Second Thoughts on Sola ScripturaA Protestant Christian's moving testimonyBy Caleb RobertsEditor's Note: This week we are presenting a very moving testimony from a person who is seeking a personal response to the grace of God that has him in its grasp. Becoming a disciple of God in the Catholic Community is a very challenging call. We invite you to sit up, join the author, Caleb Roberts, feel the pulse of his emotions as he pours his heart out to us by describing the shortcomings of one of the central beliefs of Evangelical Protestantism, “Sola Scriptura.”
As a person who has accompanied many people along the way of discovering what it means to become a sincere and loyal disciple of God, I know that you who read this testimony will be moved. It is the process that Paul experienced from the time when God’s Grace began to shake him to the time when he “fell off his high horse”, was made blind for three days and through prayer and the brotherly love of Ananias regained his sight and was washed clean in the waters of Baptism and consumed by the fire of the Spirit’s love. It was not an easy voyage for Paul and it is not an easy voyage for Caleb, or anyone else.
Join Caleb as he reaches out for greater faith through philosophical arguments; feel his tremors; feel the fear that he has because he knows he’s on the right road and it frightens him to think of where it must lead him. He is thinking what Scott Hahn thought; he fears what Stephen Ray feared, “me, Catholic?”
Becoming a Catholic disciple of Jesus Christ is a frightening experience for Protestants. We bask in the comfort of our Catholic Faith. Read this and appreciate just how blessed we are. Read this and pray for a comfortable and glorious outcome for Caleb and his family.
- Paul Dion, STL, ParishWorld Theology Editor
OCT. 21, 2010 (http://genureflection.wordpress.com
) - My beliefs, through my transition from the generically Arminian church of my childhood to classical Reformed Presbyterianism, were marked by several significant developments in my beliefs, one certainly maintained its place at the bedrock of my entire theology. This is no surprise for despite the doctrinal differences of the some 20,000 to 30,000 denominations within Protestantism, there is perhaps one that underlies every last one of them and that is the doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Latin for “by Scripture alone”).
What the doctrine means is rather self-explanatory given its translation. Simply put, the doctrine states that only that which is contained in the Scriptures or can be directly derived therefrom should be received with the certainty of infallibility. In other words, anything that is not in and of the Scriptures is necessarily the wisdom of men and therefore does not possess the infallibility of God’s inspiration.
The consequence of this doctrine is that any idea that cannot be found in the Scriptures is immediately suspect at best and should probably be discarded. No matter what denominational affiliation a Protestant is aligned with, he maintains some form of Sola Scriptura for it is the bedrock of the whole experiment.
Sola Scriptura, of course, sounds like a doctrine that is so obviously true that to question it could only indicate a doubt in the infallible divine inspiration of Scripture. However, I assure you that the doubts I began to consider that finally led me to shed my belief in Sola Scriptura were only because of my firm conviction in the absolute infallible divine inspiration of Holy Scripture.
I must also say that my beliefs that must replace Sola Scriptura are still being worked out in my mind and heart. I simply do not yet know precisely how I will articulate the alternative at this time. This is the collection of thoughts that led me to consider Sola Scriptura as itself a man-made doctrine that is internally inconsistent and ultimately leads to an ironic conclusion characterized by complete uncertainty.
The first and most obvious question that anyone should ask of Sola Scriptura is whether or not it abides by its own principle. Can the idea that the Scriptures alone are the only source of infallibly inspired truth be proven from Scripture alone? I don’t want to spend a great deal of time on that question but I should note that I have yet to be convinced of the affirmative answer. The Scriptures say many things about themselves, even that they are inspired by God and perfect, but I personally have not found a verse that asserts the singular and exclusive infallibility of Scripture. The statement “All Scripture is God-breathed…” does not imply that only Scripture is God-breathed any more than the statement “all limes are green” implies that only limes are green.
