Grappling with Sola Scriptura, Part 1: Paralysis

In this post, I relate how, as a Protestant journeying to the Catholic Church, I came to terms with the doctrine of sola scriptura. I have been trying to write this post for months, and have started over from scratch several times — mostly because it rambled at too great length, or strayed into trite polemic. Catholic apologists tend to repeat and rehash the same complaints — “sola scriptura” isn’t scriptural! The Early Church functioned just fine for a period of decades before the New Testament was written and compiled! No Christian held to such a constraint prior to the Protestant Reformation! — and though I do think these arguments are persuasive now, I was not even aware of them then, and they played no role in my own convictions.

This post proved to be really long, so I split in into two. I will post the second half soon.

Part of my ongoing conversion story.

Approaching the Church

Pannini, Nave of St. Peter's Basilica (1731)

Giovanni Paolo Pannini, Nave of St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome (1731). (Wikimedia)

At last, I had stumbled my way into the Mass, and found in it something glorious and transcendent and compelling. I began to attend Sunday Mass on a weekly basis. All the fragments that had been circling around me my whole life seemed to be falling into place. I felt peace. But this is still not yet the end of the story. I had some final hurdles to overcome, confronting Catholic doctrine head-on as it came to bear on what I held as a Protestant.

I hadn’t been attending Mass very long at all, perhaps only about a month, before one day I happened to speak to Father Joe. I had not sought him out; Audrey and I had been standing there outside the church chatting, and he asked me what I thought so far. I blurted out that I liked it and was thinking about joining the RCIA class. I was alarmed to hear myself say it; I don’t think I had even articulated the thought before that. I understood that this didn’t mean I was making a commitment; that there was still plenty of time to learn and change my mind; but as I had at so many moments before, I felt a sinking feeling that I was approaching a point of no return.

This was still early in the year, about March. The next RCIA class would not begin until September. So over the next six months, I committed myself to reading and learning as much as I could, and to experiencing as much of the Mass and of the Church as I could. I began attending daily Mass also at every opportunity I could. At St. John’s they offered Mass every weekday, and being just on the edge of campus, I could run over almost anytime. My reading took on a new focus. Up to this point, I had still not read any “Catholic” book. I had not read any of the Catechism or any apologetic work. I had not read any of the great body of conversion literature, the writings of other Protestants like me who had made their way to the Catholic Church. Rather than the end of my journey, I was really only beginning my approach in earnest. I was just beginning to consider the Catholic Church with an open and discerning mind. I did not jump in head first. As it should have, my exploration of the Catholic Church soon came into confrontation with my convictions as a Protestant.

Sola Scriptura

(Source: peachknee on Pixabay)

(Source: peachknee on Pixabay)

I was no dummy. I understood that to embrace Catholic doctrine entailed a renunciation of what was has been called “the formal principle of the Protestant Reformation”: sola scriptura, the thesis that Scripture alone is to be the sole source of divine truth for the Church and for Christians. I knew well, as all Protestants know, that this is one of the fundamental disagreements between Catholics and Protestants: that Protestants hold as authoritative the Bible alone, while Catholics deny this and add other things.

But looking back, I don’t recall ever having much of a serious struggle with sola scriptura. On the contrary, it seems to have folded quite readily and early on in my final approach to the Church. Why? Could it be true, as some have charged, that I never had a firm commitment to Protestant principles in the first place? Or were there other forces at work in my life, under the surface and behind the scenes, preparing the way before me and making it straight to the Church? The truth is, whether I openly acknowledged it or not, that I had been struggling with sola scriptura for years. I can think of several factors underpinning the idea of sola scriptura that I had already been dealing with, and that had already weakened that foundation, long before this point.

A Flimsy Default

Open Bible with coffee

(Source: mnplatypus on Pixabay)

If I had ever been asked about the source of my Christian doctrine as a Protestant, I would simply have pointed to Scripture. Because what else was there? This was the default position, what Protestants did, the only thing I knew. Where else would one possibly look? But if I had been asked to explain why, I would have been a little dumbfounded. Because it’s the Word of God, God’s message to mankind? Obviously, when one is looking for source material about God and Christianity, the Bible is your source. This seemed to be a reasonable proposition at the time.

But why did I believe that? Why Scripture alone? How did I know? I would have been hard-pressed to defend it. The only thing I knew, the only thing I recall ever hearing, was that Martin Luther proclaimed sola scriptura in opposition to the “unscriptural doctrines” of the Catholic Church. Did the doctrine really only exist as a negative? Was there no positive reason for it to stand on its own? It is possible that some Protestant apologetics might have shored up the position for me, but generally I have found Protestant apologetics on this matter unsatisfactory. Every Protestant argument I have read in support of sola scriptura inevitably begins with or returns to the point that “the Catholic Church believes unscriptural doctrines.”

