Over the course of some twelve articles I’ve argued that sola scriptura isn’t biblical, isn’t historical and isn’t workable, not even in principle.
Sola scriptura has been demonstrated over the course of 500 years to function as a virtual blueprint for theological anarchy. It leads inescapably to division.
As an evangelical Bible Christian and ordained minister, coming to these realizations reminded me a bit of the morning of January 17, 1994, when the Northridge earthquake hit, centered seven miles from my home, and I found myself lurching down the hallway to kids’ rooms, the entire world moving beneath my feet. It was deeply unsettling.
Same with coming to doubt the truth of sola scriptura. After all, it’s not like sola scriptura is some minor doctrine within the Protestant worldview. It’s the very foundation of that worldview. It was the foundation of my worldview, and when cracks and fissures began to form in it, I was shaken.
The final blow that “took out the foundation” of my worldview was coming to see that sola scriptura isn’t merely unscriptural, unhistorical, and unworkable. It’s also illogical.
And I don’t mean that it’s mysterious and wonderful and that it transcends human understanding. I mean that it doesn’t make sense.
The truth is that sola scriptura contains an internal logical contradiction than simply cannot be resolved. How so?
The ‘Terminator of Catholic Apologetics’
Early in my study of Catholicism, I was asked a question. I can’t remember who asked the question. It might have been Scott Hahn, an old friend from seminary days I talked to a lot at the very beginning of my search. It’s more likely that it was Jimmy Akin, someone I spent a good deal of time with those first couple years and have referred to ever since as the “Terminator of Catholic Apologetics.”
What I do remember clearly is that from the moment the question was asked me, and I began to attempt to answer it as a Protestant, I knew I was on my way into the Catholic Church.
The conversation in which the question was asked went something like this:
Jimmy: Ken, I have a question I want to ask you. But first, I want to make sure you and I are talking about the same thing when we talk about sola scriptura.
Ken: Sure. Shoot.
Jimmy: OK. Would you agree that the Bible is the believer’s sole and sufficient infallible rule of faith and practice?
Ken: Yes. That’s the very definition of sola scriptura.
Jimmy: In other words, when it comes to Christian doctrine, you would agree that a Christian should believe only what can be shown to be taught in Scripture?
Ken: Well, sometimes implications can be drawn from things that are explicitly taught in Scripture. These would be true as well. But, yes. Essentially, what sola scriptura means is that since everything God wants us to know in terms of revealed truth is in the Bible, no one can bind a Christian’s conscience to believe anything not taught in the Bible, either explicitly or implicitly.
Jimmy: So when it comes to revealed truth, if it isn’t in the inspired Word of God, we cannot know it to be true. Right?
Ken: Yes, yes. Chapter and verse! Now, will you get to your point?
Jimmy: OK, here’s my question: How do you know that the books you have in your New Testament are inspired and belong there? After all, I’ve looked through the Bible pretty carefully, and I find no passage that tells me that Matthew is an inspired book—or Mark, or Luke, or Hebrews, or Revelation. So how do you know they are inspired and belong in your New Testament?
Hmm. . . . Of course, I immediately understood the importance of the question. If I’m going to take the Bible as my “sole infallible rule” for Christian teaching, I have to know that the books in Scripture are inspired. I can’t very well go around saying, “I think these are the right books, and everything they teach is inspired and infallibly true!” I have to know that they are.
So how did I know?
To be consistent with my foundational commitment to sola scriptura, the answer I needed to give was, “Because the Bible tells me so. Ï know these books are inspired the same way I know that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he performed miracles, and that he died to take away the sins of the world—because the Holy Spirit has revealed this in his inspire word.”
Problem was, I couldn’t give that answer.
Why? Because the Bible doesn’t tell me so. There is no inspired table of contents in the Bible. Sure, St. Paul tells us “all Scripture is inspired by God” (2 Tim. 3:16). Great. But since he doesn’t also tell us which books “Scripture” comprises, how do I know I’ve got the right books in my Bible?
At this point, I think I may have responded, “Well, in the apostolic churches everyone knew which books had been authored by apostles and were inspired, and this knowledge was handed down within the churches. It’s something Christians accept on the witness of the early Church—those who were closest to the apostolic age and who looked at the evidence and knew who had written what and what books were accepted as inspired and—“
But mentally I was scrambling, because I knew that this wasn’t consistent with sola scripture. What? I insist that Christians should only believe what is taught in the Bible, and then I believe only on the witness of the early Church that Matthew, Mark, Luke, Hebrews, and Revelation are inspired?
