I used to be an ardent defender of sola scriptura. As such, I understand the impulse to say that the Bible is the highest authority that we have for theological knowledge on earth. Catholics would, in fact agree, if this is all we meant by sola scriptura. The problem is that what theologians mean by sola scriptura and what it is used for in Protestant doctrine becomes incoherent. It simply can’t work.
My big takeaway for sola scriptura is that it must lead to theological individualism/liberalism. Each individual person becomes the ultimate arbiter of what scriptures mean. I don’t believe Jesus left us with an invisible church with the intent that we would all interpret scriptures for ourselves leading to endless division.
In this post, we will explore a few of the most important conclusions I came to as to why I now think sola scriptura is not correct.
1. Definition problem of sola scriptura
Right off the bat, there is a definition problem with sola scriptura. How I used to define sola scriptura and how I often hear other Protestants define it is by saying “we aren’t saying the only things we can know is what we find in scripture, we are saying that you can’t teach something that contradicts scriptures. We aren’t saying solo scriptura, but rather, sola scriptura: the idea that scripture is the highest norm that norms all theological knowledge (norma normans)”.
This is all well and good. The Catholic Church actually agrees with that too.1 You can’t teach something that contradicts scripture because scripture is the inspired word of God. However, sola scriptura is used more often in a more narrow and technical sense to say that only scripture can norm theological knowledge. Or only scripture can make binding doctrine. This second, more restrictive definition of sola scriptura, is much more what the Formula of Concord is getting at when it says:
1] We believe, teach, and confess that the sole rule and standard according to which all dogmas together with [all] teachers should be estimated and judged are the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures of the Old and of the New Testament alone, as it is written Ps. 119:105: Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path. And St. Paul: Though an angel from heaven preach any other gospel unto you, let him be accursed, Gal. 1:8.2
Here is a modern Lutheran saying they base doctrine solely on the bible:
The average Lutheran layman today may not know any Latin, but he probably knows what the phrase sola scriptura (Scripture alone) means. It means that we Lutherans base our theology solely on the Scriptures of God and nothing else, not tradition, not human speculation, not modern scholarship, not our experiences or feelings or anything else. sola scriptura is a watchword, a guide for action, for every true Lutheran, pastor or layman.
This was the position and practice of Luther and our Lutheran Confessions. “The Word of God is and should remain the sole rule and norm of all doctrine” (FC SD, Rule and Norm, 9).3
This second idea, that scripture is the only thing that we can base binding doctrine on, is the definition that we will dispute here. This position is not biblical nor is it philosophically tenable.
2. A self-refuting proposition: sola scriptura isn’t in the Bible
The first problem with sola scriptura is the idea of sola scriptura isn’t in the Bible itself. This makes the idea of sola scriptura a self refuting proposition. The key doctrine that we are supposed to only use the Bible to formulate doctrine, this key doctrine itself isn’t in the Bible. This seems like an insurmountable logical problem for sola scriptura. To put it colloquially, it seems dead on arrival.
A similar analogy would be the faulty epistemological argument of scientism: that we can only know what we can prove scientifically. This claim is self-refuting too because you can’t scientifically test the proposition that we can only know what we can prove scientifically. That claim is a philosophical claim, not a scientific one. The argument is self-contradictory. The same self-contradiction is what happens with sola scriptura.
Again, if you walk back the strength of the claim and take the other, softer sola scriptura approach that all doctrine must not contradict scripture, then you are teaching what the Catholic Church teaches.
What the Catholic Church Teaches
3. Both Catholics and Lutherans believe in the authority of scripture
As already alluded to, the Catholic Church views scriptures as God’s very own word and cannot be contradicted. Dei Verbum, from the Second Vatican Council documents, states this very idea here.
…Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.4
Sacred theology rests on the written word of God, together with sacred tradition, as its primary and perpetual foundation. By scrutinizing in the light of faith all truth stored up in the mystery of Christ, theology is most powerfully strengthened and constantly rejuvenated by that word. For the Sacred Scriptures contain the word of God and since they are inspired really are the word of God; and so the study of the sacred page is, as it were, the soul of sacred theology.3 By the same word of Scripture the ministry of the word also, that is, pastoral preaching, catechetics and all Christian instruction, in which the liturgical homily must hold the foremost place, is nourished in a healthy way and flourishes in a holy way.5
The Catholic Church also teaches that sacred tradition is where our binding theological knowledge comes from, and of course, that is part of the dispute we will continue to deal with here. The Catholic Church claims that scriptures are a part of the unique authority of traditions the Church is definitive stewards over. They teach the Catholic Church is the unique authority to teach the faith and interpret sacred scriptures.
This isn’t to say the Catholic Church is the only entity that can interpret and understand the Bible. This is to say, though, only the Catholic Church has the ability to define binding doctrine or make definitive interpretations of scriptures. They usually only do this out of necessity, when a dispute arises.
4. Scripture is a part of tradition.
There is an intimate connection between the scripture and the traditions of the Church.
