You’ve been talking with Bob, a fellow worker at the office, for weeks about the faith. You can see you’ve made headway in presenting him your biblical case for Catholicism. So you decide to invite him to an apologetics Bible study you have at your parish.
He agrees to come on one condition: You must first come to a Bible study at his “non-denominational” assembly for four weeks. Then he will come to your meeting for four weeks.
Immediately, you jump at the chance. You’re fired up! The Lord has given you an open door for evangelism.
Upon arrival at Bob’s assembly, “Church of the Open Door,” Bob takes you to a room filled with about forty-five congenial people with Bibles in hand. After drinking punch, eating a few cookies, and talking small talk for a few moments, the leader of the group, Robert, asks everyone to find a seat so the Bible study can begin.
After a short prayer, Robert says the topic of study over the next four weeks will be salvation. But first, he says, “We must begin with the assumption that all present believe in the inspiration and inerrancy of Sacred Scripture. And also that Sacred Scripture is the regula fidei or sole rule of faith for all believers. In other words, the doctrine of sola scriptura.”
You immediately raise your hand with a question. “Do you mind if I ask why you believe this seemingly foundational doctrine? I don’t believe sola scriptura to be true — in fact, I don’t believe that the Bible itself teaches such a doctrine at all.”
You hear a few subdued gasps and feel the eyes of all turn to you, as Robert quickly responds: “The Bible very plainly teaches sola scriptura in 2 Timothy 3:16: ‘All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.’ The Bible can’t make it any more plain than that!” Robert declares.
You respond to Robert with four reasons why his stated position, sola scriptura, is untenable: It is unreasonable, unhistorical, unbiblical, and unworkable.
Step One: Sola Scriptura is unreasonable.
As briefly as possible, you quickly point out that Robert’s reasoning is circular, and therefore fallacious: “You cannot prove the inspiration of a text from the text itself. The Book of Mormon, the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, the Muslim Quran, and other books claim divine inspiration. This doesn’t make them inspired. The question remains, how do we know the Scriptures are inspired and canonical using the principle of sola scriptura?”
Robert immediately asks if you are Catholic. (He could tell by your critiques of sola scriptura). When you answer in the affirmative, Robert responds, “I believe the Holy Spirit guides us into all truth as Jesus said in John 16:13. The Holy Spirit guided the early Christians and helped them to gather the canon of Scripture and declare it to be the inspired Word of God. God would not leave us without His Word to guide us.”
You respond, “The Scripture you quoted from John 16:13 has nothing to do with sola scriptura. While I agree with you that the Holy Spirit guided the early Christians to canonize the Scriptures, the question is whether they used sola scriptura as their guiding principle. The answer is no.
“They needed Tradition outside of Scripture as their criterion for the canon. This criterion is not found in Scripture itself. They needed Tradition to authenticate the books in question. And they also needed the Church in council to give an authoritative decree on the whole matter.
“All of that aside, let’s look at the text you quoted. I ask you, what if I made a similar claim to demonstrate to you any of our Catholic dogmas? Imagine that you asked me why I believe Mary to be the Mother of God, and I responded, ‘We believe the Holy Spirit guides us into all truth and guided the early Christians to declare this truth.’ Would you believe me on this basis? No!
“But all this begs my original question. Not only is the text you used unacceptable from a perspective of sola scriptura; it’s also circular reasoning to claim the Scripture as your authority for claiming the inspiration of Scripture.”
Robert seems to be intrigued with this dialogue, as are the rest of those gathered. Robert says, “How do you know the Scriptures are inspired? Your reasoning is just as circular: You say the Church is infallible because the inspired Scriptures say so, and then claim the Scriptures are inspired and infallible because the Church says so!”
“That’s a very good question,” you reply. “However, the Catholic Church’s position on inspiration is not circular. We begin with the Bible as an historical document, not as an inspired one. As any reputable historian will tell you, the New Testament is the most accurate and verifiable historical document in all of ancient history. To deny the historical reliability of the New Testament would be to deny the reliability of all ancient history.
“Nevertheless, we cannot deduce from this that they are inspired. There are many accurate historical documents that are not inspired. However, the Scriptures do give us accurate historical information whether we hold to their inspiration or not.
“It is on this basis that we can say it is an historical fact that Jesus lived, died, and was reported to be resurrected from the dead by over five hundred eyewitnesses. This is the historical record. Many of these eyewitnesses went to their deaths testifying to the veracity of what Christ had done (see Lk 1:1-4, Jn 21:18-19, 24-25, Acts 1:1-11, 1 Cor 15:1-8). Further, this testimony of the Bible is backed up by hundreds of works by early Christians and historians, some of whom were not Christian — such as Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and Josephus.
