Against Sola Scriptura

Sola scriptura has been a staple for Protestant ecclesiology ever since the Reformation. In modern times, it is typically utilized as a convenient polemic to argue against any tradition that is not Protestant. This paper will analyze the doctrine from various angles, and provide reasons for why it is ultimately redundant, misleading, ahistorical, and entirely contingent upon the literacy of its adherent. As with any Protestant doctrine, sola scriptura is difficult to define, simply because of how many varying definitions exist. There is no universally agreed upon definition among Protestants, so no matter what definition is stated, there will always be some who will accuse others of creating strawmen. Therefore, to avoid the strawman accusation, multiple definitions will be mentioned for the sake of clarity.

Definitions

According to the sixth article of the Twenty-Nine Articles of Religion (1563), Anglicans define sola scriptura as “containing all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation”[1] (For example, since making the sign of the cross is not explicitly mentioned in the scriptures, it is therefore not required and unnecessary for salvation). The Methodists agree with this definition.[2] The Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) states, “The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Sprit, or traditions of men.”[3] The Baptist Abstract of Principles (1858) states that the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments were “given by inspiration of God, and are the only sufficient, certain and authoritative rule of all saving knowledge, faith and obedience.”[4]

Despite all these understandings, one I found most enlightening was in a book with the peculiar title Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the Bible, and it is by a collection of popular Reformed theologians (Robert Godfrey, John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, James White, etc.). One can only speculate how a few Calvinists can gather together and claim to speak on behalf of all Protestants, but the title is certainly a bit presumptuous. In any case, Robert Godfrey claims that the scriptures alone are the ultimate religious authority. He states that everything necessary for salvation concerning faith and life are taught in the Bible with enough clarity that any “ordinary believer” can find them there and understand for themselves.[5] In attempt to nuance his position, he also states the following:

Let me begin with certain clarifications so as not to be misunderstood. I am not arguing that all truth is to be found in the Bible or that the Bible is the only form in which the truth of God has come to His people. I am not arguing that every verse in the Bible is equally clear to every reader. Neither am I arguing that the church—both the people of God and the ministerial office—is not of great value and help in understanding the Scriptures. As William Whitaker states in his noble work: “For we also say that the church is the interpreter of Scripture, and that the gift of interpretation resides only in the church: but we deny that it pertains to particular persons, or is tied to any particular see or succession of men.”[6]

As defined by the articulate Reformed theologians of modernity, the doctrine of sola scriptura states that the scriptures are not only the sole infallible rule of faith and practice, but that it is clear enough that any ordinary believer can understand it.

Redundancy

Firstly, stating that any Christian can understand the scriptures is entirely redundant. The fact is that every ordinary believer does not understand the scriptures. Indeed, most ordinary believers both misinterpret and twist the scriptures. When Philip asked the Ethiopian eunuch if he understood the book of Isaiah, did he reply, “Certainly, any ordinary believer can do this?” It seems his humility was much too great for such a response.[7] This fact alone proves the need for an authoritative teaching office for the sake of maintaining an apostolic hermeneutic. Also, if sola scriptura was truly about understanding the scriptures as the authority on matters of faith and practice, a Catholic could immediately end the Protestant objection by agreement. Do most Protestants not agree on sola scriptura, yet disagree on everything the scriptures say? Therefore, sola scriptura is entirely redundant, because it does not address the actual problem, which is interpretation.

Secondly, Whitaker’s quote that “the church is the interpreter of scripture” is also telling, because it shows that he is clearly rejecting the concept of one visible church community with historical ecclesiological, theological, liturgical, and methodological continuity. In other words, Whitaker is using the word ‘church’ to mean that Christians generally are the ones who accurately interpret scripture, as opposed to secularists. This is a radical departure from traditional understandings of ecclesiology, since most Christians would have interpreted the quote “the church is the interpreter of scripture” to mean the clergy, scholars and monastics of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church pass down biblical interpretation to the laymen via liturgy, homily, catechesis, and fellowship.

The Visible Church

When it comes to hermeneutics, the ecclesiastical structure of the Church exists to maintain the highest probability of interpretive success. For example, obeying what St Ignatius of Antioch (c. 30 – 108) or St Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130 – 202) believed about the ‘Thanksgiving’ (Eucharist) maintains a correct interpretation about what Eucharist means. In isolation from the Church, one might think thanksgiving simply means lunch time, or perhaps even the American holiday in the month of November.[8] Our understanding of the Eucharist also shapes how one interprets Bible passages such as the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. Establishing the ecclesiastical tradition around the bishops is how Christendom always functioned.

