Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sola Scriptura

Today I read an interesting article by James Akin about the practical reasons that Sola Scriptura cannot be a part of God's Plan for mankind's salvation. If God intended that we can rely on scriptures alone, Tradition and the Magesterium cannot have any authority over our belief system and we must look to scriptures alone for the answer. However, this belief is fatally flawed if one considers Church history and the lives of average Christians.

In his article, James Akin says that Sola Scriptura assumes:

(1) The existence of the printing press,
(2) The universal distribution of Bibles,
(3) Universal literacy,
(4) The universal possession of scholarly support materials,
(5) The universal possession of adequate time for study,
(6) Universal nutrition, and
(7) A universal education in a high level of critical thinking skills.

It is clear that these preconditions are not the case in the United States, much less throughout the world or at any time in Church history.

What do you think about this?

You can read the entire James Akin article here.


  1. The fact that one considers the Bible as the sole, ultimate authority in determining Christian doctrine does not necessarily mean that the Bible is the only resource for determining Christian doctrine or that one will actually need to have recourse to it and engage in serious Bible study to learn Christian doctrine, as Aiken argues. It simply means that the Bible, according to the position of sola scriptura, is the only final, deciding resource.

    Now Aiken’s argument assumes, as would, in fact, be the case, that individual believers would have to study the Bible for themselves to decide what is true Christian doctrine, even with respect to only that doctrine necessary for salvation, if there were no other authority in the matter than the Bible; for the meanings of many scriptural passages are unclear and subject to dispute. Most versions of the sola scriptura position, however, claim that all truths necessary for salvation are taught in the Bible clearly enough for the ordinary person to find and understand them accurately. The doctrinal disputes with and within the Protestant tradition make it clear that this claim is false. This is, however, a claim of sola scriptura, as usually formulated. Aiken’s argument is a reductio ad absurdum, i.e., it assumes that the position of sola scriptura is true and then shows the impossible consequences of that position. He must, therefore, also assume this claim is true, since it really is part of the sola scriptura position. Note that this position is internally inconsistent without that claim; for it would otherwise hold that the Bible is the sole, ultimate authority but that the authority is not sufficiently clear by itself.

    The ordinary pastor or preacher should, according to this claim, also accurately understand Christian doctrine taught in the Bible and be able to explain this doctrine sufficiently well to his congregation for believers also to understand correctly what is necessary for them to be saved. If this claim were true, then the ordinary Protestant would never need to study or even read the Bible for himself, regardless of whether he were encouraged to do so. Only the pastor or preacher, i.e., the leader of a particular congregation, then, would actually need a copy of the Bible. Indeed, only one Bible per church or meeting house would really be required.

    If one admits the entirety of the sola scriptura position, then suddenly Aiken’s onerous requirement that every single believer have and be able to read the Bible and the necessary study aids (he could also have stipulated, I suppose, a working knowledge of Hebrew and Greek) is reduced to one Bible per church (and it could actually be further reduced) with only the pastor or preacher needing to be literate. One could envision the possibility of this requirement’s being fulfilled even in the so-called Dark Ages of the VIIth through XIth centuries, particularly if the understanding were (and it was not) that the salvation of souls depended upon fulfilling it. Indeed, even a cursory study of extant texts written during that period from places as separated as Ireland and Germany indicate that copies of more or less the entire Bible were, in fact, available to most Cathedral churches and religious communities and that those teaching there were actually able to read them. Indeed, those teachers’ familiarity and expertise with the Sacred Page, as they called it, were much greater than those most of their modern counter-parts.

    The point to be made from this discussion is that a reductio ad absurdum argument, which is one of the weaker kinds of arguments, is not the argument to make with respect to sola scriptura, even if one can show the absurdity of the position, which one can, I think, but not in the way Aiken attempts. There are much more forceful arguments to be made from Church history and what the Bible itself teaches. Let us make the strong arguments and resist taking up the weak ones, lest our position consequently seem weak to some.

  2. A very good point. Could you give one or two examples of an argument that takes a stronger position against Sola Scriptura than the reductio ad absurdum argument presented by Aiken?.

  3. There are two kinds of strong arguments that Catholic apologists have made to disprove the position of Sola Scriptura. The first and most important one is taken from Church history. It is, simply put, that Scripture cannot be the sole, deciding authority on doctrinal matters, since the Church existed and functioned (e.g., decided doctrine; see, for example, Acts 15:4-31) for about a generation before the Scriptures or, more precisely, the New Testament, existed. The Great Commission was not a commission to the Apostles to write Gospels or letters. It was to “teach all nations” all that Jesus had taught them (i.e., to hand on orally the oral tradition) and to baptize (i.e., to celebrate the sacraments and build up the Church) (Matt. 28:19-20). This is exactly what the Apostles did. They wrote the New-Testament Scriptures only later, in large part, to put the teachings they had handed on orally also in a specific, fixed written form before they died. Scripture, then, is actually a written version of the larger, oral Tradition; and the Church, which defined or, in a sense, created the New Testament and, therefore, the Bible or Scriptures, only considered scripture canonical, if it were in harmony with this larger Tradition. That is to say, the two authorities of oral Tradition and the Magisterium were responsible for creating the third authority of Sacred Scripture. Each of these two authorities are, therefore, at least as great an authority (yet no greater) in deciding doctrine as Scripture is.

    The second, strong type of argument against Sola Scriptura comes from Scripture itself. The New Testament teaches both explicitly (e.g., 2 Tim. 2:2; 2 Thes. 2:15) and implicitly (e.g., 1 Pet. 1:25; Rom. 10: 14-15; & 1 John 2: 18-25) that oral Tradition was an important authority in establishing and deciding doctrine in the early Church. The Magisterium was also an important authority; and the Acts and New-Testament letters describe the care the Apostles took in seeing that the Magisterium endured (e.g., Titus 1:5; 2 Tim. 2: 2).

    The New Testament books nowhere claim that they have sole authority themselves to determine doctrine. They do not, in fact, claim any authority concerning doctrine, except in so far as they claim to record faithfully what has been handed on in oral Tradition. Indeed, the writers of these books did not realize that they had composed Sacred Scripture. These writers considered only the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures sacred and probably did not even envision other writings, let alone their own, being added to the Hebrew Scriptures as another Testament. Their references to Scripture, therefore, refer to the Hebrew Scriptures (e.g., in 2 Tim. 3: 14-17) or, at the very most, other associated, revered Hebrew writings (e.g., the Talmud). They certainly do not refer to their own writings as Scripture.

    The position of Sola Scriptura, then, is both unbiblical and unhistorical. The Protestant Reformers knew the Bible and Church history well enough to understand this fact; and they would not have taken the position of Sola Scriptura, except that they felt compelled to do so.