The rest of this essay of sorts will deal with the final “deal-breaker” for me and that is what I will call the “canon dilemma.” For those of you who may be unaware, a “canon” is simply a measure, a standard, and the canon of Scripture is merely the table of contents, the list of which books constitute the Bible as we know it. To put the “canon dilemma” succinctly, we are told in 2 Timothy 3:16 that “all Scripture is breathed out by God…” but ask yourself how it is that we know what counts as the “Scripture” to which this verse refers as being “breathed out by God.” 2 Timothy did not originally come to us already nestled between 1 Timothy and Titus as a part of a closed and complete anthology conveniently known as “Scripture” such that we could easily conclude that the “Scripture” of 2 Tim. 3:16 obviously refers to the other 65 books included.
This is perhaps the biggest misconception that many Protestants have about the Bible, that since its beginning, the Church has always had a complete, definitive, and leather-bound collection of 66 books known as “Scripture” to which it could be quickly refer in the need of clarification or insight. Rather, at the time of St. Paul’s writing of 2 Timothy, not all the books of the New Testament had even been written yet let alone compiled into a definitive collection known as the “New Testament.”
Therefore, any thoughtful person upon reading 2 Timothy in this light will ask two questions: (1) What is the “Scripture” to which 2 Tim. 3:16 refers as being “breathed out by God?” (2) By what standard can we even read 2 Timothy as a book of Holy Scripture in the first place? I’ll elaborate on each of these questions.
To restate the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, it is the idea that only that which is contained in Scripture can be received with certainty of infallible divine inspiration. But think about this. When you open up your Bible to the first few pages and you come to the table of contents, has it ever occurred to you that that list is not itself a part of Scripture?
That list, otherwise known as the canon, cannot be found within any book of the Bible. For what ever reason, God did not see fit to reveal to us a chapter-and-verse table of contents of what books possess that criterion of God-breathed Scripture. Therefore, given the Sola Scriptura principle, it would seem that any attempt to declare which books count as Scripture and which books do not is necessarily an extra-biblical claim that would be deemed uninspired and fallible because we don’t have an inter-Scriptural canon. Now, as some of you know, this isn’t a new discovery for R.C. Sproul has long put forth the idea of the canon as a “fallible collection of infallible books.” But as much as I respect Sproul, this presents some serious problems for me.
Firstly, the “fallible collection of infallible books” idea subtly begs the question “How do you know that the books are infallible?” and opens up an epistemological mess. We Protestants often take the canon for granted in assuming that the reason that James or Romans is an inspired canonical book is “because it’s in the Bible.” Well, if the Bible as we know it is a “fallible collection” due to its organization by an extra-biblical council, then for a book to merely have a place within it does not necessarily entail that it is indeed inspired and infallible. A certainty of infallibility cannot rest upon that which is fallible. So, right off the bat, we are left with a gaping epistemological problem as to how we can know for certain the individual books’ infallibility.
Now, if we were to follow the principles of Sola Scriptura we would assert that we can only maintain inspiration and infallibility as regards those tenets which are contained within Scripture or can be explicitly derived thenceforth. But, as stated previously, the collection of Scripture is not found within Scripture, which is why Sproul refered to it as a “fallible collection.” But frankly, even if Romans contained a list of what books counted as Scripture, we couldn’t use this book to determine its and the other included books’ infallible canonicity without already presupposing Romans’ infallible inspiration in the first place.
This is the issue presented by the second question above. I can’t approach 2 Timothy to read that “all Scripture is God-breathed” until I am sure that 2 Timothy is even worthy of being read as Scripture in the first place. And if 2 Timothy’s place within the canon is merely a result of a fallible collection of an extra-biblical council, how can I know for certain that God did in fact breathe the words “all Scripture is God-breathed?”
Therefore, on this point, I am nervously faced with what appears to be a logical dilemma for Sola Scriptura. On the one hand, it cannot put its assurance in the inspiration of the council that organized the canon, thereby rendering an infallible collection of infallible books, without violating its own principle; the canon must be a fallible collection. On the other hand, it is faced with the epistemological obstacle that one cannot know for certain a characteristic of a written text based upon what that text says about itself without already presupposing the text to be trustworthy or in this case, infallible. The resulting circular argument would go as follows:* Me: “Hey, how do you know that the Bible is inspired by God?”
