Trent was recently invited on Protestant YouTuber Sam Shamoun’s channel to explain the Catholic position on sola scriptura. In this episode, Trent makes his case against sola scriptura and in the next episode, he takes questions from Sam’s Protestant audience.
Welcome to The Counsel of Trent podcast, a production of Catholic Answers.
So, Sam Shamoun is a Protestant YouTuber who is known online for engaging Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, for defending the Trinity. But he’s also recently had people with different theological backgrounds come on his show to engage his mostly protestant audience. And he invited me to come on recently to talk about the protestant doctrine of sola scriptura. So I was really excited to come on the show. And what I’m going to share with you today is part one of my interaction on the show.
So, part one was a 40 minute presentation I gave on sola scriptura encapsulating my doubts about the doctrine and why I believe solar scriptura is not true, it’s not taught in the Bible. And then after giving that presentation, Sam moderated a Q and A session where I took questions from his protestant viewers who believe in the doctrine of sola scriptura. So on Thursday, you’ll hear part two of the discussion, how I answered those questions.
Today will be the case against sola scriptura that I gave on his show. And I’m so grateful for being there. In fact, I’ve been noticing a trend online of protestant YouTubers who had previously focused on mere Christianity, defending the existence of God, the resurrection of Christ, who are more open to discussing the merits of Catholicism and trying to deepen their theological foundations. Matt Fradd over At Pints with Aquinas is also doing a great job of this. He’s been talking with Cameron Bertuzzi, another protestant YouTuber who has an interest in Catholicism who says he’s very close to Catholicism. He’s not there yet, but he’s much closer than he was before.
And Matt has actually interviewed Sam Shamoun on these points. And I’ll link to that in the description at trenthornpodcast.com, which by the way, if you’re a supporter of trendhornpodcast.com for as little as $5 a month, you get access to our bonus show notes. The exclusive ability to comment on shows, to message me, to suggest ideas for future episodes, all that and more at trendhornpodcast.com, your support makes the podcast possible. So be sure to go and check it out. So today I’m going to play you, this is the first part of my presentation. This is my 40 minute case, so to speak against sola scriptura, and then on Thursday, you’ll hear my interactions, my answers to questions from listeners to Sam’s show who believe in the doctrine of sola scriptura. So here’s part one, my doubts about sola scriptura.
All right, well, thank you so much, Sam, for having me here, and I really appreciate your open mindedness of how you’ve had a variety of theological views here on the program and your openness to Catholic doctrine and being willing to evaluate divine revelation and being open to what are the ultimate sources of divine revelation and seeking after that truth. So I’m just grateful that you’ve had me on with so many other distinguished guests. And tonight I’m going to be talking about sola scriptura, so I have a short presentation that I’m going to share with you all.
This is based on material in my book, The Case for Catholicism that is published with Ignatius Press, so if you like what I share tonight, definitely consider picking up a copy of that book. I think that it’s probably the most comprehensive, single volume defense of Catholic theology available today. It’s called The Case for Catholicism. So what I want to go over tonight briefly are doubts I have about the doctrine of sola scriptura. Focusing on six questions that I want to ask and the doubts that come from that and why I am skeptical and ultimately reject this doctrine, which is one of the cornerstones of the protestant reformation.
To give you a background on myself, I am a convert to the Catholic faith. In high school, I was non-religious. I believed in a God who was just kind of out there, who started the world. I didn’t believe in Jesus. I thought religion was a crutch for the weak, but then I met Catholic high school students and they challenged me. So I went online, I watched William Lane Craig debates, those are probably before YouTube. So I listened to them on MP3s. I read articles and I was convinced that Jesus is God and he rose from the dead. And so I was Christian, a non-denominational Christian, the largest denomination out there.
And I thought, well, what kind of Christian should I be? I like my Catholic friends, but everything they do doesn’t seem very biblical. I just wanted to follow the Bible and do what it said. And I was implicitly following sola scriptura, but then I realized, well, wait a minute, where does the Bible teach sola scriptura? There are other problems in it when I started to think about this particular doctrine. And so that ultimately led me after another year of study into being received into the Catholic church, being baptized, receiving confirmation, and first Eucharist in March of 2002. So I’ll be coming up on 20 years now of being Catholic. Thanks be to God.
