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When discussing theology, dispute often arises between Catholics and Protestants regarding the origin of principles and doctrines. Many of these disputes can be attributed to the idea of Sola Scriptura, or "Scripture Alone", a Protestant tenant. The basis of this idea is that the Bible is clear on doctrine, and is sufficient of itself to the final authority on Christian doctrine. In other words, the Bible is the only legitimate source of Christian theology and stands alone. Of course, this places interpretation absolutely in the realm of private interpretation, which is very appealing. This distinction in principles has far-reaching consequences; not only for theology, but also in the every day life and understanding of Protestants and Catholics on Christianity. Often in a debate, a Catholic will be asked, "Where is that said in the Bible?" The average Catholic may say (and in Catholic theology, rightly so) "I don't know, but it's what the Church says." In Catholicism, the interpretative authority of the Church is unquestioned. The Bible itself is considered a part of the Church's tradition, and therefore not at odds with Church interpretations.
The aim of this article is to present some practical problems of Sola Scriptura and Biblical evidence to refute it.
Problems of Sola Scriptura
The primary consequence of Sola Scriptura is that doctrine is placed in the hands of private judgment rather than in the hands of the Church. This is because if a Christian adhered to Sola Scriptura, every interpretation of the Bible other than the Bible itself (and thus, consequently its reader) is not a legitimate authority. It's simply another opinion presented to the reader who has the option to choose from a grocery aisle of doctrines. But this is at odds with the philosophical construction of theology in the first place. Thomas Aquinas asserted that theology is as sure and absolute as any science because it originates from God. In this sense, theology is not dependent upon any individual, but upon God Himself. If someone posits that the reader is infallible in his reading of Scripture, then he must assert that each man is his own Pope. Yet, if it is conceded that the reader is not infallible in his reading, then it must be asked of what use is Sola Scriptura?
For many Catholics, the faith which originates from private judgment appears to be strange, and even sometimes arrogant, in its presentation and treatment of theology. Of course, that presentation is often unintentional, but it is a natural consequence of such theology if it is not prepared with respect of opposing theological views. Catholics are familiar with the following responses to their questions: "I just know it" or "Because it's in the Bible". It is not to say that such statements are not true, but often that such statements create false dichotomies that polarize discussion. If an individual contains within himself the final and infallible authority on Scripture (which is necessary to support Sola Scriptura), what point is there to debate?
But we know that the reader is in fact fallible. This is conceded by all mainstream Christian churches. Christians do not exercise their interpretative readership consistently. Even Christians who believe in Sola Scriptura disagree with one another on other theological principles, discrediting the idea that the Bible is "obviously" clear on all doctrine. Catholics cite the disintegration of Protestantism into tens of thousands of denominations as the chief example of the failure of Sola Scriptura. This assertion by Catholics is often met with the counter-claim that the other churches are false, and that the one particular Protestant in question has the handle on truth. The absurdity of this counter-claims is evident because every Protestant church makes the same statement despite the fundamental differences on every single aspect of doctrine. Sola Scriptura has not created certainty and unity, despite the Bible calling upon the Church to be one as God is one (Jn 17.21-22; see also: 1 Cor 1.10).
St. Peter states: So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given to him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. (2 Peter 3.15-16)
St. Paul said to Timothy: ..what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well. (2 Tim 2.2)
St. Paul also warns of private interpretation: We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. (Eph 4.14)
St. Peter makes a similar warning in 2 Peter 1:20.
Paul also exhorts the importance of teachers in the Church who exercise authority on doctrine in Hebrews 5.
Matthew 15.4-14 warns of the "precepts of men".
The passages cited above together illustrate a picture in which the Church, not individuals, exercise authority on doctrine. The principle of Sola Scriptura appears to be in fact extra-Biblical.
Sola Scriptura in the Bible
At first appearance, it seems that the doctrine is Biblical. Men that "proclaim" so-called gospels that are "contrary" to what is "received" will be "accursed" (Galatians 1.6-10). Paul states that the "sacred writings...instruct [men] for... salvation through faith in Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 3.15-17). But this only tells a portion of the story. Paul also states that men should "stand firm and hold fast to the traditions" they had been given "by word of mouth or by... letter" (2 The 2:15). It is also stated that what is "heard" should be passed down by "faithful people who will be able to teach others as well" (2 Tim 2:2). Men are commended for "[maintaining] the traditions" as they were handed to them (1 Corinthians 11.2:). Indeed, men should avoid the "idleness" of others that do not live "according to the tradition" they received (2 Thessalonians 3.6). Even the Devil quotes Scripture, but is refuted by Christ and is reminded that men ought to hang on to every of word of God, implying not just the written Word (Matthew 4:1-11). It is clear that both the apostles and those who came after them (until the Reformation) relied on the teachings of the church's leadership as much as the word of Scripture.
- How many Christians in the Early Church had access to a private Bible? For that matter, how many were literate?
- How many present Christians can read Greek and Hebrew, the languages in which the books of Scripture were written?
- How can each individual be an absolute authority on doctrine?
- Does the average Christian have the time and historical knowledge to identify all doctrines in Scripture?
- Where does the Bible state that Sola Scriptura is a doctrine? Is it even hinted at in the Old Testament?
- While we're asking questions about the Bible, where does it state which books are divinely inspired?
- Why is Sola Scriptura not taught until the 16th century?
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