Maybe I’ve been a Catholic for too long. Maybe I’ve forgotten that your eyes take a while to get accustomed to the light of truth. Anyway, when I was invited by a local Bible Christian preacher to come on his radio show and debate him on the sole authority of Scripture (sola scriptura), I had the mistaken idea that we were going to talk about the Bible. I had been a "Bible Christian" long enough (about sixteen years) to know better. What I had forgotten—and was to be painfully reminded of—is that when we speak with our Evangelical and Fundamentalist brethren, we leave the world of theology and enter the world of personal interpretation. This personal interpretation applies not only to the Bible but also to history and just about every other darned thing under God’s blue sky.
In my own defense, I think I didn’t do badly in my presentation of the faith. But I made a few mistakes that I don’t want you to repeat. I was like that proverbial man who thought he was there to drain the swamp and found himself up to his waist in alligators. So here are four things that you should always remember when speaking to your Bible-only friends.
First Mistake: "We’re Here to Talk about the Bible"
The Bible is a funny thing. When talking with Bible Christians, all the stuff between those black leather covers is simply reference material. The real Bible is the one that exists only in their minds. You see, we are debating not what Scripture says but their conception of what Scripture says.
For instance, my preacher friend made the bold claim that he could prove from the Bible that the Bible is our only authority. Now, I knew he couldn’t, because the Bible doesn’t say that. What I forgot was that the Bible in his mind was replete with texts that taught just that. He even claimed that the very fact that I was quoting Scripture proved that it was our sole authority. It seemed that every verse in the Bible taught the doctrine. Why, it was as clear as the nose on my face (and I suppose that too could have become a "proof text"). Believe me, I’m not being sarcastic. I soon realized that I was not debating the Bible but the virtual Bible that was in my friend’s head —not what the Bible said but what he said that it said.
We all bring our own biases and theology to the Bible. But Bible Christians do this in a very peculiar way. They set up a mental theological sieve and pour the Bible through it. Please don’t think that I’m criticizing Bible Christians; they are good, godly, and sincere people (after all I used to be one, so they can’t be all bad, right?). But as a Bible Christian I simply cannot remember a time when I ever went to the Bible to teach me anything. I brought my own principles and preconceived theology to the Bible and asked it to support me.
Our Bible studies were set up that way too. For instance, we may be considering John 3:16 (For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.) The "study question" may read, "What does this verse say about the importance of accepting Jesus by faith alone?" Careful now—remember the answer "It doesn’t" is not acceptable.
Back to the debate. The problem that I soon found was that it’s hard to debate a Bible that exists only in my friend’s head. Let me give an example: 2 Timothy 3:14–17 was used by my preacher friend to support his claim. My written Bible said this:
"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 wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 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."
His mental Bible said this:
"But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing you learned it from the Holy Spirit and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are solely sufficient to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture that we have today, except for those books that the Catholics added at the Council of Trent, 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 through Scripture alone."
His version of the Bible also had some qualities that mine did not. First, it had this strange way of being impervious to the original Greek language. Second, every verse stood on its own and had no need to be read in context. Third, his Bible had the unique ability to change its wording and sentence structure at will. You can see my dilemma: I was stuck with the plain old Bible that was not near as "living and active" as was his.
Second Mistake: "The Historical Evidence Is on My Side"
I learned an important lesson: All history is in the past. I made the mistake of trying to show that the Catholic Church is the historic Church. My preacher friend said that history clearly showed that "the New Testament Church was nothing like the Roman Catholic Church of today." When I pointed out that the Church Fathers taught the same basic doctrines as the Catholic Church today, I was accused of using isolated examples. It didn’t matter how many of these "isolated examples" I came up with. He repeated his charge that the Catholic Church had "rejected the commandments of God in order to keep its own traditions!" (cf. Mark 7:9). It soon became evident that we were dealing with two different things—history and his story.
To most Bible Christians, history moves forward in leaps and bounds. First there were Jesus and the twelve apostles, and then there was Paul, and then there was Martin Luther (with maybe a brief stop to visit Hus and Wycliff). One thousand five hundred years of history simply vanish without a trace.
This is especially true when talking about the Bible. It almost seems like the Holy Spirit just got Zondervan Press to print a bunch of them up one day. Excuse me, now I am being sarcastic. But the point is that history has no place in the process. A historical argument is useless. When I showed that Catholic Councils established the canon of the New Testament in the fourth century I was told that I was relying on "fallible history and fallible men."
My friend went on to proudly point out that he did not need "some pope in Rome to tell me what the Bible was and what it was not." After all, he had just proven from 2 Timothy that "all scripture is inspired by God"—there was Scripture sitting right there on the table in front of him, and he couldn’t find the word "Catholic" anywhere in it.
