WHY I’M CATHOLIC: SOLA SCRIPTURA ISN’T SCRIPTURAL, PART III

Our focus in the last two lessons (here and here) has been on whether or not the New Testament presents us with a Christianity in which the Bible functions as the only real authority, all other authorities, when you get down to it, being merely advisory.

So far, from my reading of the writings of the apostles, I don’t see a hint  of this. I see no evidence that Paul and John and Peter and the others had it in their minds that when they had passed from the scene Christianity would become “Bible only” Christianity — believers gathered around the Bible, reading and discussing and ultimately deciding for themselves what the true teachings of the Christian Faith are.

I don’t see sola scriptura in the New Testament.

And so the question comes to mind: Why do Protestants not only embrace sola scriptura, but embrace it as the very foundation of their worldview as Christians? Why?

I think back to my own experience as an evangelical Protestant for over twenty years. I ask myself: How did I think about this issue of authority? How did everyone I knew think about it?

The answer isn’t hard to find: I assumed sola scriptura. Every Christian I knew assumed sola scriptura. And we assumed it not because we could point to passages in the New Testament that actually taught a Bible only Christianity but because there was no other option in our minds. Scripture was inspired and authoritative. What else was?

In other words, our assumption was that the authoritative Church we see functioning in the New Testament — a Church that could meet in council like in Acts 15, decide issues of faith and practice, issue decrees stating “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” and expect those decisions to be received with joy and accepted as authoritative — our assumption was that this kind of Church no longer exists. And in the absence of such a Church, what alternative is there but to look to Scripture alone, and hope we can agree on what it’s teaching?

Think with me for a moment.

When we read the Gospels and watch Jesus establishing  his Church, he surely seems to be establishing the kind of Church that will speak with His authority. He breathes His Spirit into the apostles, the Church’s living foundation stones. He sends them out to heal the sick and raise the dead in His name. Those who listen to them will be listening to Him. He tells them that whoever’s sins they forgive will be forgiven, that whatever they bind on earth will be bound in heaven. He promises that the Spirit will lead them into all the truth and that He will be with them to the end.

He’s establishing the kind of Church that will speak with His authority.

And then, when we read the Acts of the Apostles and watch this Church actually functioning  in the New Testament, we see that it clearly was  the kind of Church that could and did speak with Christ’s authority.

We think about how most of the apostles never bothered to write down what they were teaching. We look at the New Testament epistles and notice that even those who did write wrote primarily to deal with specific issues in specific churches and seem to have had little concern to preserve in their writings anything approaching a clear summary of Christian doctrine.

We listen to the apostle John say he’d rather not write at all but much prefers being with his spiritual children and teaching them face-to-face.

We listen to St. Paul, preparing for his departure from the world and thinking specifically  about the preservation of his teaching after he’s gone. And rather than speaking a word about “writing,” we hear him instruct Timothy to “guard” by the Holy Spirit what he has “heard” him teach in the presence of many witnesses and “entrust that” to others who must be “faithful.”

Why faithful? Because these will also need to guard by the Holy Spirit what has been entrusted to them by Timothy so that they can in turn entrust this deposit of Christian doctrine to others, and so forth and so on.

And here’s the thing: the way the apostles act and speak — all of it makes perfect sense on the premise that they believed in the sort of Church in which the substance of their teaching could and would be preserved by the Holy Spirit, especially through their successors.

On the other hand, the way the apostles act and speak doesn’t make sense at all  on the premise that they were looking forward to a Church in which what they had written  would function as the sole rule  for faith and practice.

The Key Difference 

Catholics simply believe that the Church we see Jesus establishing in New Testament, the Church we see actually functioning in the New Testament, is the Church that still exists.

It’s the Church our Lord intended to continue  in the world after the death of the apostles, the Church that has continued in the world, the Church that still exists. It’s a Church filled with sinners and yet enabled by the Holy Spirit to preserve and pass down the truths of the Christian faith.

This is what Catholics believe, and this is why the Catholic Church speaks as it does, in ways that sound to Protestant ears like pure arrogance.

For instance, in Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation  from Vatican II, the Church speaks of the Magisterium’s Spirit-given authority to define Christian teaching.

Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit. And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God, which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound, and spread it abroad by their preaching.

The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living, teaching office of the Church alone….

Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this [Word of God, deposit of faith] devotedly, guards it with dedication, and expounds it faithfully.

Now, Protestants listen to these claims. They hear the Catholic Church speaking forthrightly of its authority from God to preserve and expound and define and decide issues of Christian doctrine and practice. And it sounds to them like craziness, nearly-inconceivable arrogance.

And yet notice that it happens to also sound exactly  like what we see when we look at the Church in the New Testament.

Catholics simply believe that this is the kind of Church Jesus intended to continue in the world after the death of the apostles.

Protestants do not. Rather, Protestants believe that with the end of the apostolic era the authoritative Church of Acts 15 disappeared and became a Church functioning under the sole authority of Scripture.

Christianity became “Bible Christianity.”

And, again, I don’t think it’s because our Protestant brothers and sisters see “Bible only” Christianity as actually taught  in the New Testament. I think it’s because they don’t believe the sort of Church we see in the New Testament exists any longer. And in the absence of this “kind” of Church, what option is there but to look to Scripture alone?

