As a followup to yesterday’s post, I was reading a handful of Protestant defenses of sola Scriptura. One of them jumped out at me, because (a) it was from a source I’ve come in contact with a lot (GotQuestions.org, who I’d already e-mailed a correction to regarding the issue of annulments); and (b) it was riddled with the sort of ironic leaps in logic I’d talked about yesterday. I don’t claim that this is the single best source for defending sola Scriptura (I’m not sure what is), but it’s at least a pretty standard one, from my very cursory examination of the topic. I did my best to provide enough context to the quotes so you can see what their argument is, but here’s the full article, if you’d prefer.
They say: Sola scriptura means that Scripture alone is authoritative for the faith and practice of the Christian. The Bible is complete, authoritative, and true. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
I say: This is a poor start. There’s a big jump from “The Bible is complete, authoritative, and true” (which both Catholics and Evangelical Bible-only Protestants believe) to “Scripture alone is authoritative for the faith and practice of the Christian” (which is where the dispute arises. 2 Timothy 3:16, as I pointed out yesterday, affirms the fact that the Scriptures are authoritative and true, which gets you most of the first half. To get to “complete,” you need a divinely-inspired compiler – we’d say, the Catholic Church (relying upon Sacred Tradition).
They say: For centuries the Roman Catholic Church had made its traditions superior in authority to the Bible. This resulted in many practices that were in fact contradictory to the Bible. Some examples are prayer to saints and/or Mary, the immaculate conception, transubstantiation, infant baptism, indulgences, and papal authority.
I say: The Catholic Church cites Scriptural support for all of the positions cited [If you’re already aware of what these are, skip down to the next “They say”]. For prayer to the saints, there’s reference to saints in Heaven praying for us in Revelation 5:8, and Lazarus praying to Father Abraham in Luke 16:24. For the Immaculate Conception, this is rooted in at three things: first, the phrase “fully graced” in Luke 1:28 (which I sort of touched on here but didn’t go far enough with); second, the belief that Mary is the New Eve, based on Christ calling her “Woman” (Eve’s title), and the parallel between Christ Himself and Adam (which I talked about here); and third, the belief that Mary is the new Ark of the Covenant, based on the similarities in their roles (the Ark carried the embodiment of the Old Covenant: 2 Chronicles 6:11; Mary carried Jesus, who embodies the New (Mark 14:24) and fulfills the Old: Luke 1:72), and the parallel between Mary and the original Ark in Revelation 11:19-12:2. For transubstantiation, the Bible is full of verses which seem to support the Catholic position on face (John 6:54-56; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26) – from a sola Scriptura point, transubstantiation is in the much stronger position. For infant baptism, Acts 16:15, Acts 16:31-33, and 1 Corinthians 1:16 say that whole households were baptized together – if this means only those parts of the household over a certain age, that information isn’t in there (on this issue, someone can read it either way: sola Scriptura doesn’t provide any clear answer). For indulgences, Matthew 18:18 and Matthew 16:19 provide the power to the bishops collectively, and to the first pope, respectively. Which also answers papal authority: Matthew 16:17-19 and John 21:15 are Christ conferring the authority; Acts 2:14-40 (and plenty of other places) exhibit Peter’s primacy in action; and the lists of Apostles in Matt. 10:1-4, Mark 3:16-19, Acts 1:13, and even Luke 6:14-16 reflect this primacy. Obviously, these are all extremely truncated lists of supporting texts, but if you want to now more, let me know (e-mail me or leave a comment in the box), and I’ll address it head-on.
Beyond this, like I’ve said, the Bible tells us to hold fast to Tradition, whether it be from Scripture or oral transmission (2 Thes. 2:15). In other words, the Biblical view is that Scripture and Tradition are one and the same interconnected font of revelation in two different forms. This, incidentally, is also the Catholic view. It’s flatly untrue to say that the Catholic Church ever made its traditions “superior in authority to the Bible.” The Catholic Church always views Sacred Tradition as being equal to (and inseparable from) Scripture. Mere disciplinary traditions (like the color of vestments, etc.) have always been held to a lower authority.
The author’s just tossing out incidenary doctrinal disputes and hoping his reader just assumes that anyone who disagrees with the Evangelical Protestant traditions must not care what the Bible says. The poor start got worse.
They say: The primary Catholic argument against sola scriptura is that the Bible does not explicitly teach sola scriptura. Catholics argue that the Bible nowhere states that it is the only authoritative guide for faith and practice. While this is true, they fail to recognize a crucially important issue.
I say: Wait… Did they just concede that the Bible doesn’t say it’s the only authoritative guide? We can end the debate now, right? While this, the only thing we’re talking about, is true…
Let’s move on.
They say: While this is true, they fail to recognize a crucially important issue. We know that the Bible is the Word of God. The Bible declares itself to be God-breathed, inerrant, and authoritative. We also know that God does not change His mind or contradict Himself.
I say: This argument is wholly circular: it’s literally, the Bible is the word of God because it says it’s the word of God, and as the word of God it must be right. Beyond that, the Bible only says that “the Scriptures” are inspired – it doesn’t say which ones. So you need a divinely protected source to get you from “the Scriptures are inspired” to “these Scriptures are inspired.”
