Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone): a recipe for doctrinal chaos

Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone): a recipe for doctrinal chaos

Dr Frank Mobbs

In a previous series of articles I summarised the history and theology of six different Christian Churches. In dealing with Protestantism, I emphasised the movement's central doctrines of Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) and Sola Fide (by Faith Alone). Because of their importance in answering the question, Which is Christ's Church?, I shall explain and evaluate both doctrines, beginning this month with Sola Scriptura.

The doctrine is affirmed often by Martin Luther and by John Calvin as a foundational principle of the faith of a Christian. Luther wrote that Holy Writ is the sole fountainhead, standard, and judge in matters of faith.

In the Formula of Concord of 1577 which codified Luther's teachings we find as first principle:

'OF THE SUMMARY CONTENT, RULE, AND STANDARD according to which all dogmas should be judged, and the erroneous teachings [controversies] that have occurred should be decided and explained in a Christian way.

'1. We believe, teach, and confess that the sole rule and standard according to which all dogmas together with [all] teachers should be estimated and judged are the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures of the Old and of the New Testament alone.' (Note 'alone').

The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England promulgated in 1571 express the doctrine neatly: 'Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of faith'.

I suspect Sola Scriptura is widely held by Catholics. When I used to lecture in a Catholic tertiary institution, the answer to my question, 'How do we know what God has revealed?', was invariably, 'The Bible.' This belief makes them easy prey for Protestant evangelists.

What are we to make of Sola Scriptura? Glancing over the history of the past 450 years, we note that the results have been devastating for Christianity.

Scripture (the Bible) is a large collection of ancient books, composed over a period of at least 1,000 years. Experts have grave difficulty determining the meaning of many pass- ages, so it is ideal soil in which to grow opinions on almost every subject.

We find extracted from the Bible the following beliefs: that modern Israel must be defended from the claims of dispossessed Palestinians; God wants the restoration of the British Empire; that there are only three sacraments; the Church should not be ruled by bishops; that sacraments are not important (Salvation Army); and laymen can celebrate the Eucharist.

No wonder that atheists such as Richard Dawkins have sport with this chaos of beliefs supposedly derived from Scripture.

The doctrine has proved perfect for creating divisions amongst Christians. A new Church - an organisation with its own rules and creed as distinct from a branch of an existing Church - is born every week. The great originator of the doctrine, Martin Luther, lived to bemoan the proliferation of theological beliefs based on his own principle.

A leading Evangelical, Alister McGrath, Professor of Theology, Kings College, London, gives a striking example of contradictory interpretations of Scripture developed by leaders of the Reformation:

'Thus, in the case of the 'real presence' question three major views achieved wide influence within the Reformation by 1560: Luther's view, that the bread is literally identified with the body of Christ; Calvin's view, that the bread is an efficacious symbol of the presence of Christ, effecting what it signified; Zwingli's view, that the bread merely signifies Christ in his absence. All of these views can be justified on the basis of Scripture' (Evangelicalism and the future of Christianity, Hodder & Stoughton, 1996, p. 59).

In proposing the doctrine, Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers were opposing another doctrine. Which? The traditional teaching of the Catholic Church (as also of the Orthodox Churches) that God in Christ had authorised his Church to teach in his name - 'he who hears you hears me' - by passing on what she had learned from the Apostles and other early Christian witnesses.

That was the rule of faith from the beginning. Seeing that Luther wanted to reject some Church teachings, he had recourse to Sola Scriptura to justify his rejection. Not the Church, not Tradition (what had been passed on), but Scripture alone became his foundational doctrine.

Serious difficulties

This doctrine faces serious difficulties. I examine some.

If God has revealed that his total revelation is contained in the Scriptures, then it follows that that doctrine is contained in the Scriptures; that is, God has revealed in the Bible that all his revelation is contained therein. But is it to be found in the Scriptures?

Before we answer that question there are problems to solve. First, what writings constitute the Scriptures? If they are said to be those at the time of our Lord, Jesus, then they do not include the most important part, the books of the New Testament, which were not completed until about 80 years after his death. If he said the equivalent of, 'My teachings are contained in the Scriptures', then he was not referring to his own teachings because they had not yet been recorded in writings.

Second, to which version of the Scriptures is reference being made? Regarding the Old Testament, there was no agreement amongst Jews as to what writings fell within the canon of Scripture. The Samaritans believed that only Torah, the first five books, constituted Scripture. The Ethiopians add an extra eight books to our list of books of the Old Testament.

