“Sola Scriptura” means “only Scripture,” as in “Scripture alone is the authority for Christian doctrine.” It is one of the foundations of Protestant theology… It rejects the teaching authority of the Church as such. Given that this day marks the dreadfully unhappy 500th Anniversary of the beginning of Protestantism, shall we examine this idea and expose it?
I submit that there are at least 7 massive problems with Sola Scriptura.
First: Sola Scriptura is anarchic. This is evident from the endless multiplication of divergent theologies and denominations within Protestantism. Without a unifying voice, namely, a bishop, pope, or something similar, one becomes his own definitive authority on the meaning of Scripture. Perhaps a pastor or teacher can help one form ideas, but it is I and I alone who am responsible for determining the true meaning of any given passage. Of course, I might say that the Holy Spirit is giving me the truth – which would mean that everyone must actually listen to me. In Protestantism, everyone is their own little pope. This same “bottom-up” approach to God existed once before, at the Tower of Babel. And there too did the languages multiply endlessly unto chaos, just as we see within Protestantism now, where there is splinter after splinter. Pentecost was the opposite – God came down to us (the Church as such, as represented by the Apostles and Mary in the Upper Room) and gave us a principle of unity from which to adapt to the many situations and needs of the day. Without a visible, living Pentecost among us, there can be no public unity around Christ. From the mere fact that there can be morally, liturgically, or doctrinally significant disagreement about the meaning of the same Biblical passage, it is evident that Scripture does not fit the bill of the “visible and living Pentecost”… Remember, the Devil knows Scripture too! (Mt. 4: 1-11) Unless one speaks about Scripture with the very authority of Christ, there is no end to disputation. As Peter says, interpreting Scripture can be very difficult and sometimes it ends badly, especially with Paul’s letters! (2 Pt. 3: 16) Would God really leave us orphans in this way? Did the Word really in practice just become more Words?
Second: Sola Scriptura is innovative. It did not exist until 500 years ago when Luther came up with it. Protestants often complain about “man-made traditions” infecting Christianity – well, Sola Scriptura is one of them. Would we not expect a Christian “God-made tradition” to have existed long before the 16th century? It sounds quite a bit like one of those “winds of doctrine” which Paul warned about (Eph. 4: 14). Of course, Scripture has been treated as authoritative throughout the ages, but it was not treated – or attempted to be treated – as the only authority until relatively recently. Did God let Sola Scriptura remain an obscure but correct practice and then even fall out of existence for centuries until Luther was inspired to revive it? This does not sound like the God of Christianity, does it… It sounds like a God Who did not remain among us but Who left us orphans instead – not only with no definitive interpreter of Scripture (see #1), but without the right doctrine about what Scripture is. And to think, He only left the children of Jacob in Egypt for 400 years…
Third: Sola Scriptura is historically impractical. This is not primarily due to illiteracy (though one might also wonder if that would be an impediment to being a good Protestant), it is due to the fact that for many years there simply was no such thing as Christian Scripture, let alone a collection of texts organized into “the Bible.” When Thomas the Apostle went to India, he did not bring with him the Gospel of Luke. When Peter went to Antioch, he did not bring Paul’s letters with him. When Matthew went to Alexandria, he did not bring the Johannine corpus with him. We can note that Paul in his missionary journeys, based on the whole Book of Acts and his own letters, is not using anything but Jewish Scripture in his disputations and preaching. How then could there be Christians in the wake of these evangelists? Doesn’t a Christian need a Bible? Obviously not. There were local churches set up in many places across the globe for a long time with little to no Christian Scriptures available, relying on the oral tradition and the authority of the Church as such, and it took even longer to form a real, authoritative canon (viz. “the Bible”) which allowed people to know what Scripture consisted of… Which brings us to the next problem.