Besides that, the Bible says that the preached word is the word of God, just as it says of the written word: 1 Thess 2:13. This dispels any notion that 2 Timothy 3:16-17 means the written word and only the written word.
They say: So, while the Bible itself may not explicitly argue for sola scriptura, it most definitely does not allow for traditions that contradict its message. Sola scriptura is not as much of an argument against tradition as it is an argument against unbiblical, extra-biblical and/or anti-biblical doctrines.
I say: This argument is half-right. Once you determine that these books are the Bible, and are inspired, it then follows that some tradition can’t come along and contradict it. That serves sa an argument for anti-Biblical doctrines. But extra-Biblical? Where is he getting that? I understand that if X is true, “anti-X” is false; but how do you get, “if X is true, therefore anything in addition to X is false”?
They say: The only way to know for sure what God expects of us is to stay true to what we know He has revealed—the Bible. We can know, beyond the shadow of any doubt, that Scripture is true, authoritative, and reliable. The same cannot be said of tradition.
I say: Actually, the only way we can know which Scriptures are inspired beyond a shadow of a doubt is because we can trust Tradition. Otherwise, we wouldn’t know which Scriptures were reliable, and thus wouldn’t know what He’d revealed.
They say: Sola scriptura is the only way to avoid subjectivity and keep personal opinion from taking priority over the teachings of the Bible.
I say: Incidentally, this gets it entirely backwards. Of churches which submit to the Magisterium to infallibly define disputes over Biblical texts and Christian practices, we have One. Of churches which rely upon sola Scriptura, we have too many to count, and they fundamentally disagree with one another. Particularly since (as I said yesterday), sola Scriptura is really “Scripture plus gut feeling,” as Luther’s speech (cited to earlier in the article) shows, and gut feeling is as subjective as it gets. Both on a theoretical and practical level, sola Scriptura has been disasterous for Christian unity.
They say: On a practical matter, a frequent objection to the concept of sola scriptura is the fact that the canon of the Bible was not officially agreed upon for at least 250 years after the church was founded. Further, the Scriptures were not available to the masses for over 1500 years after the church was founded. How, then, were early Christians to use sola scriptura, when they did not even have the full Scriptures?
I say: This is a good question, but here’s a better one. If sola Scriptura is the Biblical mandate, how could the first generation of Christians comply when those Scriptures hadn’t been written yet?
They say: And how were Christians who lived before the invention of the printing press supposed to base their faith and practice on Scripture alone if there was no way for them to have a complete copy of the Scriptures? This issue is further compounded by the very high rates of illiteracy throughout history.
I say: Another good question. I’m not sure the author has fully grasped the complexity and intensity of hand-copying the Bible, as his answer to these hypotheticals is about to show.
They say: The problem with this argument is that it essentially says that Scripture’s authority is based on its availability. This is not the case. Scripture’s authority is universal; because it is God’s Word, it is His authority. The fact that Scripture was not readily available, or that people could not read it, does not change the fact that Scripture is God’s Word.
I say: No. The argument isn’t saying that Scripture’s authority is based upon its availability. That’s actually the opposite of what the argument is saying. It’s the sola Scripturists, not the Catholics, who are making an argument contingent upon external circumstances. As Bob Sungenis has said: “If 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is teaching Sola Scriptura today, then it had to be teaching Sola Scriptura in the first century, since there cannot be two diametrically opposed interpretations of the same verse. But if 2 Timothy 3:16-17 was teaching Sola Scriptura in the first century, then that would mean that St. Paul is contradicting himself, since in the first century he was also promoting inspired oral tradition as another source of divine revelation to the Bible.” The fact that sola Scriptura was a practical impossibility for most of human history is just one more reason why the Bible alone would have been a bad standard.
They say: The early church should have made producing copies of the Scriptures a high priority. While it was unrealistic for every Christian to possess a complete copy of the Bible, it was possible that every church could have some, most, or all of the Scriptures available to it. Early church leaders should have made studying the Scriptures their highest priority so they could accurately teach it. Even if the Scriptures could not be made available to the masses, at least church leaders could be well-trained in the Word of God.
I say: In fact, the Bible was generally available on about the scale he’s talking about: one per town or so. In any case, the advice offerred here, that the Christians are to go out and make copies of the Bible for everyone, is conspiciously absent from the Bible. It has in place of that a Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20), where the Church is sent to: (a) make Disciples; (b) Baptize; and (c) teach these new believers everything (not just what makes it into the Bible), with the assurance that Christ will guard Her always. I think I’ll go with that choice instead.
They say: Instead of building traditions upon traditions and passing them on from generation to generation, the church should have copied the Scriptures and taught the Scriptures (2 Timothy 4:2).
I say: He doesn’t actually show that Catholics are building one tradition on top of another. Ok, he doesn’t actually show we’ve created any traditions at all – he just asserts it without proof – but even if he could prove that, to then say a second generation of traditions sprung up off of those first ones should require proof.
But what makes this more bizarre is the verse he cites to. 2 Timothy 4:2 says, “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.” In other words, pass on the word of God orally! None of the things cited [preaching, correcting, rebuking, encouraging, or instructing] were “writing,” “copying,” or any of the other things which he says the Church should be doing. This is a proof for sola Scriptura only if you assume that the only word of God is the Bible; put another way, this is a proof for sola Scriptura only if you already take sola Scriptura’s unfounded assumptions as true.