Conclusion

In other words, sola scriptura  is what one comes to when one believes in the divine inspiration of Scripture and yet has abandoned the idea that there exists on earth an authoritative Church, designed by Jesus and led by the Spirit to accomplish the work of guarding, preserving and faithfully handing down the apostolic faith. It’s a default position.

And of course, this is precisely what happened at the time of the Reformation.

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10 Comments

  • Pete Dohms says:

    Actually (in my humble opinion) St. Paul clearly taught the exact opposite of Sola Scriptura. First Timothy 3:15 states, “…if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”

    So, the Church is the “pillar and bulwark of the TRUTH,” scripture on its own is not. Paul is clearly saying that the Church has authority over Sacred Scripture (exercised when the Church defined the contents of the Bible), plus Tradition, plus its Teaching Magisterium.

    At the Ascension, Jesus didn’t tell the disciples, “Y’all read my book!” – He didn’t leave them a book, he left them a Church.

  • Rob Larsen says:

    Also, the Church was born at Pentecost (33 A.D.), years before the writings of the New Testament commenced. The Church also recognized which books would fill the New Testament and which writings were not to be included. Our Protestant brothers and sisters rely on a New Testament supplied through the work of the Holy Spirit guiding the Church.

  • Frank Benites says:

    Thanks Ken for another excellent article. May God continue to bless you and your ministry.

  • Bonnie Sammons says:

    How about Luke 10:16: ‘Jesus said to his disciple, “Whoever listens to you listens to me ; whoever rejects you rejects me; and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”‘
    Sounds clearly like apostolic succession to me.

  • mark anderson says:

    I have found that all of the bad doctrines in protestant communities are the result or consequence of other bad doctrines. Its all interconnected. For example, some of them believe in once saved always saved, therefore they must reject infant baptism, because the baby doesn’t make a choice. If you believe rightly that one must persevere to the end and make a choice for Christ daily throughout their life, then infant baptism is no issue at all. Because they cling to once saved always saved, the forced consequence is they have to deny the ancient and historical practice of infant baptism.

    Sola scriptura is the same way. It is a forced default position that results from another bad doctrine. If you don’t believe that Jesus kept his promises and that an authoritative church doesn’t/can’t exist, then you have backed yourself into a corner where you are forced to believe in an illogical position of a fallible collection of infallible books, and cling to sola scriptura. I think Ken makes the case for the forced consequence very well.

    in the end, all of their faulty doctrines source back to one single underlying issue, that is who has the authority to teach faith and morals? who has the authority to determine which books belong in the Bible and who has the authority to right interpret the Bible itself? is it me personally, is it my pastor personally, is it any church collectively, is it one single church collectively, who has the authority? if that question isn’t answered correctly, then you see never ending rabbit holes that protestants run into, and they back themselves into all kinds of corners that force more bad doctrines. Because every doctrine is linked in some way to another doctrine, if you have a bad one, it is going to create another bad one, which will create two more bad ones.

  • Mark Anderson, as a Christian psychologist, I am aware of a greater consequence of “one-saved-always-saved-safe-and-secure-for-eternity”. Some evangelicals are taking that faulty doctrine at face value and no longer experience any angst about ongoing sinful practice. So I have had people tell me that they are so very thankful that as “one of the chosen, my past, present and future sins are already forgiven, so I have nothing to worry about.” Faulty doctrine, while in and of itself, does not necessarily lead to Hell, when practiced, certainly can lead to Hell.

    • mark anderson says:

      I 100% agree that once saved always saved is the most dangerous of all protestant doctrines. Of course not all, or even a majority? teach it, but I believe it to be a super dangerous doctrine, for the reasons you cite.

      How many souls are in grave danger because they have been taught that there is no such thing as mortal sin, and that nothing they can do can change their eternal destiny?

      I think its one of the main reasons that you have seen one protestant community after another, give into the secular world and accept practices that were once considered immoral, and now they have become acceptable for christians. If once you are “saved” and nothing else matters, then any practice that the secular world presents as a good, can be accepted by someone because it has no bearing on their salvation. In fact, their entire theology vanishes into this one lowest common denominator, so that when they disagree about real serious issues they can just write if off and look the other way, as not important and having no impact on salvation, so really no other doctrine matters, believe whatever you want, because none of it has to do with salvation. It quickly becomes a lowest common denominator faith.

      Nevertheless, my point is that one bad doctrine leads to more bad doctrines.

      • Brittany says:

        My husband is a member at an independent, fundamentalist Baptist church that teaches OSAS. As I was thinking about this, I wondered why then does Satan continue to tempt a person who knows he will go to Heaven. If all our future sins are already forgiven at the time of our profession of faith and salvation, then why does Satan continue to tempt them and lead them into sin? It seems if Satan knew that he could no longer have their souls, then he would just leave them alone. What would he gain if he could never win back their souls to Hell? Maybe this thought is not significant, but it seems like something that doesn’t add up to me.

  • David Sekely sr says:

    I think if one reads 2 Peter :3 this comes into a clearer focus, OSAS, Sola Scriptura, Sola Fides. Your question “why then does Satan continue to tempt a person who knows he will go to Heaven. If all our future sins are already forgiven at the time of our profession of faith and salvation, then why does Satan continue to tempt them and lead them into sin?” was addressed by Peter in verse 14 -17. As Paul himself said in 1 Cor 9:27 he too might be cast away after all his preaching and work for the church. OSAS??? Not Paul!!!

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