Hence there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. Consequently it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.6
Because God entrusted His authority to the Church, it is also a part of the Church’s authority to preserve and perceive the written and unwritten traditions.
783 [DS 1501] The sacred and holy ecumenical and general Synod of Trent, lawfully assembled in the Holy Spirit, with the same three Legates of the Apostolic See presiding over it, keeping this constantly in view, that with the abolishing of errors, the purity itself of the Gospel is preserved in the Church, which promised before through the Prophets in the Holy Scriptures our Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God first promulgated with His own mouth, and then commanded “to be preached” by His apostles “to every creature” as the source of every saving truth and of instruction in morals [Matt. 28:19 ff.; Mark 16:15], and [the Synod] clearly perceiving that this truth and instruction are contained in the written books and in the unwritten traditions, which have been received by the apostles from the mouth of Christ Himself, or from the apostles themselves, at the dictation of the Holy Spirit, have come down even to us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand, [the Synod] following the examples of the orthodox Fathers, receives and holds in veneration with an equal affection of piety and reverence all the books both of the Old and of the New Testament, since one God is the author of both, and also the traditions themselves, those that appertain both to faith and to morals, as having been dictated either by Christ’s own word of mouth, or by the Holy Spirit, and preserved in the Catholic Church by a continuous succession. And so that no doubt may arise in anyone’s mind as to which are the books that are accepted by this Synod, it has decreed that a list of the Sacred books be added to this decree.7
Scripture itself actually teaches us that there are both oral and written traditions that have been passed on in the Church. This shows that the written traditions (scriptures) are not the exclusive mode of communicating the faith. This is another very strong mark against sola scriptura, because not only is the proposition of sola scriptura NOT in the Bible, but its antithesis, that oral tradition is part of the deposit and ongoing transmission of the faith is explicitly in the Bible.
2 Thessalonians 2:13–15
But we ought to give thanks to God for you always, brothers loved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in truth. To this end he has (also) called you through our gospel to possess the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.
5. The Catholic Church is given authority to definitively interpret scripture
It seems to me that there must be an interpretive authority for scripture. The nature of human language is that it can always be interpreted in multiple ways (more on this in #9).
This can’t just be a written authority of tradition in the past, either. Often, heresies arise when someone thinks they understand tradition and scripture better than other people in their time. The Catholic Church gives us a living authority (living magisterium), that can deal with disputes in interpretation that are bound to come up until the end of time.
Here is Dei Verbum, once again, discussing the unique authority of the Catholic Church has to interpret and teach what is in scriptures.
But in order to keep the Gospel forever whole and alive within the Church, the Apostles left bishops as their successors, “handing over” to them “the authority to teach in their own place.”3 This sacred tradition, therefore, and Sacred Scripture of both the Old and New Testaments are like a mirror in which the pilgrim Church on earth looks at God, from whom she has received everything, until she is brought finally to see Him as He is, face to face (see 1 John 3:2).
But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on,8 has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church,9 whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.
It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.8
Here is St. Irenaeus discussing the specific authority of the Catholic Church to interpret the traditions of the Church.
It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to “the perfect” apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men; which men, if they discharged their functions honestly, would be a great boon [to the Church], but if they should fall away, the direst calamity.9
6. The Catholic Church gives us the epistemological canon, it does not give us the ontological canon.
The Catholic church does not claim it creates scriptures. God is the only one that creates scriptures. The Catholic Church is given the authority to discern and declare which writings are from God and which are not. This is something that sola scriptura simply cannot do. There is no list of scriptures in the Bible. There is no table of contents in scriptures.
To argue that scripture are simply self attesting is to put forth the same arguments that Mormons would use to say their scriptures are self attesting. One need to appeal to tradition to get the table of contents for scriptures, and one needs this appeal to be authoritative or there is no end to what could or couldn’t be considered scriptures that we then use for our theological arguments.10
6.1 Historical Inconsistency
The same standards you would use to argue for the 27 books of the New Testament would get you the magisterium. The claim of the magisterium is to say there was a covenant community that Christ and His apostles deposited Christ’s message and teachings to and gave them the authority to interpret scripture and define dogma/doctrine. The fact we have a 27 book New Testament testifies to an enduring covenant community with a teaching authority that went beyond the college of the apostles and perpetuates it into the future. The same authority that declared the 27 book New Testament through the Holy Spirit still resides in this covenant community (the Catholic Church) and is guided by the Holy Spirit when they make definitive teaching today. If you accept the 27 book New Testament from this covenant community but reject their claims to magesterial authority, you are being inconsistent.
