In September of 1996 I resigned my ministry as a Protestant pastor to enter the Catholic Church.
It was a decision that was easy for me to make in that I was convinced that Catholicism was true and that the Catholic Church was my spiritual home. It was a decision that was nearly impossible to make in that I understood the implications of that decision. I knew what it would entail in practical terms.
This was beautifully manifest, shall we say, when three months after leaving the ministry I was waiting tables at a restaurant in Encino. I was standing in the kitchen folding napkins and thinking about Martin Luther when I suddenly heard someone screaming. I looked to my right and saw my manager standing in the doorway literally screaming at me to fold the napkins faster.
I remember apologizing, cranking up the speed and thinking to myself, What the hell have I done?
But then, there were reasons for doing what I did. I didn't leave Protestantism, the Protestant ministry, my career and only source of income because I like the smell of incense. There were reasons, and one of the most important had to do with the topic we've been on for some weeks now: sola scriptura.
Sola scriptura had been the very foundation of my worldview as an evangelical. It was the very atmosphere breathed in the Bible College I attending, in seminary, in every church I'd been a part of or pastored. And then the time came when I was challenged with the questions: is sola scriptura really the teaching of Scripture? Was it the belief and practice of the early Church?
Over time I came to believe it wasn't.
But Scripture and history were not the only shoes to fall. I also came to believe that sola scriptura is completely unworkable as a mode of operation for the Church. And I don't mean simply that it doesn't work well and that we need to pray harder for the guidance of the Spirit and work harder to accurately interpret the Bible in order to make sola scriptura work better.
What I mean is that even in principle it does not and indeed cannot work. Since the time of the Reformation, the practice of Scripture alone has served as a perfect blueprint for theological anarchy. I don't believe it can be what Jesus intended for his Church.
The Catholic Position
At the time of the Reformation in the 16th century, the Church’s position on the issue of authority was essentially the same as it had been since the time of Augustine and Irenaeus and, I would argue, the time of the apostles themselves. Authority was seen as residing in the inner-working of Sacred Scripture, Apostolic Tradition and an Authoritative Church.
To borrow an analogy from Catholic apologist Mark Shea:
(1) Think of inspired Scripture as the "light," the pure light of God’s revelation to us.
(2) Now think of Apostolic Tradition as the "lens" through which the light comes into focus. In other words, the doctrinal and moral teaching of the apostles not as it was written down but as it was known, preserved and handed down within the Church -- this can help us to understand what the apostles mean by what they say in their New Testament writings.
(3) Finally, think of the teaching office of the Church -- ultimately, all the bishops in the world in union with the bishop of Rome -- as the "eye" that has been ordained to look through the lens of Tradition to see the light of Scripture and to have the final word when a final word is required.
One Christian may say this and another that. Debates may rage between various theologians and schools of thought. Great doctors of the Church may wrangle and dispute. But when the time comes that a decision must be made and the Church examines the light of Sacred Scripture through the lens of Sacred Tradition, and through its ordained leadership formally defines a matter of faith or practice, what Catholics believe is that the Holy Spirit leads the Church so that the conclusion it comes to can be trusted as true and is binding on the people of God.
Once this decision is made, the Church can say what it said at the conclusion of its first Council in Jerusalem: "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us..." (Acts 15:28).
The Catholic position on how Scripture, Tradition and the Church work together to provide a basis of authority for the Christian is beautifully summarized in the Vatican II document Dei Verbum. I've quoted it in early lessons, but take a moment to listen to it once more.
Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit. And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God, which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound, and spread it abroad by their preaching.
The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living, teaching office of the Church alone….Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication, and expounds it faithfully.
Now, the problem at the time of the Reformation was that Luther and the other Protestants were teaching doctrines that contradicted what the Church’s Magisterium had previously established as true.
Luther said, in essence, “The Church is wrong on this issue." (The key dispute at the time was the doctrine of justification, but that doesn't matter at this point.) The Church said, in essence, “No, you’re wrong." Luther said, “No, you're wrong.” The Church said, “What you're teaching contradicts the Tradition and formal teaching of the Church on this issue.”
With this the foundational issue of authority was touched.
The question of authority was raised and Luther faced a watershed: what did he believe about who has authority to decide what the true teachings of Christianity are? Did the Church have authority, when having examined the light of Scripture through the lens of Tradition, it made formal ruling on an issue of doctrine or morals? Or was it up to each Christian ultimately to decide?
Luther really only had two options: He could stand with the authority of the Church and say, "You know, it sure seems to me that St Paul is teaching what I've been saying he's teaching about justification, but I must be missing something. I must be wrong." Or he could abandon the authority of the Church and stand on what he believed Scripture to be teaching, whatever the cost.
We all know what Luther did. He stood before the Diet of Worms and said:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scripture or by evident reason… I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis. My conscience is captive to the word of God...
Scripture is the Christian's sole and sufficient infallible rule of faith and practice.