When it comes to doctrine and morals, the Bible is my authority; but when it comes to deciding which books to include in the Bible, suddenly tradition is my authority? How can that be?
I began to read scholarly accounts of the process by which the New Testament was assembled by the early Church. I read Protestant scholars like Bruce Metzger and F.F. Bruce on the formation of the New Testament canon. And what I learned was that my “everyone knew” idea wasn’t even true.
It turns out that some in the early Church held in suspicion some of the books we now have in our New Testament. And I don’t mean some individuals; I mean some areas of the Church.
Some churches rejected Hebrews. Others rejected the book of Revelation. James, Hebrews, 2 Peter, Jude, Third John, and Revelation were disputed to one degree or another in the early centuries of Christianity. Six books. There are only twenty-seven books in our New Testament. In other words, almost a quarter of the New Testament was disputed to some degree.
And the process was even more complicated than that.
Because it’s not like the early Church had only those twenty-seven books to examine and choose from. There were scads of books in circulation at the time claiming to have been written by Peter or Paul or John or the rest. And then there were books written by others that did not wind up being included in our New Testament but were considered authoritative by some and were read in the public worship. For instance, The Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, the Epistle of St. Clement to the Corinthians—and there were others as well.
So it is simply not true that everyone in the early Church “knew” which books were apostolic and inspired and which were not and that this knowledge was passed down within the churches
But even if it were true that “everyone knew,” my dilemma remained. How do I say with Luther that Scripture is “my basis”—that I believe only what is taught in Scripture, that I reject tradition as human and fallible—and then turn around and accept the witness of “tradition” on the most fundamental question of all: the question of which books should be considered inspired and included in my infallible rule of faith and practice?
This was more than a dilemma. The question pointed out an inconsistency—one could say even a contradiction—in my position as a Protestant.
My sheep hear my voice
In the end, what most every Protestant will say, and what I probably said in my conversation with Jimmy, is that we know Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the rest of the twenty-seven books in our New Testament are inspired and belong there because the Holy Spirit led the Church to select the right books. It’s like Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice and they follow me.”
In other words, when pressed with the question “How do we know?”, the answer Protestants give is something like this: inspired apostles wrote the books and handed them on to the churches as inspired. The churches preserved the knowledge of which books were inspired. This knowledge was passed down within the Church. And when heresies began to arise that attacked the canon of Scripture and it became necessary for some authoritative determination to be made as to exactly which books make up the Old and New Testaments, the Church met in councils to decide. And the Holy Spirit led in this process.
In the end, the Holy Spirit led the people of God to recognize which books were inspired and apostolic and which were not. And that’s how we know.
Of course there’s only one problem: this is the Catholic position.
It’s the Catholic position to say that revealed truths are (a) given us in Scripture but that they are also (b) handed down in the Church as Tradition and that (c) the Holy Spirit leads the Church to a certain knowledge of these truths. And because this is the Catholic position, it isn’t a problem for Catholics that the Bible doesn’t tell us that Matthew—or Mark, or Luke—is an inspired book.
But this is a massive problem for Protestants. Why? Because it’s the Protestant position to say we accept and believe and teach others to accept and believe only what can be shown to be taught in the pages of Scripture.
Protestants don’t accept the authority of Tradition (like the tradition that Matthew is an inspired book?). Protestants don’t accept the authority of decisions made by councils (like the decision to include Hebrews in the New Testament canon?). Protestants don’t accept the idea that the Holy Spirit leads the Church to these sorts of authoritative decisions.
For Protestantism, it’s “what saith the Scripture?”
At this point I was somewhat on my back intellectually.
I had to know the twenty-seven books in my New Testament were the inspired word of God in order to have my New Testament function as my infallible rule. And I believed they were the inspired word of God. But I had no idea how to answer the question of how I knew this without going beyond “Scripture alone” and beginning to talk about Tradition and the Holy Spirit’s leading of the Church’s magisterium.
As I stared beyond Jimmy, like a cow stares at a new gate, he pressed the question another step.
To be continued . . .