Defending Sola Scriptura: A Challenge

(I’m going to attempt to write the post I tried to write yesterday before I lost it to a tangent.)

Recently I’ve been talking to Protestants, especially those who present themselves as being of an apologetic bent, and asking them to defend the principles of the Reformation. St. Peter exhorts us to “always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you … with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15). I make every effort to ready myself to defend the beliefs I hold dear, both the Christian faith as a whole and Catholic doctrines in particular — so I figured Reformed believers ought to be willing to do the same for their own fundamental principles. So I ask them, as gently and reverently as I can, to defend the solassola scriptura in particular, which has by far been the most destructive.

John Calvin

John Calvin (1509-1564)

But what I’ve gotten is silence. Nine times out of ten, when I ask someone to defend sola scriptura, they shut down whatever discussion we are having and give no reply. I grant that many people may be wary of getting wrapped up in a fruitless and unpleasant debate, but these same people generally do not hesitate to criticize Catholic positions, or to outright denounce the Catholic Church as “apostate” or “un-Christian.”

I have yet to hear what I consider an adequate defense of sola scriptura. By “adequate,” I don’t mean “convincing,” since I think that would be an awfully high standard to set; but what I mean is thorough — covering all the bases; answering the particular questions I have posed that I think must be answered in order for sola scriptura to be a valid doctrinal position. One person has tried, and I do appreciate the patience he has shown me, but I am still waiting for an answer to my questions. Sola scriptura appears increasingly like The Emperor’s New Clothes — the doctrine that all Protestants give lip service to, but no one dares to look at very closely or question, lest anyone realize that they are in fact parading around naked.

Sola Scriptura, now a major motion picture!

Per the advice of a new friend, I picked up what was supposed to be a thorough defense of the doctrine of sola scriptura, by the foremost Reformed minds and scholars and apologists: Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the Bible, which boasts contributions from R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, James White, W. Robert Godfrey, and more. Finally, I thought, I’m going to get that adequate defense I’ve been looking for, to demonstrate that sola scriptura is not just an empty fallacy but a respectable and defensible position. I don’t know why I got my hopes up. I guess I expected better of these people. I haven’t been so let down by a book in years.

Someone in the know, is there actual, academic material written on this subject? Can you point me in its direction? Because this book is not what it purports to be. Rather than a positive defense of sola scriptura — which, I’ll grant, it does attempt to give in some measure — it is mostly an anti-Catholic polemic, spending as much time presenting why Rome is wrong and why you don’t want to go there as it spends presenting an actual case for sola scriptura. I expected higher especially of Robert Godfrey, who purports himself to be a professor of church history. Here is someone, surely, I thought, who knows the truth of the history of the Church and will not be prone to such utter nonsense and misunderstanding of Catholic history and doctrine as is so typical among Reformed people. But if anyone could have woven a whole fabric of all the many, various, uneducated misunderstandings and misrepresentations of Roman doctrines and positions — he says that we worship statues! that we re-sacrifice Christ at every Mass! — that is what he presents in the first chapter of the book alone.

This, too, is turning into a rambling screed, and that is not what I intended it to be. Without further ado, I want to present the following challenge.

The Challenge

Bible

I would like someone — anyone — you can even collaborate — to present answers to the following questions. It is simple enough to cull together a few Scriptures that supposedly support sola scriptura, and call that a defense — but no Scripture actually says what proponents of sola scriptura teach. I am looking for more practical answers. If sola scriptura is true, then the following questions will have answers:

  1. When was the doctrine of sola scriptura taught in the Early Church, and by whom? Did Jesus teach it? Did the Apostles? Is it something Christians were supposed to have figured out for themselves by Scripture alone? If the doctrine was part of the teachings of Christ and the Apostles, how would it have been presented? “After we are gone, your only authority and rule of faith is to be Scripture”? “You are not to accept any doctrine not found in Scripture”? If that is to be our rule of faith, why isn’t it in Scripture?