Four: Sola Scriptura is conceptually impossible. We must know what actually is Scripture in order to use “Scripture alone,” yes? But how do we know what really counts and what doesn’t? The truth is that Scripture was defined by the Church, finally confirmed in a special way at the Council of Trent in response to the preaching and teaching of Luther, who wanted to throw out a few books which he didn’t think were really Scripture, but which most others did. Without descending into the minutiae of the history of the so-called “deuterocanon,” we can simply note that it was indeed widely regarded as Scripture from an early time, even though there was some controversy surrounding it. A Protestant response might be to fall back on the principle of St. Vincent of Lérins, that the faith is that “which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.” (Never mind that this was about faith in “the Catholic Church,” as Vincent says, nor that he only holds it out as a general rule for finding heresy rather than as a specific rule for formulating a biblical canon.) Universal acclamation of texts as Scriptural does not really work on its own… If there is a little disagreement, which there certainly was about non-deuterocanon, then one must begin to wonder, “How universal is universal enough?” There is no good answer. Instead, an authority must decide what is Scripture and what is not. Yes to 2 Peter, no to 1 Clement. Yes to Revelation, no to The Shepherd of Hermas. Etc. The New Testament itself does not and cannot provide a guide – nor does the New Testament provide a list of what belongs in the Old Testament. So the very existence of an authoritative canon which does not assemble itself or fall from the sky necessitates an authoritative compiler. That is the Church itself, which therefore must have its own special authority to speak for God. This guarantees the texts of Scripture are actually the ones which God inspired. (Let’s not even get into the bizarre and self-refuting theory that the Bible is a fallible collection of infallible texts…)
Five: Sola Scriptura is arbitrary. Of course, it makes sense that a revealed religion would involve a sacred text which has authority, but it is conceivable that it would not. And there is, therefore, no a priori need for “Scripture” as an authority at all, let alone as the sole authority. Let me be clear: I am not saying the Bible is not an authority, I am saying it is not clear that it automatically must be… And anyone who says that it is an authority has to appeal to something outside of Scripture. An appeal to Scripture to prove the authority of Scripture is perfectly circular. Why is Scripture an authority? Why not “Sola Papa” (the Pope Alone)? Why not “Sola Ego” (I Alone)? Why not “Sola Luther” (Luther Alone)? There must be an authority which supports Scripture as an authority, and that authority must derive from God. Seeing as Christ did not give us a biblical canon, He must have somehow given authority to mere human beings to decide what texts God actually inspired. In the end, men must cooperate in the governance of the Church, at least in this way. This brings us to problem #6…
Six: Sola Scriptura is self-contradictory. It is a teaching of Martin Luther, a mere man, and by those following him: also mere men. By obeying those who teach Sola Scriptura, the very doctrine is violated. To practice it on one’s own is also a violation, as one must listen to one’s own interpretation of passages (especially in cases of controversy), or one must say that the Holy Spirit is interpreting – Who is clearly not Scripture. And let us also note that Sola Scriptura is not taught by Scripture… So finally, we have the last and most problematic issue for the doctrine…
Seven: Sola Scriptura contradicts Scripture. The Bible does not teach Sola Scriptura, but it does teach the importance of the oral tradition which is not written down. Scripture also teaches the authority of the Church as such. Two verses will suffice. The first is 2 Thessalonians 2: 15 – “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.” (Other translations render παραδόσεις “traditions” instead of “teachings.”) This is enough to show that at least Paul thought that more than Scripture might be necessary for safeguarding Christian doctrine. What might the mechanism be? He describes it in the second verse for our examination, 1 Timothy 3: 15 – “…if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.” How can “the church” be a “pillar” for the truth unless it functions as a means of connection to God, whereby false doctrines are corrected with good authority? The truth is tied at least to this pillar, “the church.” And how can it also be the “foundation” for truth unless it has a special means of holding up truth in a special way? What else could be the foundation of truth except that which is first in announcing it in the world? The guarantee of truth – infallibility – rests upon “the church.” God corrects error and announces truth through “the church.” This is how the Catholic Church understands its role in condemning heresies and defining doctrines (including what is Scripture and what is not).
There we have it… 7 fatal flaws with Sola Scriptura. Protestant readers (if there are any) might object with many verses of Scripture (especially 2 Timothy 3: 16, which simply insists that Scripture is indeed important – I do not deny this!)… However, in so doing they will no doubt demonstrate the points above.