Like his Bible, my friend’s history was also fluid. It seems that there are only select things that we can use a historical argument to prove (again my former Bible Christian self should have remembered this). Here’s the rule: An appeal to history is valid only if it can be used against the Catholic Church. It was at this point that my friend brought up the subject of the evil Council of Trent (wait a minute, I thought we were talking about the Bible.)
Aside from pestering Martin Luther, the Fathers of Trent were up to all kinds of mischief. Although my preacher friend claimed that Catholics didn’t believe the Bible anyway, for some strange reason the Fathers of Trent felt they had to prove their doctrine from Scripture. They must have forgotten that they had made all their doctrines up, because they then found it necessary to add books to the Bible to support their doctrines.
I countered by producing a canon list from the Synod of Rome A.D. 382 and a canon list from Trent 1546. I showed that they were identical and pointed out that it was the Reformers who took books out of the Bible. But that didn’t seem to matter. After all, you can’t change history.
Third Mistake: "Let’s Look at This Logically"
This was a big mistake. I tried to assert that not only was sola scriptura unbiblical, it was illogical as well. If it was a foundational doctrine from the very beginning, then what did Christians do for the first sixty years before the New Testament books were finished? And what about the four hundred years before the canon was established and Christians were unsure of what Scripture they should be sola about? What about all that time before the Gutenberg press, when to buy a Bible cost three year’s wages? Or what if you were one of the common masses who couldn’t read a Bible even if you had one? Wouldn’t this make sola scriptura useless for the bulk of the Church’s two thousand years of existence?
Although I thought that this was a masterful argument, it didn’t phase my preacher friend. It was just he and his Bible, and his Bible said it was his only authority. (Do you get the feeling that we’re going around in circles?) After all, look at the "thousands" of doctrines that the Catholic Church has, and every one of them a "doctrine of men" (I didn’t know that I believed that many doctrines).
Okay, time for my next logical argument. Sola scriptura is logically impractical because each of the almost thirty thousand Protestant denominations go to their sole authority (the Bible) and come up with almost thirty thousand interpretations. Who’s to decide? Who’s to say who is right or wrong? In short, how are we to know the truth?
My preacher friend was quick to point out that he was not a Protestant, nor was his church a denomination. He told me proudly that he was a Christian! He didn’t listen to the traditions of men, whether they were Protestant or Catholic—he listened only to the Word of God (that is, his Bible) and it only. When I pointed out that he had not answered my question, he went back to the "thousands of doctrines of the Catholic Church," as if this point were so grievous it negated my whole argument.
Bible Christians tend to be anti-intellectual. Not that they are unintelligent or that there are not some fine scholars in their ranks, but, for the most part, scholarship is looked down on. I once heard a Fundamentalist preacher brag that he had never made it past the fifth grade, as if that qualified him to preach the gospel. Bible Christians as a whole seem to be suspicious of scholarship. They seem to feel that if you have too much formal training you will lose your faith in the Bible.
As my preacher friend told me, he didn’t study what men wrote about the Bible, he studied the Bible itself. At one point in our debate I brought up the Westminster Confession for the purpose of establishing a working definition of sola scriptura. He responded that he thought it was "ludicrous" (his word to describe all that he disagreed with) for men to write a creed that said that the Bible was our only authority. Does this make sense?
Fourth Mistake: "We’re Here to Talk about our Differences"
Okay, I really should have seen this one coming. The fact is, my preacher friend had no interest in discussing our differences or anything else. He wanted to save my Catholic soul. When we met for lunch to set up our debate, he told me that the Catholic Church was an apostate church. It seems that way back in the early Church things were going along pretty well until the Roman Emperor Constantine messed things up by ending the persecution of the Christians. Because he had made Christianity the "state religion," thousands of pagans flooded into the Church (for their own political and financial gain, of course). They polluted the Church with their pagan rituals and doctrines until it was more pagan than Christian, and thus was born the Roman Catholic Church. At least that’s my friend’s story. So, you see, I was in need of salvation.
This is really the bottom line; this is why he wanted to talk to me in the first place. During the debate, after reading off a long list of "false doctrines" of the Catholic Church, he turned to me and shouted, "Come out of her! Come out from under the Roman Catholic Church and the doctrines of men!" Bible Christians sincerely think that Catholics are not saved and that it is their job to save us. I guess you can respect such a noble motivation.
Well, there you have it, brethren. Be forewarned. Not that any of these arguments are bad ones or unconvincing. After all, I was convinced of the truth by just such arguments. But when talking with your Bible Christian friends, always be sure you know what you’re really there to talk about.