“Now, what do we find when we examine the Scriptures as historical documents? The Scriptures record Jesus establishing a Church, not a book, to be the foundation of the Christian faith (see Mt 16:15-18, 18:15-18, Eph 2:20, 3:10,20-21,4:11-15, 1 Tim 3:15, Heb 13:7,17, and others). He said of His Church: “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects Him who sent me” (Lk 10:16).
“The many books that comprise what we call the Bible never tell us certain crucial truths: the fact that they are inspired, or who can and cannot be the human author of them, or who authored many of them, or what is the canon of Scripture, just to name a few. But what is very clear is that Jesus established a kingdom with a hierarchy and authority to speak for Him (see Lk 20:29-32, Mt 10:40, 28:18-20). It was members of this kingdom, the Church, that would write the Scripture, preserve the Scripture, and eventually canonize the Scripture.
“The Scriptures cannot write or canonize themselves. To put it simply, reason clearly rejects sola scriptura as a self-refuting principle, because we cannot determine what the scriptura is using the principle of sola scriptura.”
Step Two: Sola Scriptura is unhistorical.
“If I may, I would like to concretize my point by making an argument from history. Let’s say you were living in the mid-fourth century before there was a recognized canon of Scripture. As I’m sure you know, the first time a formal canon was arranged and recognized by any council of the Church was in A.D. 382 at a synod in Rome called by Pope Damasus I.
“Let’s say you were to read The Instructor by Saint Clement of Alexandria (written about 202). In book II, chapter 3, he quotes Baruch 3:16-19 and calls it ‘Divine Scripture.’”
After you briefly explain, for those who may not know it, that Baruch is one of the deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament accepted by Catholics, but rejected by Protestants, you note: “Saint Clement was the head of the famous catechetical school in Alexandria and one of the greatest theologians of the second and third centuries. Now I could cite scores of examples of other early Christians referring to the deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament, but for the sake of brevity I will refer just to this one.
“Let’s say you then read a book by the greatest historian of the fourth century, Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea. In his classic Ecclesiastical History (written around 330), book III, chapters 3 and 25, he records the canon of Scripture as understood in the mid-fourth century. He claims that James, Jude, 2 Peter and 2 and 3 John are among ‘the disputed writings.’ He notes that Hebrews and Revelation are rejected altogether by many.
“My question is this: Many of the early Christians disagreed over which books were inspired. So where do you go to get a definitive answer about the canon of Scripture if you use the principle of sola scriptura?”
Robert responds: “You make some very interesting points that I will have to think about. However, I have to disagree with you when you say the Scriptures do not claim to be inspired and the sole rule of faith. I’ve already quoted 2 Timothy 3:16 to you. In addition, over and over in Scripture we clearly find our Lord quoting the Old Testament authoritatively, as He does in Matthew 4:4-11. When Jesus was tempted by the Devil, his response was: ‘It is written’ — three times in a matter of seven verses. Jesus clearly uses sola scriptura as his guiding principle or regula fidei.”
This leads you into your third point.
Step Three: Sola Scriptura is unbiblical.
“Let’s back up,” you say, “to the original verse Robert used to prove his case, 2 Timothy 3:16. (You now find yourself addressing the entire Bible study group, not just Robert!) The text itself does not assert what Robert claimed. It does not claim the inspiration of the New Testament. Nor does it claim to be the sole rule of faith for Christians. Let’s look at the context of the passage.
“Robert, let’s read aloud verses 14-15, which precede 2 Timothy 3:16.” (You can’t help but notice that you are slowly taking over this Bible study!) Robert then reads aloud: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (emphasis added).
“In context, this passage does not refer to the New Testament at all. None of the New Testament books had been written when Saint Timothy was a child! Further, how does this text tell us whether or not the book of Revelation is an authentic book of the New Testament, since it had not even been written at that point?”
Robert responds: “You keep coming back to the canon and you make an interesting point. As I said, I will have to think more about that, but you cannot escape the unique status Scripture is given in the Bible. Only Scripture is referred to as inspired by God. Therefore, only Scripture can be said to be infallible. And the text says Scripture is all we need to equip us. We certainly do not need any Catholic traditions. In fact, Jesus condemned the use of tradition in Matthew 15:1-6.”