Even when there was agreement on which books constituted sacred Scripture, there were different versions of the books. Going forward, we find that Christians have never agreed on this matter. The Syrian Orthodox Church recognises only 22 of the books which constitute our New Testament.

In the Scriptures there is no list of the books which make up the Scriptures, hence Protestants have a fallible collection of infallible books. So even were it true that God has included all his revelation in Scripture, we have no way of knowing what constitutes Scripture - unless he authorised a body of men to answer our perplexity.

Divine revelation

This he did in founding his Church which, about AD 400, determined the list of books (canon) that contained divine revelation, the very list that Luther and Calvin used (after they had deleted some Old Testament books). An authority outside of Scripture was needed to decide which books constitute Scripture.

Back to our question: Is it true that God revealed in the Scriptures that all he revealed lies within them?

Protestants commonly refer to these texts: 2 Timothy 3:15-17, 2 Peter 3:15-16, John 5:39 and 17:20, and even Psalm 19:7-8! All are irrelevant as they make no claim that the Scriptures contain all revelation. In fact, there is no scriptural support for Sola Scriptura.

What we do find in the New Testament is something very different in the way of transmission of the revelation made by the Lord. What we find is Christ authorising certain men to teach about him and teach what he taught. In short, we find men relying on other men for access to God's word - not on a collection of writings.

Certainly, the Apostles and other evangelists frequently referred to Old Testament writings in support of their presentations of the new faith - as had the Master. But those writings do not contain the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the core of their proclamation and argument.

The Jewish Scriptures hinted at things Christ said and did and the first Christians seized on those hints in order to convince fellow Jews of the truth of the claims of Christ. But they never said: 'Go to the Scriptures for there you will find all that the Lord Jesus revealed.' Had they done so, their hearers would have had difficulties because no more than three per cent of the population could read.

The New Testament provides further evidence of the way the message of Christ was conveyed to others. In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter and Paul and others speak to the people, passing on their reports regarding Christ. Paul often refers to traditions which he is conveying to others, e. g., 'So, then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter' 2 Thess. 2:15; and, 'For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received ...' (I Cor. 15:3).

He is not referring to a writing for in the previous verse he said this is the gospel 'I preached'. In fact, the New Testament never reports that any of the Apostles and other Church teachers wrote anything, except Paul. He did write and in doing so passed on some hitherto unwritten traditions.

The early Christian writings evidence the conviction that the Apostles appointed men to take on their function of authoritative teachers. About AD 190 St Irenaeus writes: 'Those that wish to discern the truth may observe the apostolic tradition made manifest in every church throughout the world.' He says we Christians point to 'the apostolic tradition and the faith that is preached to men, which has come to us through the successions of bishops.'

The tradition in question is 'the tradition of teaching in the Church deriving from Christ by which Scripture was to be interpreted'.

History shows the creeds of the Church give the rule for interpreting Scripture, for the Church only allowed that a certain book was included in Scripture, or that an interpretation of a passage was true, if it was compatible with the creeds.

'Theology from without always dictated which sentences of the Bible were benchmarks by which other sentences were interpreted', and 'Allegiance to creeds was regarded as far more important at a far earlier stage of the Church's history than acknowledgment of the authority of Scripture.' (Quotations from Richard Swinburne, Revelation: from Metaphor to Analogy, Oxford: Clarendon, 1992, 177-178).

Early Protestants wanted to exclude Church authority from deciding the meaning of biblical texts but they failed spectacularly. They founded Churches which formulated creeds which were enforced, even with the death penalty. Today evangelists insist their followers adhere to their interpretations - or else. They replace the authority of the Church founded by Christ with their own.

Church authority

The Catholic Church has ever profoundly reverenced the Scriptures, especially the Gospels. Her greatest minds have devoted lifetimes to study of the sacred texts. Her liturgy and prayers are largely quotations from Scripture or allusions to it. But Christ and his Apostles never taught that Scripture alone contains his revelation, for that way, as history shows, lies endless division and confusion.

To avoid this calamity, Christ mercifully gave us the Church. 'The most obvious answer, then, to the question, why we yield to the authority of the Church in the questions and developments of faith, is, that some authority there must be if there is a revelation given, and other authority there is none but she. A revelation is not given, if there be no authority to decide what it is that is given. In the words of St Peter to her Divine Master and Lord, 'To whom shall we go?'' (J.H.N. Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Ch 2).

Dr Frank Mobbs is a former lecturer at universities and seminaries and has written extensively on philosophical and theological issues. He has been a regular contributor to AD2000. Email:fmobbs_at_integrity net.

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