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