More Problems and Consequences of sola scriptura
7. Sola scriptura must lead to theological individualism/liberalism
I understand why people would want to follow sola scripture as a guiding principle for theological knowledge. It makes sense to say if we know something is a written record of God’s direct revelation, it must be the highest authority. However, if God isn’t here in person to correct us when we misunderstand what He meant us to understand in scripture, or if God did not leave us with a human authority to do so, this opens up a major problem:
At first, that sounds good and holy. “The Word of God stands above any human authority!” “Amen, brother!” We can shout that and slap each other on the back and feel like we are being very righteous, upholding the honor and majesty of God. But this concept meant that in theory, or even in practice, any given Church council, father, theologian, or pope could be wrong. Theoretically, the entire Church could have misunderstood a certain Scripture for two thousand years, until some individual Christian came along and understood it properly for the first time. That, in turn, meant that one could never be certain that Christians had properly understood Scripture. Therefore, any and every doctrine could potentially be called into question, and nothing was ever really settled.11
— John Bergsma
Sola scriptura descends into theological individualism/liberalism. Every doctrine is up to the individual conscience to decide for itself what it thinks it means. If they don’t like one church’s explanation, they can try to get the church to change. If the church won’t, they can simply go to a new church that agrees with them or just disregard a church all together and become a bible only Christian at home.
We can see this individual as the ultimate interpretive authority in one of the most famous of Luther quotes:
Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the Word of God.12
— Martin Luther
8. There are so many key verses that change entire theological systems that are disputed. Without an authority to declare what the Bible means in areas of dispute, there is no way to ever have certainty in what any scripture is saying or if your entire theological system is correct.
8.1 Romans 2:13
Romans 2:13 presents a common challenge verse where Paul says it is “the doers of the law who will be justified”. Some Protestant commentators will take a route that this verse is only speaking of a hypothetical situation. Many Catholic commentators say that only a justified person, whose heart has been changed by the infusion of sanctifying grace, is able to keep the law by God’s power. In this way, Paul can tell us that “only doers of the law” will be declared righteous at the final judgement.13
8.2 Romans 3:28
What Paul means by “works of the law” is another verse that is often disputed. Luther used this as one of his key verses to teach that no one can be justified by their own good works. The Catholic tradition has taught two main interpretations, one that says “works of the law” pertain to the Jewish ceremonial works only. On this view, the Jewish ceremonial law (like the requirement of circumcision) plays no part in our justification from start to finish. The moral law still plays a part in salvation as seen in Romans 2:13 or Matthew 25:31-46. Other Catholic scripture commentators have said, like Luther, that “works of the law” means the moral law too. In this case, they say that Paul is excluding works from playing any part in our initial justification but not from final justification which we see from Romans 2:13 Paul doesn’t mean to exclude.14
8.3 All major doctrine is up for dispute on sola scriptura
The Bible can, and clearly is, interpreted in many ways. There are thousands of Protestant denominations that use scripture alone to come to many contradictory positions and many things. We are not talking about small, inconsequential things either. These are major doctrines that cause many divisions between Christians: baptismal regeneration, the nature and necessity of the Eucharist, sola fide, universal salvation, etc. By treating scripture as the sole authority apart from an authoritative interpreting tradition, all doctrine ultimately becomes up to the individual to decide. Sola scriptura necessitates theological individualism/liberalism.
The Catholic Church, on the other hand, gives us a living magisterium that can settle doctrinal disputes for all time.
9. The perspicuity of scripture is untenable. Written language needs to be interpreted. It doesn’t interpret itself.
Many Lutherans claimed we don’t need a living magisterium because all the necessities for salvation are clearly known to all in scriptures. This is often termed the perspicuity of scriptures.15
I love this example from Patrick Madrid as it shows how perspicuity of scriptures is just objectively false, we can’t expect scripture to interpret itself clearly to everyone.16 It is easy to show that we can interpret even the simplest writings in multiple ways.
Patrick was having coffee with some Protestant people that came up to him after a debate and wanted to explain to him why his views on Mary were wrong. The chat quickly got into ideas surrounding sola scriptura because they kept asking him where in the Bible was that idea about Mary. He showed them some scriptural support for his positions (e.g. Mary is the ark of the covenant in Rev. 12) and they responded with, “that verse doesn’t mean that”. Patrick then pointed out to them that without a final interpretive authority we can and will have endless fights and division over what scripture means. Scriptures as a final authority doesn’t mean much of anything because we all can disagree and change our minds about what the words mean.
He then wrote on a piece of paper the sentence:
I never said you stole money.
He showed them that this simple sentence in modern English that all 3 speakers at the table spoke fluently could mean dramatically different things. It could mean:
- I thought in my head you stole money but I never said it out loud.
I never said that you were the person who stole the money, I said someone else did.
I never said you stole money, maybe you did something else to the money like light it on fire.
Or, I never said you stole money, maybe it was something else. Maybe I said you stole your employers time by surfing the internet at work.
To say that scripture is the only thing that infallibly teaches us the faith is to leave the interpretation up to fallible men. It is endless division and disagreement over what the words mean. The Bible is a collection of many writings, centuries old, written in many languages. How could each individual understand all the context clearly to interpret properly scriptures when we just showed how a simple 6 word English sentence can mean so many different things depending on context that isn’t always clear?
