Sola Scriptura: Part 1

Sometimes I think that it is the doctrine of sola scriptura that made me Catholic. Of course other times I think it was Lewis and Tolkien that made me Catholic, but that’s not what this post is about. 🙂

At any rate, it was thinking through sola scriptura that first made question why I was Protestant.

Defining sola scriptura

While Protestants sometimes have wildly different understandings of what sola scriptura means in practice, at a minimum they always include these two points.

  1. Scripture alone is an infallible rule of faith for the Christian life.
  2. All Christian doctrine must be established from the plain teaching of scripture, or “by good and necessary consequence” deduced from scripture.

See, for example, the Westminster Confession or the Epitome of the Formula of Concord.


The Canon Problem

The first issue that I noticed was the canon problem. If only scripture is an infallible rule of faith, then what is the authority of the canon?

It isn’t part of the scriptures, so wouldn’t seem to covered by #1. And while you might be able to “deduce” the list of scriptural books by saying “Ah, these scriptural books I just read must belong to the list of scriptural books!” that’s not particularly helpful in telling us which books to read in the first place.

It would seem that on Protestant reasoning we must only have a “fallible collection of infallible books.” But that is rather unsatisfying. Why have a collection of infallible books if we can’t know with certainty which books they are?

Some might say that we don’t need need infallible certainty, just moral certainty about which books are infallible. Well, that might work if Christianity was nearly unanimous in support of the Protestant canon. But as a matter of fact, the Protestant canon has very little historical support prior to 1517, and continues to be a minority position over against the broader Catholic and Orthodox canons.

The only way that I can see out of this dilemma is to accept that the canon is infallible. And this almost certainly entails rejecting sola scriptura.

Where does scripture teach it?

My second problem came when I realized I couldn’t point to where the Bible taught sola scriptura. While it is common to cite 2 Timothy 3:16-17, this passage is insufficient to establish it.

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Here we learn that:

  • Scripture is inspired
  • That it is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training
  • That this is so we can be thoroughly equipped for every good work

What we don’t find is any declaration that only scripture is an infallible rule of faith. And other alleged sources for sola scriptura fare even worse.

Now, perhaps by piecing together a bit here and a bit there, one might be able to build up a plausible case “by good and necessary consequence,” but so far I haven’t seen one.

In fact, when I read the Bible, it seems to suggest that something besides the scriptures are infallible.

If I’m right on this point, then sola scriptura fails to meet its own criteria.

Is there something I’m overlooking that makes the Protestant case for sola scriptura more plausible?


About Joshua Michael

Writer. Catholic. Fan of John Henry Newman and the Inklings.
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15 Responses to Sola Scriptura: Part 1

  1. Matt says:

    Might it be because Scripture itself claims to be inspired by the Holy Spirit and that gives it a unique place of authority?

    • I certainly agree that the Scriptures have a unique place of authority because they were inspired by the Holy Spirit. But that doesn’t seem to be the same thing as sola scriptura.

      The idea that the Scriptures have a “unique place of authority” can coexist quite easily with the idea of a Church which can render an infallible judgement about their meaning. After all, the same Holy Spirit which inspired the Scriptures also guides the Church.

      But perhaps you meant something different?

    • But, that begs the question about how you know scripture has a unique place of authority. I don’t hold to that because it seems obvious to me that Christ gave authority to his disciples before he ascended to heaven as recorded in Acts.

      • That’s a good point. Doesn’t the canon, for example, have a unique place of authority since it is how we know what books constitute scripture?

        • Is it unique? I guess it’s unique in that it’s the only list of book specifically recognized by the Roman Catholic Church. But it’s not unique in that there are several different canons in the ancient church and in eastern churches and in protestantism. Nor is it unique in so far as being an act of a council. And being an act of a council, it is just defining what we always believed. (Not to say, though, that we always believed it explicitly or with as much sophistication or development or whatever you want to call it.)

          • Deacon Todd: I’m trying to speak from the point of view of a Protestant inquiring into these things. From that perspective, the canon would seem to have a “unique place of authority.” Moving from that to wider issues of authority in the Church seems like a discussion for another time.

          • Oh I’m sorry. I didn’t know the question was rhetorical. Point taken!
            God bless.

  2. Preston says:

    I have a real issue with asserting that the Church is able to give infallible interpretation, but that’s because I also don’t see Scripture as infallible in the sense I think you have encountered it the most.

    There are problems in the narrative of Scripture, in fact there are a number of places that don’t seem to outright “work” in the typical structure of a compendium of narrative literature. Nonetheless, it is that very lack of perfect structure, or apparent structure, that seems to be the exact indicator of it’s authenticity. The general premise of Scripture appears to be that God is the only true protagonist or, better yet, Scripture is a narrative that is a contest between the wills of the characters with the will of the Author. In the end, the Author wins, but the characters in their time get to push and blur the edges of the story (so it seems to them) all the while still in the story that the Author intends to write.