All right. So what are my doubts about sola scriptura? Let me just focus on six questions I want to go through. First, what do we mean by sola scriptura? That’s really the key here. What do we mean by that word? You see, before I can believe in a doctrine, I need a clear explanation of what the doctrine actually entails. Some protestant apologists say sola scriptura means the scripture is the believers sole, infallible rule of faith. But this definition is just too ambiguous. Is it sufficient for a doctrine merely to not contradict scripture?
If that’s the case, then a Catholic could agree with sola scriptura if it’s restricted to saying we just believe things that don’t contradict the Bible, because nothing we believe as Catholics contradicts what is taught in scripture, even though some of it is not explicitly found there. But I would say as I argue later, protestants believe in things that are not explicitly found in scripture. But this isn’t what most advocates of sola scriptura are claiming, rather they seem to be adapting a stricter view, which says christian doctrine must be found explicitly in scripture and that this doctrine and only this doctrine must be affirmed as revelation of the Christian faith.
For example, the late Norman Geisler and Ralph MacKenzie write, “The Bible, nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else is all that is necessary for faith and practice.” Reformed theologian Matthew Barrett’s definition parallels to 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith where he says, “Sola scriptura means that only scripture because it is God’s inspired word is our inerrant, sufficient and final authority for the church. All things necessary for salvation and for living the christian life in obedience to God and for his glory are given to us in the scriptures.” So I think those are standard definitions that people offer for sola scriptura. And as we continue, I’ll share with you the problems and doubts I have about these definitions and the evidences for them.
Here’s one problem that arises from these definitions. The words practice like the Bible has all that is necessary for faith and practice and living the christian life. As in scripture provides what we need for salvation and living the christian life. It was actually fairly broad statements if you think about it, because for example, to live the christian life or christian practice involves adhering not just to theological truths, but to moral truths as well. Moral truths they’re just as important, but scripture doesn’t give us clear guidance on a host of important moral issues. These include modern ones like in vitro fertilization or human cloning, as well as ones that have been around forever, but we don’t have clear, explicit, undeniable teaching prescription on them, such as on abortion, contraception or even polygamy because some people in the past and even today use the Bible’s lack of a universal condemnation of the practice of polygamy in order to endorse it.
If the Bible is our only authority we turn to for these moral matters, along with theological matters, why does the Bible speak to these moral issues or all the moral issues that affect us in the christian life more clearly? Perhaps that’s because God’s written word never aggregates this role for itself to be this kind of only infallible authority, which brings me to question two. How can a document be infallible or an authority? First there’s a difference between claiming scripture is un-infallible authority and claiming it is the only infallible authority. Even if scripture claimed the latter, that wouldn’t prove the former.
The defender of sola scriptura still has to show that only scripture is without error or infallible in order to uphold the doctrine that he’s defending. Because as a Catholic, I would say, sure, scriptura is without error. I agree with that. But sola scriptura goes beyond saying, scripture is an authority that is an errant or infallible, but it says that it’s the only authority we have. That’s a different claim than saying it is infallible, which requires more justification. So the defender of sola scriptura has to show this, which brings us to the next problem. The idea of fallibility and infallibility.
In the broad sense, being fallible means one is capable of making an error or being erroneous. So in that sense the Bible can be infallible in that it has no errors in what it affirms. But this would make the concept of inerrancy along with infallibility, somewhat redundant. In practice, when we say something is fallible, we usually refer to the capacity for error in judgements that that thing makes, which for our purposes applies to the judgments people make and the conclusions that they reach. So in that respect of infallibility, the Bible cannot be infallible or an authority. It can’t be an infallible authority any more than the constitution of the United States could be a fallible authority.
Documents are not capable of making judgments, so they are neither fallible nor infallible. And they are not authorities because they don’t render judgments or conclusions that we are supposed to follow. In the United States, the founding fathers knew that our country would only preserve the rule of law if a designated body was given authority to determine what the constitution means and how it should be applied to any given situation. Of course, unlike the constitution, the Bible is inerrant and unlike the Supreme Court, a competent authority to be the trustworthy custodian divine revelation would have to be infallible or protected from making errors when it formally teaches on the content of divine revelation.
