The Appeal of Sola Scriptura

Decorated initial FSola Scriptura, by all rights, should be true.

It’s almost a travesty that it isn’t. Bear with me as I meander a bit, after being inspired by Presbyterian pastor Jason Stellman’s post critiquing Christian Smith’s book against biblicism.

History, Briefly

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.


The Canon of Scripture: From Heaven or From Men?

In my ongoing discussion with Garret, a Reformed Baptist Protestant Christian, we have focused the discussion to the canon of Scripture.  The canon is the Bible’s “table of contents”; it is the list of books that make up the Bible.

illumbibleFrom the 1st century through the 3rd, many varying (and therefore conflicting) canons were drawn up and used by the Church; then, during the 4th century, the Church solidified its discernment on the 73 books which now exist in Catholic Bibles.  In the late 300s this canon was approved in various councils and confirmed by the Popes.  In subsequent centuries it was reaffirmed again and again, even in Ecumenical Councils.

It was this set of 73 books which monks then painstakingly copied by hand year and year for the 1200 years until the printing press was invented; these 73 books were the Bible used by all of Christianity.  The Protestant Reformers questioned many of these books in both the Old and New Testaments; ultimately, the New Testament in its fullness (27 books) was kept by them (fortunately), but they removed 7 books from the Old Testament in the 1500s.

It struck me that the argument against the Protestants’ actions toward the canon–an odd mixture of acceptance of the Church’s decision 1200 years prior and yet a partial rejection of the same–could be summarized by this re-phrasing of Matthew 21:23-27:

And he was asked by the Protestants, “by what authority are you doing these things”, and he answered them “I also will ask you a question, and if you tell me that answer, then I will tell you by what authority I do these things.  The canon of Scripture, from whence did it come?  From God or from men?”

And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From God,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you reject seven of the books in the canon?’ but if we say ‘From men,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you believe that any of the books were inspired?’.  So they answered “We don’t know.”  And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

By this re-phrasing of course I do not intend to imply that Protestant Christians are like the scribes and Pharisees whom Jesus was addressing, but rather point out the similarity of the challenge that Christ made with regard to John’s baptism could be made to Protestants about the canon of Scripture.

The canon is either a mere tradition of men (condemned by Christ) or it is part of divine revelation outside of the Scriptures themselves, but sola Scriptura holds that there is no binding public revelation outside of the Scriptures; thus, holding to sola Scriptura makes it impossible to say one knows which books make up the Scriptures.