The Irony of Sola Scriptura


I find the sola Scriptura (Bible-alone) debate to be fascinating, in a sort of Lewis Carroll sense. What is mean is that relying on the Bible, and only the Bible, makes a lot of “gut sense.” But it’s not in the Bible. So it puts its defenders in the bizarre position of defending “the Bible alone” without using the Bible alone, or in torturing verses out of context.

The truth is, sola Scriptura isn’t really the Bible alone. It’s the Bible plus “gut sense.” We see this from Luther, the doctrine’s ideological founder, in perhaps his most famous defense of the belief: “Unless therefore I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture, or by the clearest reasoning, unless I am persuaded by means of the passages I have quoted, and unless they thus render my conscience bound by the Word of God, I cannot and will not retract, for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against his conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other; may God help me! Amen!” It’s beautiful rhetorical flourish, but he’s already given up the game when he acknowledges a second source of binding authority: reasoning.

Luther effectively supplanted Sacred Tradition, the constant and uninterrupted beliefs of the Church from its birth to the modern time, and the Magisterium’s role, replacing them with that peskily hard-to-pin-down “reason.” A lot of ink has been spilled claiming that the Catholic Church “creates” doctrines on this date or that date (and in almost every case, a bit of research will debunk these claims): there’s no real question that sola Scriptura is Luther’s invention. It made sense to him, and to a lot of other people. Problem is, other ideas made a lot of sense to a lot of other people. The early Anglican church used “reason” as the stick to fight both Catholics on one side, and low-church Protestants on the other. (Raymond Tumbleson presents a fair-minded and convincing argument that this is one of the major reasons for Anglicanism’s early success – the link requires a MUSE subscription, but many universities have one).

As a purely historical matter, one would be hard-pressed to find any proto-sola Scripturists prior to Luther, which is strange to many modern Christians (since sola Scriptura is the norm in the English-speaking world: Catholics are expected to make the overwhelming case for Tradition, and to do it using only Scripture, as if Catholicism were the change to the system).


Some may respond, “But wait! What about John 20:31, ‘But these are written that you may (come to) believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in His name’? Doesn’t that suggest that only what’s written there is necessary?” This is usually presented as an argument for sola Scriptura, but it’s not. Remember, the “Good Book” is not really a book at all – it’s a library, a collection of dozen of assembled books.

So John 20:31 is, if anything, an argument for what I’m calling sola Johannine, the Gospel of John alone (I don’t claim the Latin is right, I just like how it sounds). After all, John is clearly saying, “my Gospel is intended to help you believe in Jesus, so you can go to Heaven.” So either he’s saying, “my Gospel points to Christ,” or he’s saying, “my Gospel is all you need.” If it’s the former, he’s not making a sufficiency claim of any sort. If it’s in the latter, much more of Christianity is undermined than Bible-only Protestants are ready for.

Here’s why. Imagine a person who affirms everything found in John’s Gospel, but rejects everything else. Are they a Christian in good standing? The Catholic Church is clear: no. This person would reject everything from Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, to the Virgin Birth, to the Ascension of Christ into Heaven. But upon what grounds can a person use John to show “sufficiency,” and not provide a begrudging “yes”? So reading John 20:31 as saying “this is all you need” doesn’t just get rid of the Pope: it gets rid of the Virgin Birth, the Ascension, the vast majority of the Bible, and what any Christian would consider “orthodox Christian faith.”


What about 2 Timothy 3:16-17? “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work. ” If an individual didn’t already believe in sola Scriptura, I doubt that this verse would lead them to that conclusion on its own. The reason is because you don’t have to believe sola Scriptura to believe this verse. In fact, look at the other versions of this passage, and tell me if any of them contradict what everyone (sola Scripturist or Catholic) believes about the Bible.

Let me put it another way. I could say, “the Book of John is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work. ” And it would absolutely and unassailably true. But does that mean we’re back to sola Johannine? Yes, but only if you take a tortured intepretation of the passage. A much better interpretation would be this: the Book of John is inspired… but that doesn’t mean that Matthew, Mark, and Luke aren’t; all four of those are inspired… but that doesn’t mean the rest of the NT isn’t; the NT is inspired… but that doesn’t mean the OT isn’t; and the whole Bible is inspired… but that doesn’t mean that Sacred Tradition isn’t. This passage is an affirmation of Scripture, not a negation of everything but Scripture.