So if you can follow my analogy there, the constitution is neither fallible nor infallible, and it’s a document so it can’t be an authority. The founding fathers gave us an authority to interpret it, but if you see things like Dred Scott or Roe versus Wade, Korematsu versus the United States, Plessy versus Ferguson, about every 20 or 30 years, the Supreme Court gets something wrong. It’s a fallible authority, but it’s an authority nonetheless. So even if God gives us an inerrant document that contains divine revelation, it doesn’t follow that sufficient. It would make more sense if God gave us an infallible authority. The document can’t have the property of infallibility or being authoritative or being an authority, I should say. Rather, we need an institution that God has given us that has been given the properties of being an infallible authority that is the custodian of this divine revelation.
One corollary of sola scriptura is the belief that no other authority like the church is necessary for arriving at a correct interpretation of scripture, rather every individual believer is capable of perceiving at least the essential doctrines of the faith through his own personal reading of the Bible. Some protestants put it this way, the main things are the plain things and the plain things are the main things. Martin Luther went so far as to claim that they who deny the all clearness and all plainness of the scriptures leave us nothing else but darkness. But this perspicuity of scripture as some Protestants call it is demonstrably false, and this is important. In order for the Bible to be a believer sole authority, we have to know what it’s saying.
A regular believer has to be able to know that, it has to be clear or perspicuous. And yet this is this doctrine of the perspicuity of scripture, the main things are the plain things and the plain things are the main things, or that the average believer can discover the truth of essential doctrines of the faith is demonstrably false when you look at the divisions within the Christian community from people who are all reading the same Bible. For example, protestants disagree over many main things that should be plain things like baptismal regeneration, and the need to baptize infants, predestination and free will. Consider the controversy between Calvinists and Armenians, doesn’t seem to be plain there, but they’re talking about main things. How was Christ present in the Eucharist? Can salvation be lost, remember? James White and I debated that several years ago.
And even this question which I find interesting that a lot of people don’t bring up in these discussions, what makes someone a christian? Protestants disagree about this. I remember a few years ago, James White had a debate with Doug Wilson on whether Catholics are Christians. And even among the audience watching this talk, there are going to be protestants who believe that a Catholic like myself, that I am a christian who’s just mistaken just like a Calvinist might be mistaken, but I’m a Christian. And there’s other protestants who are going to say, I’m not a Christian because I’m Catholic. Well, where does the Bible tell us what makes someone a Christian and what makes someone not a Christian? It doesn’t say, that’s a really important question and if scripture was the sole infallible authority as protestant say, why doesn’t it give us the answers to those crucial questions? Once again, this makes me doubt that the written word of God or scripture was meant to function in this way as defenders to sola scriptura claim it’s supposed to.
So the Bible itself, even teaches that scripture is not perspicuous. In the second letter of Peter, 2 Peter 3:16, Peter says in St. Paul’s letters that there are things in them that are hard to understand which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction. Notice that Peter warns his readers about misrepresenting things that bring about a person’s destruction. So here Peter’s talking about misrepresenting the main things of scripture, which if it brings about your destruction, it’s a main thing, but these main things are not plain things. When presented with this objection some protestants claim that the perspicuity of scripture only means that scripture is capable of being understood rightly, not that all believers will understand it rightly. But this undercuts the claim that scripture is clear, not just to scholars, but to ordinary believers as well.
Calvinist, Robert Godfrey says, “All things necessary for salvation and concerning faith in life are taught in the Bible with enough clarity that the ordinary believer can find them there and understand.” According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, “Those things which are necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned in a due use of the ordinary means may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” But scripture never makes these claims for itself. And when we read scripture, we see that simply not the case.
In contrast, the scripture being clearly understandable, consider the time when the evangelist Phillip came across a eunuch reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” To which the eunuch answered, “How can I, unless someone guides me.” Given that protestants whole contradictory positions on mutually exclusive issues, such as the ones I brought up earlier about whether salvation can be lost, baptismal regeneration, the need to baptize infants, this shows that many who defend sola scriptura do not understand what they are reading since they hold mutually exclusive contradictory views on these issues. It’s no wonder that second Peter 1:20 through 21 tells us that, “No prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation because no prophesy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”
Number three, how can Protestants have other authorities? I hear this all the time. People will say, “Well, scripture is the only infallible authority but that doesn’t mean we as protestants have no other authorities whatsoever. We have the church, we have the councils.” According to Keith Mathison, he says, “Making scripture the only authority is a perversion of sola scriptura that he calls solo scriptura.” Under solo scriptura he says, “Tradition is not allowed in any sense, the ecumenical creeds are virtually dismissed and the church has denied any real authority.” So some protestants will say, “No, we’re not saying scripture is the only authority, it’s the only infallible authority, we have the church councils. We have the fathers. We have these authorities, they’re just subordinate to scripture.”