Now, think with me. What is the primary practical implication of sola scriptura?
When I say that Scripture will function as my "sole and sufficient infallible rule of faith and practice," what does this mean for the way I think through what I believe as a Christian, what doctrines I hold to be true, and how I live my life? What is the inescapable practical implication of taking this position?
Well, it means that whatever the fathers of the Church may say, whatever Church Councils may say, whatever theologians and pastors and teachers may say, whatever various Christian authors may say, in the end I am going to feel bound only by what I determine the Bible to be teaching.
The primary and inescapable practical implication of sola scriptura is what is called the "right of private judgment," or the "right of private interpretation." It's the right of each Christian to read, study and decide for himself what he believes the true teachings of Christianity to be.
Now, it might be new to Protestant readers to learn that Catholics also believe in the right of private interpretation. We do. It's just that we hold this to be a limited right, a right practiced within the limits of what the Church has already formally defined to be true.
On issues where the Church has taken no dogmatic position, I'm free to speculate. When it comes to the exegesis of Scripture, nearly the entire Bible is open to exploration. I can dig as deeply as I like into what St Paul is arguing in Romans and Galatians and 1 Corinthians, or the interpretation of the visions of Daniel or St John in the Apocalypse. It's just that if I come to the conclusion in my study of the Bible that the doctrine of the Trinity isn't really true, or that Jesus was merely the highest created being (as the Arians argued in the fourth century and Jehovah's Witnesses argue to this day) or that baptism and the Eucharist aren't really life-giving sacraments but instead simple signs -- as a Catholic I can know that I have made an error somewhere, that I have crossed over into heresy.
As Catholics we're like children in the playground. We're free to swing and slide and sit in the sandbox of Scripture throwing biblical texts in one another's eyes. But there's a fence around the playground that keeps us from wandering out into the street and getting hit by every passing theological fad.
What Luther did was take this "limited right" and make it an "absolute right."
"Unless I am convinced." In other words, in the final analysis, I don’t care what popes have said! I don’t care what the councils have said! I don't care what the Tradition of the Church has been. Unless I am convinced from Scripture and evident reason… Unless I am convinced...
And (we've been around this block a couple of times already) in the absence of the kind of Church we see functioning in the New Testament, a Church with the Spirit-given ability to pronounce authoritatively on the true teachings of Christianity -- the kind of Church the Catholic Church claims to be -- what is left but to say that each Christian has to right to decide for himself?
This is what Luther had done with respect to the doctrine of justification. By implication, this is what all Christians had the right to do, and not merely with respect to one doctrine, but every doctrine!
Luther put it like this: “In these matters of faith, to be sure, each Christian is for himself pope and church.” John Calvin stated the same belief in these words:
We hold that the Word of God alone lies beyond the sphere of our judgment… Fathers and Councils are of authority only in so far as they accord with the rule of the Word
So when Calvin says that "Fathers and Councils are of authority only in so far as they accord with the rule of the Word," what he's really saying is, "Fathers and Councils are of authority only in so far as what they say accords with what I think the Bible is saying."
And so the history of Protestantism begins.
Following the examples of Luther and Calvin and the other Reformation leaders, individual Christians increasingly came to view themselves as having the right to decide for themselves which doctrines were true -- without being bound by Church or council or pope or pastor or any authority on earth.
Just like evangelical Protestants today. Some of the more intellectually inclined may look at the decisions of Church Councils or the great theologians of history. Some may read and take into account the arguments of various modern Scripture scholars. Most are willing to listen to and take seriously the opinion of their pastor and teachers. But ultimately -- ultimately -- they decide for themselves whether Baptist teaching is closer to what they see in Scripture, or Presbyterian, or Lutheran, or Methodist, or the teaching of the pastor at the independent Christian community on the corner.
The Unraveling of the Church
Well, forget brain surgeons. It doesn't even take a decent gardener to perceive what would come of this. As soon as Luther and Calvin and the others began preaching sola scriptura and the right of private interpretation, immediately there was an explosion of interpretations of Scripture and with this an explosion of divisions within Protestantism. The immediate result was doctrinal chaos.
Listen to what one prominent Protestant theologian and professor was saying a mere two years -- two years! -- of the Reformation being launched:
Noblemen, townsmen, peasants, all classes understand the Gospel better than I or St. Paul; they are now wise and think themselves more learned than all the ministers.... There is no smearer but when he has heard a sermon or can read a chapter in German, makes a doctor of himself and…convinces himself that he knows everything better than all who teach him.
There are as many sects and beliefs as there are heads. This fellow will have nothing to do with baptism; another denies the Sacrament; a third believes that there is another world between this and the Last Day. Some teach that Christ is not God; some say this, some say that. There is no rustic so rude but that, if he dreams or fancies anything, it must be the whisper of the Holy Spirit, and he himself a prophet.
But we'll have to pick up here next week. Oh, and by the way, the professor and theologian who wrote those words quoted above? His name was Martin Luther.