* Other guy: “Because 2 Tim. says that ‘All Scripture is God-breathed…’”
* Me: “Ok, but how do you know that 2 Tim. is a legitimate book of that Scripture?”
* Other guy: “Because it’s in the Bible.”
Do you see the circle? The other guy presupposes the inspiration of Scripture to argue for the inspiration of Scripture. Therefore, on this point, it seems to me that Sola Scriptura fails to offer us the very certainty requisite for adherence to its own principle.
Continuing this, a popular argument from Protestants when confronted by the fact that the collection that we now know as “the Bible” is the product of a church council is to say that the council merely “passively recognized” those books which all Christians had always known were Scripture. Aside from the fact that that is an historically flawed view, even if we assume the organization of the canon to be a “passive recognition” of those books, by what criterion where they universally recognized as the Word of God?
If Sola Scriptura has always been the true doctrine of the Church, how did the early Christians who did not yet have a definitive and authoritative collection of what counted as “Scripture” practice this doctrine? If they were following Sola Scriptura, what was the intra-Scriptural standard from which they recognized the correct books of the Bible?
It is important to note that the early Church received many letters from the Apostles and yet only a select few were ultimately considered as the inspired and infallible Words of God. Beyond that, there were other letters written by bishops after the Apostles that were commonly considered as a part of Scripture such as the Letters of St. Clement.
Church history therefore presents two problems for me concerning Sola Scriptura. For its first three-hundred years, the Church functioned without any canonical collection, fallible or otherwise, so if Sola Scriptura is the true Biblical standard for interpretation, etc., how did the Church practice this doctrine during this period? Secondly, for the reasons previously stated, the principles of Sola Scriptura would have prevented them from having a foundation on which to even consider certain books as infallibly inspired just as it does to us today.
Now this question of the certainty of Scripture is not one that has been ignored by the various Reformed confessions. The language of the Westminster Confession states that:“…our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.”
So, our assurance of Scripture’s infallibility rests upon an inward work of the Holy Spirit’s witness that takes place within our hearts that testifies to the proper and true books of Scripture, the true canon. I know I am treading upon nervous ground here, but given the principle of Sola Scriptura, how is a Spiritual inward working in our hearts an any more appropriate foundation on which to place canonical certainty than a Spiritual inward working in the Church?
If you have Catholics on one side that argue that our certainty of Scripture is based on the inward working and guidance of the Holy Spirit in the magisterium that organized the canon and Protestants on the other that argue that our assurance is based on the Holy Spirit’s inward working in the hearts of believers, the difference does not seem to be Sola Scriptura. Rather, the difference is only in regards to the object on which assurance rests which in both cases is extra-biblical and therefore fails as an adequate foundation of certainty within Sola Scriptura. In fact, it seems that all one has to do to distinguish the Catholic position from the Protestant is to take that phrase from the Confession and replace “our hearts” with “the Church.”
I encountered this in a discussion with a blog friend of mine who once wrote a post critiquing the Catholic position on this issue and defending Sola Scriptura. In it, he began by stating “the Word of God has the authority to interpret itself.” Ok, even though this sounds right, I’ve already shown some philosophical problems with that statement in its begging of the question but in the next sentences he wrote as if directly proceeding from his first statement that “the Spirit indwelling a believer then opens the eyes of the faithful, through their faith and prayer, to interpret the Word correctly.”
That may be in accordance with the Westminster Confession, but how is this an example of the Word of God interpreting itself? I challenged him on this again claiming that the only difference between his second statement and the Roman position he was attacking was the use of the words “a believer” rather than “the Church.” In terms of Sola Scriptura, there is no principled difference between these two statements.
My basic problem is that an assurance based upon an inward working of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s heart seems no more in accordance with Sola Scriptura than a Spirit-induced testimony in the Church. Sola Scriptura may have a consistent basis for certainty in the canon, but we have to play by the rules and merely replacing the work of the Spirit in the Church with a work of the Spirit in our hearts as a foundation of certainty is not adhering to it. Given the principle of Sola Scriptura, our certainty of the canon must rest upon none other than an explicit or necessarily consequential warrant from Scripture itself. Unfortunately, that option seems circular for the reasons above.