Or, maybe Jesus instituted a church that can dogmatically define interpretations and teachings as needed (usually in response to challenges from heresy)?
10. Scripture actually teaches against the idea of perspicuity.
In the Old Testament, Deut 17:8-12 shows that God called the people of Israel to obey their priests in their judgements or face the consequence of death. Each individual Israelite was not called to read and judge scriptures for themselves. In the New Testament, Jesus gave Peter (Matt 16:18-19) and all the apostles (Matt 18:18) the power to loose and bind, or in other words, to be the authority to interpret divine law for the Christian community. Also, in 2 Peter 3:16, we see that Peter teaches the writings of Paul are often hard to understand and people often distort them arriving at error. There isn’t anything in the New Testament that points us to the idea that scriptures should be self interpretive.
Ultimately, the testimony of Scripture is against sola scriptura. Ironically, the Scriptures themselves make provision for the adjudication of disputes about Scripture, but the provision they provide appeals to a living community with leaders who already exist, who can be found and located. Both Testaments presume the existence of the People of God as a visible community with visible office bearers. The interpretation of the Scriptures only becomes an unsolvable, factious dilemma when Christians reject the visible church and its visible office bearers, and seek to set up different churches according to their own concepts or convictions.17
— John Bergsma
11. One common argument for sola scriptura is 2 Tim 3:16, but sola scriptura has to be read into this verse.
The greek word “ophelimos” is often translated in Protestant Bibles as “sufficient”. This is done to try to show that all scripture is sufficient for Christians to know what is necessary for salvation. This translation is quite a stretch, though, and is better translated as “profitable”. All Christians should agree with the “profitable” reading as scripture is clearly good for teaching.
2 Tim 3:16
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,
Again, we actually see scripture points us away from this verse meaning sola scriptura as we see elsewhere that scripture points toward the Church (1 Timothy 3:15) and the traditions of the apostles (2 Thes 2:15, 1 Cor 11:2) as being the foundation of God’s teaching.18
1 Timothy 3:15
15 if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.
12. Sola scriptura must always become solo scriptura
We already discussed the 2 ways we often define sola scriptura. I would argue one cannot maintain the softer version, the idea that sola scriptura only corrects our knowledge and that our theological knowledge isn’t limited to the Bible. Sola scriptura must always become solo scriptura.
Even if one claims to submit to their church’s authority for interpreting scripture, it is still up to the individual to then determine which church is the right one. There is no authority to tell us which churches interpret scripture correctly. Individuals must select a church by comparing what they teach against the Bible. We are right back to solo scriptura again. This article from Bryan Cross, Solo Scriptura, sola scriptura, and the Question of Interpretive Authority, does an excellent job of presenting this case.19
13. Tu Quoque fallacy does not apply to Catholic Church in claiming its authority
The tu quoque fallacy is an informal fallacy that says the arguer fails to see they also fall prey to the argument they are making against another. As such, it is sometimes called the hypocrisy fallacy. While one may naturally think the claim above, that you must choose which church you believe is solo scriptura is a tu quoque fallacy, it really isn’t. Here is why:
The person becoming Catholic, by contrast, is seeking out the Church that Christ founded. He does this not by finding that group of persons who share his interpretation of Scripture. Rather, he locates in history those whom the Apostles appointed and authorized, observes what they say and do viz-a-viz the transmission of teaching and interpretive authority, traces that line of successive authorizations down through history to the present day to a living Magisterium, and then submits to what this present-day Magisterium is teaching. By finding the Magisterium, he finds something that has the divine authority to bind the conscience.20
— Bryan Cross
Martin Luther and the Reformation
14. Luther started to call for books of the Catholic Bible to be discarded to non-scriptural status as they disagreed with his theology.
In the Leipzig debate on July 8th, 1519 Luther dismissed Maccabees as canonical on a debate on the doctrine of purgatory with Johann Eck only after it was reported Luther seemed to be losing the debate to Eck. Luther cited St. Jerome as his reasoning for all of sudden claiming the Deuterocanonical books were not scripture and authoritative for doctrine. St. Jerome had doubts about some books due to the lack of an original Hebrew text.
Interestingly, Luther used the Deuterocanon books himself in other debates just days prior.