But adherence of solo scriptura and sola scriptura, both hold as their ultimate authority the individual’s interpretation of scripture. For example, protestants like Mathison may cite the early ecumenical councils, but they only do so to support their previous interpretation of scripture. So for example, they may cite Pope Leo’s defense of Christology at the Council of Chalcedon, but they ignore his invocation of papal authority in his other letters. Well, consider the protestant philosopher William Lane Craig, who believes that Christ has only one will. This heresy is called monothelitism and it was condemned at the Third Council of Constantinople. This is something that Craig fully understands, but his reply to critics shows the practical equivalence between solo scriptura that people like Mathison condemn and the traditional view of sola scriptura.
Craig writes, “No earnest christian wants to be considered a heretic, but we protestants recognized scripture alone as our ultimate rule of faith, the reformation principles sola scriptura. Therefore, we bring even the statements of ecumenical councils before the bar of scripture. Solo scriptura and sola scriptura represented distinction in ephasis, sorry, in emphasis, not ephasis, they have a distinction in emphasis, but not in substance. Under the latter view, Christian tradition has given more consideration, but it doesn’t have more authority. This is evident in things like the 1978 Chicago statement on an errancy which is popular among conservative evangelicals, which says, “We deny that church creeds, councils or declarations have authority greater than scripture or equal to the authority of the Bible.” Both groups deny that tradition has any ability to overrule an individual christian who believes his interpretation of scripture is correct no matter what long standing doctrine of the faith it may reject.
Number four, where does the Bible claim that all christian doctrine is found in the Bible, which is the only infallible source for such doctrine? So basically where does the Bible teach sola scriptura? If I’m going to believe in this doctrine, then I’m surely going to believe the Bible teaches this doctrine. If it doesn’t, well, then that’s a nonstarter for me believing in this doctrine. Now some protestants try to shift the burden of proof here and say that it’s up to Catholics and Eastern Orthodox and other Eastern Christians to prove that another infallible authority exists apart from scripture. And if they can’t do that, then sola scriptura wins by default.
But it is Protestants who have the duty showing that the Bible teaches that all christian doctrine is found in and only in scripture. When protestants make the claim that scripture is the only infallible authority, when they make that claim that’s a burden there. Even an atheist or agnostic could say, “Well, where does your tradition teach this without offering a competing view?” So if you’re going to make that claim, you do carry a burden of proof and I believe the burden has simply not been met when we look at the biblical evidence. But before I show you why this is the case, I want to bring up a double standard. I mean, I’ve watched a fair number of debates between Catholics and protestants in sola scriptura, I haven’t really seen anyone bring up this particular double standard that comes up a lot.
See, I noticed that many times protestants, and by the way, when I say protestants, I don’t mean in kind of an othering sense. Like, oh, those protestants over there. I believe we’re all brothers and sisters in Christ in virtue of our valid baptisms. And I have many wonderful dear protestant friends who have love of Jesus and a love of scripture and I appreciate them, especially when they work with Catholics to defend the unborn, for example. So I have all the love in the world from my protestant brothers and sisters. And because I have love for them, I want to make sure they receive the fullness of the truth that God has given them. And I believe that fullness is found in the Catholic faith. I don’t want them to be deceived by a doctrine that’s false, including the doctrine of sola scriptura.
So here’s the double standard I’ve noticed. In catholic protestant debates, protestants will sometimes criticize Catholic doctrines as not having enough proof text to support them. They’ll say like for the papacy, the papacy is such an important doctrine. It’s the foundation of Catholicism and you only have Matthew 16 and John 21 to prove the papacy? You only have these verses to prove such an important doctrine. Now I would say let’s say that were true. I don’t believe it’s true, I think there’s tons of evidence throughout scripture showing the unique position that Peter had amongst the apostles, the need to have apostolic offices succeed for the churches enduring existence, and evidence from the Bible in history of those offices and charisms being passed on to the successors of the apostles. So there’s more evidence in Matthew 16 and John 21 for the papacy.