“With all due respect,” you reply, “I have to disagree with you. You’ve made three key mistakes I think we can clear up. First, while I agree with you that only Scripture is referred to as inspired (Greek theopneustos), that does not mean the infallible Word of God is limited to Scripture. The text does not say that!
“Inspiration is a technical term used to describe the unique way in which God instrumentally moved the human authors of Scripture to write in such a way that we can say God is the primary author of Scripture. However, this is not the only way in which God communicates His infallible Word. For example, in Deuteronomy 18:20-22 we are told that if a prophet speaks a word that does not come to pass, he is a false prophet and is put to death.
“Why? Because the spoken word of a true prophet is infallible. A true prophet does not hit and miss. And by the way: You don’t have to wait until it’s written down before it becomes infallible!
“Second, we agree that Jesus quoted Scripture and condemned some traditions. But He did not refer to Scripture alone as His authority, and He did not condemn all tradition. When Jesus condemned a certain tradition of the Pharisees in Matthew 15:9, He qualified exactly what kind of tradition it was. Jesus condemned the traditions of men, not all tradition.
“In fact, Jesus refers to an oral tradition in Matthew 23:2-3: ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.’ Jesus both refers to this oral tradition about ‘the chair of Moses’ Himself, and commands the apostles to believe and obey it.”
“St. Paul also mentions oral Tradition as having the same authority as written Tradition in 1 Corinthians 11:2 and in 2 Thessalonians 3:6 and 2:15. The last of these texts says: ‘So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.’ Even further, Jesus not only referred to Scripture and Tradition, but He also gave us teachings on His own authority as well when He repeatedly said, ‘You have heard it said . . . but I say unto you . . .’ (Mt 5:21-44).
“Now for my third point: Even if we granted that 2 Timothy 3:16 was talking about all of Scripture, it never claims Scripture is the sole rule of faith. A rule of faith, but not the sole rule of faith. Let me explain what I mean.
“In James 1:4 we read: ‘And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.’ If we apply the same principle of exegesis to this text that you applied to 2 Timothy 3:16, we would have to say that all we need is steadfastness to be perfected. We don’t need faith, hope, charity, the Scriptures, the Church, or anything else.”
Robert immediately says, “That is manifestly absurd!”
“Of course it is,” you reply. “Can you see how I would say it is just as weak to claim that 2 Timothy 3:16 is saying Scripture is all we need because it says Scripture serves believers so that they may be ‘complete, equipped for every good work’?”
Step Four: Sola Scriptura is unworkable.
Realizing you have monopolized the time at this Bible study, and looking for a graceful exit, you conclude your remarks. “If I could leave you with one last biblical text: ‘If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. . . . But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you. . . . If he refuses to listen . . . tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector’ (Mt 18:15-17).
“The Bible is very clear to me about what to do if we have a disagreement with one another over some issue pertaining to the Faith. And please remember: To lead someone into heresy is a grievous sin against your brother according to Galatians 5:19-21! The Bible tells us that the Church, not the Bible, is the final court of appeal. I believe this is made obvious in the case of the canon of Scripture as I mentioned. It was the Church that declared the truth about the Bible.
“But isn’t it also telling that since the ‘Reformation’ just 480 years ago — a reformation claiming sola scriptura as its formal principle — there are now over 26,000 denominations that have derived from that principle? The 1982 World Christian Encyclopedia projected in that year that there would be 22,190 denominations by 1985. ‘The present net increase,” it noted, is 270 denominations each year (five new ones a week).’1 If we extend that projection to our time, we have well over 26,000 denominations by now.
“It seems to me that for 1,500 years we only had a few enduring schisms, such as the Coptics and the Orthodox. Now in just 480 years we have this? I hardly think that when Jesus prophesied there would be ‘one shepherd and one fold’ in John 10:16, this is what He had in mind. It seems quite clear to me that not only is sola scriptura unreasonable, unhistorical, and unbiblical — it’s also unworkable.”
Robert says that he must begin the Bible study even though there is very little time remaining for the class. He says the group would take up this subject again in the future and awkwardly begins his talk. You can tell that he’s uneasy as he continues the study, and you decide to be quiet for these last few minutes.
Wow! you think to yourself. I can’t wait to come back again next week!
Tim Staples is the director of evangelization for the Catholic Resource Center in West Covina, CA. He can be reached at 626-334-3549.
1 David Barrett, ed., World Christian Encyclopedia,
1st ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1982), 15-18.
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