  2. How did the historical transition come about, from the situation during the lifetimes of the Apostles, in which believers were to accept both the oral teaching of the Apostles and their written word (2 Thessalonians 2:15), to the purported situation Protestants maintain existed, in which Scripture alone was to be the authority? As per 1, is this something believers were taught to expect? Was there a perceived difference between doctrine that was written by the Apostles and doctrine that was received orally from the Apostles? And what about the content of that oral teaching that was not contained in Scripture? Protestants will argue that anything not contained in Scripture was not necessary for salvation — but even that being so, did early Christians see a distinction between apostolic teachings that were necessary and teachings that were unnecessary? Were some teachings of the Apostles understood to be extraneous and no longer worthy of being passed on or believed? When are Christians supposed to have learned to reject teachings not found in Scripture?

  3. Robert Godfrey complains in the first chapter of the book (page 7) about Catholic doctrines that “contradict Scripture” — naming first and foremost that Catholic tradition teaches that bishop and presbyter are two separate offices, in plain contradiction to Titus 1:5–7. But this charge in itself undermines his whole argument, or else denounces as unfaithful the earliest generations of Christians. If the earliest Christians were supposed to have held firmly to the word of Scripture and accepted no doctrine that contradicted it — if they understood Scripture to be an infallible and immutable rule of faith — then why, from only the second generation of Christians (Ignatius of Antioch, ca. A.D. 107), do we find firm declarations of this very “unscriptural” doctrine? Were early Christians so quick to deviate from the faith handed to them by the Apostles themselves, to which they were exhorted to hold fast and for which they saw their teachers go to their deaths? Were they so willing to go to their own deaths for a faith they felt they could alter as it fit them? Are such really the kind of people you propose our Christian faith is built upon?

  4. St. John Chrysostom

    St. John Chrysostom (c. 347–407).

  5. James White devotes an impressive chapter to culling many quotations from the Church Fathers that appear to endorse a doctrine of sola scriptura. But an appeal to these Church Fathers and a claim that they themselves held sola scriptura runs into an immediate and insurmountable problem: If the Church Fathers held a doctrine of sola scriptura, why did they, every one of them, accept and teach the myriad “unscriptural” doctrines from tradition that Protestants today want to reject? Why did every one of these faithful Christians — or even a single one of them — not immediately, vociferously, and unceasingly denounce these accretions of tradition, these “unscriptural” and un-Christian “inventions,” until they were rooted from the Church? The men we acclaim as Church Fathers were most of them bishops who held and taught apostolic succession, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, baptismal regeneration, the necessity of good works for salvation, a sacerdotal priesthood, the perpetual virginity of the Virgin Mary — and that’s just the beginning of the list. Could these men have held sola scriptura if they also held these “unscriptural” doctrines?

I had more, but that’s enough for starters.

20 thoughts on “Defending Sola Scriptura: A Challenge

    • Thank you! I do wish more Protestants would listen. Sola scriptura in particular is a harmful doctrine that has done more to bring and maintain schism between Christians than any other — quite the opposite of what it was claimed to do in the first place, bring reformation and restoration.

      • Definitely!

        Just take a drive for 5 minutes, especially in a suburban area. Every one of the churches will say they’re “Christ-centerd” or scripture centered. If you’e like me, you get postcards periodically for a new church…but the sales pitch seems to be more on satisfying the lower passions more than anything (comfy, good coffee, casual, etc.)

          • If you ever listen to the sermons on audosancto.org, one of the priests once called the typical protestant church, “The First Church of What’s Happening Now”

            Anyway…some point downstream, it’ll all be one again. Getting there ain’t gonna be pretty.

          • I’ve heard Protestant pastors complain about Protestant churches by the same term. It’s sadly true. Those people aren’t the ones I’m most concerned about. The ones who truly know the Lord will see the light — that’s pretty much the background I came from. It’s the Reformed churches that cling to the sacred cow of the Reformation as tenaciously as any Catholic ever clung to Tradition who worry me. Dispute and schism is their whole reason for being, and some of them will die fighting before they consider returning to communion with the Catholic Church.