But let’s say there is only that evidence. Well, go back to the doctrine of sola scriptura, the papacy is the foundational element of Catholicism. Sola scriptura is the foundational element of Protestantism, yet where are all of the proof text for sola scriptura? In many treatments that I have read on this subject, I’ve seen only one or two verses cited, sometimes none. It’s just inferred from biblical statements without directly citing a Bible text that shows this doctrine. So I think that, that’s just interesting this double standard needs to be addressed. That people will say Catholics believe in important doctrines like the papacy or some of the Marian dogmas and they only have this verse or this verse.
But when you look at sola scripture, as we’re about to do, protestants only have barely a handful. Usually it comes down to one verse second Timothy 3:16 through 17 that’s put forward. So I think they need to be cognizant of that double standard if they make that criticism of Catholic arguments. Right? So well, where is the biblical evidence of sola scriptura? Well, the gospel has never record Jesus instructing the disciples to consider written records to be the church’s sole infallible rule of faith. In fact, prior to his ascension into heaven, Jesus never commanded the apostles to write anything down. He also did not command them to collect any writings that would serve as the church’s ultimate authority.
If scripture was supposed to be our ultimate authority for the church ever since the death of the apostles, why don’t we see this clearly taught in scripture? Jesus doesn’t even tell them to write anything down. The book of Acts doesn’t record the apostle collecting these writings together to serve as the authority for the church after their passing. Acts 4:12 says, “There is salvation in no one else but Christ.” But the book of Acts never says there is no revelation in anything else besides scripture. The only passage in this book that’s cited in defense of sola scriptura is Acts 17:11, where Luke describes Paul and Silas’s journeys in Thessalonica and Berea, and Luke says, “Now these Berean Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica, where they receive the word with all eagerness examining the scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”
But Acts 17:1 through 11, it doesn’t contain any formal teaching or on scripture or its sufficiency. It’s just a narrative that talks about some Jews in Thessalonica rejecting Paul’s message and some in Berea accepting it, that’s it. You just have an inference from there trying to get sola scriptura from this story. So if we recall from the story in Acts 17:1 through 9, Paul and Silas went to Thessalonica, they argued for three weeks in the synagogue that Jesus was the Messiah and that resulted in the conversion of some Jews and Gentiles. But the Jews who were unconvinced started a riot and Paul and Silas had to flee. In Acts 17:10 through 12, the same pattern emerges. Paul and Silas go to Berea, they argue Jesus is the Messiah and this results in the conversion of Jews and Gentiles, but this time there’s no riot. That’s what Luke means when he says that they’re more noble minded because they examined the scriptures to see if this were so, they gave Paul an open message.
There’s no reason to believe that the Jews in Thessalonica didn’t check the scriptures to see that Paul was wrong. They would have told him that his preaching, that the Messiah would be crucified and rise on the third day is not found in the Old Testament. I would go so far as to say that the opponents in Paul’s time who gave him the biggest headache, the Judaizers who demanded circumcision, who criticized the idea that Jesus was the Messiah. I would go so far as to say that Paul’s biggest opponents at his time in preaching the gospel were Jews who practiced sola scriptura. Were Jews who said, “You have this preaching, we’re going to go back to the Tanakh, the Hebrew old Testament. It’s not there. We’ve searched it, it’s not there, we’re not going to accept it.”
So the Jews in Berea were more open-minded but Paul certainly didn’t believe that scripture was confined only to the written word because when he spoke to the Thessalonians as he recounts in his first letter to them, in first Thessalonians 2:13, he commended the Thessalonians not for only sticking to what was written in the scriptures. The ones who believed, he didn’t commend them for that. He said, “I commend you for receiving my words not merely as the words of men, but for what they truly are, the words of God,” which shows the word of God is not confined to the written word alone.
The only other verse that has a hope of teaching sola scriptura in the entire Bible is second Timothy 3:16 through 17, which says “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 complete, equipped for every good work.” Does this teach scripture is the only “Infallible authority” that all Christian doctrine is explicitly found there and obligated to believe that doctrine? Well no, it doesn’t. That’s reading a lot into two verses. What can we get from this? Second Timothy 3:16 says, “Scripture is inspired.” Theopneustos, but does that imply that scriptures are only infallible authority? The evangelical author Kern Trembath says, “It is an assumption that we know what Theopneustos means, but we do not. In spite of the staggering amount of attention it is received over several generations.”
