I've argued in this series that sola scriptura wasn't the practice of believers living during the time of the apostles and that there's no evidence in the New Testament that it would be the practice of believer's after the apostolic age. My sense is that Protestants hold to sola scriptura not because they see it as actually "taught" in the New Testament but because they no longer believe the kind of authoritative, Spirit-led Church we see functioning in the New Testament exists.
In the absence of a Church that can authoritatively settle disputes and issue theological definitions as it did in Acts 15, what alternative is there but Bible-only Christianity?
I've also argued that sola scriptura isn't historical, that it wasn't the faith and practice of the Early Church, and that it isn't workable. In fact, as the working principle of Protestantism since the time of the Reformation, it's been a disaster, having led to the splintering and fragmenting of Christ's Church into an almost unbelievable number of denominations, sects and independent churches -- each of course claiming to stand upon the clear teaching of Scripture alone.
As a evangelical Bible Christian, coming to these realizations felt a bit like when the earth moves beneath your feet during an earthquake. It was unsettling. After all, it's not like sola scriptura is some minor or peripheral doctrine within the Protestant worldview. It's the very foundation of that worldview! It was the foundation of my worldview as a Evangelical Protestant minister.
However, the final blow I would have to say "took out the foundation" of my worldview was coming to see that sola scriptura isn't merely unscriptural, unhistorical and unworkable. It's illogical.
And I don't mean merely that it's mysterious or wonderful or that it transcends human understanding like the Holy Trinity or Christ's divine and human natures. I mean that it's downright illogical in the sense that it contains an internal logical contradiction than cannot be resolved.
How so? Let me explain.
Early on in my study of Catholicism, I was asked a question.
I believe it was in conversation with my old friend Scott Hahn, but I can't entirely recall. What I remember clearly, however, is that from the moment the question was posed to me and I began to attempt to answer it as a Protestant, I was on my way into the Catholic Church.
The question grew out of a conversation that went something like this:
Scott: I have a question I want to ask you, but before that I'd like to clarify exactly what you mean when you talk about sola scriptura. Are you with me?
Ken: Sure. Shoot.
Scott: OK. Would you agree that the Bible is the believer's sole infallible rule of faith and practice -- that it's our only infallible rule, and that it's sufficient to know everything God wants us to know with respect to Christian doctrine and morals?
Ken: Yes. That's the very definition of sola scriptura.
Scott: In other words, when it comes to Christian faith and practice, doctrine and morals, you would agree that a Christian should only believe what can be shown to be taught in Scripture?
Ken: Well, sometimes implications can be drawn from things that are explicitly taught in Scripture. These would be true as well. But yes. Essentially, what sola scriptura means is that we believe only what can be shown to be taught in Scripture, either explicitly or implicitly. Chapter and verse. When it comes to the doctrines of the faith, if it isn't in the Bible, how can I know it to be true?
Scott: So if it isn't found in the Bible, I can't know it to be true. Correct?
Ken: Yes, yes. Will you get to your point?
Scott: OK, here's my question: How do you as a Protestant know that the books you have in your New Testament are inspired and belong there? For instance, take Matthew. How do you know Matthew is the inspired Word of God, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit? You've just said that Christians should only believe what can be shown to be taught in Scripture. Well, nowhere in Scripture are we taught that Matthew is an inspired book. So how do you know it is. And if you can't be sure that it is, how can you include it in your "sole infallible rule of faith and practice"?
Let we try to describe for you the dilemma this question posed for me as a Protestant -- the dilemma upon whose horns I was in the end impaled.
Of course I immediately understood the importance of the question. If a Christian -- whether Protestant or Catholic! -- is going to say that the Bible is his infallible rule, he needs to know that the books in his Bible are the inspired Word of God. I mean, we Christians can't very well go around saying, "I think these are the right books, and everything they teach is inspired and infallibly true!” We have to know. So how did I know that Matthew is an inspired writing? And Mark? And Luke?
The only answer I could give that would be truly consistent with my foundational commitment to sola scriptura would be to say, "Ï know these books are inspired the same way I know that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he healed the blind and that he died to take away the sins of the world -- because God has revealed this in Scripture. Because the Bible tells me so."
The only problem was: I couldn't give that answer. Because the Bible doesn't tell me anywhere that Matthew is an inspired book, or Mark, or Luke. Yes, St Paul speaks of Scripture as being inspired ("All Scripture is God-breathed..." 2 Tim 3:16). Yes, Jesus and the apostles repeatedly refer to the Old Testament as Scripture and treat it as inspired and authoritative. But where does Scripture teach me that Matthew is "Scripture" and therefore inspired? Or Mark? Or Luke?
There's no inspired table of contents in the New Testament. There's no list of inspired writings. There's no passage stating that Matthew was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
So how do I know?
