A Former Protestant’s View of Sola Scriptura – Part I

Why I Can Never Leave the Catholic Church

English: The Reformation stained glass window ...

The Protestant Reformation was fueled by 5 dictums that targeted the teachings of the Catholic Church. These are known as the 5 solas taken from their Latin names: sola scriptura (the Bible alone); sola fide (faith alone); sola gratia (by grace alone); solus Christus (Christ alone) and soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone). The first 2 are the most widely known in Protestant circles and to those Catholic apologists who have argued against these Protestant maxims over the years.

Most people want to start their debate on these issues by going to particular Biblical or Theological arguments. This type of debate requires that both parties are well versed in the beliefs of both systems and usually end up with the debaters leaving the discussion with unchanged views and little if anything is accomplished. It is my contention that in order to defend a position, both parties must at least believe that they possess the right to defend or reject a position based upon some criteria. Therefore, any discussion on the differences between Protestant theology and Catholic theology can begin from a very secure foundation of sound logic, history and some basic facts that may possibly effect the substance of what is debated and its outcome.

In this short article I would like to describe a few simple and, from my perspective, logical reasons as to why I could never accept the Protestant theology that I grew up with: in particular I’ll start with the most widely accepted of the Protestant solas, sola scriptura. In doing so, I will share the basis of how I would confront a discussion concerning the merits of Protestantism and Catholicism.

Luther taught that the meaning of the Bible was perspicuous and self-interpreting; that is, the text is transparent and self-evident. Therefore everyone can, theoretically understand the texts of the Bible without the help of the Church or any other authority. I believe that logic can effectively counter this claim.

Imagine if you will that a person who had no religious upbringing and was devoid of any tradition concerning the Bible came upon the holy scriptures of the major religions: the Jews (Torah and Mishna); the Christians (Holy Bible); the Islamists (Koran): the Buddhists and Hindus (Bhagavad-Gita). Could this person, by only using the text, decide if these were inspired works of God or merely human musings or fables? Since we are concerned here with the Bible one would expect, if Luther were right, that the Bible would stand out in some profound way from the others. But unfortunately, the books of the Bible nowhere claim to be the inspired words of God nor do they prove to be easily understood and transparently self-evident: for if they were, as indicated, quite easily understood, there would only be 1 Protestant denomination where now 30,000 of them now exist.

None of the above Biblical texts will, on their own, produce faith in an uninformed mind – at least not a faith that will be easily recognized without a tradition that teaches, informs and inspires by action and deed. If this were true, anyone could pick up the Bible and become as informed as any Christian on the planet; and this is certainly wishful thinking.

I would suggest that Protestants as well as Catholics have traditions, though Protestants will not admit to a need for any tradition; they deny the existence of Apostolic Tradition to which Catholics adhere and they either deny their own tradition or place no importance on it. They uniformly claim that the Bible alone guides their thinking.

If you add to this the differences between the Catholic Bible and the Protestant Bible, one finds that our confusion increases; and God has never been the God of confusion. When Luther and Calvin produced their own canons of sacred scripture, lo and behold, both canons differed as to the books to be eliminated and included. Where is the perspicuous nature of the texts? If they are so transparent to Luther, then why couldn’t Calvin see it?

For Catholic’s the Bible was deemed a closed canon. All the books had been chosen by the year 397 A.D. at the Council of Carthage. By the reformation the Bible was a closed canon which means that nothing could be added or subtracted from these texts.

For the Old Testament books the Church used the Septuagint Canon which had been created by 70 of the greatest Hebrew scripture scholars of their time. This work was completed approximately 200 years before the birth of Christ and is the same Canon being used throughout the Hebrew world during the life of Christ. It is surely the collection of books to which Jesus referred when he said to the apostles: “Search the scriptures, for you think in them to have life everlasting; and the same are they that give testimony of me.[1] Therefore it was only natural that following the death of Christ, the early Church should continue to revere and use these same texts.

The New Testament, however, took more time to evaluate. These writings span from the death of Christ to the end of the 1st century A.D. They are books written by those who were witnesses of our Lord or by those who had learned their faith at the feet of the apostles and disciples who walked with our Lord. Many more books were written during this time and some failed to make the canon of Holy Scripture. Various local churches used many of the available writings in their worship to inspire and inform the people about the life and teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ. It was after thorough inspection of the fruits from the use of these writings and their conformance to the traditions (3 centuries of Apostolic Tradition) that the Church accepted the books we now know as scripture. From this time forward the Church has held these books as Holy Writ and they have remained an inspiration for the Christian people for well over 1600 years. This was the first collection of scriptures that we now refer to as the Holy Bible; the first Biblical Canon for all of the Christian people.

It was different for the leaders of the Protestant movement. They rejected the Septuagint scriptures and substituted the Jamnian (or Palestinian) canon that was written in Jamnia after the destruction of the Temple inJerusalem. This Old Testament canon is a much shorter collection and therefore many books considered to be canonical for approximately 1700 years were eliminated. As I stated before, both Luther and Calvin reevaluated the existing Bible and decided independently which books should be included. It wasn’t until the King James Version (1611) that the Protestant movement found some agreement on the books to be contained in their Bible.

The next most obvious question to anyone reading the history of the reformation is to ask by whose authority Luther and Calvin rewrote the biblical canon which had been used for 1100 years by all of Christianity. Since the source of true authority, in this case God, recognizes only 2 types of authority, immediate or mediate, one might suspect that any authority claimed by a recipient would need to be obvious to all observers. Otherwise, God would be complicit to creating chaos and confusion, rather than uniting and guiding His people under a single shepherd or ambassador – in Catholic speak – a Pope.

