sola scriptura in the scriptures

So the redoutable Aelianus of England is on the warpath again, as I discovered last week but was too busy dealing with Deadline Issues to do much about.

Sola scriptura, he says, is self-evidently silly, yet he explains how, with a bit of mental gymnastics, the thinking Catholic can eventually come to see that those who hold to it need not in fact be either stupid or malicious.

Orfly kind of him, say we, but don’t waste your pity just yet. Sola scriptura is nowhere near as absurd as he makes out.

For one thing, the first claim, ‘scripture never says it is the all-sufficient norm of doctrine, in fact it denies it,’ is simply wrong. Scripture does claim to be the all-sufficient norm of doctrine, in various places and ways, some more explicit than others.

  • That part of Scripture called 2 Timothy states both that the holy scriptures are able to make a person wise to salvation, and that scripture is sufficient to make the man of God perfect and (not partially, but) thoroughly equipped for every good work.
  • The Gospel according to John specifically states that while it does not provide an exhaustive record of the works of Jesus, still, what it does contain is enough to warrant anyone to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, so that by believing they would have life through his name.
  • The 2nd Epistle of Peter states that scripture is a more sure word of prophecy (than audible voices from heaven), and correspondingly more able to safeguard us from following cunningly devised fables.
  • The scriptures of the Old Testament in general are replete with authoritative claims, ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ and were in themselves sufficient to reveal Christ savingly to their readers (according to Christ in John 5) and to save them from soul-destroying errors of doctrine (according to Christ in Matthew 22); and when the apostles claimed to be writing scripture on a par with the Old Testament (as Peter did for Paul, 2 Pet 3v16; as Paul did for Luke, 1 Tim 5v18; etc), they were laying claim to their writings having the same characteristics – divine authority, revelation of saving truth, and repository of true doctrine.
  • Finally, to make this anywhere near manageably brief, whenever the apostles warned people against false doctrine, they never directed them anywhere other than their own teachings to find the truth. The only place where apostolic teaching is known to exist subsequent to the apostles themselves is in the inspired Scriptures. These are where the apostles declare things for us to know the certainty of the things in which we have been instructed, Luke 1. These are where we find the gospel they preached infallibly preserved, so that we can know to reject any alternative gospel, whether preached by man or angel, Galatians 1. These, jointly with the writings of the prophets, are the foundation on which the church is built, both for faith and morals. There is never the least hint that believers should turn to any resource outside the Scriptures in order to determine questions of doctrine or duty: the Scriptures themselves are, and claim to be, that very resource.

Also false is the other claim, ‘The scriptures cannot authorise themselves‘ (hence the need for an authority outside the scriptures to establish ‘the material content of revelation’). The truth is that the Scriptures do authorise themselves.

  • This is particularly clear for the Old Testament, which was accepted among God’s people purely on the weight of its own authority. Every time the phrase, “Thus saith the Lord,” occurs in the Old Testament scriptures, it is a straightforward, unarguable, claim to divine authority. At the time of Christ and the apostles, “the scripture saith” was perfectly synonymous with “God says” (as in, eg, Paul in Rom 9v17, Gal 3v2, Acts 28v25).
  • Then, as the Old Testament scriptures were simply received by Israel in Old Testament times, so in New Testament times, the New Testament scriptures were simply received by the church. The scriptures of the New Testament are divinely inspired hence divinely authoritative hence obediently to be received in exactly the same way as were the Scriptures of the Old Testament. The idea that some collection either of Israelites or churchmen first sat down in judgment on whether or not to accept God’s own revelation as authoritative, is completely back to front.
  • There is, in short, a world of difference between receiving something as the word of men and receiving it as the word of God – thankfully, when the gospel came to the Thessalonians, they received it, not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the Word of God. Far from the Scriptures being a product of the Spirit through the Church, as some folk would have us believe, the fact is that the Church is a product of the Spirit through the instrumentality of the Word. The Scriptures no more derive their authority from the Church than gravity derives its force from Sir Isaac Newton.