The Whitaker quote that Godfrey mentioned is also deeply perplexing, for in one moment he says the church is the interpreter of scripture, and the next moment he says no church is the interpreter of scripture. If hermeneutic is not tied to any particular persons, or see, or succession, then how is ‘the church’ the interpretive standard? Being a Protestant, he no doubt interprets the church as invisible rather than visible, but it does not change the self-defeating nature of the statement. If he believes in sola scriptura, then he already disagrees with his own argument, because the New Testament already contains the interpretations of particular persons, along with the sees and successors of those particular persons.[9] If we are not even trying to align ourselves to the specific interpretive tradition handed down from the Apostles,[10] and to their bishops,[11] then of what use is scripture apart from tradition?

Blind and Mute

The biggest problem with sola scriptura lies not necessarily in what it affirms, but what it denies. The biggest problem lies not in what it says, but what it assumes. Sola scriptura is not problematic merely because it affirms that scripture is the only infallible authority (such a statement means nothing apart from tradition), it is problematic because it allows every individual to be their own (and assign their own) interpretive authority. The doctrine is silent as to which interpretive ecclesiological tradition is representative of ‘orthodoxy.’ For instance, though scripture says we are to baptize, it does not self-interpret what baptism means. Is baptism by immersion, submersion, or sprinkling? Does baptism impart grace, regeneration, and the forgiveness of sins, or is it merely a symbolic outward sign depicting an inward reality? Do we baptize in the name of Jesus, or in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Do we baptize once or three times? One might conclude any of these options from several different Bible passages, which is the problem. Sola scriptura is silent in answering the only questions that matter, and such silence speaks volumes in of itself.

Sola scriptura automatically presumes that any personal/individual hermeneutic represents—by default—the standard of orthodoxy. This is the central error of the doctrine, and it goes unnoticed by every single Protestant who believes in sola scriptura. This blindness must necessarily be present for the doctrine to be affirmed, because the moment one’s eyes are opened to this bubble of presupposition, they no longer hold to sola scriptura by definition. Those inside the bubble think everyone who disagrees with them disagrees with scripture, because they (without realizing it) have made themselves the interpretive standard. For instance, if one were to talk to a Calvinist about ‘Predestination,’ they will presume a determinist understanding of predestination is “what the Bible clearly teaches.” In reality, it is simply how they as individuals interpret the Bible, even knowing that the patristic consensus is in explicit disagreement. John Calvin deliberately chose his own understanding of the text over the understanding of the universal Church. When Protestants accuse Catholics of not holding to sola scriptura, it is under the assumption that the Protestant hermeneutic is entirely accurate and representative of orthodoxy, simply because Protestants understand the scriptures to mean something contrary to Catholicism. This is what I mean by sola scriptura having nothing to do with the Bible, and everything to do with the authority of the Church. Noticing a possible alternative interpretation of a few verses does not—in of itself—prove the validity of the alternate interpretation.

What about Ulrich Zwingli (c. 1484 – 1531) and his understanding of the Eucharist, or the Anabaptist understanding of Baptism? Both Zwingli and the Anabaptists would say that the sacraments are merely ‘symbols,’ and that such an interpretation is “what the Bible clearly teaches.” Yet, they would disagree on whether baptism extends to infants. The other Reformers were so vehemently opposed to such ideas that they went to war against them. If the Bible is so “clear,”[12] why does everyone seem to be blind?

The Berean Novice

One might ask, “Were the Bereans not more noble because they went back and studied the scriptures for themselves?”[13] To this I say that Luke’s description was not authorizing an individualistic means of interpreting the scriptures. Luke records this only to show us that the Bereans received the message with “readiness of mind,” as opposed to the theological apathy of Thessalonica.[14] The Bereans happened to reach the same conclusion, but this is not because they searched the scriptures, it is in spite of it. Any untrained child can search the scriptures like a Berean, that does not mean the child will come to the correct understanding. Do not the scriptures testify to the disqualification of the novice?[15] St Augustine rejected Christianity for Manichaeism precisely because he searched the scriptures and interpreted them in isolation from the hermeneutic of the Church. Then nearly a decade later, he went on a business trip to Milan and encountered St Ambrose preaching a homily on the book of Genesis, and it changed his life forever.[16] The only thing ‘sola scriptura’ did for St Augustine was cause him to reject the Bible and run away from Church’s life-giving hermeneutic.[17]

