Where exactly does the New Testament teach that the Bible is to function in the Christian’s life and in the life of the Church as the ‘sole infallible rule of faith and practice’?
Where does it say or imply that the teaching of Scripture is so clear that no authority on earth would be needed to preserve true doctrine, to pass it down within the Church and to decide serious disputes that would arise as Christians disagreed on the teaching of the New Testament — you know, so that individual believers aren’t each reading their Bibles and running off in all directions and starting independent churches and sects and denominations that contradict one another even on essential issues of the faith?
Where exactly does the New Testament teach sola scriptura?
Now, when these questions were first put to me, it was a little disconcerting. Why? Because I recognized almost immediately that sola scriptura was something I had assumed as an evangelical Bible Christian. It wasn’t something I had established from an inductive study of what the New Testament actually says about the issue of authority within the Church.
It was simply what every Christian I knew believed.
It was a presupposition of our worldview as evangelical Protestants. And like most presuppositions, it was more or less unexamined.
My Reasoning as an Protestant
As a Christian who believed in the inspiration of Scripture, I’m not sure I ever felt it necessary to consciously articulate the reasoning behind my acceptance of sola scriptura. Like I said, it was the common assumption of every believer I knew. It was the atmosphere we breathed.
But if I had been asked, I might have answered with something like this:
Well, I’ve come to believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God. And sure, if the apostles were still alive, they could function as an interpretive authority for me. They could give me authoritative answers and settle all those disagreements Christians have and because of which Christ’s Church has been splintered and broken up into all sorts of churches with competing visions of what Christianity teaches. But they’re not here. And no Church on earth has the authority to function in their place as a ‘Decider’ of Christian doctrine and morals. And so what option is there, really, but to look to Scripture alone?
It’s not that I was unaware of the seemingly intractable disagreements that exist among Christians. Is the Church to have an episcopal form of government? Or is the rule of pastors/elders the correct way to go? Or congregational rule? Is salvation by faith alone? And once saved, can salvation be lost? Are sacraments like Baptism and Confirmation and Confession actual means of receiving God’s own divine life, or merely signs? Are there sacraments at all? What about the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist? Catholics, Orthodox and Lutherans say it’s true. Nearly everyone else says it’s not true.
Christians can’t even agree on what is needed to get to heaven. Some say we must persevere in the obedience of faith and strive after holiness, without which no one will see the Lord. Others say the worst thing we can do is “strive” after a holiness that has already been legally imputed to us in Christ.
I understood this. And I understood as well that there could be no unified Christian Church presenting to the world one unified vision of what Christianity actually teaches unless there was some authoritative voice on earth. And again, if the apostle Paul were here, we could use some of our frequent flier miles, travel to the Middle East and ask him about these things.
These issues could be settled for Christians once and for all.
But he isn’t here. And neither are Peter and John and Matthew and the rest. And so, I repeat, what option was there but to hold to the authority of Scripture alone?
I’ve gone so far as to say I can’t find in the apostle’s actions or writings any hint that they thought in terms of sola scriptura or envisioned future churches of “Bible Christians.” Not a hint that would communicate to me that they believed that when they passed from the scene sola scriptura would become the rule of faith and practice for the churches they would leave behind. There’s certainly not a whisper in their writings of them preparing their successors and spiritual children for sola scriptura.
Of course some reading this will respond: Are you insane? There are all kinds of passages in the New Testament that teach and/or imply sola scriptura.
And I would have responded in the same way.
After all, once one (a) acknowledges the simple fact that there are no more living apostles to settle doctrinal issues; once (b) one assumes that the kind of authoritative Church we see functioning in the New Testament no longer exists — a Church that could meet in council to settle disputes and settle them by the Holy Spirit (see Acts 15) — well, then any passage in the New Testament that speaks of the authority of Scripture is going to appear as a proof text for sola scriptura.
And this is precisely what we find in the Protestant literature on the subject. You read Geisler and MacKenzie or any number of other Protestant treatments of the subject, and every statement about the authority of Scripture is treated as though it were an argument for the truth of Scripture Alone. The fact that Scripture is revelation from God is viewed as clear evidence that Scripture is “the sole and sufficient infallible rule of faith and practice for the Church.” The fact that Jesus and the apostles quote Scripture as authoritative — again, in their eyes this is another solid argument for sola scriptura. That fact that the traditions of the Pharisees are denounced by Jesus as non-authoritative — more evidence.
But you see what’s happening here?
None of these facts actually argues for Scripture ‘Alone.’ They argue for the inspiration and authority of Scripture. They only argue for Scripture ‘Alone‘ when one approaches them with the assumed premise in mind: “And of course we all know that no Church exists with the Spirit-given authority to settle disputes about the teaching of Scripture and define Christian doctrine.”