Biblical context helps. First, Paul is talking about the Scriptures which Timothy has known from his infancy (see 2 Timothy 3:15). These are the books of the Old Testament, and as 3:15 says, they are capable of “giving you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” In fact, Christ Jesus did exactly that, on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), where He explains how the OT prophesied His life, death, and resurrection, but the disciples weren’t able to see Him until the breaking of the Bread (which is not coincidental). The passage shows that with Christ as your teacher, the OT alone is enough to get you to Him. In fact, the Torah alone is enough to get you to the resurrection in Matthew 22:23-32. And for Paul, Jesus appearing on the road, without a word of Scripture, was enough to get them to faith in Him. That doesn’t mean we discard the New Testament, or the Bible in toto. Rather, it means that people can be lead to the Faith in diverse ways. Once there, what does the early Church do? Acts 2:42, “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers. ” In other words, Scripture and Tradition (since virtually nothing was written down at the point Luke is talking about), the Church, the Eucharist, and prayer.

Second, Paul has already pointed this path out to the same Timothy who he is allegedly saying “Bible only” to in 2 Timothy 3:16-17. Just look at 1 Timothy 3:15 (the top of the blog). Paul isn’t saying to Timothy that Scripture’s the only thing you look at. It’s not even the first thing he tells him to look at: the Church is.


Next, we come to the hardest argument to beat, because it seems so right: the “gut sense” argument. If we all know the Bible is the infallible word of God, why bother with do we need any other source of infallible revelation? The easiest answer is this: we only know the Bible is the infallible word of God because we have another source, Tradition; and a Church to tend to those dual and intertwined sources. The usual Catholic claim is that “there is no divinely inspired Table of Contents to the Bible,” so we need Tradition and the Magisterium to determine what the TOC should be. It’s too cute by half. In fact, we do have an infallible Table of Contents in the Bible, but it isn’t there because of sola Scriptura: it’s the Holy Spirit, guiding the Catholic Church at work there.

In response to this, at least one Protestant has argued to me that there was a commonly accepted canon. This isn’t entirely true: in fact, a number of books were up in the air until the 4th century (at least regarding their canonical status, although they were held in high repute); in any case, that’s an appeal to Sacred Tradition. If we’re going to throw our lot in with the early Christians on the contents of Holy Writ, why not throw our lot in with them on the other dogmatic issues, like, “is the Eucharist Jesus Christ?” Or “is there global authority within the Church?” Or “does the Church have the ability to declare dogma infallibly?” Or best of all, “is Scripture the only infallible source of revelation?”


But of course, God could have inspired the last NT writer to include a table of contents. Why didn’t He? I think the answer is because He always chooses to work, whenever possible, through human agency. He chose Disciples He didn’t need, never wrote His own book, commissioned His followers to go spread His message (and not just by hyping up the Book(s)), and so on. God is clearly an artist who enjoys humanity as a medium.

So He chose a bunch of meatbags to head His Infallible Church, after becoming a “meatbag” Himself. The earliest generation of these meatbags met a doctrinal challenge which Scripture hadn’t totally prepared them for: do Gentiles need to be circumcised? Mark Shea makes an interesting point in Book 1 of Mary, Mother of the Son (sorry: I’ve been reading his stuff, so I’m over-quoting, but it’s been really thought provoking). Genesis 17:7 calls the covenant with Abraham an “Everlasting Covenant,” and Genesis 17:10-11 says the sign of this eternal covenant is circumcision, “for you and your seed after you.” The Judaizers have the stronger argument from Scripture alone. Then the Council of Jerusalem (in Acts 15) comes along… and what does the Church do? In Acts 15:28, these meatbags, these Apostles and elders of the early Church, say, “It seems good to us and the Holy Spirit…” Under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, they come out the opposite way that a Bible-only believer would have. This tells us two things: one, they obviously didn’t believe in the Bible alone; and two, there are good reasons why the Bible alone isn’t the rule of Faith.

We see these Christians and their spiritual descendants cracking some hard theological nuts: the Trinity is the prime example (it all makes sense once somebody says it, but it’s not a belief you’re going to notice on your own); how and who to baptize; the nature of some of the finer points of the Eucharist; the contents of Scripture; the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; whether Mary is “Mother of God” (or God-bearer) or not; and so on.

It’s quite within God’s power to have prevented all of this hair-pulling over the proper interpretation of Scripture. He could have inspired some sort of extremely specific prophesy ahead of all of it. But He didn’t, and we know He didn’t. He allows us to grasp and grope and fumble along the way, preserving our free will intact, our ability to reason and to grow in faith and knowledge towards Him (incidentally, the same path He chose for Himself in human/meatbag form: Luke 2:51-52); all the while, His Holy Spirit guides the Church, like a Father’s hands on the back of a young kid learning to ride a bike. He lets us (individually) screw up, but never (collectively) deviate from salvific doctrine.

Am I missing anything? Are there good arguments (from Scripture) for Sola Scriptura which I’ve overlooked?

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