          • I’m afraid I cannot say I relate on your experience. I’m Catholic from the cradle but had my own reversion when my wife was pregnant with our first. I’m sure it was quite an experience!

  1. Also, think about some of the things, like the gospels that the Apostles may of not recorded about the teachings of Christ just because they aren’t in the Bible doesn’t mean he didn’t do it. Sola Scriptura, to me I think of it like: nobody eats one food for their entirel ife.. or something like that.. haha. Hope that makes sense. Anyway, another great post. Keep it up.

    God bless you.

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  3. It has been a long week, so I apologize for answering your questions so late.

    1) When was Sola Scriptura taught by the early church?

    It wasn’t. Sola Scriptura is a doctrine that answers the question, “What do you do when authority becomes abuse?”, which wasn’t as big a problem in the eartly church.

    1a) Where is Sola Scriptura found in scripture?

    It isn’t. See the above answer.

    2) The distinction arose because over time, after 1500 years, what was being taught and practiced by the Western Church no longer agreed with what the texts in the Bible or with the oral teachings of the Apostles. The Roman Catholic church would dispute this, which is one reason Roman Catholics and Protestants don’t agree.

    3) I don’t accept Godfrey’s argument. The “structure” of the early church seems to have been much looser in the first century C.E. and evolved even during the timespan that the epistles were written. Besides, whether bishops and presbyters are one office or two is a silly argument to begin with. I can’t really answer the question since I reject the argument that spawned it.

    4) Again, Sola Scriptura is not a rejection of anything not found in the pages of the Bible. It is the statement that what is necessary for salvation and faith can be found in it. It does not preclude accepting other doctrines and teachings not found in it. Example: That Mary Theokotos was herself born sinless would not necessarily violate Sola Scriptura. Requiring the faithful to believe it for salvation would.

    Similarily, Sola Scriptura regulates other doctine. The Immaculate Conception of Mary doesn’t contradict scripture (unless it is required for salvation). Teaching that Banjo the Clown Puppet is the fourth person of the Quadrinity, does.

  4. I’m sorry I’m so late to this conversation, Joseph. For what ever reason, I didn’t see that pingback to Southern Reformation until today. That should tell you how dark and dismal the battle with the thesis monster became.

    As far as academic resources on Sola Scriptura, all of the best resources are old and hard to get your hands on. Speaking only for myself, I would recommend the following:

    William Whitaker, Disputations on Holy Scripture (1588; reprint, Morgan, Pa: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2000).

    William Goode, The Divine Rule of Faith and Practice. 2. vol. (London: J. Hachard and Son, 1842).

    They are both highly polemical works, as Whitaker was responding to Bellarmine, and Goode was responding to John Henry Newman (both before and after his conversion to Rome).

    As an aside, one of my favorite stories about Whitaker is that Bellarmine kept a picture of him in his study; when one of his students asked him why he kept a picture of Whitaker, Bellarmine responded, “Quod quamvis hereticus erat et adversarius, erat tamen doctus adversarius.” (Although he is a heretic and an adversary, he is a learned adversary.)

    Incidentally, it may also be worth your time to look at Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent. It’s 4 volumes, so it’s much more than just a defense of sola scriptura, but there are portions of Chemnitz that repay careful study.

    I hope that helps!

    BMPalmer.

    • Thanks, Ben. I will check those out. And blessings and prayers for you in your battle with the thesis monster. I defeated mine a couple of weeks ago, and now I’m fighting a nearly as desperate battle against the vacuum its demise has left.

      • I defeated the thesis monster and had it accepted three weeks ago. Right now I’m busying rediscovering this thing I had heard humans speak of called “sleep.” I’m discovering that I like it.

        • Praise God! I’m glad you’re free of it, too. But I feel “free” as in Han Solo being free of the carbonite — stupefied and not quite sure what to do with myself. I have enjoyed the Sleep. But now I’m also faced with Free Time and Idleness, with a Holiday Melancholy on top.

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