But of course, isn’t this precisely what is at dispute between Protestantism and Catholicism — whether or not such an authoritative Church still exists?
Yes, this is exactly what is as dispute.
And because of this, once you strip away the circular reasoning, where the Protestant is assuming what he or she needs to be demonstrating from Scripture Alone — that an authoritative Church no longer exists. Once you separate out all the passages in the New Testament that rely upon this circular reasoning to have the effect of seeming to provide evidence for sola scriptura, there’s really only one passage that could in any way seem to actually teach what Protestants mean when they speak of sola scriptura: that “The Bible, nothing more, nothing less — and nothing else — is all that is needed for faith and practice.”
It’s 2 Tim 3:14-17, where St. Paul says to Timothy…
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect [or complete], thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Scripture states that it is ‘inspired’ and ‘competent’ for a believer to be ‘equipped for every good work.’ If the Bible alone is sufficient to do this, then nothing else is needed.
And so, if Paul is intending to teach Timothy that Scripture is “all he needs” to be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work, is he teaching Timothy that all he needs is the Old Testament?
The Protestant apologist will reply, “No, no… In this passage Paul may be referring to the Old Testament specifically, but he’s enunciating a principle here: that because Scripture is “inspired by God” (literally “God breathed”) it is all that is needed to perfect the man of God.
To which I would respond:
2. What St Paul says is that because Scripture is inspired it is “profitable” for making the man of God “complete and equipped” for every good work. But where does he imply that Scripture is all that is needed to accomplish this end?
Imagine I say to my son, who plays the piano:
Son, you need to practice scales because this is profitable for building independence, flexibility and strength in your hands and fingers, for developing speed, for learning the notes that are found in the various musical keys, and all in order that you may be complete, thoroughly equipped to perform any piece of music that comes along.
When we speak of something as being “profitable” for the accomplishment of a particular task (“in order that you may be complete, lacking in nothing”), we don’t normally mean to imply that there aren’t other things that might also be “profitable” for accomplishing the same task.
For instance, along with the Bible I might need an authoritative Church that could settle disputes between Christians and so preserve true doctrine.
3. I think that a parallel passage in the Epistle of James clarifies the point I’m making with my piano practice illustration and shows that the Protestant apologist is simply wanting to squeeze more out of 2 Timothy 3:16,17 than is intended by St.Paul.
In James 1:2-4, we read:
Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness [or patience]. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
Now, the Greek words James uses here and that are translated “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” are not exactly the same Greek words Paul uses in 2 Timothy 3:16,17, but I think we can see that the structure of thought, the pattern of thought, is the same.
And so I ask: is James teaching us in this passage that in order to be “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing,” all a Christian needs is steadfastness? That he doesn’t need Scripture to be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing? That he doesn’t need prayer, or the work of the Spirit within him, or the grace of the sacraments, or anything else? Just patience?
Obviously, what James intends in this passage is to emphasize how important it is to our spiritual growth that we exercise steadfastness in the face of trials. He’s not intending to teach us that patience is ‘all one needs’ to be perfected in the Christian life.
And neither is Paul intending to teach Timothy that ‘all he needs’ to be perfected is Scripture.
As a evangelical Protestant, I would have said in discussion with a Catholic:
Listen, we should only accept as true what can be shown to be clearly taught in the pages of Scripture. That idea you have about Peter and the keys? There are other possible and, I think, better interpretations of Matthew 16. The idea that in this passage Jesus is setting up Peter as some kind of Chief Steward of the Household of God? It’s just not something that is clearly taught. And the same with your doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. And the same with apostolic succession and baptismal regeneration and the communion of saints and…
Well, then, assuming the Protestant standard that “We should only accept as true what can be shown to be clearly taught in the pages of Scripture,” what are we to say about sola scriptura itself? I don’t see the New Testament as teaching it — much less as çlearly teaching it.
But if this is the case, then sola scriptura would seem to refute itself.
This is one of the reasons I came over time to abandon my belief in what had been the very foundation of my worldview as a Protestant: sola scriptura didn’t appear to be something clearly taught in Scripture. Instead, it appeared to be a default position Christians took at the time of the Reformation when they rejected the authority of the Church.
But there were more reasons for abandoning sola scriptura.
For instance, I also came over time to see that sola scriptura had not been the faith and practice of the Church in the early centuries of its existence. As well as not being scriptural, I found that sola scriptura wasn’t historical either. It wasn’t what the Church believed.
And here we’ll pick up next week.