One might reply that St Augustine did not understand the scriptures because he did not have the Holy Spirit, as if chrismation automatically transforms children into scholars. However, such an argument is easily refuted by its own implication. Firstly, without the ecclesiology of the Church, who decides which interpretations are actually from the Holy Spirit, and on what authority? Why was St Augustine wrong the first time? Why was he right the second time? At the council of Jerusalem, does James say, “It seems good to the holy scriptures and to us?” [18] ‘Orthodoxy’ has always been understood as the Holy Spirit’s declaration through the conciliarity of the Church, not any and every individual’s understanding of the Bible simply because they have the Holy Spirit. The exegetical guidance of the Holy Spirit is given to the Church at large, and within the visible boundaries of Eucharistic communion,[19] not each self-professed Christian individually. Secondly, would anyone actually suggest that if a man cannot understand the scriptures, it is automatically because he does not have the Holy Spirit? Surely one would not suggest that every Christian has identical levels of intellectual competency, or even basic literacy, simply because of a shared Holy Spirit. Such an understanding would immediately disqualify anyone who is mentally handicapped. Thirdly, does St Paul say every man is given to be a teacher?[20] Does St James say that many should be teachers?”[21] Neither are the case, and yet sola scriptura creates an emphasis on private interpretations,[22] which then creates an environment where everyone not only becomes a teacher, but teachers who attempt to teach themselves orthodoxy. In other words, sola scriptura has made every sheep his own shepherd.

The Audacious Canon

From a Protestant perspective, why is praying for the departed ‘unbiblical’ according to the Septuagint canon? Could we not simply point to the Book of Tobit or the second Book of Maccabees?[23] Why exactly is something branded unbiblical simply because it is not in agreement with a Reformer’s canon? Protestantism audaciously gave itself the authority to determine what is or is not ‘canon,’ and Protestants like Martin Luther determined this based entirely upon his own already established hermeneutic. Therefore, Luther was entirely ready and willing to remove the Book of James from his German translation of the New Testament, calling it an “Epistle of straw.” He felt it did not belong in the canon simply because it did not fit within his framework of how he thought the Bible ought to be interpreted.[24] Instead of shaping his hermeneutic around which books of the Bible were always used according to the most popular version of the scriptures,[25] he ironically shaped the Bible around the passages he personally considered ‘biblical.’ Martin Luther clearly must have thought he understood the scriptures better than even St James, and this kind of arrogance is unfortunately all throughout the mindset of the Protestant Reformers. Even if one removes the deuterocanon, prayers for the departed are still evidenced in St Paul.[26] Though, the Reformers would no doubt be forced to disagree with such an interpretation, and instead appeal to a different hermeneutic that is neither authoritative nor historical.

Defined by History

This cosmic shift of authority from Church to self is the real reason why sola scriptura is so problematic. Historically speaking, the very essence of sola scriptura is the usurping of papal authority. It represents a kind of ecclesiastical coup d’etat. It is undeniable that the doctrine exists in history only because of the abuses of papal authority. If there was never a fault observed within the papacy, the doctrine of sola scriptura would not exist because it would have been created out of redundancy rather than necessity. If one grants the proposition that the Protestant Reformers saw sola scriptura as being created from the position of necessity, then one must also grant the reason its existence was perceived as necessary to begin with; that reason being the abuse of ecclesiastical authority.

The reason why this is such an important point to make is because many Protestant answers to the modern criticisms of sola scriptura ignore the historical reasons for its very creation. Protestants will try to disarm Catholic objections by saying they too utilize the Church Fathers. However, Reformation readings of patristic texts were just as selective and individualistic as their reading of the scriptures. For example, John Calvin (c. 1509 – 1564) admired John Chrysostom (c. 347 – 407), but such admiration never went beyond the things Chrysostom said with which Calvin already agreed prior to reading Chrysostom. Calvin went as far as to say that because Chrysostom did not agree with his teaching on predestination,[27] he departed God’s judgment and obviously just wanted to please the world.[28] This shows how Reformers like Calvin judged the Church Fathers using his already established hermeneutic as the standard, rather than the other way around. Trenham writes:

Here is Calvin in all his arrogance and theological overconfidence. His accusations against the likes of Ss. Chrysostom and Basil the Great are that they were too worldly, too submissive to worldly powers, and not willing enough to defy merely human judgments. These charges are ironic in that they apply far more to Calvin himself and the Protestant Reformers than to the Holy Fathers he attacks…That the Holy Fathers refused to articulate Calvin’s doctrine of predestination is hardly a sign of complicity with worldly men, but rather a refusal to articulate what does not have the support of the Holy Scriptures and the consensus patrum.[29]

Authority Complex

Sola scriptura is clearly not a doctrine about the Bible, it truly is a doctrine about ecclesiastical authority. The historical context surrounding sola scriptura defines the doctrine much louder than the actual stated definition. Sola scriptura is simply the shift of interpretive authority from ‘Church’ to ‘self.’ It claims that every individual Christian is bound only to that which is in the Bible, because all ecclesiastical authorities are subject to error and uncertainty. However, what sola scriptura really means is that every individual Christian is bound only to their personal interpretation of scripture. This has frightening implications when sola scriptura advocates also call the Bible the “Word of God,” because it essentially divinizes their own interpretation. Therefore, sola scriptura undermines the office of teacher that was given to the Church.[30]

Many advocates of sola scriptura seem to think it is a dogma of Christianity. However, as it has been shown, the doctrine itself was historically created as a Protestant polemic against the interpretive authority of Rome, after having concluded the Roman Catholic Church was in error. However, if the Reformers were correct regarding something in the scriptures, it was despite sola scriptura, not because of it. One could argue that the Reformers got much more incorrect than correct, if Orthodoxy is the interpretive standard. The Reformers were only correct in their attacks against Rome if one believes the Reformers themselves to be the interpretive standard of orthodoxy. However, if Eastern Orthodoxy is the interpretive standard, the Reformers were correct with regards to very little.

