Thursday, July 28, 2005

The Novel and Unbiblical Doctrine of Sola Scriptura (vs. Lutheran Steve Parks)

By Dave Armstrong (7-28-05)

Steve is a student at Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, seeking a Master of Divinity degree, with plans to become a Lutheran pastor. He runs a blog called Sceleratissimus Lutheranus.

Steve (whose words will be in blue) is, of course, most welcome to come to this blog to defend his arguments, any time. I strongly urge everyone to welcome him and treat him with the utmost respect as a Christian brother and future clergyman, should he decide to do so. We've had very pleasant private correspondence.

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While the doctrine of justification has always been the primary issue over which confessional Lutheran and Roman opponents have spilled the majority of their ink, a gradual shift has occurred in contemporary debates, and a growing number of Roman Catholic apologists (many of whom are themselves converts from Protestantism) are increasingly targeting the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura . . .

This is true. The reason for that was alluded to above: sola Scriptura is central to the huge difference in the rule of faith of Protestants and Catholics. The 16th-century sea change to sola Scriptura was a far greater and potentially wide-ranging difference between the two broad Christian outlooks than justification has ever been (where the differences are actually far less than is usually imagined, because of widespread misunderstanding of Catholic soteriology). To be a Protestant, clearly one must fully comprehend and be able to defend sola Scriptura; and to be a Catholic, one must understand it equally well and be able to explain why it is rejected, on biblical, historical, logical, and practical grounds.

Catholics are not "against" the Bible; nor are most Protestants "against" tradition or historical precedent per se. That needs to be established up front (and I think Steve would join me in granting this "premise"). But there is plenty to critique in sola Scriptura, no matter how subtle and sophisticated its defense may be, from any given individual proponent of it. I've written more about this topic as a Catholic apologist for now 15 years, than any other, so I think I am in a good position to make a halfway decent response to Steve's critiques of Catholic apologetic method and defenses of sola Scriptura. I think both sides can greatly benefit from an exchange between two able defenders of the respective positions. If nothing else, at least both parties can better understand the other, and that is always a good thing and an important goal.

The doctrine of sola Scriptura, which is a Latin ablative for “through Scripture alone” (The ablative case in the Lutheran principle of sola Scriptura must not be overlooked. Scripture is not an autonomous authority crudely detached from Jesus, but is rather authoritative only because it is the living Word of Christ.

So far we agree.

However, since there are no prophets and apostles extant today, we may only know what Christ has said through His written Word. Thus, the ablative through retains its proper force. Christ is the only authority in the church, but He exercises His infallible authority through the Scriptures alone)

This begs the question. That's alright, since it is still early in the discussion, but all of this will have to be able to withstand scrutiny, as we continue on. Steve (at least at first glance) seems to simply assume that there is no infallible tradition or infallible Church. The Bible itself doesn't teach this, and it also never asserts the principle of sola Scriptura, which is quite strange and ironic, seeing that the doctrine under consideration has to do with the nature of biblical authority, and is made to be the centerpiece of Protestant authority and theology.

was elucidated by the sixteenth century Lutheran Reformers as follows: “We believe, teach, and confess that the only rule and guiding principle according to which all teachings and teachers are to be evaluated and judged are the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testament alone” (The Formula of Concord, I.I, as found in Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord [Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000], 486).

The way in which the authority of the Church and Tradition was demoted or discounted by the first Protestants is fascinating (not to mention tragic in result), and not at all invulnerable to massive criticism and skepticism.

A century later, the Reformed divines defined the doctrine in a similar fashion: “The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures” (The Westminster Confession of Faith, I.X, as found in Philip Schaff, ed., The Creeds of Christendom with a History and Critical Notes, vol. 3: The Evangelical Protestant Creeds, rev. David S. Schaff [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1931], reprint, 1993, 605-606).

How (in a very important practical sense) can a "Judge" be a book? As soon as two Protestants or two Protestant sects disagree on something, and each appeal to the Bible -- the "Supreme [Doctrinal] Judge" -- then the problem in this approach can be readily observed. Someone has to decide who is rightly interpreting the Bible and who is not. Because Protestantism ultimately has no principle by which to do this, it is helpless in the face of ever-proliferating denominations. It has no sufficient principle of unity and authority. Simply appealing to the infallible authority of "the Bible" (which Christians of all stripes agree with in the first place) in super-pious language just won't do. Human beings also have to decide things, and to have a true, binding authority in the Church, not merely ceremonial or symbolic, such as that of the Queen of England.

Surprisingly, many Protestant converts to Roman Catholicism cite the doctrine of sola Scriptura as the primary reason for their defection.

This is true (but I don't find it "surprising" at all, seeing that sola Scriptura -- after a thorough examination -- is such an utterly incoherent and inconsistent theory). For the record, however, this was not at all a major cause in my own conversion. My main reasons were:

1) Moral theology: particularly contraception.
2) An increasing recognition, after historical study, of the revolutionary, rather than reformatory nature of many (not all) aspects of the Protestant revolt.
3) A much better understanding of development of doctrine (with the help of Cardinal Newman).

It is true, though, that all three factors had to do with the authority of the Christian Church, whatever that may be. Insofar as that authority runs counter to the principle of sola Scriptura, rejection of the latter influenced my conversion. In any event, I thought it was uncontroversial during my conversion process, that there was such a thing as a "Church" and that this "Church" had authority and continuity, even if not infallible (at first I fiercely resisted infallibility; more than any other Catholic doctrine). I had always been "historically-minded" as a Protestant (more than most of my Protestant friends seemed to be), so that factor played a key role (another huge discussion in and of itself).