Two bold claims about Scripture, straightforwardly contradicted by Scripture. But where do claims like these come from? not, surely, from a faith that says, ‘Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth,’ but from an alternative that keeps the scriptures at arm’s length, doesn’t recognise Scripture’s own claims about itself, and neglects to come close enough to God’s own revelation to be instructed by it on its own terms. Attacks on the authority and sufficiency of God’s Word are nothing new, but there is something markedly unattractive about them when they come from within what is meant to be part of the church, the institution set up to be the guardian of the once-for-all deposit of divine truth in the world. Thinking Catholics need to think smarter on this. The kind and degree of respect, attention, and obedience which the scriptures deserve and demand they are content to devote to some other, competitor source of authority which God hasn’t mentioned in the word he has given to us. Instead of making a virtue out of submitting to a spurious authority what they should reserve for divine authority (namely, their conscience on matters of faith and practice), let them be invited to step back into line with the church catholic by recovering the courage and faith to find God’s authoritative revelation of all things necessary for faith and practice in the one place he has contained it, the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.


14 thoughts on “sola scriptura in the scriptures

  1. First sleepy thought, apart from the obvious, is what St Joan of Arc said at her trial. About Christ and the church, I just know they’re one thing and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.

    Bracket the man’s incurable tendency to jovial insults and and give him credit for trying! He really was. It wasn’t an attack on sola scriptura, nor on sola-scriptura-declaring protestants. He was wondering about how other people understand Christianity, not trying to prove them wrong.

    You know (though you think we are totally so wrong by the way :D) that your Catholic or Orthodox Christian thinks the protestant sola scriptura thing has gaps in it one could drive a bus through. It’s also obvious that lots of presbyterians are more intelligent and intellectually honest than your average non-presbyterian. You can see that the folk in the first sentence look at those in the second and go “I wonder what they can be thinking?”. (Of course you think the folk in the first sentence must be daft or utterly depraved to think what they think, but that’s not the issue here :D ) A. was trying to explain what appears to traditional Christians to be a paradox, and to understand why it isn’t one. It’s not like the case of Anglo-Catholicism, which appears to be utterly without sense, utterly “unreal”. (I asked a former Anglo-Catholic what on earth goes on in an Anglo-Catholic’s head, and he said that one just sort of didn’t notice, or didn’t think about it, and that there is no way to make sense of it.) This is not the case with old-fashioned presbyterianism. I’ve just not been able to tease out the sense and formulate it for myself.. Aelianus has it seems also pondered the subject, and then blogged an attempt at formulating his impression.

    Do you agree with any of it? I am very interested in your opnion, because when I read it, it seemed to chime with the impression I’d had. Obviously analogies can only go so far.

    Bleurgh. You bad person, you have kept me up for AGES writing this. Sooooo laaaate ….


  2. I suppose it’s idle to expect that this sort of disagreement on the place of scripture can be settled easily: both sides ought to be familiar with the moves that have been made over the last 500 years and it’s unlikely that any of us will find something new and conclusive to say here.

    But something more impressionistic might at least give an insight into what I take to be a typical Roman Catholic view of this. Our faith is centred on Christ, not the Bible. And we can see, from the Gospels, that Christ did not write or authorize the Bible, but did clearly institute a Church and the two sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist (for the sake of argument, I put aside the other five sacraments accepted by the Roman Catholic Church). We know historically that the Bible only arose in its present form over a period of time, through a complex series of judgments by the Church. Moreover, we can observe that, whatever the theory of sola scriptura, in fact, it has led to a fissiparous Christianity containing a variety of opinions: even if in theory scripture is self interpreting, in practice, it doesn’t seem to be. Finally, whatever may be gleaned about the early Church, by the time we have a clear historical understanding of it, it looks much more like a hierarchical Roman Catholic (or Orthodox etc) body than anything resembling modern Protestantism: at the very least, the doctrine of sola scriptura seems to imply that there was an extensive time period in which the Church had a radically incorrect understanding of the relationship between its apostolic authority and Scripture.