It doesn’t mean that the word is completely unknown, only that it’s precise meaning is debatable. For example, the Baptist scholar, Lee Martin McDonald points out that, “In the early church, the common word for inspiration Theopneustos was used not only in reference to the scriptures, but also of individuals who spoke or wrote the truth of God.” So in the early church Christians believed that not only scripture was inspired with Theopneustos, but that some of the writings of the church fathers are Theopneustos, even though they did not consider them to have the authority of scripture. So second Timothy 3:16 can’t give us sola scriptura.
Besides as the evangelical scholar Craig Allert notes, “The stress of this passage is not on Theopneustos, instead it is on the usefulness of scripture.” Paul doesn’t say scripture is necessary or sufficient for teaching and training. He just says scripture is useful or profitable, óphelimos in Greek. Other people say sola scriptura is true because second Timothy 3:17 says that, “Scripture is enough to equip the man of God for every good work.” All right? So if the man of God only needs scripture to accomplish good works, then sola scriptura naturally follows from this. But the problem is that scripture also speaks about other things that prepare us for every good work and even perfect believers, but they’re not the sole sources of doctrine or the only infallible authorities we have.
For example, in second Timothy 2:21, Paul says that if Timothy keeps himself from bad influences, “He will be a vessel for noble use, consecrated and useful to the master of the house, ready for any good work.” And the Greek phrase, any or every good work, [inaudible 00:28:45] Agathon is identical to second Timothy 3:17. We know protestant would say that as long as you stay away from bad influences, you have everything you need to live the Christian life, even though in second Timothy 2:21 Paul says, if you do that, you will be ready for every good work. James 1:4 uses even stronger language. It says that patience or endurance perfects us, téleios and it completes us so the verb [inaudible 00:29:12], that it perfects and completes us instead of just equipping us. But nobody says that we only need patience, the virtue of patience to be Christians, though it certainly helps.
Number five, did the early church believe in sola scriptura? When one examines the writings of the church fathers, it’s important to understand the difference between the material sufficiency of scripture and the formal sufficiency of scripture. So material sufficiency refers to scripture containing all of divine revelation, or at least everything necessary for salvation in explicit or implicit form. So in this sense, scripture is sufficient for theology because all the materials for theology are found in the Bible. This would be like saying a lumberyard is materially sufficient for the goal of building a house. Now, if I go to a lumberyard, the lumberyard is not sufficient for me to build a house because I don’t know what I’m doing.
I bought my kids a playhouse from Costco, it took four months to assemble. And I had the instructions to go with it even. To build it from scratch, I will be completely helpless. So the material sufficiency says, the materials of divine revelation are in scripture. Either divine revelation or in a minimal form necessary for our salvation, but not that they are present there in a formal way. So formal sufficiency on the other hand versus scripture containing not just the material divine revelation, but it being articulated in a clearly understandable form. This would be a kin to a suburban housing development being formerly sufficient for the purpose of living in a house.
So a lumberyard is materially sufficient to live in a home. You have the material there, you got to bring the know-how, the know-how is not in the lumberyard. The know-how of how to put all the materials together to get the final product. A suburban tract home is formerly sufficient for living in a home. Not only are the materials there, but they’re arranged for you. And so it’s ready from day one to meet your particular needs. The protestant position on scriptural sufficiency … well, sorry, let me continue here. The protestant position on scriptural sufficiency would imply that just as a builder isn’t necessary to live in a completed home, the church is not necessary for interpreting scripture. The Westminster Confession of Faith put it bluntly, the infallible rule of interpreting scripture is scripture itself.
The evangelical author, Timothy Ward says that, “However, as he says, in general, the father’s assert the material sufficiency of scripture, but deny its formal sufficiency.” This is important because you can read church fathers that speak of scripture being sufficient, but they’re speaking about it in the material sense, not in a formal sense. Consider St. Athanasius who said, “The sacred and inspired scriptures are sufficient to declare the truth.” On its own, that sounds like he believed in formal sufficiency, but we need to examine Athanasius’s words in their proper context because Athanasius says, “For although the sacred inspired scriptures are sufficient to declare the truth, while there are other works of our blessing teachers compiled for this purpose, if he meet with which, if a believer meets with these other works that are not scripture, a man will gain some knowledge of the interpretation of the scriptures and be able to learn what he wishes to know.
