes up with, you have the possibility of a new denomination forming.
Questions to Ask:
1) Did the early Christians believe in the doctrine of Sola Scriptura?
2) When there was a doctrinal dispute in early Christianity, did they simply consult the Bible to decide the dispute?
3) Is it possible that the Holy Spirit is guiding some Christians into beliefs that contradict the beliefs He is guiding other Christians into? If not, how do we tell which Christians are really guided by the Holy Spirit and which ones are not? How do we tell which Christians are really interpreting the Bible correctly and which ones are not?
4) Has the doctrine of Sola Scriptura proven historically to be a unifying factor or a dividing factor within the Body of Christ?
Strategy: Again, this is essentially the "How to be Offensive (Aw-fensive) Without Being Offensive (Uh-fensive) strategy - asking questions. Since we're not in Scripture here, there is no need for the "It's the Principle of the Thing," or the "But That's My Interpretation!" strategies. The "Ignorant Catholic" strategy could come into play at any time, whether you're talking about Scripture or not, so just always remember: if you're asked a question you don't know the answer to, respond with: "I don't know, but I'll find out and get back to you."