It now turns out that both Luther and St. Jerome were wrong about their Hebrew text only reasoning.21
Furthermore, St. Jerome recanted when the Pope said he must submit to stay within the church. Martin Luther did not. In his preface to the vulgate, which was his translation of the Bible that Church commissioned him to, Jerome explained why he had doubts about the deuterocanonical books. A person named Rufinus responded to Jerome about his prefaces that he was wrong. Here, is an excerpt of a response from Jerome back to Rufinus explaining that he didn’t like the version the church was asking him to translate from but, nonetheless, he submitted to the “judgment of the churches”:
I also told the reader that the version read in the Christian churches was not that of the Septuagint translators but that of Theodotion. It is true, I said that the Septuagint version was in this book very different from the original, and that it was condemned by the right judgment of the churches of Christ; but the fault was not mine who only stated the fact, but that of those who read the version. We have four versions to choose from: those of Aquila, Symmachus, the Seventy, and Theodotion. The churches choose to read Daniel in the version of Theodotion. What sin have I committed in following the judgment of the churches? But when I repeat what the Jews say against the Story of Susanna and the Hymn of the Three Children, and the fables of Bel and the Dragon, which are not contained in the Hebrew Bible, the man who makes this a charge against me proves himself to be a fool and a slanderer; for I explained not what I thought but what they commonly say against us. I did not reply to their opinion in the Preface, because I was studying brevity, and feared that I should seem to he writing not a Preface but a book. I said therefore, “As to which this is not the time to enter into discussion.” […] Still, I wonder that a man should read the version of Theodotion the heretic and judaizer, and should scorn that of a Christian, simple and sinful though he may be.
— St. Jerome. (Against Rufinus, 11:33 [AD 402]).
15. Martin Luther wanted to reject other (non-deuterocanonical) books of the Bible he didn’t agree with.
On Many occasions, Martin Luther said he wanted to get rid of books of the Bible he didn’t agree with. Here are a couple of his more well-known quotes about getting rid of the Epistle of James.
Here is Luther’s famous (or infamous) comment from his original Preface to the New Testament, 1522 version:
In a word St. John’s Gospel and his first epistle, St. Paul’s epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and salvatory for you to know, even if you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine. Therefore St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it. But more of this in the other prefaces. (LW 35:362)
Another rather silly Luther utterance is also from 1542:
That epistle of James gives us much trouble, for the papists embrace it alone and leave out all the rest. Up to this point I have been accustomed just to deal with and interpret it according to the sense of the rest of Scriptures. For you will judge that none of it must be set forth contrary to manifest Holy Scripture. Accordingly, if they will not admit my interpretations, then I shall make rubble also of it. I almost feel like throwing Jimmy into the stove, as the priest in Kalenberg did. (LW 34:317)22
15. 1 The Church Fathers quoted from the deuterocanonical scriptures often making the case much stronger for their inclusion in scriptures
If we look back to the very beginnings of the Christian Church, we find the Church Fathers quoting often from these deuterocanonical books. They quoted them right alongside other books of the Bible as if they were scripture.
“You shall not waver with regard to your decisions [Sir. 1:28]. Do not be someone who stretches out his hands to receive but withdraws them when it comes to giving [Sir. 4:31]” (Didache 4:5 [A.D. 70]).
. . . When you can do good, defer it not, because ‘alms delivers from death’ [Tob. 4:10, 12:9]. Be all of you subject to one another [1 Pet. 5:5], having your conduct blameless among the Gentiles [1 Pet. 2:12], and the Lord may not be blasphemed through you. But woe to him by whom the name of the Lord is blasphemed [Is. 52:5]!” (Polycarp of Smyrna, Letter to the Philadelphians 10 [A.D. 135]).23
There were several early Church Councils that declared the deuterocanonical books as part of the Old Testament list of scriptures.
COUNCIL OF HIPPO
“[It has been decided] that besides the canonical scriptures nothing be read in church under the name of divine Scripture. But the canonical scriptures are as follows: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua the Son of Nun, Judges, Ruth, the Kings, four books, the Chronicles, two books, Job, the Psalter, the five books of Solomon [Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom, and a portion of the Psalms], the twelve books of the prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Tobit, Judith, Esther, Ezra, two books, Maccabees, two books . . .” (Canon 36 [A.D. 393]).24
The well known church historian J. N. D. Kelly even went as far to say that the Church has uniformly always included the deuterocanonical books in their Bibles.
“It should be observed that the Old Testament thus admitted as authoritative in the Church was somewhat bulkier and more comprehensive [than the Protestant Bible]. . . . It always included, though with varying degrees of recognition, the so-called apocrypha or deuterocanonical books”.25
This isn’t at all to diminish the fact these books of and others have been disputed at one time or another by certain individuals. But the fact is the Church as a whole, in whom Christ gave the authority to bind and loose, accepted the deuterocanonical books as scripture right from the beginning.26 Since this was the uniform practice, we again see a novelty of Luther in his claiming his own authority to remove/demote these books from the status of canon of scripture.
16. Canon within a canon: Luther and other Protestants today still treat some books as antilegomena and do not allow doctrine to come from just these books.
Luther and many Lutherans today do not allow one to come up with doctrine that arise from just the antilegomena books of the bible. Antilegomena books are the disputed books, such as James. Homologumena books are the ones that were not ever disputed in Church history like the Book of Romans.