Related to this is my next concern, which is that of the binding of the conscience. Sola Scriptura maintains that only that which is contained in Scripture can bind the consciences of men. Well, since the list which properly constitutes which books belong in Scripture is not contained within Scripture itself and the canon was fallibly organized by the extra-biblical Synod of Hippo, was that council violating the consciences of believers by authoritatively establishing a canon outside of Scripture?
Moreover, logically speaking, could someone as a Protestant decide for himself that, say, James isn’t a valid part of the canon? As opposed as he would be, on what grounds, beside any denominational vows he had taken, could his conscience be bound? For no where in Scripture does it state that James is Scriptural except within James itself and if he already believed that James was invalid, nothing from within that book could convince him otherwise.
As far-fetched as this example seems, Martin Luther himself did this very thing with not only James, but Jude and Revelation as well. Even if we accept what I understand to be Calvin’s understanding, that true Christians “know the voice of the Shepherd” which is the Scriptures, this doesn’t resolve the issue of someone deciding that James or Esther is not canonical and inspired. What would the argument against them be: “The majority of Christians hear, and have always heard, the Words of God in Esther, therefore you should too?”
Again, the basis of the certainty in the inspiration and canonicity of any book is not founded upon Scripture alone. Again, if the canon is a “fallible collection” then it seems totally plausible that someone might come to object to a certain book’s place within it for whatever reason and Sola Scriptura would have no way of binding his conscience against his beliefs. Sola Scriptura again seems to implode on itself. If only that which is contained in Scripture can rightly bind the consciences of men, it seems as though you have to first improperly bind consciences in order to possess an established and organized canon with which you can then go out and properly bind consciences.
Next, is a brief offshoot of this dilemma and it concerns interpretation. Keith A. Mathison once expressed in an article in Modern Reformation a different concept stating that “All appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretations of Scripture.” However, when I first read it, I obviously agreed, but as I pondered it more and more, I was rather surprised to hear that so confidently said by a Protestant.
To this day, I catch myself wondering, “Did he realize what he was actually saying?” As far as I am concerned, this has devastating implications for Sola Scriptura. Firstly, there’s the simple title. If all appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretations of Scripture, then a doctrine that translates “Scripture Alone” somewhat looses its essential quality.
Consider this argument:* All appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretations of Scripture.
* Interpretations are by definition external and separate from that which they interpret.
* Sola Scriptura maintains that any claim external to Scripture itself is necessarily uninspired and therefore fallible.
* Therefore, all appeals to Scripture are fallible.
This is no surprise; everyone obviously holds this to be true whether he believes in Sola Scriptura or not. But in the context of my other concerns, the lack of certainty seems to be stacking up.
First, Sola Scriptura seems to fail to give us a certainty with regards to the very canon of Scripture. If we now are forced to assert the absolute fallibility of all interpretations of this fallible collection of what we are somehow assured to be infallible books, it seems as though we are rapidly descending into a hermeneutical cacophony in which every man believes what is right in his own eyes whether the “man” is a literal individual or figurative as a denomination comprised thereof.
Coincidentally enough, that’s exactly what has appeared to have happened as I survey the impossibly complex landscape of contemporary Protestantism. It seems readily apparent that Luther’s hope that the supposedly “plain” words of Scripture would so obvious as for there to be little doubt of orthodoxy was mistaken.
All in all, I have increasingly come to view Sola Scriptura as one of the many man-made philosophical tenets that is too absolute to be practically tenable. It leaves many loose ends that have to be accounted for and the ways in which this accounting is gone about are unsatisfactory for me. It is perhaps the ultimate irony that to maintain a doctrine which states that only that which is contained in Scripture is infallibly inspired and authoritative requires a person to deny that we can definitely know with a certainty of infallibility what “Scripture” is in the first place.
I have removed the paragraph in which I offered up a half-baked, tentative theory I have of my alternative. If you recall the first paragraph, I have still not worked out thoroughly the belief that will replace Sola Scriptura. Too much attention was being directed towards concluding paragraph and I want my objections to be criticized if you all think they need to be.
I encourage you all to comment and object to any point in here and correct any flawed reasoning.