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Why I’m Catholic: Sola Scriptura Isn’t Workable, Part II

As you may recall, when we left Martin Luther last week, he was bewailing and bemoaning the theological chaos that came about early on in the Reformation.

Apparently, even some of Luther’s own students followed his courageous example of standing on “Scripture alone” against all human authority and rejected his teaching in favor of their own interpretations of the Bible.

Now, Luther blamed the devil for the theological anarchy erupting all around him. But this seems to me a bit convenient. After all, when he announced his own bottom line before the Diet of Worms—”I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Scripture, which is my basis”—did he not expect that others might follow in his steps and make Scripture their “basis”? Did he not imagine that others might find themselves convicted by the testimony of Scripture and disagree with his interpretation of God’s word?

The logic of sola scriptura seems inescapable. Once one rejects the idea that there exists on Earth any unified spiritual authority and proclaims the right of every Christian to follow what he or she sees as being the teaching of Holy Scripture, one should not be overly surprised when the result is individualism, subjectivism and ultimately as many views as there are interpreters.

How could it be otherwise?

So how did Luther and the other Reformers respond to the chaos unleashed that followed their preaching of the right of private judgment? What did they do?

Well, to promote the “truth” (translation: their conclusions as to what the true doctrines of Christianity are) and to maintain some minimal unity in the Reformation churches, they did what they had to do: they began to prohibit their followers from exercising the private judgment they continued to insist on for themselves.

Sola scriptura: theory or practice

When I was struggling as a Protestant minister and learning the case for Catholicism, one of my chief mentors was Jimmy Akin. Back in the ’90s he wrote a wonderful article titled “Sola Scripture: Theory or Practice?”

In this article Jimmy elaborates on this exact issue, quoting at length from historians Will and Ariel Durant on the response of Luther and the other Reformers to the confusion resulting from their own example and teaching. I really don’t think I can do better at this point than to ask you to read a few powerful passages from the Durants.

It’s instructive to observe how Luther moved from tolerance to dogma as his power and certainty grew. . . . In the Open Letter to the Christian Nobility (1520) Luther ordained “every man a priest,” with the right to interpret the Bible according to his private judgment and individual light. . . . Luther should have never grown old. Already in 1522 he was out-papaling the popes. “I do not admit,” he wrote, “that my doctrine can be judged by anyone, even the angels. He who does not receive my doctrine cannot be saved.” Luther now agreed with the Catholic Church that “Christians require certainty, definite dogmas, and a sure Word of God which they can trust to live and die by.” As the Church in the early centuries of Christianity, divided and weakened by a growing multiplicity of ferocious sects, had felt compelled to define her creed and expel all dissidents, so now Luther, dismayed by the variety of quarrelsome sects that had sprouted from the seed of private judgment, passed step by step from toleration to dogmatism. “All men now presume to criticize the Gospel,” he complained, “almost every old doting fool or prating sophist must, forsooth, be a doctor of divinity.” Stung by Catholic taunts that he had let loose a dissolvent anarchy of creeds and morals, he concluded, with the Church, that social order required some closure to debate, some recognized authority to serve as “an anchor of faith.”. . . Sebastian Franck thought there was more freedom of speech and belief among the Turks than in the Lutheran states.

At this point Jimmy comments with mock incredulity, “But everyone knows that Luther was a man of fierce temper. Surely this was responsible for his attitude and made him unique among the Reformers in his inconsistency with regard to private judgment. Right?”

Continuing to quote the Durants:

Other reformers rivaled or surpassed Luther in hounding heresy. Bucer of Strasbourg urged the civil authorities in Protestant states to extirpate all who professed a “false” religion; such men, he said, are worse than murderers; even their wives and children and cattle should be destroyed. The comparatively gentle Melanchthon accepted the chairmanship of the secular inquisition that suppressed the Anabaptists in Germany with imprisonment and death. . . . He recommended that the rejection of infant baptism, or of original sin, or of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist should be punished as capital crimes. He insisted on the death penalty for a sectarian who thought that heathens might be saved, or for another who doubted that belief in Christ the Redeemer could change a naturally sinful man into a righteous man. . . . He demanded the suppression of all books that opposed or hindered Lutheran teachings; so the writings of Zwingli and his followers were formally placed on the index of forbidden books in Wittenberg.

Again, Jimmy remarks, “Yes, but we are still talking about the Lutheran thread of the Reformation. Surely the detached, intellectual Calvinists were better.”