Still, as we have not at present in our hands, the compositions of our teachers, we must communicate in writing to you what we learned from them, the teachers, the faith, namely of Christ, the Savior.” For Athanasius, the scriptures do contain the truth of the gospel, but one must also seek out the correct interpretation of that truth from those who teach the faith. That’s why in his letter to the bishops of Africa, Athanasius instructs them to, “Let the faith confess by the fathers at Nicaea alone hold good among you.” In regard to infant baptism, Augustan wrote, “There are many things which are observed by the whole church and therefore are fairly held to have been enjoined by the apostles, which yet are not mentioned in their writings.” Ward points, the evangelical scholar I quoted earlier, Timothy Ward points out that these and other statements by the fathers that speak of scripture sufficiency do not, “Tell the whole theological story.
Throughout the Patristic period no programmatic distinction was made between scripture and church with regard to either teaching or authority. The church was ascribed the right of determining the correct interpretation of scripture, although not explicitly as an authority over against scripture.” And that continues today where in the dogmatic constitution on divine revelation promulgated at the Second Vatican Council that the Catholic church teaches that the Catholic church, the church Christ established is the servant of scripture, not a lord over it, but a servant of it who faithfully is entrusted with it and acts as a divinely guided custodian of the sacred revelation. Augustan even said, “From my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic church.” Church history, Professor Mark Ellingson, who is also protestant says of Augustan, “When decisions were to be made about ecclesiastical matters he appealed, Augustan appealed to both the Bible and tradition allowing them to function, especially in cases where scripture laid down no definite rule. Indeed, against the manichean heretics, Augustan contended that the reason for believing is not found in the scriptures alone, but is grounded in the Catholic tradition.”
Indeed, no church council taught the formal sufficiency of scripture, even though it did define other implicit trues in scripture like those of Christology. After Luther declared that he would base his theology on scripture alone, Johann Eck, the Catholic scholar told him, “Martin, there is no one of the heresies which have torn the bosom of the church which has not derived its origin from various interpretations of scripture. The Bible itself is the arsenal hence each innovator has drawn his deceptive arguments.” That’s why in the fifth century, St. Vincent of Lauryn said, “It is necessary on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.”
And finally, my last question, which gives me doubts about sola scriptura, what is scripture? This is easily the biggest flaw in sola scriptura. Discussions about sola scriptura assume there is an agreed upon authority called scripture whose identity we all agree about. But if the answer to the question, what is scripture is found in the scriptures we are debating, and then the claim of sola scriptura becomes circular and invalid. The first Christians didn’t learn their faith from the Bible because none of the books in the New Testament had been written yet. This is evident in Paul, thanking the Corinthians for, “Maintaining the traditions, even as I have delivered them to you.” And instructing his disciple Timothy, “Well, you have heard from me before many witnesses, entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”
Paul thanked the Thessalonians as I had said earlier for accepting his preaching as the words of God. And in his second letter to the Thessalonians told them, “Stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us either by word of mouth or by letter.” Also, if God really wanted to have the written word, the written word of God to be a Christian sole source of authority, then why didn’t he wait to become man until the printing press and literacy became widespread? I mean, think about it. God waited to reveal himself to human beings. I mean human beings, I think even many protestants would agree that human beings were present before the written word was developed. They passed on oral traditions. And I think many people would agree that human beings have been around for not just thousands of years, but tens of thousands of years before the written word was developed in various parts of the world.
So God waited to reveal himself to humanity until the written word had been developed so that, that revelation could be passed on to others. If God waited to reveal himself to human beings once writing was invented, and if he desired them to live by sola scriptura, then he became man 1500 years too early in a time when people did not have access to books and even if they did, nearly all of them couldn’t read. So if God made sola scriptura the doctrine we’re bound to uphold, He’s made it so that for the vast majority of the church’s history and a morally impossible one for people to adhere to, which is not fitting for God’s character.
Now back to the canon problem. The word canon comes from a Greek word that means rule and refers to the church as official list of inspired writings. You can find this list in the table of contents of every Catholic or Protestant Bible, though they do differ. The Canon of scripture was first declared in Rome in ’83, ’82 and it was later defined at the Councils of Hippo and Carthage at the end of the fourth century and then finally at the ecumenical council of Trent. Now some say you don’t really need that. It’s just obvious what books of the Bible belong there and which don’t, you don’t need the church. But is it so obvious?
