Recall that the Protestant Reformers wanted to go back to the beginning–ad fontes–to recover pure Christianity from the Romanist corruptions. And certainly there was much moral corruption in the Church of their day.
Sola Scriptura became their rallying cry. “Let’s go back to the pure written word of God and shed the encrusted traditions of the Church, the man-made accretions that have polluted God’s truth.” And the nascent Protestant Christians tried to do just that, in varying ways as according to the particular movement they subscribed to.
But everyone interpreted the Bible differently, the problem that Smith laments in his book. So instead of Protestantism becoming a unified movement that spoke as one voice, it was a cacophony of discordant noises clamoring to be heard.
This disharmony has continued to our day and is evidence against the claim that the Bible is clear enough to be correctly understood by reasonably intelligent and faithful people.
If the Bible Isn’t Enough, What Is?
But if God’s inspired, inerrant word is not by itself enough for us, then what is? If our human minds are so darkened that we cannot even correctly ascertain God’s meaning when He is trying to send us a letter, what else could do any better?
The teaching office of Christ’s Church could be better, and is better. Knowing that our intellects were darkened, God established His Church with a Magisterium, and protected that teaching authority from error in her teachings on what God’s truth is. It continually clarifies for us the meaning of divine revelation and deepens the world’s understanding of it.
God could have intended sola Scriptura to be true, in spite of the inevitable rise of conflicting interpretations that had no way of being resolved. As a Protestant, I believed that to be true and wanted it to be true. The idea that any Joe (including me, right after becoming a Christian) could read the Bible and understand it, even gaining unique insights into it that no one had ever had before, was appealing.
I might have remained a Protestant forever, had I not come face-to-face with the canon question. For sola Scriptura to be true, we had to know what books made up the Scriptures with certainty. Which meant God must have guided someone into discerning the canon. Yet we Protestants didn’t trust that the Church which discerned the canon was guided by God–no, she had become corrupted early in her teachings. So we could not articulate a canon with conscience-binding certainty, and the legs were swept out from under sola Scriptura.
The path I sketched out here is just one road to Rome, but it is one that thousands of Protestants are traveling down as we speak. As good as sola Scriptura sounds, it ultimately is not enough. Instead, God has guided us in His Word: Scripture, Tradition, and the teaching office of the Magisterium.