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 determine and preserve authentic Christian doctrine—you know, so that individual believers aren’t 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?
My reasoning as a Protestant
When these questions were first put to me, it was a little disconcerting. Why? Because I recognized almost immediately that as an evangelical Bible Christian sola scriptura was something I had assumed.
It wasn’t something I’d established from a logical, inductive study of what the New Testament actually says about the issue of authority within the Church. No. It was simply what every Christian I knew believed. It was the atmosphere we breathed. It was a foundational presupposition of our worldview as evangelical Protestants. And like most presuppositions, it was more or less unexamined.
As a Christian who believed in the inspiration of Sacred Scripture, I’m not sure I ever felt it necessary to consciously articulate the exact reasoning behind my acceptance of sola scriptura.
But if I had been asked, “So why do you hold to sola scriptura?”, I probably would have responded along these lines: “Well, the New Testament teaches me that the Bible is inspired and authoritative. And I don’t see anything else that fits that description. Now, the apostles were authoritative interpreters of the Bible, and if they were still alive I could go to them for authoritative answers. In fact, they could settle all the disagreements over what the New Testament teaches that have resulted in the splintering of Christianity into the current mess of denominations, sects, and independent movements. But that’s the problem: the apostles are not here. So what option is there but to look to Scripture alone?”
In other words, I knew that apostles and prophets functioned as authoritative interpreters in both the Old and New Testaments. I could read Acts 15 and see how the leadership of the Church in the New Testament was able to meet in council and issue authoritative decisions that Christians were expected to accept.
I also understood that in order for Christianity to speak with one voice there would have to be some authority on Earth.
It was simply apparent that no matter how much sincere students of Scripture studied and prayed for the Holy Spirit’s guidance, doctrinal agreement wasn’t going to emerge. The clear example of 500 years of the practice of sola scriptura within Protestantism had firmly dispelled that daydream.
However, the reality I had to accept as a Protestant was that there is no “authority on Earth.” There are no prophets and apostles, and the kind of Church we see functioning in Acts 15 no longer exists. And because of this (again), what option is there but to hold to the authority of Scripture alone and hope that maybe the divisions within Christianity don’t really matter and that Jesus doesn’t really care all that much that we Christians present to the world a cacophony of contradictory doctrines, all supposedly coming from the same Bible?
Take for example Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Difference byNorman Geisler and Ralph MacKenzie. These Protestant scholars bring forward a number of what seem to them to be solid biblical arguments for sola scriptura.
- They note that Scripture is revelation from God.
- They point out that Jesus quoted Scripture as authoritative and that the apostles did the same.
- They reference where Jesus said to the scribes and Pharisees “You err, not knowing the Scriptures . . .” (Matt. 22:29).
- They note Scripture is explicitly described as “inspired” by God (2 Tim. 3:16), that holy men wrote as they were “moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21).
- They mention Revelation 22:18 where readers are explicitly warned against adding “to what is written here.”
All of this is taken as clear evidence that the New Testament teaches that “the Bible, nothing more, nothing less—and nothing else—is all that is needed for faith and practice.”
But notice what’s happening here: while these points certainly argue for the inspiration and authority of Scripture and against tampering with Scripture, they argue that the Bible is “all that is needed for faith and practice” only once one has assumed that the kind of authoritative Church we see functioning in the New Testament—a Church with the Spirit-given ability to interpret Scripture and to decide disputes among believers—no longer exists.
You see, once this is assumed, then, obviously, any passage in the New Testament that speaks of the inspiration or authority of Scripture is going to seem like evidence for SOLA scriptura.
The only problem is: what is being assumed here—that the Church of Acts 15 ceased to exist with the death of the apostles—is precisely what is at dispute between Protestantism and Catholicism.
Geisler and MacKenzie are effectively arguing in a circle.
2 Timothy 3:16-17
If there is any passage in the New Testament that teaches sola scriptura, it would have to be 2 Timothy 3:16-17. This is where St. Paul says to his successor Timothy:
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.
Here’s how the argument goes:
Paul tells Timothy that Scripture can make him “perfect, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” But if the Bible is sufficient to accomplish this, then clearly nothing else is needed. Sola scriptura!
I think what we have here is a classic non sequitur. I don’t believe the conclusion follows from the premise. Let me use an illustration to explain what I mean by this.
My son plays the piano. Imagine I say to him:
“Son of mine, you need to practice scales because the practice of scales is profitable for building finger independence as well as flexibility and strength in your wrists, 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.”
Would anyone listening think I was intending to say that the only thing my son needs to become a complete pianist, thoroughly equipped to play anything, is to practice scales? Would anyone think I intended to say that the practice of scales is sufficient for accomplishing the goal of making him perfect? That he doesn’t need to practice arpeggios, for instance? That he doesn’t need to learn chords or know anything about musical theory or harmony? That all he needs is to practice scales? Anyone?
When we speak of something as being “profitable” for the accomplishment of a particular task, as Paul does in 2 Timothy (“in order that you may be complete, lacking in nothing”), we don’t normally mean to imply that there aren’t other things that would also be “profitable” for accomplishing the same task.
There’s a parallel passage in the Epistle of James that I think clarifies the point and shows that the Protestant apologist is simply wanting to squeeze more out of 2 Timothy 3:16,17 than was intended by 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 as Paul uses in 2 Timothy 3:16,17. But I think you can see that the structure of thought is exactly the same.
And so, again the question: Does anyone reading James 1:2-4 think James intends to teach that in order to be “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing,” all a Christian needs is patience? Is James telling his readers that they, for instance, don’t need Scripture to be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing? That they don’t need prayer, or the work of the Spirit within them, 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 Protestant, I believed that with respect to Christian doctrine one should only accept as true what could be shown to be clearly taught in the pages of Scripture.
So what was I to make of sola scriptura itself?
This was the foundation of my worldview as a Protestant and yet I had to admit that I didn’t see the New Testament as teaching it—much less as “clearly” teaching it. But if this was the case, did not the notion of sola scriptura refute itself?
Over time I was coming to believe that sola scriptura was not scriptural; that it was simply the position a Christian comes to when he or she thinks there no longer exists the authoritative Church we can see Jesus establishing in the New Testament and that we can clearly see operating in the New Testament.
But this was only the beginning of troubles for my worldview as an Evangelical. I soon began to see that not only was sola scriptura unscriptural, it wasn’t historical either. It simply had not been the faith and practice of the Church in the early centuries of its existence.
And here we’ll pick up next installment.