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.