More from the Durants:

No one [in Geneva, where Calvin ruled as pastor] was to be excused from Protestant services on the plea of having a different or private religious creed; Calvin was as thorough as any pope in rejecting individualism of belief; this greatest legislator of Protestantism completely repudiated the principle of private judgment with which the new religion had begun. He had seen the fragmentation of the Reformation into a hundred sects, and foresaw more; in Geneva he would have none of them. There a body of learned divines would formulate an authoritative creed; those Genevans who could not accept it would have to seek other habitats.

If you know Jimmy Akin, you know that he has a wry sense of humor. Pondering the inconsistency shown by the Reformers on this whole issue, he concludes that apparently:

All that “Here I stand, the word of God compels me, I can do no other” stuff had to be interpreted narrowly. “I can do no other” meant “I can do no other.” It did not mean you could do something other if you felt the word of God compelling you. You had to do what I said because I was the one the word of God had compelled.

The Protestant pastor’s dilemma

Looking back I can see that as an evangelical pastor I was caught in exactly the same dilemma Luther, Calvin, and the other were caught in.

As a child of the Reformation, of course, I taught my congregation that the Bible alone should serve as authoritative in their lives. I reminded them that I was “a mere fallible interpreter of God’s word,” that I could be wrong in anything I said, and that it was their “right”—and, in fact, their “duty”—to search Scripture and “decide for themselves” whether what I was saying was, to borrow Calvin’s words, in accord with “the rule of the word.”

This is what I said to them. Pastors of Protestant churches say this sort of thing all the time. This is standard evangelical teaching.

But what would I have done if someone in my church had taken me up on this, accepted his right and duty, searched Scripture, and decided that what I was teaching on some important issue or issues was not in “accord with the word”? What if that person was a respected teacher in the church and wanted the freedom to teach his point of view, even as I was free to teach my own point of view? What would I have done in such a situation?

Would I have responded, “Oh, well, I’m teaching the conclusions of my private interpretation of Scripture and you’re teaching yours. So be it”?

Here’s what I would have done—what I would have had to do to maintain unity in the church. I would have tried to convince him that he was wrong and I was right. If this failed, I would have explained to him (kindly) that he would either have to quit teaching his point of view in the church or take his private interpretation down the road to a church that agreed with him.

I would have essentially shown him the door.

Sounds reasonable enough. After all, you can’t have someone dividing the church by teaching in contradiction to the pastor.

But imagine this gentleman said to me, “Pastor Ken, I love these people, and I want them to know the truth of God’s word. My conscience is captive to Scripture. I was baptized in this church and married in this church. My children were raised here. I’ve been here all my life; you’ve only been here three years. How is it that you get to practice your right of private interpretation and teach the results of your own study of Scripture, but if I practice that same right and come to different conclusions, I have to shut up or get out?  Since only Scripture is authoritative, why don’t you leave?”

What would I say?

Churning up the wind and waves

At some point in my thinking about this whole situation, Ephesians 4:11-16 reached out and grabbed me by the throat. In this passage St. Paul is talking about the need for unity in the Church. He says that God gave to his Church apostles and prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers

. . . so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith an in the knowledge of the Son of God . . . so that we would no longer be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the cunning and craftiness of men.

In short, according to Paul, because God wants his people unified, because he doesn’t his children blown all over the place theologically, he has given his Church pastors and teachers.

Sounds good. Except (and this is the thought that grabbed me by the throat) this can only work if there is some authoritative teaching to which individual pastors and teachers are bound and to which their teaching must conform. 

How so? Well, if each pastor and teacher is his own pope and council and free to read his Bible and draw his own conclusions as to what is being taught, then pastors and teachers will inevitably disagree with one another and separate to form various churches, and those specifically called to unite the people of God will become the very ones stirring up the wind and the waves of doctrine and tossing the children of God to and fro.

It makes sense that this is what will happen if each pastor and teacher practices sola scriptura and the right of private judgment. It’s predicable.

And this is exactly what did happen in the Reformation and what we see to this day within Protestantism.

Protestant historian and Luther scholar Heiko Oberman writes:

Application of the Reformation principle of sola scriptura, the Scriptures alone, has not brought the certainty [Luther] anticipated. It has in fact been responsible for a multiplicity of explanations and interpretations that seem to render absurd any dependence on the clarity of the Scriptures (Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, 220).

It’s true. Sola scriptura and the right of private judgment have led to a multiplicity of explanations and interpretations which have in turn led to thousands of Protestant sects, denominations, and independent churches coming into existence. This teaching—I remind you the very foundational teaching of Protestantism—has served as a perfect blueprint for division.

Sola scriptura does not and cannot work.

Because of this, I asked myself: “Could this be the foundation Christ would have established for his one, holy, catholic and apostolic church?”

No. If Jesus desired that his Church be one, and gave his Church pastors and teachers to ensure that oneness, he must have established that Church with some principle of authority. He had to have.

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