If there is one thing that could properly be called the rallying cry of Protestants today, it is the concept of sola scriptura, the Bible alone. Facets of justification such as imputed righteousness and irresistible grace really don’t make for great talking points. Yet “I’m for the Bible Alone!” you’ve got yourself something flashy to go with.
To the eyes of the Protestant, they believe any plain reading of the Scriptures will mandate Sola Scriptura. They charge the Catholic Church with a most serious charge: adding to the word of God the precepts of men. If true, then we Catholics are in trouble. While some will attempt to mince words for the sake of unity, if we Catholics are wrong about this, the consequences are dire.
Thankfully, we are not wrong. I uphold the position that it is clear to any unbiased (and I pray even the biased) that a thorough reading of the Scriptures holds absolutely no concept of sola scriptura. Quite the contrary, the biblical evidence teaches that the Catholic position, when properly understood, allows only for the Catholic understanding on this matter.
Before we continue, we would do well to define our terms. When I state the phrase sola scriptura, I will be working off the definition provided to us by the Westminster Confession of Faith, one of the great Protestant statements of Christian belief. Even those who would not follow a Reformed background can agree with their teachings on the Scriptures when they state:
Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence, do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation; therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his Church; and afterwards for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which maketh the holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God's revealing his will unto his people being now ceased….
The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture, is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it may be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly…
The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.
For those who have never read this document, there exists a striking amount of material (here at least) where Catholics can nod in assent. Many times false interpretations are given on both sides. Yet we can clearly see what is being said here.
First and foremost, the concept of Sola Scriptura is for Christians today. During Apostolic times and the times of the Prophets, they admit of other rules of faith. Yet since the close of the Apostolic Age (traditionally understood to be the death of the Apostle John), they assert that it is the Scriptures and the Scriptures alone which are the sole infallible rule of faith for the Christian conscience.
A popular misconception in Catholic circles is that Protestants have little if any respect for the concept of tradition. The Protestant will counter simply by pointing to the popular Protestant credos They will point out scholars of history such as Phillip Schaff, the eminent Church historian. They will point in “mainstream” Churches the celebration of many great Christian heroes in their liturgies. They will simply state that while these are beneficial and lovely, they do not uphold them as infallible, instead they hold only the Scriptures to be the infallible rule of faith for the Church. throughout history.
As we begin our analysis of their claims, I would like to point out a few prominent errors that the Protestant makes. Far from being secondary, these flawed concepts permeate their entire understanding of the doctrine. Strip away these false understandings, and the doctrine is left in serious trouble.
The first error I would like to talk about is what I call anachronistic interpretation. This is when the Protestant approaches the Sacred Texts with his own ideas firmly established, and then reads into the Bible what he wants to see. Being firmly convinced of sola scriptura, he seeks for passages to prove his case. After a bit of misinterpretation, he smiles proudly as he believes he has demonstrated the truth of Sola Scriptura.
By their own words they can be undone. Remember the Westminster Confession states the teaching of sola scriptura with a qualifier: those former ways of God's revealing his will unto his people being now ceased. One could simply not have sola scriptura during the times when the Scriptures were still being written. The “Council of Jerusalem” in Acts 15 clearly proves this wrong. The decisions made by the Apostles were binding throughout the entire Church. What they said, everyone was forced to follow. The Apostles also existed as the infallible judge as to what the Scriptures said. Let us follow the inconsistency:
1.) The Scriptures teach that the Bible Alone is the sole infallible rule of faith for the Christian Church outside of Apostolic times
2.) The Apostles and those during times of revelation did not practice Sola Scriptura, nor did they explicitly teach it, as doing so would’ve contradicted their actions.
3.) The only evidence the Protestant will admit is the testimony of men who either did not follow Sola Scriptura, or were hypocrites, doing the opposite of their teaching
4.) The only logical conclusion is that the Bible presents no explicit evidence for Sola Scriptura
Make no mistake; this argument is a fatal flaw. There is no explicit evidence in Scripture which states that after the death of the Apostles, the rule of faith for the Christian will change. The Holy Scriptures contain that which, as St. John’s epilogue tells us, is written for our salvation and instruction. Would not logic dictate that such an important change be recorded?
They will then attempt to make their case implicitly, and then they run into fatal error number two. We shall call this the “Scripture is good syndrome.” Whenever the Protestant sees a text extolling the efficacy of the Scriptures, they automatically assume that this in and of itself is sufficient for proving sola scriptura.
This is logically absurd. I am a Detroit Tigers fan for professional baseball. I will swear up and down that the Tigers are the best team in the league. They are able to do almost every facet of the game. If one wished to learn how to hit a baseball, they could do no better than watching Ordonez hit to the opposite field, or Miguel Cabrera’s lighting fast swing. Yet does this mean that the Tigers alone can do these things? Certainly not, considering they have not won a championship in 26 years!
The same could be said with the Scriptures. Though they are extolled, this is never done to the exclusion of other things. Alongside the Scriptures, the apostolic witness is provided on par with Scripture as a rule of faith (1 Thess 2:14-15, 2 Thess 2:!5 amongst other places) as is the testimony and judgment of the Church, whom all must agree with (Matthew 18, Acts 15, etc.) Yet the Catholic would never proclaim that you rely only on the Apostle’s oral statements or state that the authority of the Church is allowed to contradict the Scriptures.
Having lost two of their pillars, the Protestant then typically engages in a host of misrepresentations of what the Catholic Church teaches. However, we must sympathize with them. Many well-meaning individuals have given a clearly false notion of what Sacred Tradition is. Yet, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, the Church to this day proclaims the truth. In my next piece I will focus on these instances.