    Whatever the actual practice of individual Roman Catholics, we really ought to ‘come close enough to God’s own revelation to be instructed by it on its own terms’: quite apart from the numerous injunctions on this by the teaching authority of the Church, (eg) the practice of the Divine Office (ie daily liturgical prayer) is about a constant soaking of oneself in scripture. But having soaked ourselves in that scripture, we find it pointing at Christ, the sacraments and the Church, and not at itself.

    I don’t think sola scriptura is silly: I see it rather as an understandable reaction to corruptions in the Church. But I do see it as a distorted emphasis which doesn’t really fit in with anything that Christ did in the Gospels or Acts, whilst he does clearly seem to have set up a sacramental, teaching Church before any of the New Testament writings existed.

    I should add that I say all this simply to try to make the Roman Catholic case at least recognizable as an attempt to be faithful to Christ. I wouldn’t expect anything as brief as this to convince a believer in sola scriptura that he was wrong. But I think it’s important that both sides recognize the other’s bona fides if a combined Christian witness is to exist in an increasingly hostile Scotland.


  3. Pingback: Sola Scriptura II « Laodicea

  4. Lazarus – Thanks. That raises both theological and historical (&/or historical theological) points of disagreement.

    The major theological one being this formulation, “Our faith is centred on Christ, not the Bible.” That can only be a false dichotomy, because it’s the Bible that makes Christ known. The closeness of the relationship between the personal Word and the inscripturated Word can hardly be overstated.

    Along with this idea that Christ didn’t write or authorise the Bible. It doesn’t do justice to what Scripture claims for itself, or how Scripture functions – part of where i was going with that line on taking scripture on its own terms. Ie that the Scriptures of the Old Testament are all about Christ, according to what he himself specifically taught on multiple occasions, and the Scriptures of the New Testament share that characteristic. Don’t think enough is made of the audacity of the apostles’ claim to be writing *scripture* or the outrageousness of their readers in accepting their writings as *scripture* – when the nature of scripture was well understood from the OT writings to be authoritative, sacrilege to tamper with, the last word on whatever teaching it stated, etc.

    Really need to wrap up – the historical stuff can wait – but:
    i) i think/hope we can take it as read that your position is a sincere attempt to be faithful to Christ, as i believe is reciprocated, but on the understanding that recognition doesn’t preclude either side from thinking and saying that the other is w.r.o.n.g.
    ii) we need to make as robust a witness as possible in hostile Scotland, but there is no hope of any such witness arising from a shared doctrinal foundation. Transparency on this is essential to the witness, apart from in its own right.


  5. Much I could say but just to focus on two points.

    1) I agree with you that it’s absolutely essential to be clear about the differences between Catholicism and Calvinism etc when presenting a public witness. (From a Catholic point view, it’s particularly important to make clear that our views on morality are based on natural law reasoning rather than scripture alone.) Moreover, as long we don’t undermine the witness by disrespectful bickering, the differences ought to be helpful: the fact that different groups, reasoning from different premisses, come to the same conclusions ought to suggest the convergence of truth.

    2) Protestants in general need to be careful not to confuse Catholicism’s rejection of sola scriptura with a failure to take scripture seriously. We take it very seriously indeed but find it pointing to a Christ who is mediated to us primarily in a living, teaching and sacramental Church, rather to itself.


  6. I quote from AW Pink’s ‘The Divine Inspiration of the Bible’ where in the 10th chapter he quotes R.A. Torry who says the following which is pithy and pointed;

    ‘If every book but the Bible were destroyed not a single spiritual truth would be lost.’

    ‘And what shall I more say?’ – Hebrews 11.32


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