Chemnitz insisted on preserving the Homologumena-Antilegomena distinction for another important reason. It was of essential importance in the mind of Chemnitz that Lutheran pastors and theologians observe this ancient distinction when documenting doctrines. He states, “No dogma ought therefore to be drawn out of these books which does not have reliable and clear foundations and testimonies in other canonical books. Nothing controversial can be proved out of these books, unless there are other proofs and confirmations in the canonical books. (Examination of the Council of Trent, Part I. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1971)p. 190)27
And, this is a view that is still common today:
Today, WELS pastors acknowledge the ancient Homologumena-Antilegomena as an historical fact. There has been no phenomenon or occurrence in the church’s history which has somehow made the antilegomena a part of the Homologumena. If there has been one, it is only the result of being ignorant of the ancient distinction or simply choosing to ignore the distinction altogether.28
Even if you are a Protestant that rejects this distinction, this just goes to show that in rejecting the authority of the Catholic Church, it is theological individualism/liberalism. You are deciding if you agree with the Homologumena-Antilegomena distinction or if you reject it and in so doing you are still deciding what books are scripture (which Bible do you use), what books you think have higher authority, and what individual verses mean. We all agree the Bible is the authority of God, but sola scriptura allows for individual interpretations as to what is in the Bible and what it means.
17. Martin Luther saw the maleffects of his idea of sola scriptura, though he didn’t attribute it to sola scriptura.
Right after Martin Luther started the Reformation, immediately he had to deal with challenges to his interpretation from fellow reformers – Zwingli on real presence, Calvin on baptismal regeneration. In rejecting the Church’s authority and trying to place it solely in the Bible, Martin Luther opened up the flood gates as to ways in interpreting the Bible and the endless divisions among Christians it caused.
There are as many sects and beliefs as there are heads. This fellow will have nothing to do with baptism; another denies the Sacrament; a third believes that there is another world between this and the Last Day. Some teach that Christ is not God; some say this, some say that. There is no rustic so rude but that, if he dreams or fancies anything, it must be the whisper of the Holy Spirit, and he himself a prophet.29
— Martin Luther
The Church Fathers
18. The Church Fathers did not teach formal sufficiency of Scripture, they taught you need the Church as the final interpretive authority. There were many heretics in the ancient church, however, that preached things similar to sola scriptura.
I do believe the Bible contains everything one needs for salvation (material sufficiency of scripture). However, it isn’t written in plain language so that everyone can pick it up and understand everything they need to be saved (formal sufficiency of scripture). An analogy would be even if someone dropped off all the materials and blueprints for me to build a house, though I have all the materials sufficient for the job (material sufficiency) I lack the knowledge to actually build the house (formal sufficiency). I still need someone who knows how to build a house to help.
There are several examples of Church Fathers pointing out in the early church that scriptures alone are not sufficient to save people or keep them within the bounds of orthodoxy. Many heretics claimed it was so, but only the Church has the authority to determine what interpretations of scripture are orthodox.
St. Vincent wrote his Commonitorium (c. AD 434) and mentioned the fact that heretics use scripture to try and support their errors.
“But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation? For this reason: because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various errors, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.”
In this passage, St. Vincent exposed the essential practical problem with the Protestant principle of sola scriptura — a problem impossible to not see after 500 years of Protestant history, with Protestant churches having divided and split into hundreds and even thousands of separate denominations, sects, and independent movements.
Christians in Vincent’s time, standing firmly within Catholic tradition, could argue passages of Scripture. But heretics could argue passages of Scripture as well! And unless the Church Christ founded to be “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” wanted to simply fragment until there was a church for every sincerely held doctrinal viewpoint, there had to be some method for testing whose interpretation was right and whose was wrong.30
19. Many Church Fathers taught against sola scriptura
… What, then? If there should be a dispute over some kind of question, ought we not to have recourse to the most ancient Churches in which the Apostles were familiar, and draw from them what is clear and certain in regard to that question? What if the Apostles had not in fact left writings to us? Would it not be necessary to follow the order of tradition, which was handed down to those to whom they entrusted the Churches?
— Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3:4:1
The teaching of the Church has indeed been handed down through an order of succession from the Apostles, and es even to the present time. That alone is to be believed as the truth, which is in no way at variance with ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition.
Moreover, if there be any (heresies) bold enough to plant themselves in the midst of the apostolic age, so that they might seem to have been handed down by the Apostles because they were from the time of the Apostles, we can say to them: let them show the origins of their Churches, let them unroll the order of their bishops, running down in succession from the beginning, so that their first bishop shall have for author and predecessor some one of the Apostles or of the apostolic men who continued steadfast with the Apostles…. Then let all the heresies … offer their proof of how they deem themselves to be apostolic.
— Tertullian, Prescription Against Heresies 32, c. ad 200
As I said before, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although she is disseminated throughout the whole world, yet guarded it, as if she occupied but one house. She likewise believes these things just as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart; and harmoniously she proclaims them and teaches them and hands them down, as if she possessed but one mouth. For, while the languages of the world are diverse, nevertheless, the authority of the Tradition is one and the same.
— Irenaeus, Against Heresies I:10:2
20. Augustine states that he would not believe in the Gospel if the authority of the Catholic Church had not already moved him.