Reportedly, after careful consideration, many died-in-the-wool Protestants have come to the conclusion that sola Scriptura is unbiblical, unhistorical, and just plain unworkable.

I hope to demonstrate that all of this is true, in due course. Protestants, proceed at your own peril! If you don't like having one of your most fundamental premises scrutinized, critiqued, and rejected, then stop reading now. Rest assured that you'll be quite miserable if you don't stop. But if something is true (or untrue), then it is, and we must conform ourselves to it if we claim to be seeking truth and following God. And we must do that no matter how painful and unpleasant the journey to certain unexpected conclusions may be.

As a result, many have jumped ship and hazarded the perilous waters of the Tiber (See for example Patrick Madrid, Surprised by Truth : 11 Converts Give the Biblical and Historical Reasons for Becoming Catholic [San Diego, CA: Basilica Press, 1994]).

My story is the second-to-last in that book. My longtime friend, fellow Michigander, and (for a time) pastor Al Kresta wrote the last conversion story. I didn't find the Tiber's waters perilous at all, and I have found the "country" on the other side of it quite fulfilling in every way. I'm delighted to be where I am, and I would urge my Protestant friends to consider making the same move if you feel the Spirit leading you in this direction. Let everything I write here (and anywhere else) be tested by the Bible, Church history, and your own Christian reason and conscience. Then if it all seems true to you, have the courage to make the jump into the "Tiber." You won't regret it. But enough of my "preaching" . . .

I can't resist pursuing the metaphor of "jumping ship" a bit. What, pray tell, is the Protestant "ship" in the first place? There is no such ship, because the doctrine of the Church has been changed. There is no authoritative, binding Church; therefore, it is inappropriate to talk of jumping one "ship" for another. Rather, Protestantism is more like thousands of individual one-man rafts or even logs, floating around in the ocean, each with one person in or hanging onto it. Everyone is ultimately on their own. The "ship" is the Catholic Church, which has been sailing through the seas of Church history intact (whatever one may think of her). The convert from Protestantism decides that he has had enough of being his own sailor, and gets aboard the ship where there is real authority, and a real captain, and a solid, established way of doing things. The mutineers against such authority left 500 years ago, and established their new rule of sola Scriptura, but the Catholic ship sails on and can more than hold her own in rough seas.

For example, Scott Hahn, a former Presbyterian pastor dubbed “Luther in reverse” (Scott and Kimberly Hahn, Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism [San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1993], 48), notes that in his own conversion to Catholicism, the issue of sola Scriptura “was larger than all others, and nobody had an answer” (Hahn, 54).

Although this was not my own reason to convert, certainly in the many dozens of dialogues on this topic that I have engaged in for almost 15 years, I, too, have found that "nobody had an answer." In my universal experience (no exceptions), the Protestant argument with regard to sola Scriptura always broke down, if analyzed closely enough, and Protestant defenders (even -- in my dialogical history -- authors of books or master's theses on the subject or related ones) eventually (usually pretty soon) ceased defending what can no longer be defended. If one keeps asking the necessary, hard questions, it seems that the Protestant champion of sola Scriptura eventually recognizes (whether he openly admits it or not) that there is nowhere else to go but to exit the discussion. That's how weak the case is. The Catholic simply needs to know where the considerable vulnerabilities of the position lie, and vigorously go after them. The "pail" of sola Scriptura cannot hold water. No pail with 20 holes in it can.

David Currie, another convert from Protestantism, contends that “The Protestant problem with scriptural authority showed me why I could never remain a Protestant, Evangelical or no” (David Currie, Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic [San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1996], 51). Tim Staples, a former Assemblies of God pastor, likewise cites sola Scriptura as his primary reason for abandoning Protestantism: “I think the key was the idea of the authority of the Church and sola Scriptura. Sola Scriptura was a given for me…The authority of the Church I would say was the biggest, but after that I would say that justification was an issue” (Tim Staples, “The White Horse Inn,” 24 November 1996. Christians United for Reformation). All of the above men, and many others not mentioned here, all cite a lack of biblical, historical, and logical evidence for the doctrine of sola Scriptura, leading them to conclude that “Protestant theologians…take the Protestant view concerning Scripture by faith” (Currie, 56).

There is a reason for all these people rejecting sola Scriptura. It becomes more clear the more one deeply examines the position. As an admirer of defenders of lost causes, however, I must say that Steve has made a valiant attempt to defend the indefensible. It's too bad that he doesn't have a better case to argue. Someone's gotta do it, though, since sola Scriptura has been taking such a tremendous beating as of late.

Are such criticisms valid?


Can sola Scriptura stand up to rigorous biblical, historical, and rational scrutiny?


The Reformers certainly believed it could.

They were wrong, and they provided even worse rationales for accepting this false doctrine than its defenders today do. Basically, most of these revolutionaries merely assumed its truth, because it was the only practical alternative to the Catholic Church, which they so despised. This was particularly true of Martin Luther, who was more or less forced to adopt the position under the pressure of being debated into an inescapable corner. But "anything but the dreaded x" is, of course, no legitimate reason for being "anything but the dreaded x." There has to be something beyond reactionary, desperate measures for avoiding another position; some positive argument or defense for one's own position.

These questions and related issues will be considered in this series of posts.

I eagerly look forward to it. I hope open-minded, inquisitive, thoughtful readers will, too.

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