For instance if a King (the source of authority) was to give mediate authority to an ambassador to carry out his affairs in foreign lands, the King would naturally supply the ambassador with proof of his office: official papers and seals of the King whose business he was asked to undertake. In our case one would expect signs and miracles to prove his ambassadorship such as that supplied to Moses when God appointed him to deal with the Pharaoh or again when Christ appointed Peter and the Apostles, where even the mere shadow of the passing of Peter would heal those who were sick.[2] However, neither Luther nor Calvin was given authority that could be remotely considered as a mission from God.

God’s choosing of these men is nowhere recorded and thus it becomes obvious that neither had immediate authority; but what about a mediate mission? A mediate mission is a type of authority that is given to another by one who does have provable immediate authority. In the case of the king’s ambassador above, he can give one of his aides the ability to carry on in his stead should he be too busy with other affairs, fall sick or die.

For our purposes this kind of mediate authority is seen when Moses leaves the Hebrew people in the care of Joshua.[3] In the New Testament church we see mediate authority being transferred from the apostles when they chose a new apostle to take the place of Judas[4] and with their subsequent enlistment of priests.[5]

The only mediate authority that Luther or Calvin could claim would have been that of priest which had been conferred on them by the same church which they had left. It was, therefore obvious that this would not be possible for either of them to claim. So their claim relied on the desire of the people, who allegedly gave them this authority. But never in the history of God’s dealings with man has such authority been bestowed from the bottom up. It is always administered from the top down and the people have never had any authority to bestow such an august favor upon their leaders. It is certain that such a democratic ideal was becoming popular during the age of enlightenment in political circles and it was only natural that the populace was ready to embrace this idea for other institutions, including the Church. Unfortunately, it is not how God wants to lead His Church. If you read of the calamities that befell those who wanted to make themselves the leaders of the Hebrew people, things become clear. Foolishly they tried to wrestle away the authority that Moses legitimately possessed from God.[6]

It also reminds us of the question that Christ posed to his disciples in Matthew 16:15 and following: “Who do men say that the Son of man is?”  They answered: “Some John the Baptist, and some others Elias, and others Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” But when Peter said “Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God”, Jesus confirmed his statement: “. . . flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven.

So it seems to matter very little what the people might suppose to be true, as their insights seem to differ from person to person: i.e. John the Baptist, Elias, Jeremiah, a prophet. Therefore, Christ did not make the Church a democracy: if he had we might today have many more than the 30,000 denominations that the protestants have spawned. Instead, Christ makes it clear that the truth will be conferred on those whom God himself has chosen: a theocracy which is ruled from the top down. And immediately Christ confers the keeping of His Church on earth to Peter: “And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.[7]

After nearly 2000 years, the Church that Christ founded handed down the immediate mission of Peter and the apostles to those who now have legitimate mediate missions. Today, this mediate mission is clearly in the hands of those who received it from the hands of a predecessor of Peter and the Apostles; and it stretches all the way back to the mediate mission given them by our Lord who unquestionably possessed the immediate authority.

How could I ever believe anything else? The truths of the Catholic Church have been taught by those in authority continuously from the death of Christ. Why should I believe that a new canon of scripture should be necessary or that new and novel interpretations of the Bible have any merit? Why should I believe Luther or Calvin or any other self-appointed authority? If their authority in these matters were not commissioned by Christ either immediately or mediately, I cannot simply choose to believe them even if I wanted to believe them. I may like many of their ideas and wish for them to be true and I may even think that their teachings are much easier to follow as they are free of many obligations placed on the shoulders of our early fathers in faith.

For my part, I cannot give up sound doctrine (though it makes my life easier) for those who might have ‘itching ears’.[8] Protestantism is no more an option for me than is a non-Christian tradition because it breaks with the tradition of the Church that Christ founded. The existence of the Church itself is the proof of her authority: still teaching the same timeless doctrines that she taught before the Bible was even put together. Has any other institution lasted unchanged for as many years while under constant pressure from the world to change? I am not aware of any other religion that can make the same boast.


[1] John 5:39

[2] Acts 5:12-15

[3] Nu 27:22,23      Moses did as the Lord had commanded. And when he had taken Josue, he set him before Eleazar the priest, and all the assembly of the people, and laying his hands on his head, he repeated all things that the Lord had commanded.

[4] Acts 1:13-26

[5] Acts 14:22

[6] Nu 12:2              Hath the Lord spoken by Moses only? Hath he not also spoken to us in like manner?

[6]  Nu 26:9,10       His sons, were Namuel and Dathan and Abiron. These are Dathan and Abiron the princes  of the people that rose against Moses and Aaron in the sedition of Core, when they rebelled against the Lord: And the earth opening her mouth swallowed up Core, many others dying, when the fire burned two hundred and fifty men. And there was a great miracle wrought. . .

[7] Matthew 16:18

[8] 2 Timothy 4:3-4 For there shall be a time, when they will not endure sound doctrine; but, according to their own desires, they will heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears: And will indeed turn away their hearing from the truth, but will be turned unto fables.

2 Replies to “A Former Protestant’s View of Sola Scriptura – Part I”

  1. 8 kids and a business

    Hello! I found your blog while browsing and I’m glad I did. Interesting posts so far. I particularly like your comment at the end about the Catholic Church remaining unchanged despite so many pressures. Jesus doesn’t change; neither should His Church. Drop by my blog sometime. Would love to have you over. I’m looking forward to reading more from you.

    Reply

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