Contemporary Trends, Bible, Christianity

Sola Scriptura

Edward Feser has three posts on the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura (only the Bible) over at his blog.

Here is Feser’s summary of a summary of the Jesuit critique of sola scriptura:

You’ll recall that the early Jesuit critique of sola scriptura cited by Feyerabend maintains that (a) scripture alone can never tell you what counts as scripture, (b) scripture alone cannot tell you how to interpret scripture, and (c) scripture alone cannot give us a procedure for deriving consequences from scripture, applying it to new circumstances, etc.

In my mind this assumes too much (too little?) of the Protestant position. It would seem that the ideal expression of sola scriptura is not that only the Bible can speak authoritatively on faith and morals. Instead, sola scriptura says that of the deposit that the church has received (and Protestants and cult groups have received it as well…even if for now due to widespread ignorance we only receive it through publishing companies), the writings of the prophets and apostles are the only divinely-inspired norm concerning the content of the gospel message. The Bible is not the only norm, it is not the only guide to practice, it is not self-interpreting, it is not a magic talisman, and so-on. It is a norm within the tradition for checking the tradition.

The reason that this distinction is important is that Protestantism is not meant to be permanent. It was and is meant to critique the church of the western world on that church’s own terms (its accepted canon of Scripture). The rejection of the deuterocanonical books is incidental to the reformation because that debate had been ongoing within Christendom and had not led to division. For instance, the Eastern Orthodox church accepts a larger Old Testament than the Roman Catholic and this is not why they are divided.

If sola scriptura is seen in its polemical context first. To summarize, it sounds something like this:

“If we accept these documents as divinely-inspired (which we all do), then we must reject specific teachings current in the church, (which we do not all do).


Most historical Protestants accept, in some sense, that the church has a deposit of the gospel from the era of the apostles, the deposit includes the Bible which includes the Old Testament the apostles quoted and the New Testament which the apostles and their associates wrote. And I think that many Protestants would like to see the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura as a stop-gap measure against novel accretions of anti-gospel teaching, not as a measure against tradition as such or against church authority or against hierarchichal leadership scructures.

I’m not a fan of the church being out of sync. But here’s the deal, people are obligated to obey the voice of reason and the voice of God. And if the church leadership requires practices of people who read their Bibles that apparently contradict the divine command, then the need for sola scriptura arises.

I do not deny that there are and have been times in the Bible when going against conscience was necessary due to direct divine command. This is because conscience can be wrong.

So, I get that there are times when the church (churches) might instruct people to do things that go against their immediate good sense, hopefully those things are justified by appeal to Christ and his teaching (like asking somebody to care for the poor). But let us take the case of asking the departed saints to pray for us. The Roman Catholic Church asks individuals to engage in a practice that is indistinguishable from prayer to idols to the average layperson. I know this because I know poorly catechized Catholics who think precisely this and pray, in their minds, to statues or pray to saints because they fear that Jesus will be too judgmental of their sins. And I know Protestants who don’t understand the doctrine or barely understand it and still feel that it contradicts the Ten Commandments.

I’m not saying that the Roman Catholic Chruch should outlaw praying to saints (others say that), I’m saying that requiring something of that sort of the faithful is the kind of concern that has not been dealt with since the reformation and is why we need sola scriptura. When catholic apologists defend the practice against those who oppose it actively, that is not the same thing as considering the consciences of those who would never reunite with the Roman Church because they are convinced that doing so puts them at odds with Christ due to the apparent idolatry in asking for post-mortem intercessions (I know some writers do, in fact do this).

There are several other doctrines like that. Thankfully for all of us, justification by faith is true, and we can be wrong about ideas of this sort and be justified by God.

But to be clear, sola scriptura does not state that the only way to know anything about God or faith or morals is Scripture. Sola scriptura says, “If we accept that the church has apostolic authority, then let us not contradict the apostles and what they considered inspired in our own actions and teachings.”

Is this position fraught with difficulty? Absolutely. Is the position of being a part of a church that actively asks you to pray to saints, accept a medieval merit system, and treat the pope not merely as a representative of Christ and a pastor of pastors but as a mystically infallible teacher a difficult position? You bet. But is sola scriptura, when seen in the terms set out above, really as unreasonable as Feser claims? Absolutely not.

Again, my whole problem is that I accept that the church does have apostolic authority and that the church defines/discovers Scripture (obviously the church does not define the Word of God…God the Father did that when he raised Jesus), but in accepting that the church is correct about Scripture certain things which the majority segment of western Christendom accepts instantly become untenable for me and a great many of God’s people.

Sola scriptura was never meant to be a claim that there was no authority in the church’s teaching offices, nor was it ever a claim that neither councils nor creeds are important. It was a claim that if Scripture is accepted along with the creeds and councils, then because of what the church claims Scripture to be in those very creeds, councils, and by those teachers, where contradictions arise, Scripture should be accepted over them.

All the challenges of interpretation, checks and balances within the tradition, and what to make of further divisions within the Protestant movement are not undone by this claim, but there it is.

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