You might consider sharing this post with any Protestant friends and see what they say. Tell them that no, God did not abandon us, leaving only a special book behind… That is a bleak doctrine indeed.
UPDATE (April 5, 2021): This post has become very popular, read many times every day – if you are reading, let me know how you found it! I always love to hear.
Main image: “The Tower of Babel,” Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563
7 thoughts on “Sola Scriptura: 7 Fatal Flaws of a Bleak Doctrine”
Good article, this is great analysis of the weaknesses of sola scriptura, particularly in how it’s generally treated by fundamentalists and evangelicals. However—here I speak as a Catholic who grew up evangelical but also has spent time within Lutheran congregations—I would caution against using this defense as describing all Protestants. What I mean is that, while the term ‘sola scriptura’ is used generally by most Protestants to describe their approach to scripture, with some of the more historically-minded Protestant traditions, what they call ‘sola scriptura,’ is in practice quite often more akin to ‘prima scriptura’. Many high-church Anglo-catholics, and Lutheran evangelical-catholics, are careful to interpret scripture in light of their confessions and broad consensus of the church fathers, doctors, and mystics. While they obviously would reject a papal ecclesiology, they tend to dismiss Roman Catholic apologetics as paining with an overly-broad brush and aimed at easy targets (mainly evangelicals and fundamentalists). I think to lump them into the same categories as American evangelicals is missing an opportunity to analyze more sophisticated streams of thought within some of the Protestant universe. Of course, my primary argument against this category of Protestants, is that it still inevitably involves a selective reading of church history, regarding who exactly we use as a hermeneutical grid through which we check our interpretation of scripture. We could ask who ultimately decides which aspects of the broad Catholic tradition to select as hermeneutical guides to understanding the scriptures. Here we have the advantage of the magisterium, whereas they are disadvantaged by their use of “static” confessional documents. In the end, the same basic principles apply, although I think they tend to have much stronger arguments than do evangelicals. But my point, their use of prima scriptura, though usually they go by the term sola scriptura, bypasses some of the weaknesses described here, as they generally would consider themselves authentic expressions of historical western Catholicism.
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Thanks for the comment and critique. Yes – confessional backdrop – which spins right into the question of authority once again. What exactly makes Augsburg so special, rather than Rome? Instead of a tight circle of appeals to Scripture based on Scripture, we have an appeal to an ungrounded – and ungroundable – authority.
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There is the crux of the issue—apart from a living magisterium, I fail to see how one ultimately justifies confessional adherence to one part of tradition or another. Catholic tradition is so broad that I think the axiom of holding to truths which have always been held in common by all Christians everywhere, becomes meaningless. A magisterium is necessary to being able to justify one’s selectivity regarding which aspects of Christian tradition we accept or reject. Again, great article.
Since we are all fallible in our personal interpretation, we can only rely on the interpretation of the body of Christ. Like most Christians, I value the input and interpretation of my fellow Christians: Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Evangelicals, etc. All of us can act as a sort of checks and balances. Can there be one church that has perfectly inspired interpretation of scripture? Has the historicity of the Church magisterium proven itself as perfect?
Thanks for the comment. There might be many good insights in various commentaries outside any one interpretive tradition… It’s more than a matter of commentary, however, but also of application. John 6 is an example – do we really get to disagree about whether we literally can and ought to eat the Lord’s flesh and blood? It seems that getting that wrong is a massive deal in either case – idolatry on the one hand, flagrant disobedience to a clear command on the other.
God used the Eucharist to drive home to me the absolute necessity of an authoritative Church as opposed to Sola Scriptura. I was in a Catholic Church praying precisely about was Catholicism true or Protestantism when my attention was drawn to the Tabernacle. That’s when I realized that it had to be Catholicism.
If it was true that Jesus was present there and I didn’t worship Him there that would be insolence of the highest order. If it was not true and Catholics did worship what in reality was only bread that would be idolatry.
I realized that we could argue John 6 till the cows came home with no way of knowing with absolute certainty either way what was true. I also saw that we absolutely need to know the truth of this and many other matters of belief and practice if we were going to follow Christ and His will for us.
I had walked in a Protestant and I walked out Catholic.
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