Reading through your Sola Scriptura tagged posts, the thing that has most struck me is that the official doctrine of Sola Scriptura (i.e. a denial of (2)) is so obviously problematic that the most thoughtful of Protestants–people like C.S. Lewis, Alvin Plantinga, and Timothy Keller–would never explicitly defend it. Instead, as you have said “In response, Protestants (ironically) violate sola Scriptura, and try and defend the doctrine on the basis of logic, the writings of the Reformers, misinformed early Church history, and appeals to an interior light of the Holy Spirit.” And they do this, it seems to me, because to do otherwise would be manifestly absurd.
My question, then, is do you know how this manifestly absurd doctrine arose historically?
My “barstool history” guess is that the reformers originally set out to reform the Catholic Church and did not object to the her authority in all its forms. One form they accepted was its ratification of the canon. That is, the reformers didn’t believe in sola scriptura per se.
Years later it became clear that the reformed churches were no longer involved in reformation as such, but that they had started churches at odds with Catholic authority. But the reformed churches depended on Catholic authority for the legitimacy they possessed. This situation gave rise to a terrible corollary for the reformers: either the Catholics were right or they were both wrong. But the reformers shrunk from this corollary by inventing the doctrine of sola scriptura.
This is all just a guess. But if it is true, showing that Protestant theology hinges on an ad hoc intellectual manuever would be a powerful Catholic apologetic. For, as Ronald Knox has said: “It is a mark of intellectual cowardice, to shrink from corollaries. God wouldn’t have given us an intellect, if he didn’t want us to think straight.”
So, given all the research that your posts show you to have done, I’ll turn to you to ask: Have you seen the real history of the doctrine?
The traditional understanding of sola Scriptura can be traced back to Luther, who is believed to have said at the Diet of Worms something to the effect of:
“Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scriptures or with open, clear and distinct grounds and reasoning—and my conscience is captive to the Word of God—then I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God.”
These may not have been his actual words (the earliest records are later, and at the start of a sort of hagiography of Luther as a modern saint). But almost certainly he said something to this effect. In so doing, Luther was explaining that he wouldn’t listen to Church Councils, since he thought that they were contradictory.
Now, it’s immediately apparent, by Luther’s concession to Scripture or reason, that sola Scriptura isn’t workable in reality. But this is particularly true for the canon, as Luther himself realized.
Because he couldn’t accept a canon based off of a Church Council (Carthage) or papal confirmation of that council (Damasus’ ratification of Carthage’s canon), he tried to create a canon using just Scripture and reason. The result was that he discarded the Deuterocanon as non-Scriptural, and was clear that he denied the canonicity of Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation.
There’s a very good account, from a Protestant perspective, outlined here. What’s disturbing is that the author of the post realized that Luther’s right: without a Church Council confirming the canon of Scripture, who’s to say which canon is right? In Luther’s translation of the Bible, you’d find near the end of the New Testament these words:
“Up to this point we have had to do with the true and certain chief books of the New Testament. The four which follow have from ancient times had a different reputation.”
- Luther denied that James was written by an Apostle, and said that whoever really wrote James “mangles the Scriptures and thereby opposes Paul and all Scripture. He tries to accomplish by harping on the law what the apostles accomplish by stimulating people to love. Therefore, I will not have him in my Bible to be numbered among the true chief books.” He also famously called this “an epistle of straw,” and claimed that James was “flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works.“
- His view of Hebrews was higher – that the Book should be honored, but that “to be sure, we cannot put it on the same level with the apostolic epistles.“
- Luther also denied the authenticity of Jude, saying that “Concerning the epistle of St. Jude, no one can deny that it is an extract or copy of St. Peter’s second epistle, so very like it are all the words.“
- Luther’s analysis of Revelation is very telling: “For myself, I think it approximates the Fourth Book of Esdras; I can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it. . . .Finally, let everyone think of it as his own spirit leads him. My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is neither taught nor known in it“
And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.
That approach is almost exactly the approach Luther seems to outline in his commentary on Revelation. Everyone chooses the Scriptures which seem right to them, and then follows those Scriptures. I’ve argued before that Protestantism leads to relativism, and that’s what I meant by it. As he made clear, Luther rejected James because he disagreed with what the Book of James said about justification. What’s to stop someone else from rejecting Matthew and Luke because of what those Books say about the Virgin Birth? Who, if anyone, can police this, and say “if you reject those Books, you’re no longer an orthodox Christian”?
So the problem of sola Scriptura was present from the start. Robert’s right, though, that Luther’s version of sola Scriptura isn’t what later Evangelicals would call by the same name. Luther, in using reason, listened carefully to what the Church Fathers said. He also retained a strong Catholic ethic. I think it was Hilarie Belloc who argued that the early Reformers didn’t realize that they were forming a separate denomination, with both sides imagining that this conflict would sooner or later resolve, and everyone would carry on as a single Church.
But the theological ideas which Luther and his compatriots introduced can’t have that result. If everyone’s free to make their own canon, it’s naive to assume they’re going to make the same one. And if different groups of Christians have different canons, and no central Church structure which they listen to, of course they’re not going to end up as a united body. There’s no way for them to determine who’s right or wrong on anything, unless you rely on something arbitrary like popular Christian consensus (which is the typical Protestant gauge for orthodoxy, if we’re being totally honest).