“But I would not believe in the Gospel, had not the authority of the Catholic Church already moved me.31
— St. Augustine
Again, I understand the impulse to want to hold scripture as high as proponents of sola scriptura do. It is the word of God and should be held as high as anything we have in the Church. Nothing anyone teaches about the Christian faith should ever contradict it. If this is truly all sola scriptura meant (and I do believe the average person does), all Christians should and Catholics already do agree with this.
Sola scriptura doesn’t mean this, though. It means, instead, like Chemnitz taught that you can’t make doctrine if it only finds support in the Antilegomena books of the Bible. It means that, as Robert Preus teaches: ” [sola scriptura] means that we Lutherans base our theology solely on the Scriptures of God and nothing else, not tradition, not human speculation, not modern scholarship, not our experiences or feelings or anything else.”
I now see that what Protestants really mean by sola scriptura is not biblical, is not supported by the Church fathers, and is just plain illogical. It is theological individualism/liberalism.
I believe we can then sum the errors of sola scriptura up in these points:
1. The idea of sola scriptura is not found in the bible – it is a self-refuting premise.
2. A book doesn’t interpret itself, you need an authority to do it.
3. You can’t get the table of contents of the Bible from the Bible. You need an outside authority to decide what is scripture and what is not.
4. Historical inconsistency – the same historical methods you use to get the 27 books of the New Testament also get you the magisterium. It is inconsistent to accept one and reject the other.
5. Even if you could agree on some essential doctrines, without a single ecclesial authority people will always argue over what counts as essential (e.g. necessity/nature of baptism).
It seems to me Jesus never intended for sola scriptura. He didn’t ascend to heaven and leave us with the New Testament, instead He left us with the Church. The Bible is most certainly God’s creation, but it comes out of the tradition of the Church which is there to guide and protect Christians in the meaning of scriptures, and even protect the deposit of faith itself by authoritatively declaring what is scriptures.
I think Martin Luther summarize the argument against his own idea of sola scriptura perfectly here. Of course, he wrote these words before he started the Reformation, but he calls out the problems his very own ideas would cause just a few years later.
“If Christ had not entrusted all power to one man, the Church would not have been perfect because there would have been no order and each one would have been able to say he was led by the Holy Spirit. This is what the heretics did, each one setting up his own principle. In this way as many Churches arose as there were heads. Christ therefore wills, in order that all may be assembled in one unity, that His Power be exercised by one man to whom also He commits it. He has, however, made this Power so strong that He looses all the powers of Hell (without injury) against it. He says: The gates of Hell shall not prevail against it, as though He said: They will fight against it but never overcome it, so that in this way it is made manifest that this power is in reality from God and not from man. Wherefore whoever breaks away from this unity and order of the Power, let him not boast of great enlightenment and wonderful works, as our Picards and other heretics do, for much better is obedience than the victims of fools who know not what evil they do (Eccles. iv. 17).”32
— Martin Luther
1 Timothy 3:15 New International Version (NIV)
15 if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.
Key Resrouces on Sola Scriptura:
- Ken Hensley series on sola scriptura written
- Ken Hensley series on sola scriptura podcast
- Michuta, Gary. Why Catholic Bibles are Bigger. Catholic Answers Press.
- Called to communion article showing that sola scriptura always entails solo scriptura
- Catholicism v. Sola Scriptura by Joe Heschmeyer.
- Dei Verbum
- Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation: Dei Verbum #11. ↩
- Formula of Concord. ↩
- Getting into The Theology of Concord by Robert D. Preus (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1977), pgs. 7-29. http://bookofconcord.org/confessionsandbible.php ↩
- Catholic Church. (2011). Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation: Dei Verbum #11. In Vatican II Documents. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana. ↩
- ibid., #24 ↩
- ibid., #9 ↩
- Denzinger, H., & Rahner, K. (Eds.). (1954). The sources of Catholic dogma. (R. J. Deferrari, Trans.) (p. 244). St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co. ↩
- Catholic Church. (2011). Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation: Dei Verbum. In Vatican II Documents. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana. ↩
- Irenaeus of Lyons. (1885). Irenæus against Heresies. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1, p. 415). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company. ↩
- Michuta, Gary. Why Catholic Bibles are Bigger. Catholic Answers Press. ↩
- Bergsma, John. Stunned by Scripture. Our Sunday Visitor. Kindle Edition. p. 114 ↩
- Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, pp. 143-144. ↩
- Pitre, B. J., Barber, M. P., Kincaid, J. A., & Gorman, M. J. (2019). Paul, a new covenant Jew: rethinking Pauline theology. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p. 175-179 ↩