At this point, I may have responded,
"Well, in the apostolic churches everyone knew which books had been authored by apostles and were inspired and this knowledge was handed down within the churches. It's something Christians accept on the witness of the early Church -- those who were closest to the apostolic age and who looked at the evidence and knew who had written what and what books were accepted as inspired and..."
But internally I was scrambling, because I knew that what I was saying wasn't consistent with sola scripture. What? I insist that Christians should only believe what is taught in the Bible and then I believe that Matthew is inspired on the witness of the early Church?
When it comes to doctrine and morals the Bible is my authority, but when it comes to deciding which books to include in the Bible, suddenly tradition is my authority? How can that be?
I began to read scholarly accounts of the process by which the New Testament was assembled by the early Church. I read Protestant scholars like Bruce Metzger and F.F. Bruce on the formation of the New Testament canon. And what I learned was that my "everyone knew" idea wasn't even true.
It turns out that some of the books we now have in our New Testaments were held in suspicion by some in the early Church. And I don't mean some individuals; I mean some areas of the Church. Some churches rejected Hebrews. Others rejected the book of Revelation. Specifically, we’re talking about James, Hebrews, 2 Peter, Jude, Third John and Revelation that were disputed to one degree or another in the early centuries of Christianity. Six books. There are only 27 books in our New Testament. In other words, almost a quarter of the New Testament was disputed to some degree.
And the process was even more complicated than that.
Because it’s not like the early church had only those 27 books to examine and choose from. There were scads of books in circulation at the time claiming to have been written by Peter and Paul and John and the rest. And then there were books written by others that did not wind up being included in our New Testament but were considered authoritative by some and were read in the public worship. For instance, The Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Teaching of the Twelves Apostles, the Epistle of St. Clement to the Corinthians, and there were others as well…
So it is simply not true that everyone in the early Church knew which books were apostolic and inspired and which were not and that this knowledge was passed down within the churches.
But even if it were true that "everyone knew," my dilemma remained. How do I say with Luther that Scripture is "my basis," that I only believe what is taught in Scripture, that I reject tradition as human and fallible, and then accept the witness of "tradition" on the most fundamental question of all -- the question of which books should be considered inspired and included in my infallible rule of faith and practice!
This was more than a dilemma. The question pointed out an inconsistency in my position as a Protestant. One could even say it revealed a contradiction in my position as a Protestant.
My Sheep Hear My Voice
In the end what most every Protestant will say, and what I probably said in my conversations with Scott, is that we know Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and the rest of the 27 books in our New Testaments are inspired and belong there because the Holy Spirit led the Church to select the right books.
It's like Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice and they follow me.”
In the end, the people of God heard the voice of their Shepherd in these writings. Not individually. I'm not saying the Holy Spirit led each Christian individually to the same conclusions on every book. Some thought Second Peter, Jude and Third John should not be included in the New Testament and some thought the Epistle of Barnabas should be included. But in general, over time the people of God knew.
In other words, when pressed with the question "how do we know" the answer Protestants give is something like: Inspired apostles wrote the books and handed them on to the churches as inspired. The churches preserved the knowledge of which books were inspired. This knowledge was passed down within the Church. And when heresies began to arise that attacked the canon of Scripture and it became necessary for some authoritative determination to be made as to which books exactly make up the Church’s Old and New Testaments, the Church met in councils to decide.
And the Holy Spirit led in this process. In the end, the Holy Spirit led the people of God to recognize which books were inspired and apostolic and which were not. And that's how we know.
Of course there’s only one problem with this. It’s the Catholic position.
It's the Catholic position to say that revealed truths are (a) given us in Scripture, but that they are also (b) handed down in the Church as Tradition and that (c) the Holy Spirit leads the Church to a certain knowledge of these truths. And because this is the Catholic position, it isn't a problem for Catholics that the Bible doesn't tell us that Matthew is an inspired book, or Mark, or Luke.
But this is a massive problem for Protestants. Why? Because it's the Protestant position to say we accept and believe and teach others to accept and believe only what can be shown to be taught in the pages of Scripture. Protestants don't accept the authority of Traditions, for instance that Matthew was written by Matthew and is an inspired book. Protestants don't accept the authority of decisions made by councils, for instance that Revelation and Hebrews are inspired and should be included in the New Testament Canon and that the Epistle of Barnabas is not should be excluded. Protestants don't accept the idea that the Holy Spirit leads the Church to these sorts of authoritative decisions.
For Protestantism, it's "what saith the Scripture?"
And so the question wouldn't go away: How do Protestants know that the books they have in their New Testaments belong there? Since the Bible is their sole rule of faith and practice and the Bible doesn't tell them -- and they reject the authority of Tradition and the Church, how do they know?
At this point I was pretty much on my back, intellectually. I had to know the 27 books in my New Testament were the inspired Word of God in order to have my New Testament function as my infallible rule. And I believed they were the inspired Word of God.But I had no idea how to answer the question of how I know this without violating my commitment to sola scriptura.
As I stared into the void, Scott pressed the question another step.