Even though I've been writing for thirteen weeks now about an obscure Latin phrase (sola scriptura) and using some terms that are so out of vogue in our modern "what I feel is all that's real" world (for instance, "logical") I can't stress enough that I'm talking about something I experienced to the depths of my being. Something existential. Something real.
It was like the Northridge Earthquake. But this time it wasn't the foundation of my house moving and shifting and beginning to crumble; it was the foundation of my worldview. I was an evangelical Protestant minister and I was coming to the realization that Bible-only Christianity didn't make sense.
The heart and soul of Sola scriptura was the conviction that when it comes to "revealed truths" -- truths that could only be known if God chose to reveal them -- I should accept only what I could see taught in the Bible. And yet sola scriptura itself did not seem to be taught in the Bible.
2. It didn't make historical sense.
On the question of how a believer knows what the true teachings of the faith are, my answer as an evangelical Protestant would have been: "The Bible -- nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else -- is all that is necessary for faith and practice." Read the Bible. Study the Bible.
But then I read the writings of the early Church and found the Fathers of Christianity quite simply speaking a different language. They spoke of the authority of Scripture. But then they also spoke of the apostolic teaching as something preserved in the Church through apostolic succession and that functioned as a lens through which the light of Scripture comes into focus and is correctly understood.
The teaching of the Church [Origen of Alexandria wrote in 220-230 A.D.] has indeed been handed down through an order of succession from the Apostles, and remains in the Churches even to the present time. That alone is to be believed as the truth which is in no way at variance with ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition.
I read what the great St Athanasius, the leader in the battle against the Arians in the 4th century, said about the first Ecumenical Council of the Church held in Nicea in 325 AD.
But the word of the Lord which came though the ecumenical Synod at Nicea, abides forever.... Are they not then committing a crime in their very thought to gainsay so great and ecumenical a Council.
Whether I was looking at the New Testament or the early Church, the pattern was the same: Scripture, tradition, and a Church with the authority to define Christian teaching.
This is what Christianity believed and taught in its early centuries. It did not teach that the Bible is to be treated as the sole and sufficient infallible rule of faith and practice and that each believer has the right to decide for himself what it is teaching. This is not historical Christianity.
But there there more problems with sola scriptura.
3. It didn't make practical sense.
From the moment it became the rule of faith and practice for the Protestant movement, the result was theological chaos and division. "There are more beliefs than there are heads!" Luther complained.
And that was at the beginning. Now, after 498 years of sola scriptura, there are more Protestant sects, denominations, independent churches and fellowships than Luther ever dreamed would exist. It's frightening to imagine how many there would be if sola scriptura had been the belief and practice of the Church for the 1500 years previous to the Reformation.
The question that came to me was inescapable: Would the Lord Jesus really choose to build his one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church on this sort of foundation -- a principle that by its nature leads to disagreement and division?
4. Finally, it didn't make logical sense
There was a contradiction at the heart of it.
How so? Well, again, according to sola scriptura, we can only know for sure those revealed truths that are presented to us in Scripture. Revealed truths transmitted through tradition are essentially worthless, fallible, untrustworthy. Well, certainly the fact that Matthew, Mark, Hebrews and 2 Peter are inspired writings would qualify as revealed truths. (How else could one know it?) And yet the Bible doesn't tell us that they are. It follows that on the basis of "Scripture alone," we can't know that Matthew, Mark, Hebrews and 2 Peter are inspired books.
Put another way, since only what is taught in Scripture is binding, this should mean the decision the Church came to on the canon of Scripture isn't "binding."
I realized that the exact New Testament I had in my Bible was based on decisions made by the Church's leadership, primarily at the Councils of Hippo and Carthage in 393 and 397 A.D. -- councils I would not as a Protestant have considered to be authoritative. I certainly would never have said I trusted the Holy Spirit to lead those councils to infallibly true conclusions.
So why did I treat the issue of the canon as though it has been infallibly decided?
How could I treat the issue of the canon as infallibly decided and at the same time reject the means by which it was decided as merely human and fallible?
And then the even more distressing implication began to creep its way into my mind: If the decision of the Church was fallible, why aren't Christians free to examine the tradition, explore the historical evidences and decide for themselves which books to include in their Bibles?
Well, from long experience as an Evangelical, I can tell you with a fair degree of conviction: The pastors of Protestant churches would go berserk if individual believers started researching the historical pedigree of the various Old and New Testament books, weighing the evidences, making their own decisions and creating their own Bibles. Or -- even worse! -- praying for the Holy Spirit’s guidance as to which books to keep and which ones to throw in the trash!
But is there any good reason for not allowing the right of private judgment with respect to the canon of Scripture once we've insisted on that right with respect to the meaning of Scripture?
I can think of a profoundly good practical reason: The chaos would be impossible to contain!
What I can't think of are reasons that cohere with the principle of sola scriptura. No. Protestants need to act as though the decisions of those councils were infallible even though they don't believe in the infallible decisions of councils. It's either that or skepticism.
OK, we admit that as Protestants we can’t say that we know for sure. The best we can say is that on the basis of history and tradition – the evidences – odds are strong that we have the right books in our Bibles. We’re not going to agree with you Catholics that the Holy Spirit led the Church to an infallible decision. But that’s OK. All we claim is to have a “fallible collection of infallible books.”
With all due respect and affection, when you say your "collection" is fallible, isn't that the same thing as saying you don't know for sure that each book in the collection is the inspired Word of God?
Why not just be honest and say, “We don’t know for sure if all the books we have in our Bible are inspired and from God"? And when the Protestant minister stands in his pulpit to preach on Sunday morning, why not just be honest and say, “Thus saith the Lord... I hope"?
As Catholic apologist Peter Kreeft explains in his book Ecumenical Jihad,
A fallible cause cannot produce an infallible effect. But the Church is the efficient cause of Scripture. She wrote it. She is also its formal cause: she defined its canon. Thus, if the Church is only fallible, her canon of Scripture is only fallible, and we do not know infallibly which books are Scripture, that is [which books are] infallible…. Thus sola scriptura undermines the authority of the very Scripture it exalts.
Of course this whole issue of the canon presents no problem for the Catholic worldview. After all, Catholics believe that God leads his Church into the recognition of the truth. Authority in Catholicism is rooted in Scripture, Tradition and the leading of the Holy Spirit through the Church -- especially through the Church's ordained leadership when it meets in council to formally define Christian teaching
But I think it's a massive and unanswerable problem for Protestantism.
More and more it seemed to me that I had a choice to make. Either Jesus established an authoritative Church on earth, or Christianity is reduced to billions of believers reading their Bibles and doing their best without really knowing for sure whether they're reading the right books, without really knowing whether the doctrines they hold are the same as those the apostles taught and first Christians believed.
Mulling these ideas over, my good friend Bill Galvan, who is also a fellow convert and Catholic apologist, once described the Protestant predicament:
Isn’t it just, “the best you can do’? Aren’t Protestantism’s doctrinal formulations simply the ultimately doubtable result of doing the best you can do? Isn’t the landscape of Protestantism, with its countless denominations, simply the result of other people realizing the arbitrary nature of Protestant doctrinal formulations and going on to claim that they can do better than the best you could do?”
It also happened to be the kind of Church the Catholic Church has always claimed to be.