    That said, Scripture is not infallible in so far as it is the perfect, word for word representation of exact events, time, and places. Rather, it is a narrative that is recorded by fallible people listening to an infallible God, trying to interpret or perhaps translate the language of God into the language of man. That is not to say that Scripture or its contents is in any way untrue or the events it depicts are not historical. They very much are so. But they are also literary, archetypical, and complex in literary structure because God seems quite content with using the real to express the Real.

    Scripture is infallible in so far as what it testifies of and what it claims to teach pertains to the One who is infallible. Indeed, Scripture itself ventures that very claim in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, that Scripture holds a special significance in that it is inspired, breathed out, by God. That does not say, however, that Scripture was written by God’s hand. Rather, it is that God has uniquely — and that is the key — breathed upon the words of Scripture for a special task that only it has been made to fulfill. This is resonate in Deuteronomy 6, in the necessity for the Law to be written not only on the hearts but on the homes, the gates, and the everything of the people, spoken of amongst them at all times. So too in Joshua 1, when Moses says unto Joshua that he is to ingest (or in the Hebrew, to chew on like a cow) the words of the Law and keep them always in him. Because they are the words of the Lord, in so far as He so saw fit to reveal them, and Jesus affirms when He says that the words of the Law will not pass away until the end of all things.

    So my understanding of Scriptural infallibility is less to do with an idea of fact over and against fiction, but more revealed Truth over and against responses to Truth. That’s the difference between Scripture and the cannon that follows: the former is uniquely commissioned by God for that purpose, while the latter is commissioned by God-fearing men in response to God.

    Thus enter the issue with the authority of the Church. Jesus says the Comforter will come and reveal to all. Therefore, the weight of interpretation can not be given alone to a small group in the Church, which is often the case, but is the responsibility of the Church as a whole. Not to say every interpretation is right, but it does not suggest that because a group agrees on an interpretation that it is infallible. To claim that kind of infallibility is to claim to speak for God Himself. Or, moreover, to suggest only some people are enabled to do so.

    • I think I agree with what you are saying about Scripture. I don’t subscribe to a naive view of “inerrancy,” or anything like that. Scripture is complicated. It includes a multiplicity of seemingly contradictory perspectives. And it is through that interplay that it opens up to us the reality of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.

      As the Catechism says:

      108 Still, the Christian faith is not a “religion of the book.” Christianity is the religion of the “Word” of God, a word which is “not a written and mute word, but the Word which is incarnate and living”. If the Scriptures are not to remain a dead letter, Christ, the eternal Word of the living God, must, through the Holy Spirit, “open [our] minds to understand the Scriptures.”

      And, thank God, the Holy Spirit does help us to understand the Scriptures and meet Christ.

      But there are approaches to Scripture which falsify (in one way or another) this encounter with Christ. The Arian heresy, for example, gives us a Christ who is only a creature, unable to bridge the gap between God and humanity.

      Can the Church definitively exclude such approaches?

      • But Josh, scripture is inerrant. I think you’re conflating the literalist interpretation of scripture with inerrancy. (I’m only guess by the way you’re using the terms!)

        One thing we have to remember when dealing with scripture is that it isn’t fallible recordings of an infallible God. But, the scripture itself is a revelation of God. It contains all the truths that we need for our salvation and the exact message he wanted to give us. But, where things get muddy is that he decided to mediate his message through human authors who expressed it in the literary genres of their time. So, that leads to a certain level of interpretation that has to be done in order to understand scripture. Since the scripture is not self-interpreting who can infallibly interpret it but the Church inspired by the holy Spirit?

        Btw, what did you mean by “Can the Church definitively exclude such approaches?” I really don’t get the question.

        • Deacon Todd: (Or do you prefer just Todd?)

          The topic of inerrancy is a rather complicated one, because it all depends on what one counts as an error. What I was doing was disclaiming the overly simplistic ideas of inerrancy common in evangelical Protestant circles. If you reread that sentence closely, I think you’ll see what I mean.

          My question at the end was asking whether Preston thinks the Church can definitively exclude certain ways of interpreting Scripture, like Arianism. The Catholic answer is obvious, but I’m trying to figure out where Preston stands on that (and related) questions.

  3. What you say makes sense to me. I guess that’s why I’m not protestant either! (That and the bible assumes that the Church founded by Christ exists.) Really, where did the NT come from f it was not written by the Church?
    God bless.

  4. There is also the passage from Paul’s Second Letter to the Thessalonians that seems to state that the Church is bound by both written and unwritten tradition.

    “Stand firm, then, brothers and keep the traditions that we taught you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.” 2 Thessalonians 2:15

  5. Pingback: Who Speaks for God? | The Body Theologic

  6. Pingback: Sola Scriptura: Part 2 | The Body Theologic

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