- Hahn, S. W. (2017). Romans. (P. S. Williamson & M. Healy, Eds.) (p. 53). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic: A division of Baker Publishing Group. ↩
- If the Sacred Scriptures contain everything necessary to salvation, and if they alone contain it, they must necessarily exhibit it so clearly and plainly that it is accessible to the comprehension of every one; hence the attribute of Perspicuity is ascribed to the Sacred Scriptures… But whilst such perspicuity is ascribed to the Sacred Scriptures, it is not meant that every particular that is contained in them is equally clear and plain to all, but only that all that is necessary to be known in order to salvation is clearly and plainly taught in them… it is also not maintained that the Sacred Scriptures can be understood without the possession of certain prerequisites [such as the language, maturity of judgment, unprejudiced mind, etc.].(Schmid, Heinrich. Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. p. 87-88 ↩
- Why Sola Scriptura is FALSE w/ Patrick Madrid. Pints With Aquinas Episode. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61io257MN1s ↩
- Bergsma, John. Stunned by Scripture. Our Sunday Visitor. Kindle Edition. p. 128 ↩
- Bergsma, John. Stunned by Scripture. Our Sunday Visitor. Kindle Edition. p. 127 ↩
- Cross, Bryan. Solo Scriptura, sola scriptura, and the Question of Interpretive Authority. https://www.calledtocommunion.com/2009/11/solo-scriptura-sola-scriptura-and-the-question-of-interpretive-authority/ ↩
- Cross, Bryan. Solo Scriptura, sola scriptura, and the Question of Interpretive Authority. https://www.calledtocommunion.com/2009/11/solo-scriptura-sola-scriptura-and-the-question-of-interpretive-authority/ ↩
- The short answer is this: When Luther was cornered in a debate over Purgatory, his opponent, Johann Eck, cited 2 Maccabees against Luther’s position. Luther was forced to say that Second Maccabees could not be allowed in the debate because it wasn’t canonical. Later in the debate, Luther appealed to St. Jerome for rejecting Maccabees (the councils of Carthage, Hippo, and Florence all included Macabees as canonical Scripture).By appealing to Jerome, he also rejected all the other books Jerome rejected (Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, Tobit, Judith, 1st and 2nd Maccabees, Daniel 13, and sections of Esther).From then on, Luther (and all Protestants) have been trying to justify this removal. Luther in 1534 thought Baruch was “too skimpy” and not lofty enough to be from the scribe of Jeremiah. He also had problems with certain historical elements in Baruch. But in the long run, it really came down to Jerome’s rejection.As a side note, Jerome rejected it because he thought that a Hebrew manuscript tradition, known as the Masoretic Text, was identical to the inspired originals and all other copies were made from this text. Since the Deuteros were not part of the MT, he rejected them as not being of the canonical Scripture.What Jerome could not have known was that there were many different Hebrew manuscripts in circulation during the first century and that the Greek Septuagint, a translation made by the Jews around 200 BC, at least in parts, appears to be a very literal translation of a more ancient Hebrew text tradition that is now lost.This means that Jerome’s idea of “Hebrew truth” (I.e., only that which is found in the Hebrew MT is true) has been demonstrated to be an error. With Jerome’s position no longer tenable, Protestantism really doesn’t have a historical leg to stand on in regards to their OT canon.Why Protestants Reject 7 Books of the Bible — the Short Answer by Gary Michuta AUGUST 19, 2016. For a more indepth analysis of the same argument, see Michuta, Gary. Why Catholic Bibles are Bigger. Catholic Answers Press.↩
- https://www.patheos.com/blogs/davearmstrong/2016/04/luthers-radical-views-on-the-biblical-canon.html ↩
- See entire list of quotes like these on Church Fathers quoting from deuterocanonical books as scriptures here: ↩
- ibid. ↩
- Early Christian Doctrines, 53 ↩
- “The Christian acceptance of the deuterocanonical books was logical because the deuterocanonicals were also included in the Septuagint, the Greek edition of the Old Testament which the apostles used to evangelize the world. Two thirds of the Old Testament quotations in the New are from the Septuagint. Yet the apostles nowhere told their converts to avoid seven books of it. Like the Jews all over the world who used the Septuagint, the early Christians accepted the books they found in it. They knew that the apostles would not mislead them and endanger their souls by putting false scriptures in their hands—especially without warning them against them.” Akin, Jimmy. Defending The Deuterocanonicals. EWTN. ↩
- Seager, Paul. sola scriptura—A Lutheran Watchword for Renewing the Homologoumena-Antilegomena Distinction p. 14-15. chrome-extension://oemmndcbldboiebfnladdacbdfmadadm/https://scdwels.files.wordpress.com/2009/07/sola-scriptura.pdf ↩
- ibid., p. 17 ↩
- Luther, Martin. The Letter of doctor Martin to the Christians of Antwerp (1525) ↩
- Ken Hensley. Is sola scriptura Historical? Part IV: sola scriptura and Heresy. May 15, 2018 https://chnetwork.org/2018/05/15/is-sola-scriptura-historical-part-iv-sola-scriptura-and-heresy/ ↩
- St. Augustine, Contra epistolam Manichaei 5, 6: PL 42, 176. ↩
- (Sermo in Vincula S. Petri, hence on August 1. ” Werke ” Weim. ed., 1 (1883), p. 69). ↩