I mean, think about it. Paul’s letter to Philemon doesn’t teach any doctrine. The third letter of John doesn’t even mention the name of Jesus Christ. Conversely, there were a lot of other writings that were popular in the early church like the Didache, the letter of Clement. Eusebius tells us the letters of the Pope’s were read in church alongside scripture. So where do we draw the line? How do we determine what is and isn’t scripture in that regard? Others will say, well, the church with a lowercase C, they determined the canon so to speak, but we aren’t obligated to follow what any church might teach today. But if that group of early Christians didn’t have Christ’s authority, they just stumbled across the Canon so to speak, or they determined it I should say, they put it together, but they don’t have Christ’s authority.
If that’s the case, then we have no reason to continue following their doctrinal decisions. If you’re a protestant who abandons the early church’s unanimous doctrines on baptismal regeneration, though propitiatory nature of the mass, seeking the intercession of saints. If you as a protestant abandoned the ancient church’s commitment to those doctrines, why would you stay committed to the ancient church’s commitment to the canon of scripture, if it’s just as transitory in nature and doesn’t have an infallible guarantee behind it? In fact, the truth is that the Canon did not become universally accepted until after the papal and conciliar pronouncements in the fourth century. For example, even though Irenaeus is the first author to use the term New Testament, Irenaeus in the second century does not describe any authoritative list that contains the contents of the New Testament.
According to Baptist scholarly Lee MacDonald, the Christian message, “Was Irenaeus’s canon,” and he limited this message to the apostolic tradition resident in the church. MacDonald adds, “The establishing of a close canon of inspired scriptures, however, was not Irenaeus’s primary concern, but rather to defend the Christian message with all the tools at his disposal, he sought to route his teaching in the apostolic teaching and tradition that he argued, Irenaeus was passed on in the church through the succession of bishops, as well as by the authority of both the old and new testaments. Instead of Christians authority was found in the early church in the church Christ established, Saint Ignatius of Antioch told his readers, follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father. Let no man do anything connected with the church without the bishop?”
It’s no wonder that the late protestant theologian R. C. Sproul famously suggested that the best we can say is that the canon of scripture is a “Fallible list of infallible books.” This means any Christian who feels moved by the Holy Spirit could claim the table of content in the Bible needs to be revised, or even that portions of the Bible should be removed. I know people who have wanted to remove the last chapter of Mark’s gospel, or remove the story of the woman caught in adultery in the gospel of John or remove problematic parts of Saint Paul’s letters. Who’s to say they’re wrong if they feel moved by the Holy Spirit in that regard when individuals moved by the Holy Spirit 500 years ago made even more dramatic changes?
This canon problem is something even protestant theologians have noticed. Doug Wilson puts it grimly, “The problem with contemporary protestants is that they have no doctrine of the table of contents. With the approach that is popular and conservative evangelical circles, one simply comes to the Bible by means of an epistemological lurch. The Bible just is, and any questions about how it got here are dismissed as a nuisance. But time passes, the questions remain unanswered, the silence becomes awkward and conversions of thoughtful evangelicals to Rome proceed a pace.” And so it is my hope that you’ll give some food for thought to what I presented tonight and maybe you’ll consider some of those thoughtful evangelicals who have made that conversion and take a look at what the Catholic church teaches. If you like to do that, I recommend reading the catechism of the Catholic church. If you like a defense of the church’s teaching against common objections, I would recommend my book, The Case for Catholicism available from Ignatius Press.
And honestly, get in touch with me, go to my website, trenthorn.com. If you’re having trouble, like if you’re international watching this and you have a hard time accessing these books, you can send me a message at trenthorn.com and I’ll find a way to get you these resources to help you continue your spiritual journey and come to the fullness of the revelation that Christ has given us through the Catholic or universal church he established.
Hey guys, thank you so much for listening. Be sure to check out part two on Thursday where I take questions from Sam’s audience members who believe and uphold the doctrine of sola scriptura. You’re not going to want to miss it, check it out on Thursday. Please continue to pray for Sam Shamoun and for anyone else who is considering the Catholic faith. Thank you guys so much, check out part two on Thursday and have a very blessed day.
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