“Unscriptural doctrines”

Juan de Juanes, Christ and the Eucharist (16th century)

Juan de Juanes, Christ and the Eucharist (16th century) (Wikimedia)

The rote line of Protestant lore, what I recall hearing all my life, is that Martin Luther proclaimed sola scriptura in opposition to the “unscriptural doctrines” in the Catholic Church. It was often told, even in my mostly ahistorical corner of Protestantism, how Luther discovered the truth of God’s grace and salvation by faith alone by reading Scripture — the implication being that Catholics did not read Scripture, that the Catholic Church had entirely thrown the Bible out the window. I believed this because I knew nothing else.

But by the time I was in my thirties, having spent all my life as a Protestant, and for several years having exerted a lot of effort trying to attain a more academic grasp of Christian theology, starting from scratch, I had become inured to this charge of “unscriptural doctrines” — since the sad truth is, many Protestant sects accuse each other of believing “unscriptural doctrines,” even those who proclaim sola scriptura — the fact of the matter being not that these believers didn’t read Scripture, but that they read and interpreted Scripture differently. I had struggled mightily for years to sort out the truth among many such competing interpretations, ultimately concluding that in most cases, these couldn’t be called “unscriptural doctrines” at all, but the result of ambiguities in Scripture and good-faith differences of opinion.

And I came to realize that Catholicism was probably the same way. I knew, from studying the history of Christianity in school, that Catholics believed that the bread and wine in Communion actually became the Body and Blood of Christ — and reading Scripture for myself, I could see how that could be a defensible reading: Jesus did say, “This is my Body,” and it is only by assuming premises not in Scripture, that He was speaking symbolically or metaphorically, that one concludes otherwise. I came to expect that the same might be true for other supposedly “unscriptural” Catholic doctrines: what if they were only as “unscriptural” as what Protestants accused each other of? And if that was the case — what was the cry of “sola scriptura” really all about?


Protestant church divisions

Protestant church divisions

Perhaps the strongest argument against sola scriptura, the reason that led to the doctrine’s downfall in my mind more than any other, was my growing conviction that sola scriptura just doesn’t work. I probably would not have put it in those terms as an Evangelical — such would have seemed heresy — but the fact of my experience is that I found myself completely unable to discern between the claims of competing denominational camps to have the exclusive, correct interpretation of Scripture. Sola scriptura — relying on Scripture alone — proved unable to bring me to any conviction of the truth, so far as any certainty or precision of doctrine or theology was concerned. Historically, it had proved unable either to unite the Protestant cause or to preserve any degree of unity at all in the Church. If anything, the doctrine of sola scriptura itself is the single most culpable culprit for the continued fragmentation and division of Protestant churches, both historically and contemporarily — since any believer with his own divergent interpretation of Scripture feels entitled to break away and found his own sect.

The Baptists, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, the Pentecostals, all came to different, sometimes radically different, interpretations of the very same passages of Scripture. And I found myself completely unable, in many cases, to choose one over another, to declare one right and another one wrong. And this was not on account of any ignorance or lack of preparation on my part (though a lack of indoctrination into a particular interpretive tradition, I suppose, could be credited): I had studied the original languages and trained in translating ancient texts; I had studied history and the historical contexts of the Early Church and the ancient cultures in which it dwelled. If anything, it was on account of that preparation that I had less confidence than some of my peers, who were able to affirm their churches’ particular interpretations with conviction. Such people and churches could make strong, valid arguments for their positions — but so could all the others.

I was forced to conclude that in many cases, Scripture was not “perspicuous” at all, but that in many locations the text was ambiguous enough to allow more than one valid interpretation. To weigh between multiple, valid interpretations of the words requires something more than the words themselves: it requires a consideration of the wider textual context, both in the same text and in other texts. It requires a consideration of the historical and cultural contexts, and an understanding of the way the text was received by its earliest recipients. And ultimately, it required having an opinion, and being willing to draw conclusions based on it — and though I did have opinions, they were neither strong enough nor certain enough for me to stake my eternal life or death on them with anything like security. I realized that scriptural exegesis is not an exact science, and the “right” interpretation is often not clear from the text at all, as the popular view of sola scriptura would lead me to believe: it ultimately, and inevitably, involved making my own understanding the final authority in interpreting Scripture.

There is a lot more to come! You can expect the next post in a day or two.