Reading sola scriptura backwards through history is anachronistic, because the early bishops and theologians of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church were obviously not going to emphasize “the Bible” over and against the very interpretive authority through which the scriptures are read and understood. When many Protestants read any emphasis of the scriptures within the patristic corpus, they often do so thinking the fathers carry with them the same assumption that the scriptures contain a disembodied interpretation existing in a realm beyond human perception. However, there simply is no such thing as ‘the Bible,’ or any written text, in the form of an autonomous inanimate entity that speaks for itself. If this were the case, differences in interpretation would not exist, because interpretation would be based solely on literacy.

Literacy and Education

Literacy is a historical aspect of sola scriptura that often gets overlooked. The Protestant Reformation takes place at a unique point in time, because prior to the creation of the Gutenberg printing press (c. 1440), most people were illiterate. It should come as no surprise that the doctrine of sola scriptura was being preached from the mouth of men like Martin Luther (c. 1483 – 1546) within one generation after the Bible was being printed for the common man. It should also not be surprising that Protestants began vigorous educational campaigns to reduce the level of illiteracy. To those who cannot read, sola scriptura is an irrelevant doctrine because it does not change the fact that the illiterate would still need an interpretive authority outside of themselves. For the Reformers, literacy was not optional, it was fundamental. Literacy was the very foundation to support sola scriptura, and this resulted in a very high view of education.[31] Of course, this is not to say that emphasizing education and literacy is a problem, but that one must understand sola scriptura in its proper historical context, because it is actually the historical context that defines the doctrine, not the various Protestant definitions.

Conclusion

Sola scriptura is therefore a redundant doctrine with a misleading definition, because the doctrine is not actually defined by what it says, but by what it does not say. It is ultimately ahistorical and entirely contingent upon the literacy of its adherent. It was not held by any of the Church Fathers, because it would have dismantled the very ecclesiastical system that surrounded them. It could neither be held by the average laymen, since illiteracy was always an issue. Therefore, sola scriptura ought to either be reformed or outright rejected.

________________________________________________________________

[1] John H. Leith, Creeds of the Churches (Louisville: John Knox Press, 3rd edition, 1982), p. 267.

[2] Ibid., p. 355.

[3] Ibid., p. 195.

[4] Ibid., 340.

[5] Robert Godfrey. “What do we mean by sola scriptura?” Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the Bible. (Reformation Trust Publishing, 2009), p. 2.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Acts 8:27.

[8] Before laughing, know that I have seen even greater ignorance than this among the “ordinary believers.” I once had a conversation with a man who thought Baptist Protestants were the true Christians because the Bible says the forerunner to Christ was named John “the Baptist.”

[9] Such as the Apostles, rather than their Gnostic contemporaries.

[10] 2 Thessalonians 2:15.

[11] Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, etc.

[12] There is a Protestant doctrine known as the “perspicuity” of the scriptures, which asserts that the scriptures are clear and free from obscurity.

[13] Acts 17:11.

[14] Ibid.

[15] 1 Timothy 3:6.

[16] Augustine. Confessions 5.13.23

[17] Anachronism is employed here for the sake of argument, and not for historical accuracy.

[18] Acts 15:28.

[19] Meaning, the Spirit is the promised guardian of only that which can be defined as “The One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.” Therefore, heterodox Christian traditions existing outside of communion with the visible Orthodox Church do not have the same kind of hermeneutical hope.

[20] Ephesians 4:11.

[21] James 3:1.

[22] Due to the individualistic rejection of any ‘ecclesiastical’ authority in hermeneutics.

[23] Tobit 12:12, 2 Maccabees 12:39-45.

[24] Luther’s personal orthodoxy determined his personal canon.

[25] The Septuagint.

[26] 2 Timothy 1:18.

[27] Which is essentially determinism.

[28] Josiah Trenham. Rock and Sand: An Orthodox Appraisal of the Protestant Reformers and Their Teachings. (Newrome Press LLC, 2015), p.131.

[29] Ibid., p. 132.

[30] 1 Corinthians 12:28.

[31] Paul Spears. “Luther, Protestantism, and Education.” Chapter 14 of International Handbook of Protestant Education. Vol. 6, (Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, 2012), p. 296.

 

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